Cedars Stand Tall As Lebanon Holds Off Hempfield To Claim Lancaster-Lebanon League Title In Nail-Biting Finale
Written by: Andy Herr on Sunday, February 28th, 2021
Lebanon 41 Hempfield 40
LL Boys Final @ TWP Feb 27, 2021
To be perfectly honest, we didn’t know who would end up making it to Manheim Township this year to compete for the Lancaster-Lebanon League championship. Shoot, we didn’t know if anyone would be able to make it there at all either quite frankly. However, much to the hard work, diligence and foresight offered by those in the L-L League power chairs, the 2020-21 high school hoops season went on. That said, the likelihood of shutdowns, postpones and cancellations figured to come into play. Sure enough, they did. And once they did –on both the boy’s and girl’s side of the league—in some pretty remarkable volumes no less, the question of whether or not the league tournament, arguably the league’s most prized possession which allows the L-L League to differentiate itself from the rest of its District 3 competitors, was still left lingering in the air as the regular season slate started to wind down. And yes, while there were some changes –most notably invitations into the field being offered to section champs only—the show went on as scheduled.
In many ways, for as weird and wonky as the 2020-21 season will forever go down in the memories of those who played, coached, and witnessed it first-hand, Saturday afternoon’s title fight at Township ended up providing just a dash of normalcy for such a wild and strange season. First and foremost, it pitted a Section One team against a Section Two team. Short of checking the history books, having one or both of the championship combatants hail from either one of those two divisions is just as common as death and taxes. Not only that, but the two teams pitted against one another were certainly no strangers to big stages historically given that match-up featured the storied Lebanon Cedars against the always-powerful and reliable Hempfield Black Knights. Thirdly, while the crowd on Saturday dwarfed what would have normally in attendance for such a monstrous affair, the high-level drama and intensity was still visibly and intangibly on display. Fourthly, the outcome was literally decided within the final seconds, something that championship games quite often feature. Lastly, and without a doubt most ironically, the team that opened the L-L League season by claiming the lone win from the one and only game league-wide that was played inside the month of December, fittingly offered the last punctuation in the final game of the game of the season as well. Normal, right?
Speaking of normal, seeing Hempfield and Lebanon go blow for blow against one another early on helped give credence to that notion of normalcy. For that, both the Black Knights’ and Cedars’ turned to their floor generals, Ryan Hilton and Luke Collins respectively, as both point guards poured in triples to get the scoring started for their sides in the opening few minutes. Later, just as they have all year long, Lebanon began to lean on the powerful 6’5 frame of Isaiah Rodriguez. To his credit, the Cedars’ senior forward once again delivered for his troops, finishing through contact to put Lebanon up by a sizable 8-3 lead with 2:40 left to play in the first. However, even though Hempfield would come back to within a pair at 10-8 –thanks to the ever-present pullup jumper of 6’1 sophomore guard, Miguel Pena—a timely Luke Collins three-point play allowed the Cedars to breathe just a little easier, putting Lebanon back up by five at 13-8 with 1:30 still to go. Then, once the final minute and change did end up ticking away, the difference on the scoreboard showed Lebanon having doubled-up Hempfield with the Cedars taking the 16-8 advantage with them into the second frame.
As fate would have it, a majority of the second quarter proved to be bathed in shades of blue and red as well.
With the Cedars having executed their offensive delay game masterfully –in many ways beating Hempfield at their very own game—Lebanon was able to build their existing cushion up to as many as 14 following buckets by Marquis Ferreira and Rodriguez respectively, the last of which made it a 24-10 Cedars’ lead with just 2:45 left before the halftime break. Thankfully, as far as Hempfield was concerned, Brandon Hagel was able to calm the waters for the Black Knights with a timely and much-needed flip in the lane which ended the existing scoring drought possessed by the Section One champs, the Cedars were nonetheless able to head into intermission with seemingly all the momentum in the world given their 24-12 lead at the break.
