Cardiac Crusaders Remain Alive And Kicking As Lancaster Catholic Tops Columbia, Nabs Second Consecutive District 3 Crown

Written by: on Wednesday, March 10th, 2021

 

In some ways, it was almost unfair that Columbia and Lancaster Catholic were forced to play one another again on Tuesday night. After all, what could they possibly do for an encore after playing one of the best games that the Lancaster-Lebanon League has seen in quite some time when the Crusaders were able to ultimately put away a pesky Crimson Tide bunch in the opening round of the league playoffs, 77-70, in the previous matchup between the two. Oh yeah, did we mention that game also went four overtimes’ deep? Probably an important factor to recognize. Not only that, but the films and stat books from the first matchup didn’t even have a chance to collect any dust considering the initial blockbuster contest occurred just 13 days ago.

While local hoops fans most certainly wanted to see Columbia and Lancaster Catholic square off against each other one more time following their rousing first bout, rest assured that the Crimson Tide wanted a shot a redemption a little more than most. To be sure, it was an agonizing defeat to say the least for Columbia. After spotting Catholic a nearly 20-point bulge –including going virtually absent for the entirety of the opening quarter offensively in the first contest—the Crimson Tide battled back valiantly, in many ways epitomizing the same courageous, tough-as-nails attitude that the small river town prides itself on. However, once Columbia found themselves within a whisker of heading home on Route 30 with one of the program’s biggest wins in years, the visitors left empty-handed with a handful of game-winning plays left sitting on the table, including coming up empty on the front-end of a one-and-one in a tied ballgame with just over one second left in the one of the overtime periods in the first go ‘round. With such a bitter and foul taste as that loss left stinging in their mouths, the Crimson Tide most assuredly wanted another crack at the mighty Crusaders.

Ironically though, the second meeting almost never materialized.

While Columbia trudged and plodded through a bit of an admittedly sluggish performance in the opening round of the District 3-3A playoffs against Pequea Valley, the Tide put that game to bed right away by authoring up an equally dizzying yet magnificent 79-46 throw down of York Catholic in the semifinal round, effectively punching their ticket to Tuesday night’s grand finale.

The other side though? That was a little more interesting.

Talk about the shoe being on the other foot. For Lancaster Catholic, the District 3 playoffs had been an exact reversal compared their former divisional adversaries. After opening up with an emphatic, mercy-rule triumph over Biglerville in the opening round, 78-40, the Crusaders found themselves in trouble. Like, a lot of trouble. Essentially left for dead as far as the basketball gods were concerned with just a shade over one-minute remaining in their semifinal game against Camp Hill, Lancaster Catholic somehow erased an eight-point deficit in the closing minute and change to send the game into overtime before the Crusaders eventually ran roughshod over the Lions in claiming the 64-57 victory to head back to the District 3 title game. By this point, it’d be fair to say that Lancaster Catholic has a certain flair for the dramatics. Not for nothing, but is this where we also mention that Catholic also won a four-overtime game against Belle Vernon in last year’s PIAA tournament before the Crusaders –and the rest of the state—had the rug pulled out from under them thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic last winter? Needless to say, the term “Cardiac Crusaders” could be trademarked.

Granted, while Columbia vs Lancaster Catholic Part II would pale in comparison to its most recent predecessor in terms of its sheer length of time, the excitement contained within just 32 minutes of regulation time this time around was just as heart-stopping and pulsating.

To circle back to the first matchup, Columbia certainly did themselves no favors whatsoever once they found themselves down by such a monstrous 22-6 score at the end of the opening stanza. In that regard, call it a lesson learned as it pertained to Tuesday night’s affair. After being kick-started by a pair of triples knocked down in the early going from the senior duo of Michael Poole and Ryan Hinkle respectively, the Tide looked up on the scoreboard and saw much different narrative taking shape with the visitors out in front by an 8-2 count. Speaking of the Poole bucket, it was certainly a memorable one seeing as how it put the Crimson Tide 6’2 senior guard over the 1,000-point barrier, joining an illustrious list of Crimson Tide brethren to accomplish the same feat, a list of Columbia royalty which ironically includes his own father no less.

