In sports, the general rule of thumb is that the defending champion earns the right to be considered king of the hill until knocked off their lofty perch and proven otherwise. Don’t bother trying to sell this year’s Lampeter-Strasburg basketball team on that notion however. They’re simply just not buying it.
Rewind the clock all the way back to December 12th, the first night of the Pioneers’ season, and L-S made quite a first impression. On that night, L-S sent shockwaves across the county and ripples throughout District 3 as a result of their 53-41 triumph over the reigning L-L and District 3 4A champions, Lancaster Catholic. But make no mistake about it. The Pioneers quickly proved that their opening night victory over one of the perennial powers on the eastern side of the state was by no means a fluke.
From that point on, the Pioneers only continued to roll, going 22-2 the rest of the way. And just in case you were wondering, L-S’ two setbacks this season all amounted to a grand total of 3 points. So yeah, it’s fair to say that L-S had taken care of business this season en route to a Section 2 title, their third in a row, before entering the L-L playoffs at the beginning of the week. Once there, the Pioneers only continued to sizzle in their initial pair of postseason contests.
Fending off a very game effort from Lancaster Mennonite in the opening round, L-S looked up to star center Ryan Smith both literally and figuratively as the 6’10” senior proceeded to ticket the highest scoring game to date in the L-L this season by netting a 39 point effort to stave off the persistent Blazers on Monday night to follow up Smith’s 34 point outburst in the first matchup between the two neighboring schools back on January 3rd, as L-S lived to fight another day where they would meet Hempfield in the semifinal round on Wednesday at Penn Manor.
In a game that was circled dating back to before the Christmas holiday, L-S jumped Hempfield early as a blistering first quarter effort put forth by senior guard Isaac Beers set the tone following an early 2-2 stalemate as Beers’ 15 first quarter points propelled L-S to an astounding 21-2 lead after one. A lead which the Pioneers would never relinquish despite a frantic second half rally mounted by the Section 1 champs as L-S would go on to hold off Hempfield 47-45, advancing to the program’s first ever league title tilt.
Facing them on the opposite bench on Friday night would be a program certainly more than accustomed to the bright lights and big stage of postseason basketball, the Lancaster Catholic Crusaders.
It’s fair to say that last year was a good season for Catholic. Historically good mind you. For the first time since their much-ballyhooed 2003 state title team which took everyone on a unforgettable ride before stopping the bus at 35-0, 2017 marked the first time that the Crusaders were able to lay claim to both the league and District 3 titles in the same season since that much-celebrated squad from 15 years ago.
And although Catholic came into this season with more question marks than a cartoon character’s thought bubble, this new and improved version of Crusader basketball has been able to author yet another impressive chapter in the school’s long and storied history.
After the loss to L-S which put a smudge on their early-season resume, Catholic has simply been out of this world. From December 12th on, the Crusaders tasted defeat just one other time in a January 6th nonleague affair against York Catholic by a 61-58 count, en route to a 20-1 record since the first L-S matchup with the Crusaders having their sights set on the Pioneers and redemption in Friday night’s L-L title fight.
And just their counterparts on Friday evening, Catholic was forced to survive and advance past stern challenges in their opening games of the L-L playoffs as well.
Monday night saw the Crusaders take to their home floor as a reward for running through Section 3 unbeaten this season, finishing as the undisputed champions, where they would welcome a very dangerous Garden Spot squad to the friendly confines fresh off an emotional win of their own on Saturday in the play-in game against Manheim Township hailing from Section 1. And although the Spartans would give it everything they had, it was simply not enough as Catholic’s laundry list of reliable talent all the way up and down the bench proved to be too much as the Crusaders bested Garden Spot 55-45 to move on to play Ephrata in the first game of Wednesday’s semifinal twin bill at Penn Manor.
The task was nearly a mirror image of Monday night’s assignment as the Crusaders’ well-known lockdown D would certainly need to have their T’s crossed and I’s dotted against an Ephrata outfit that loves to pour it in from bonus distance. Look no further than their opening round win over Cedar Crest on Monday where the Mounts were able to tally 14 trifectas for proof of that.
And although Ephrata would push Catholic to the brink, the Crusaders proved to be championship game worthy after rallying back from a ten point deficit before 6’6” sophomore forward David Kamwanga coolly knocked down a pair of clutch free throws with 0.01 left on the clock to push Catholic past a very game Mountaineer squad 44-42, prompting a dog-pile celebration once the last tenth of a second blinked off the clock as the Crusaders sprinted off the bench to mob their underclassman hero.
