Without a shadow of a doubt, there is just something so inherently pure about rivalry games. But admittedly, when you raise the stakes and put a championship on the line, games such as Saturday’s Lancaster-Lebanon League title game between Manheim Township and Warwick can end up taking on a life of their own.
As far as the GPS would suggest, the campuses that house the both Blue Streaks and Warriors are separated by roughly five miles on a map. However, even despite their close proximity to one another, the two schools might as well be located on opposite ends of the Earth should one spend just a few minutes with those that make up the most fanatical of pockets found within the two fanbases. But even for all their perceived differences, both programs entered Saturday afternoon’s title tilt with a shared commonality: A prolonged absence from appearing in the L-L championship game.
For Warwick, this season has been that has largely exceeded expectations. Sure, the gang from Lititz was expected to compete within the rank and file for a Section 2 championship throughout the entirety of this season, but chances are that very few saw a clean sweep through Section 1 competition in the cards at the outset of the year. In the process over the last two months, the Warriors went on to claim the school’s first section title since 1991, safely securing a bid in the league playoffs for the first time since 2007, with everything coming to a head on Saturday afternoon at Manheim Township for a contest which marked the storied program’s first appearance in a league championship game since 1990.
In terms of preseason expectations, the bullseye placed on the backs of Manheim Township coming into the year was one of mammoth-like proportions. And for good reason mind you. Aside from the fact that the Blue Streaks were returning four of their five starters from a campaign which saw Township battle defending 6A state champion Reading down the final gun in last year’s District 3-6A semifinal round at the Giant Center, the Blue Streaks went toe-to-toe with one of the best brands in all of high school basketball, Lower Merion, before bowing out after a nip and tuck game at the hands of the Aces in the first round of the state tournament last season.
Yet even for all of the lofty goals placed upon the group from Neffsville, making it all the way to final game of the league tournament would be an accomplishment in and of itself when you consider that the Blue Streaks had been absent from the final L-L League curtain call since a 2005 shortcoming against McCaskey at the world-famous Hersheypark Arena. And believe it or not, the Manheim Township trophy case was one devoid of an L-L championship trophy throughout the entirety of the school’s existence.
But ironically enough, this year’s campaign has been one that the Streaks had to chart through some largely unexpected choppy waters throughout much of the season. Yet as good teams often do, and the Blue Streaks certainly fit that description, Township ended up righting the ship with a strong close to the regular season, finishing with a ticket to next week’s District 3-6A tournament, and an L-L Section 1 title in the process.
So, with Warwick making the short trek down Route 501 these two arch rivals found themselves eye-to-eye, chin-to-chin, toe-to-toe, or whatever combative expression you would like to put on it, with a chance to rise the league’s summit after a war that promised to be fierce battle throughout its entirety.
Early on, the game certainly lived up to its billing. In fact, neither the Streaks nor the Warriors were able to gain much in terms of separation up on the scoreboard as the game’s opening quarter trudged along as evidenced by Caleb Schmitz’s bucket at the tin with 4:05 left in the opening period, as Warwick’s 6’4 sophomore senior forward knotted things up at 5-5 in the early going.
From there however, the game’s first signs of momentum went the way of the Blue Streaks as Manheim Township 6’6 senior forward Tyler Vicidomini tallied a bucket from point-blank range, giving the homestanding Streaks the early 9-5 cushion, before Township went on to build their lead by as many as five with the first quarter drawing to a close.
Fortunately for the red-clad contingent that had made their way down from nearby Lititz, the Warriors would be able to close the first quarter with a key 5-0 surge which narrowed the Manheim Township lead down to the slimmest of margins at 11-10 after a wild, back and forth opening eight minutes of play.
Once again, the second quarter saw next to nothing in terms of either team being able to land a haymaker and pick up some much-needed breathing room.
While the Streaks saw their lead grow to four at 14-10 after a Tyler Crespo take to the rack, the Warriors were able to retaliate with a 6-0 blitzkrieg, as a pair of free throws cashed in by way of 6’2 sophomore guard Joey McCracken gave Warwick its first lead of the afternoon at 16-14 with five minutes left to go in the opening half.
But as he would all day long, Tyler Crespo would fan the flames of any momentum generated by the Warriors, firing back with a timely tripe to give the lead back to the Blue Streaks at 18-16 immediately following the McCracken freebies. From there, the Streaks were able to ride momentum into the locker room, keeping the Warriors at arm’s-length for duration of the opening half.