But the Tide’s good vibes appeared to be short-lived after that.

After finding themselves down by a half dozen after the first two minutes and change, the Crusaders predictably showed no signs of panic. In fact, over the course of the next 1:20, the six-point Columbia lead had been sliced all the way down to the slimmest of margins, 8-7, following a nice two-man game between seniors Devin Atkinson and Ross Conway. Later, with Atkinson gladly sharing the sugar with his teammates, another assist fired off by the Crusaders’ 6’0 senior guard, this time to Mason Moore, allowed the defending district champs to claw back even at 11-11 with roughly two minutes left to play in the opening stanza. Then, with Moore clearly being invigorated from his earlier deuce off the feed from Atkinson, the Crusaders’ 5’10 junior –ironically the catalyst who helped get Catholic over the hump in the previous matchup with his 18-point performance—proceeded to knock in a go-ahead trifecta on the Crusaders’ ensuing offensive trip, giving the Catholic the 14-11 cushion. To their credit though, Columbia remained unphased despite the impromptu Catholic rally as the Tide played the remaining portion of the first quarter off in stellar fashion by virtue of their 17-15 lead once the game veered off into the second quarter.

Call it newfound momentum perhaps, but the Crimson Tide was rapidly rising in the early portions of the second frame as well. To coin a phrase, Columbia began the quarter white-hot. So much so in fact that after a pair of triples sunk by 5’11 senior guard, Carter Houck, Lancaster Catholic needed a timeout to stop the bleeding while staring up at a 25-19 hole with 6:35 left to go before the half.

Up until that point, Devin Atkinson had been seen doing the brunt of his damage inside the assist column for Lancaster Catholic. From there on out as far as the second quarter was concerned, Atkinson shifted his impressive stat line over to the scoring column.

After seeing his troops surrender the six-point lead in the early stages of the second stanza, the Crusaders’ floor general took matters into his own hands by rattling off the next four Catholic points to get the hosts back within a pair at 25-23 with 3:50 now left to play. Speaking of four straight though, Columbia’s Robert Footman took his turn at following suit as the Crimson Tide’s 6’0 junior guard proceeded to tally the next four for his side, upping the Tide lead back to six at 29-23 shortly thereafter. Again though, Atkinson remained a razor-sharp thorn in Columbia’s side as his three-point play on the heels of the latest Footman salvo got the Crusaders back within shouting distance at 29-26 with two minutes and change left before recess. Once again though, Columbia was able to withstand this latest Lancaster Catholic punch as well given that the Tide were able to improve their standing ever so slightly as the opening half expired with the Crimson Tide still in charge, 32-28.

In a nutshell, the first half of Tuesday night’s District 3 title game could be summed up in this manner: While Columbia held serve for seemingly every waking moment of the opening half, they could never quite get enough separation from their hosts to truly to feel comfortable about their standing. While true, that notion appeared to do an about-face in the early moments of the third quarter as an old-school Michael Poole three-point play got the Crimson Tide out of the gates strong to start the second half given their current 35-28 advantage.

That cushion though? Not quite enough.

In the previous meeting between these two, Mason Moore ended up being the folk hero whose heroics helped push Lancaster Catholic over the finish line. This time, the baton was handed off to Ross Conway. Time after time on Tuesday night, the Crusaders’ 6’3 senior forward took his turn at putting together game-altering plays to help keep the Crimson Tide at bay. Case in point, his magnificent curl cut to the cup which resulted in a point-blank bucket to get the home team back within three at 35-32. Then, after having been the straw that had stirred the Crusaders’ drink all night long, it seemed fitting that his take to the tin just moments later resulted in the lead shifting back over to Catholic’s favor at 36-35. From there, it was another senior, Nevin Roman, making the most of his opportunity as the 5’10 guard’s layup would make it a 38-35 Crusaders’ lead before the third quarter would later cease with Catholic still out in front, 38-36.

To anyone who has seen Columbia play over the last couple of years, it is rather apparent that their junior point guard, Kerry “Hov” Glover, is an invaluable piece to the Crimson Tide’s lineup. In that regard, it was almost staggering to see the Crimson Tide still had a puncher’s chance despite the Columbia floor general having been held scoreless up until that point. In a title game though, you simply can’t keep a good man down for long.