Funny thing how momentum seems to carry over from one game to the next.
Whether it be a case of carrying over the good vibes from his late-game heroics on Wednesday night or by simply taking advantage of the matchup presented against him defensively, Kamwanga started off Friday’s league title game razor-sharp by pocketing the first four Crusader points of the contest as the reigning champs established an early 4-0 cushion at the 5:20 mark of the opening quarter.
With the Crusaders packing the paint defensively, thwarting the driving efforts of the crafty Pioneer ball-handlers from penetrating into the lane, points were at premium in the early stages of this year’s title bout as both teams took a while to settle in and get a feel for each other.
Even still, L-S was able to cut Catholic’s lead in half at 6-3 at the 2:40 mark of the first quarter following an offensive board and stick back by senior guard Isaac Beers which made it a 6-3 Crusader advantage before yet another Kamwanga jumper gave Catholic the 8-3 lead, forcing L-S to call a timeout with 2:14 left in the first.
Just then, L-S got their groove back.
Following their early timeout, the Pioneers came out and gave the ball to the always-reliable Ryan Smith as the 6’10” senior center went on to score the next five L-S points to knot the score back up at 8-8, giving the blue-clad Pioneer faithful good reason to stand up and cheer.
And even though RJ Van Tash would counter back with a jumper for Catholic giving the lead back to the Crusaders, an Isaac Beers triple put the exclamation point on the late 8-2 L-S first quarter charge as the Pioneers secured their first lead of the night at 11-10.
From that point on, the Pioneers took things to another level and never looked back.
Aided by two early triples that were cashed in by Ryan Smith and Zach Kingsley respectively, the L-S senior duo was able to put the Pioneers up by a half dozen at 19-13, knocking Catholic back on their heels after the first three minutes of the second period, prompting Catholic to call a timeout of their own.
And much like the weather across the area earlier in the day, L-S only continued to make it rain.
The Pioneers then proceeded to flirt with a double digit lead following the Crusader timeout as an Isaac Beers triple kept the L-S snowball rolling downhill as the Pioneers had jumped out to a 22-13 lead with 4:20 left to go in the half.
With L-S sitting back in a 2-3 zone defensively, Catholic soon discovered that the points would be much harder to come by than they were at the outset of the contest.
In fact, a Jordan Sweger drive to the cup following an RJ Van Tash O-board and stickback for the Crusaders kept the Pioneer advantage at nine, 26-15, with the first half winding down.
But perhaps there was no better microcosm for L-S’ second quarter effort defensively than Ryan Smith’s emphatic rejection of late-half Catholic drive to the rack, erasing it with ease as the Pioneers sprinted off into the halftime intermission in possession of the 28-17 advantage.
Despite now getting down by double digits to start the second half, it appeared that Lancaster Catholic may have been able to steal some momentum and possibly ride along with it as a Dwyane Caine layup in transition plus the harm at the end trimmed the L-S lead to ten at 30-20 with 5:55 left in the third.
But Isaac Beers would have something to say about that as the underrated senior guard continued his stellar postseason play by knocking in pretty jumper off a curl cut on an underneath out of bounds set to push the L-S lead to a dozen at 34-22 now under the five minute mark of the third quarter. On the night, Beers would go on to finish with game-high scoring honors by posting a 22 point night of work which came on the heels of his identical 22 point performance against Hempfield just 48 hours prior.
From there, L-S continued to play with the bulge on the scoreboard as 6’2” junior Patrick Holmes put his defender on skates along the baseline, finishing through contact at the cup to maintain the 12 point L-S lead at 36-24, now midway through the third quarter.
When he wasn’t scoring, Holmes had no problem getting his teammates involved either. After collecting an offensive board following a missed carom off the rim, Holmes promptly fired off a quick pitch to Ryan Smith who was waiting underneath all by his lonesome, as Smith’s deuce from point blank range put L-S up by two touchdowns at 38-24 now with two minutes remaining on the third quarter clock.
But as L-S would soon discover, knocking off a defending champ with the title belt riding on the line is a task that is simply easier said than done.
Needing to find that elusive spark offensively, Catholic turned to junior sharpshooter Johnny Besecker who promptly dialed up a 3 ball right on cue to cut into the L-S lead before an RJ Van Tash bucket in transition got the Crusaders back within single figures at 38-29 with the third quarter starting to come to a close.