In terms of unsung heroes, Manheim Township would not have been able to have such an impressive first half on Saturday afternoon had it not been the workmanlike efforts of 6’1 senior Brendan Mellott. Whenever the Streaks found themselves in need of a hustle play, Mellott was the odds-on favorite to be the key cog in the scenario. And while hustle plays are always welcomed and appreciated, it is equally rewarding to have the basketball gods shine upon you for doing the yeoman’s work, which is precisely what happened as Mellott was able to bully his defender down low in the post for a kiss off the glass which allowed Township to maintain its cushion at 20-16.
And with the first half rapidly nearing its conclusion, the Warriors constantly found themselves halted by the Streaks at every turn, as a nifty shake-and-bake hesitation pull-up jumper fired in by Tyler Crespo just before the first half horn allowed the Blue Streaks to head off into the intermission with ownership of the 26-22 advantage.
If Warwick was to come back in the second half and ultimately overtake the lead at some point in the second half, the Warriors would undoubtedly have to do so while leaning on their bread and butter of dialing up the long-ball. Seemingly right on cue, the Warriors would be able to do exactly that once the third quarter got underway.
After an early Tyler Crespo bucket broke the second half scoring seal with the first few seconds of the third frame, Joey McCracken was able to answer back with one of the Warriors’ trademark triples, narrowing the Township lead down to three at 28-25.
Yet even after Township was able to see its lead swell back up to four following yet another hard-nosed take to the rack thanks to the efforts of Brendan Mellott, the Warriors came right back while riding their outside shooting prowess, as a Ryan Shirk trifecta sliced the Blue Streak lead down to the slimmest of margins at 30-29 with 5:30 left to play in the third. From there, the Warriors were eventually able to make good on their desired-goal of overtaking the lead, as a Trysten George reverse at the cup allowed the Warriors to hold serve once again at 31-30.
And while Township would answer right back with a 4-0 salvo of their own, capped off a by a nifty dish from Crespo to a streaking Tyler Vicidomini, the Warriors would refuse to flinch as evidenced by an old-fashioned three-point play authored by Caleb Schmitz, knotting the score back up at 34-34 with the third quarter now extending past its halfway point.
From that point on however, the Lancaster-Lebanon League championship game quickly became known as “The Tyler Crespo Show.”
With Warwick clearly refusing to budge, someone needed to come up with a consistent string of plays in order for the Blue Streaks to capture the school’s first league title, which hung in the balance with just roughly 11 minutes left to play.
And at that very moment, just as he had been able to do throughout the entirety of his acclaimed four-year career while running the show for Manheim Township out on the floor, the Blue Streaks’ 5’10 senior guard did what he does best: Make plays.
Ironically enough, it all started off rather innocently as Crespo proceeded to rifle in a trifecta which gave the lead back to the Streaks at 37-34. But while no one may have known it at time, the floodgates were about to burst open.
After the momentum-swinging Crespo 3-ball, 6’3 junior forward Zach Oldac found himself becoming the beneficiary of an easy deuce at the cup which saw the Blue Streaks up their lead to 39-34 with two minutes left in the third. From there though, Crespo continued to reign supreme.
After yet another gargantuan 3-ball knocked in by the Township senior floor general which saw the Blue Streak lead flirt with double digits at 42-34, Crespo was then able to come up with a key theft defensively, forcing Warwick to call a timeout with the Warriors’ ship now clearly taking on water.
The only thing was, the Warriors’ timeout would not be able to plug the leak.
While clearly inspired by the home crowd lauding his efforts by way of way of their thunderous roars of approval, Tyler Crespo continued to be a beast for which the Warriors could not contain, as a Crespo offensive board and put-back saw the Manheim Township lead reach the ten-point plateau at 44-34, before the third quarter would eventually expire with the Streaks carrying the 46-38 cushion with them heading into the final quarter of the L-L League season.
As mentioned, Manheim Township’s Brendan Mellott was a key catalyst all game long in terms of propelling the Blue Streaks past any stages of adversity during the title fight while either igniting or finishing key plays which aided the Township effort. Yet even when he wasn’t scoring, something he did quite well as a matter of fact as demonstrated by his 19-point effort, Mellott had no issues whatsoever with dishing to his teammates as well, something the 6’1 senior guard did two minutes into the fourth quarter when he found Mickey Stokes running the floor, as the 6’4 junior forward upped the Blue Streaks’ lead to 50-39 after his easy bucket at the tin.
At that moment, it became rather obvious that the Warriors would need to find any sort of spark in order to claw back into the fight and make a game of it with the fourth quarter starting to melt away on their chances.
Just then, Warwick was able to find a glimmer of hope in the form of a Colby Martin triple, as the 5’11 senior marksman splashed in a key trifecta to bring the visitors back within eight at 52-44 with four minutes left to go.