Despite the fact that he had been absent in terms of scoring at that point in time, Glover wasted no time in getting involved once the fourth quarter proceedings rolled around. In fact, his bucket in the initial moments of the final frame –his first points of the entire evening—handed the lead right back to Columbia at 40-39.

The good news for Columbia? Obviously the fact that they had taken the lead back. The bad news for Columbia? Ross Conway was just getting started.

On the Crusaders’ ensuing offensive trip following the Glover bucket, Conway took his turn at pouring cold water on the Crimson Tide charge with an immediate rebuttal bucket as the lead moved back over in Catholic’s favor at 41-40. Then, just moments later, a Conway corner trey appeared to spelled doom for the guests as the senior’s back-breaking trey made it a 44-40 Lancaster Catholic lead with just over four minutes left to go. Over the course of the next two minutes, Columbia was simply stymied offensively as the Tide were unable to make any sort of incision into their existing deficit. So, with their offensive attack stuck in neutral at the most inopportune of times, the Crusaders gladly exploited Columbia’s open wound as a bucket by Nahjeir Aikens, who had gotten himself free from behind the Tide defense, made it a gargantuan 48-40 lead with just over two minutes left to play. From there, it seemed as if the staff at Lancaster Catholic could start finding the nearest ladder in the janitor’s closet and a pair of scissors to boot following a pair of Atkinson free throws which made it a 50-40 Lancaster Catholic advantage with time quickly evaporating on a Crimson Tide comeback effort.

Remember the name Hov Glover? Well, he certainly had a say of things down the final stretch mind you.

With his team looking up at what felt like an insurmountable gap between themselves and their hosts, Glover proceeded to score what at the time had felt like a pair of fairly tame buckets in quick, successive fashion, drawing the Tide back within a half dozen at 50-44. But that wasn’t all. With his fearlessness in attacking the cup obviously paying dividends for his overall confidence, Glover proceeded to step out from beyond and arc and fire in an enormous 3-ball which suddenly and miraculously got the Tide back within one possession at 50-47 with 1:01 left on the clock.

While almost impossible to predict at that time given how much the momentum had clearly dipped in Columbia’s favor following the most recent exchange, that would prove to be all the closer the Tide would get for the remainder of the evening. Granted, the Crusaders certainly left the door open for the Tide to come barging in to possibly take the game into overtime as Catholic had quickly been beset by an inopportune bout with chilly free throw shooting, but also coupled that with batting the contagious turnover bug as well. Fortunately, as far they were concerned, there would be no great damage done as the Crimson Tide’s last offensive possession ultimately came up empty following a pair of game-tying shots in the closing seconds before a Crusaders’ defensive rebound resulted in Nahjeir Aikens leaking out in transition all by his lonesome as the 5’8 junior’s bucket just moments before the final buzzer put the punctuation mark on Lancaster Catholic’s 52-47 victory over Columbia on the Crusaders’ home floor in the District 3-3A finale, officially making it two straight District 3 crowns for this already incredibly storied franchise.

In a game such as this where the battle back and forth is waged between a pair of age-old rivals, hard-fought losses are brutal to stomach. When you add in the fact that there was a title riding on the line in this one that coincided with the only bid into the state tournament field left to go around this season, it was understandable as to why tears were shed while the Crimson Tide were seen receiving their silver medals shortly after the final gun. Nevertheless, while the emotion was certainly still raw and visceral, the Crimson Tide’s head coach wasn’t short of praise or pride when speaking on his troops.

“It’s different when you haven’t been used to winning,” Columbia head coach Kerry Glover said when comparing the visible pain and anguish that came pouring out of his players after this year’s final game against Lancaster Catholic in contrast with the Tide’s final game of 2019-20 when they were essentially blitzed by School of the Future in the opening round of the PIAA tournament on a Saturday afternoon at South Philadelphia High School and never really got within any serious, threatening reach of coming out victorious. “Now, these guys have changed the mentality to where we walk in gyms and we’re no longer afraid of teams no matter what the name on the front of the jersey says. They’re no longer afraid or uncomfortable with playing on the road for big games,” said Glover. “I think it’s huge. These guys that return next year, they got a chance to experience this. Now they know what it feels like to come up on the short-end and they gotta be the ones that return the favor next year.”