And although it had appeared that Catholic’s rally had run out of steam following a charge taken by Ryan Smith on a later Crusader possession, Miles McCaskey was able to flip and hit from just outside the painted area, cutting the L-S lead down to seven at 38-31 just before the conclusion of the third period with momentum clearly residing on the Lancaster Catholic bench following their 7-0 run to close the quarter.
With Isaac Beers and David Kamwanga trading buckets back and forth to start the fourth and final quarter, someone needed from L-S needed to put their foot down if the Pioneers were to make this a historic night that will be remembered forever.
Fortunately for them, they had their man in Isaac Beers who was up to the task at hand as Beers swiped the ball away on the defensive end before going on to finish with a layup at the hole on the other end for the monstrous momentum swing, giving L-S the 44-33 lead with 4:10 left to go.
But as most can imagine and L-S likely knew all too well, the Pioneers were not out of the woods just yet.
Although the L-S had now pushed their lead up over the ten point mark following the Beers theft and bucket, Catholic still had one last charge to mount.
They would go on to cut the gap down to as few as six following an RJ Van Tash jumper, making it a 46-40 ballgame with 1:10 left to go as Catholic called timeout to set their defensive for the ensuing out of bounds scenario.
Without question, RJ Van Tash was the key cog on Friday evening for the Crusaders as the 6’2” senior nabbed 16 points, all of which seem to come at critical junctures, enabling Lancaster Catholic to take their final march.
But it was not to be on this night as Patrick Holmes was fouled on the immediate inbounds play, calmly walking the length of the floor where he would knock down the pair before Isaac Beers would proceed to follow suit with two more of his own as the villages of Lampeter and Strasburg began to rejoice as their hometown Pioneers made history, winning the school’s first ever league title, while unseating Lancaster Catholic from the throne, 50-40.
In the immediate aftermath, there were plenty of smiles to go around. None of which may have been bigger than the one on the face of second year L-S head coach Ed Berryman who had just helped lead the Pioneers to the promised land.
“Just really proud of these boys,” a jubilant Berryman stated matter of factly amidst the chaotic scene behind him. “They came together and did a great job as a team all season long.”
And while Friday night would have been an exciting victory standing on it’s own merit, it was even bigger in the sense that it was the culmination of a dream that had been left unfulfilled before 8:30 Friday night as the Pioneers were finally able to capture that elusive first-ever L-L crown. A dream that this year’s group knew was a possibility way before the ball ever tipped off in early December.
“Yes we did. We saw this back then,” Berryman went on to say about the Pioneers’ preseason aspirations. “This was one of our goals. We said at the beginning of the year to win the section and we wanted to win the league championship….Seeing these guys, they’re unselfish and they play together. We have size with Ryan (Smith), and we have shooters. We just have a good combination.”
A combination that would prove to unlock the trophy case of the school on Book Road with the 2017-18 Pioneers being remembered for the rest of the time by virtue of the gold trophy they are now able to place inside.
NEXT UP: From here, the task takes on a somewhat unique turn for L-S. The Pioneers will now have to find that delicate balance of appreciating, celebrating and recognizing school history, all while knowing that there is an even bigger tournament on the horizon as L-S is set to tip off the 5A District 3 tournament on Monday night as the #1 seed with a home game against the Northern York.
“It’s my first time doing this so I’ll have to figure it out as I go along,” Berryman quipped regarding the quick turnaround and refocus. But even still, it’s clear that he trusts this year’s team to do exactly that. “It’s a smart group of kids. They’re heady. They know we’ll celebrate, maybe take tomorrow off (Saturday), but get back to work on Monday.”
As far as going up against the Polar Bears on Monday? “I have video to watch of Northern York,” Berryman said of the task at hand. “We played them earlier in the year but I know they’ve improved.”
Just like their counterparts on Friday night, Lancaster Catholic will also move on to the District 3 tournament with a #1 seed to their name as the Crusaders open up against either Susquehanna Township or Bishop McDevitt at home next Thursday night.
Even despite the fact that the road to Hershey remains a tough chore no matter who are or what your classification, this year’s Crusader certainly seems to have all the pieces and added dynamics to not only make a run for Chocolatetown, but perhaps bringing back a second straight District 3 4A title back home along with them. And with Friday night’s defeat likely to stick in their craw for quite some time, you just have the feeling that this year’s Crusader club will continue adding to their chapter in regards to their program’s legendary pedigree considering the 2017-18 team has not yet finished writing their story. Not by a long shot.