In sports, or really just in life in general, there truly is only one way to go about attacking a giant challenge set forth in front of you. Metaphorically speaking here of course, you can’t exactly tippy-toe into the lion’s den. Instead, you have to go in full-steam ahead, throwing caution to the wind, all while carrying a big stick to help take down the beast. And while Manheim Township was not exactly faced with such a literal, dangerous example on Tuesday night inside the Giant Center, the basketball challenge that was presented to the Blue Streaks was no less daunting to say the least.
Make no mistake about it, Township’s road to the District 3-6A semifinal round was not without it’s fair share of potholes that could have easily thrown the Streaks off course. Yet through it all, Township was able to hold steady, snatching up key victories along the way that could have done nothing but improve their overall mental makeup.
After a somewhat surprising opening round exit from the L-L League tournament at the hands of Garden Spot, the Streaks were faced with the challenge of bouncing back in quick order as MT would go on to enter the District 3 bracket as the #5 seed with an opening round tester against the Buckskins of Conestoga Valley. A fellow Section 1 outfit that was able to top the Blue Streaks in the last meeting between the two back on January 18th at CV with the Bucks pulling out a nail-biting 59-56 decision.
Once the Streaks were able to take care of business and hold off the Bucks 52-39 in the opening round of district play, Manheim Township was faced with the somewhat unenviable task of squaring off with yet another Section 1 opponent, this time with Cedar Crest Falcons who were likely salivating for another chance at the Streaks after MT was able to roll into the famed “Cage” in Cornwall earlier in the season and come away with a 77-71 victory. A triumph that would serve notice to rest of Section 1 and the rest of the league for that matter that these young Blue Streaks were growing up right before our very eyes.
And this past Friday night only proved to be yet another step in MT’s maturation process as the Streaks were able to complete the season sweep on the road at Cedar Crest, besting the home-standing Falcons 67-59 to earn the right to take their shot at a Pennsylvania goliath.
By now, odds are high that you already know the story and significance behind the date of March 25, 2017 as it relates to Reading High basketball. That after all was the night when the Red Knights were able to capture that elusive first title in school history, taking down Pine Richland 64-60 in front of a capacity crowd. It was indeed an enthusiastic environment to say the least that could only be described as the night where the Giant Center had transformed itself into “Geigle West.”
And while that night will always and forever live on in the hearts and minds of those who were fortunate enough to be a part of it, it was certainly understandable as to why the Red Knights would have nothing but good memories walking back into that very building for the first time since that historic late March night.
Even still, Reading head coach Rick Perez was not about to have this 2017-18 team be labeled with some sort of “leftover” tag, but rather making sure this year’s bunch was acknowledged for deserving the opportunity to write their own history inside the beautiful arena that every District 3 player wishes to play in at some point during in their career. After all, it’s simply too hard not to appreciate and recognize the diligence, moxie and mental fortitude that goes along with following up a state title by going wire to wire as the #1 seed in District 3’s largest classification throughout the entire season, all while trying to fill the shoes of some of the best players to have ever suited up in the prestigious Red Knight uniform.
“I try not to create any external anxiety or anything like that,” Coach Perez in regards to stepping back into the Giant Center for the first time since that historic night. “You appreciate the day for what it is. We know what it is. I don’t need to mention it or harp on it with them.”
“We just appreciate being here today with this group,” Perez continued. “I want them to seize the moment…The state championship is a beautiful thing. We’ve got the rings and the t-shirts that will hopefully fit us forever if we stay in shape,” he went on to say with a chuckle. “We have to move forward and I think this team has been able to do that.”
One thing quickly became apparent once Tuesday night’s affair got underway. That being that the Blue Streaks were not simply here to be a footnote. They had arrived to play ball with the best in the area.
Aided by a strong start defensively which limited the Red Knights to several one and done opportunities to begin the contest, Township’s Brendan Mellott was able to give the Streaks the first points of the ballgame with a smooth pullup jumper 2:30 into the game.