For any team, while trying to overcome a 12-point deficit at the half is by no means a desirable way to make a living, it was perhaps a far more precarious position for Hempfield to find themselves residing considering that the Black Knights are the L-L League’s basketball version of a boa constrictor in the sense that they like to invite you in by playing at their pace before they end up suffocating you with little options or time left in order to make up the difference. Suffice to say, being down by a dozen was not ideal for a Hempfield group that best butters its bread by playing from the lead. Granted, while that all remains true, a Danny Walck-led team never has, nor will likely ever will, know the meaning of the word surrender. Sure enough, here they came.
Undoubtedly sparked by a Ryan Hilton take to the cup on the Black Knights’ first offensive possession of the second half, Hempfield had suddenly cut the Cedars’ lead in half thanks to additional buckets tallied by Michael Hester and Dan Sears respectively, making it a 24-18 Cedars’ buffer just one minute into the third stanza. Later, while Lebanon would be able to push their lead back up to nine following another 3-ball sunk by Luke Collins which made it a 29-20 affair with five minutes left in the quarter, Hempfield clearly had no signs of going away given the trifecta dialed up by Miguel Pena just a minute and a half later, getting the Black Knights back within a half dozen at 31-25. And while Hempfield would be able to get to within four at 31-27 with two minutes left to go in the third following a take to the cup by way of Michael Hester, the Cedars were able to head into the final period as owners of the 32-27 advantage.
Just as they had in the opening minutes of the third quarter, Hempfield wasted no time in trimming Lebanon’s lead back down to size once the fourth quarter got underway as well.
While the Black Knights were able to pull within a deuce thanks a Pena trey on their opening possession, a pair of Ryan Hilton freebies at the charity stripe knotted things back up at 32-32 just one minute into the period. On the day, both Hilton and Pena took their turns at leading the Hempfield ship as both wound up sharing team-high scoring honors with 11-point performances respectively.
Ironically, for such a young team, one had to wonder how Lebanon would react given that this was now a stage in which anyone wearing a Cedars’ uniform had never found themselves up until that point in time. Needless to say, they’d respond quite admirably.
After seeing their enormous lead already having been eliminated thanks to Hempfield’s persistent, chiseling efforts, the Cedars needed some sort of a rebuttal to quell the ongoing Black Knights’ scoring swing. While it may not have been in the most orthodox of fashions, a 3-3 trip to the foul line courtesy of 5’10 junior guard, Marquis Ferreira, allowed Lebanon to ascend back into the lead with the 35-32 cushion. Then, after Hempfield having cut the Cedars’ lead back down to just a penny at 35-34, the Black Knights were plagued by three ill-timed empty trips down the floor, allowing Lebanon lead to dodge three separate bullets with the game hanging in the balance. That said, while Hempfield had appeared to go dry at the most inopportune of times, the Black Knights were able to draw back even at 36-36 following a key 2-2 free throw shooting display from Hagel shortly thereafter.
For as anyone that has seen Lebanon play this season, it’s no secret that the Cedars appear to be a three-headed monster with Luke Collins and Marquis Ferreira manning the backcourt operation while Isaiah Rodriguez makes his living in the paint. However, with one head of the Cedars’ snake already having been lost at that point in time after seeing Luke Collins having fouled out moments earlier, one had to wonder who would drop into the driver’s seat to help wheel Lebanon back home with a trophy and gold medals. In that regard, Isaiah Rodriguez took his turn cementing his name into Cedars’ lore with a pair of back-to-back takes to the cup, making it a 40-36 Lebanon lead with the game on the line.
However, just as they had all game long up until that point, Hempfield rallied right back with a crucial Ryan Hilton three-point play to answer, cutting the Cedars’ lead down to the slimmest of margins at 40-39 with just 30 seconds left. And while Hilton’s play was indeed large, it was equally damaging for the Cedars given that it saw the fifth foul on the second head of their snake, this time with the expulsion of the game-high scorer, Isaiah Rodriguez, who finished the afternoon with another Herculean 15-point effort to pace Lebanon.