“I’m extremely proud of my guys,” Glover went on to add. “The way they competed? I just told (his players) that I have no complaints. Let this feeling right here that you guys are feeling right now be motivation for the offseason because we will be back next year. We will be back.”

On the other side? Well, even though championships have seemed to become somewhat of a birthright for any member who dons a Lancaster Catholic jersey –over the last handful of years in particular–the elation that comes with claiming District 3 supremacy is a feeling that never truly flames out for those involved regardless of how times you are fortunate enough to savor it.

“I think we forced (Columbia) into some quicker shots in the second half. We contested everything. We said, ‘We don’t want to give up easy opportunities.’ We did a great job of that,” a victorious Lancaster Catholic head coach Joe Klazas said of his team’s collective defensive effort while clutching the championship hardware while also having to yell through his facemask as his team cut down the nets in front of a still loud and boisterous Crusaders’ fanbase minutes after the game itself had concluded, a brief snapshot that best exemplifies the sign of the times as far as the 2020-21 season is concerned. “Late in the first half, I think we sped ourselves up a little bit too much and it killed us on the defensive end. I thought our offensive movements really helped us, we got more focused on the defensive side and we did a great job of owning the boards,” added Klazas.

When talking about Lancaster Catholic as a whole this season, it’s rather apparent that while Crusaders do possess capable pieces at seemingly every turn, the thing that makes the purple and gold one of the most dangerous teams inside the state of Pennsylvania is that various members can rise up and steal the show on any given night. In the first game against Columbia, the Crusaders’ hero was Mason Moore. This time, it was Ross Conway’s turn to shine against the Crimson Tide.

“We said it’s a collective effort,” said Klazas while watching his team take their respective turns at ascending up the ladder with a pair of scissors. “One of our pregame things today was that we’re 13 as 1 meaning that we play together. There’s times where teams are going to take things away and make us uncomfortable in spots and we’re going to need guys to step up and make plays. When you do that with confidence, it’s a big momentum builder for the team. Guys did that today. Ross (Conway) had a few turnovers in the first half and he was on himself a little bit, but we continued to remind him that your teammates are behind you. He made some clutch plays and rebounded like crazy in the second half.”

Typically, the scene currently unfolding the Crusaders’ home floor was an occasion that never would normally happen. No, not in terms of Lancaster Catholic celebrating a win of course, that seems to happen nearly all the time, but the fact that the District 3 title was decided inside the Crusaders’ familiar confines. As everyone around here certainly knows, Tuesday night’s contest would have normally been played at Hershey’s palatial Giant Center in normal circumstances. However, thanks to the global pandemic, Hershey was now out of the question as far as this year was concerned. In some ways though, it could perhaps be argued that the atmosphere generated by the Crusaders’ home crowd proved to be the difference which helped Catholic ultimately get over the top.

“Yeah, who knows,” Klazas said with a quick laugh when asked if Tuesday night’s game would have instead been contested on the mammoth neutral site. “I know the kids would have certainly enjoyed every minute they had of it, but this is very unique. We had a great home crowd. That big floor (at Giant Center), with Columbia’s quickness? It could’ve worn us out. It was up in the air,” Klazas admitted. “But hey, we’re glad we got a chance to play here. It’s definitely different, but we loved it. We loved it.”

And what exactly does a two-time defending district champion head coach do the very next day to help celebrate and unwind? “I’m gonna hit some golf balls for sure,” said Klazas. “I know that.”

 

NEXT UP: With their gritty victory on Tuesday, the Crusaders clinched the only spot awarded to a District 3 member this season in the 3A ranks into the state tournament field. There, Lancaster Catholic will once again return to their home floor next Wednesday night when they welcome the District 2 champion, either Riverside or Wyoming Seminary, with that title game set to be contested this Thursday night at Wilkes-Barre’s Mohegan Sun Arena.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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