But just as solid teams left standing at this point in the season are able to do, the Red Knights would have an immediate answer as a sweet step-back jumper popped home by 6’2” senior guard Xavier Starks of Reading knotted things up at 2-2 as both squads were starting to come to grips with all the emotions and physical surroundings that go along with playing on Pennsylvania’s grandest basketball stage.
And although Township was able to get just a little bit of breathing room at 6-2 following a bucket inside Mellott, Reading was able to counter back a few more buckets of their own to get within one of the Streaks at 8-7 with the game nearing the two minute mark of the opening period.
From there however, the Streaks truly started to ascend.
Aided by a quick 4-0 spurt by Tyler Crespo, Manheim Township’s 5’9” junior who only gets better and better with each passing game that he plays, the Blue Streaks were able to look up at large, overhanging scoreboard stationed directly above center court to see that they had suddenly laid claim to a six point lead at 14-8 with roughly one minute left in the quarter.
Yet Township would be able to continue on building their lead from there as a tough hoop inside by 6’3” sophomore Zach Oldac allowed the Streaks to double up the defending state champs by a 16-8 margin before the quarter would eventually expire with MT in front 17-10.
Once the second quarter commenced, it had appeared that Manheim Township would have an entirely different Reading team to deal with as the Red Knights came out the respite in between quarters with an inspired effort in the face of their early hole.
Never more was that on display than with RJ Dixon’s trifecta at the outset of the second stanza that could have easily become an “uh oh” moment for the Blue Streaks.
But as mentioned previously, these Streaks simply would not wilt in the face of adversity. Instead, Township was able to answer back with a Reece Sachs’ triple as the 5’9” senior guard was able to answer the Dixon bucket, calming the seas for MT in the early stages of quarter two.
However Township was able to do better than simply just answering Reading over the course of the next several minutes. They were able to push Reading away.
Aided by an impressive display of work from a host of Streaks inside the painted area throughout the entirety of the first half, yet another bunny from close range, this one cashed in by Brendan Mellott, put the Streaks up 24-15 with the Red Knights having to call timeout with 4:36 left in the first half.
Yet the Township lead only grew to double digit proportions following the second quarter Red Knight timeout as a Zach Oldac bucket, yet again inside, had the Streaks feeling anything but Blue as the MT lead swelled to 26-15 at the four minute mark of the half.
With his team needing some sort of a spark to help engineer a comeback that would hinder Manheim Township from feeling as comfortable as they currently were, Reading gave the ball and the keys to 5’11” junior guard Wesley Butler to take over the show. And as fate would have it, Butler knew exactly what to do when the opportunity presented itself.
As Township continued to play on throughout the latter stages of the first half with a lead that hovered right around the eight point window, Wesley Butler helped take Reading into the halftime break on his back as Butler was able to rattle off a much-needed late-half flurry that was capped off with a gorgeous jumper just before the horn. And although Township went into the break in possession of the 30-26 advantage, the overwhelming consensus inside the mammoth arena setting was one that an entirely different Red Knight would return to the floor for the final 16 minutes.
There was just one problem. No one had run that idea by Manheim Township.
In fact, Township wasted little time to get back into the swing of things following the intermission as Tyler Crespo dialed one up from bonus distance to start the second half, good for 3 of his team-high 15 points on the evening.
From there, the Blue Streaks would continue to play with the lead as a pair of Hilton Ridley freebies from the charity stripe increased the Township lead to five at 36-31 with the third period quickly approaching it’s midway point.
And right on cue, Reading knew that it was precisely the exact time to go about exerting their will.
All game long, Wesley Butler had proven himself to be Reading’s MVP with the rock in his hands, playing with the heart of a lion. And while he primarily did his damage by scoring with consistent acrobatic finishes in amongst the tall Township trees, his late third quarter assist to Bobby Heath proved to be one of Mr. Butler’s biggest plays of the evening.
“Wesley is experienced on this floor,” Coach Perez said glowingly of the Red Knights’ floor general afterward. “The sense of urgency really kicked in when it wasn’t for us in the beginning unfortunately but you go through these situations for a reason,” the Reading head man went on to say. “Wesley was the catalyst. He got things going offensively.”