Then, with Lebanon understandably appearing somewhat out of sorts given that the Cedars only had two other players in the scorebook who scored at that point in time –one of which only had two points registered to their name—a frantic loose ball sequence in front of the Cedars’ bench gave way to a foul called on Hempfield, sending Marquis Ferreira to the line. So, with the Cedars’ 5’10 junior staring down the barrel of a one-and-one with 13.5 seconds left and the league title riding on the line, Ferreira calmly knocked down the initial offering before ultimately splitting the pair, vaulting Lebanon back into the lead at 41-39 with time running out on Hempfield.
To their credit, Hempfield ended up forcing the officials to make a key late-game call on their final offensive possession. Fortunately, as far as the Black Knights were concerned, the whistles went in their favor as a subsequent Black Knight free throw with 1.6 seconds left sliced the Cedars’ lead down to one, 41-40. However, after Lebanon having called a timeout to try and put Hempfield on ice, the plan appeared to work out masterfully seeing as how the ensuing Hempfield free throw coming out of the timeout rattled in and out, forever cementing the Lebanon Cedars as the 2020-21 Lancaster-Lebanon League champions for the school’s first title since 2004 in what had amounted to the fourth-lowest scoring game in L-L championship history, along with the second-lowest scoring output by the winning team that could be found within the Cedars’ tough-as-nails 41-40 final triumph late Saturday afternoon.
“We were talking about it,” a happy Lebanon head coach Tim Speraw said with joyous relief regarding the aforementioned timeout the Cedars’ took with 1.6 seconds left. “We were talking about what we were going to do,” he acknowledged of the possibility of heading into a four-minute overtime session without two of their top dogs already having been disqualified. “We were talking about if we wanted to make an attempt where if (Hempfield) made it and tied with 1.6 left, did we want to try throw something to get something, or did we just want to go to overtime? Our discussion was, ‘Let’s just to go overtime.’ I thought, ‘I don’t want to go to overtime,’” said Speraw candidly. “We don’t have Luke or Isaiah, so hopefully he misses it. But, if he does make it, let’s try and make a game-winner.” In short, much to the Cedars’ delight, the conversation was rendered moot.
And while the victor of the L-L League championship always has a unique story to tell, it is admittedly different when a Lebanon County team –a grouping of schools that dwarfs the size and scope of those found within the county situated directly below them in which they share a conference—comes into enemy territory as it were and takes league supremacy back home with them. Rest assured, this Lebanon Cedars group embodies that same fighting spirit that has come to define Lebanon County teams for years on end.
“About halfway through the season, I think we started to get the confidence. I’d say after we beat Warwick the first time we were like, ‘Why not us?’ That’s what we kept talking about,” Lebanon’s head coach offered of his team’s metamorphosis. “Why not us? Why aren’t we the best team in the league? Everyone is talking about Warwick and a couple of other guys. Don’t get me wrong, Warwick could very well be here right now,” he continued on while watching his team ascend up the ladder with scissors in hand to go cut down the nets. “We just kept saying, ‘Why not us? Why aren’t we in the conversation?’ We started to get little chip on our shoulder and then play like that. It’s what we do.”
And without a shadow of a doubt, the Cedars certainly felt that collective backing behind them from their county brethren on Saturday.
“Once you’re out of (the L-L League tournament), then it’s, ‘Bring it back to Lebanon County.’ I got a lot of messages today from Cedar Crest people of, ‘Let’s bring it back to Lebanon County.’ That’s good. We have a lot of kids that play together in the summer, AAU teams, things like that. They all know each other and grew up together. Come postseason time, there’s a side that roots for each other at times,” Speraw said with a smile behind his Lebanon Cedars’ mask. “At times.”
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