Providing a spark which in turn spurred on his fellow Red Knights.
“Guys like Bobby Heath and Xavier Starks had an awesome defensive game here today. Once one guy gets going, what’s important is our program is not just who’s leading, but who are the followers?”
And right on cue with his team trailing 36-33 with the clock hovering near the three minute mark of the third, Reading’s diminutive but feisty 5’11” junior point guard was able to penetrate through the lane and kick it out to Heath standing all by his lonesome on the wing as the 5’10” senior was able to tie the game up at 36-36 off the sweet Butler dish leading to the trifecta.
Fittingly, Butler would continue to play with great ferociousness by popping a J shortly thereafter to give the Red Knights their first lead of the ballgame at 38-36 with two minutes left to play in the third.
But Butler would not be finished with his stellar third quarter play as Reading’s sensational point guard was able to tally one more bucket before the third quarter horn which helped send Reading into the final eight minutes in possession of the 42-39 lead.
Yet once again, Manheim Township would continue to be unphased by the locomotion of Reading momentum that was charging hard in their direction. Never more was that on display than with Tyler Crespo being able to hustle down a loose carom, collecting the offensive rebound and proceeding to rise and fire from behind the arc, slicing Reading’s lead down to 44-42 with a critical 3 ball with 6:30 left to play.
But MT would only continue to hang around and pester the Red Knights before a gigantic take to the cup by 6’0” senior forward Larry Wingo improved Reading’s lead to 49-45 with just over three minutes left to play.
The Blue Streak deficit would then continue to remain at four following a successful trip to the line by MT’s Hilton Ridley as the 6’2” junior guard was able to knock down both of his attempts, making it a 51-47 ballgame with just over three minutes left to go.
But unfortunately for those that had made the trip north from Neffsville, that would prove to be all the closer their beloved Blue Streaks would get for the remainder of the night as empty trips besmirched Township late with Reading offering no relief at the other end with sensational free throw shooting down the stretch to help close things out as the Red Knights were able to advance on the District 3 6A final, dispatching a Manheim Township team that very likely could end up in Hershey yet again next season, 57-49 on Tuesday night at Giant Center.
Without question, the 2016-17 Reading Red Knights Boys’ Basketball team will likely forever go down in history as the best to ever do it at the “Castle on the Hill.” However in an interesting twist of irony, the 2017-18 bunch has the opportunity on Saturday afternoon to accomplish something that their historic predecessors were not able to accomplish—bringing home a District title trophy. It’s an achievement that is certainly not lost on Red Knight head man Rick Perez.
“I’m proud of them,” Perez said proudly regarding this year’s team. “They seized the moment. They’ve been here before and they’ve learned from some great people. This is their opportunity and Saturday is their day. I just hope that we can come out and put forth the best effort.”
NEXT UP: As mentioned, Reading will now have prepare for a very impressive Chambersburg ball club in the title fight on Saturday afternoon. It’s a Trojan crew that likely will be geared up and ready to compete given the fact that Chambersburg has already knocked off last year’s finalists in Harrisburg and Hempfield on their road to Saturday.
For Township, the Streaks must now regroup and refocus for a Thursday night tussle with a longtime rival Hempfield in the District 3-6A Third Place Game which will go a long way in determining possible roadtrips or lack thereof for the upcoming PIAA state tournament which gets underway next weekend.
Yet even in defeat late Tuesday night, Manheim Township head man Matt Johns was able to come away with some positives from the game given the fight he saw out of his Blue Streaks.
“You never know,” Johns said in regards to how his team would exactly handle bright lights and big stage that just so happened to go along with the opportunity to knock off the defending state champs in a playoff setting. “(Reading) has been here in this situation a ton of times…You never know what’s going to happen when the lights are on and it’s an 8:30 game and they’ve had all day to think about it.”
“That’s the beauty and the curse of basketball,” Johns went on to add. “You don’t know what’s going to happen when you go out there. So the fact that we stepped up to that moment, came out and went toe-to-toe with them, I’m really pleased.”