But with Warwick being forced to push the issue by implementing a zone trap defensively late in the contest in hopes of forcing the Township ball-handlers into bad decision-making heading down the stretch, the Blue Streaks were clearly up for the challenge as demonstrated by their consistent breaking of the press, finding a handful of easy buckets waiting for them over top of the Warriors’ defense. Never more was that on display than with 6’2 senior forward Colin Yablonski chipping in a handful of hoops late in the contest before finishing with an unsung, yet critical six-point effort on the afternoon, as the Streaks appeared well on their way towards securing their first L-L League title.
And with the Warriors being forced to foul late in the game in order to extend the game, the Streaks would refuse to give an inch now finding themselves on the precipice of history, as a pair of Brendan Mellott freebies at the charity stripe essentially allowed to the Blue Streaks to put this one on ice, as Manheim Township went on to close things out with in the most dramatic of ways, capturing the school’s first Lancaster-Lebanon League title with a 69-58 takedown of backyard rival Warwick.
In many ways, Saturday’s ceremonial cutting of the nets on their home floor was an event that could not have seemed more apropos given the journey that Manheim Township head Matt Johns and this year’s Manheim Township senior class found themselves starting off on together four years ago. But perhaps none more so than Tyler Crespo.
“It was funny. I got hired late in the Fall of 2015 because the previous coach (Dan Relin) stepped down in August,” Johns said rehashing the events that ultimately led to him taking over the reins of the Blue Streaks program. “From the time of advertisements, interviews, to being hired, it was probably October. I knew the (Manheim Township) kids from being here,” Johns said. “But I hadn’t really coached them. All they really knew was that I was the new Dean of Students, but I had been here as a teacher.”
“I met them at Spooky Nook when we were in a Fall league,” the-then new Blue Streak head coach said of his indoctrination with his new roster at the time. “Some of the guys were there while the rest of the team was still out playing football, and there was this little guy running around all over the court. I just kept pushing him to get up more and get up more, play faster and play faster.”
The “little guy” in question? None other than the young man who would go on to finish as Manheim Township’s all-time leading scorer.
“I thought, ‘Man, he’s pretty good.’ But then I said, ‘It’s Section 1. What’s a freshman going to do in Section 1?’ We had some issues early on in his freshman year, but he was playing pretty good off the bench,” said Johns of his newfound emerging star. “Then we said, ‘Let’s put him in.’ He hasn’t come out since.”
“He just kept getting better and better every year, just getting better at something,” said Johns of Crespo. “He would have never defended like that today back two or three years ago. The way he has improved every year? Just when we think he can’t get any better, he does.”
And while Tyler Crespo had undoubtedly helped stir the drink for the Manheim Township the last few seasons, he was not the lone wolf in terms of the Blue Streaks’ senior class who offered up key contributions in what was arguably the program’s finest hour.
“Colin Yablonski gave us great minutes defensively today,” the Manheim Township boss said of his senior forward who turned in a key performance off the bench on Saturday. “He scored six points and had a couple of assists out there. He played a great game.”
“This is a kid who didn’t play organized basketball for two years,” Johns added of Yablonski. “He really came on as the season went along. He had a series near Christmas where he probably had maybe five practices in a row where we all as a staff looked at each other and said, ‘He’s passed some kids. He’s ready to play.’”
But this was much more than a two-headed senior monster that took the court on Saturday afternoon.
“Don’t overlook Brendan Mellott,” added Johns. “But not because of his points. Every single night, he defends the other team’s best player. Every single night. That’s hard. That’s so hard.”
As mentioned, seeing Manheim Township players ascend to the top rung of the ladder with a pair of scissors in their hands was not necessarily a sight that would have surprised those that were familiar with the L-L League heading into this season. But it may have been the road in which they traveled in order to get to Saturday afternoon which was perhaps the most rewarding part of it all.
Back on the afternoon of January 5th, a little over one month ago, Manheim Township found all of their preseason goals and aspirations hanging delicately in the balance after dropping a key game the previous night to McCaskey at home on a buzzer-beating triple cashed in by Isiah Thomas of the Red Tornado. It would prove to a bucket which firmly put the Blue Streaks at a proverbial fork in the road heading into a high noon matchup with Central York in the first game of the “War of the Roses” showcase the following day.
And with their backs up against the wall, the Streaks were able to hand in one of their best performances of the season by dismantling the Panthers, 61-43. Needless to say, it’s not a game that is lost on Coach Johns.
“It was good for us to have that game,” Johns said of the Central York matchup immediately following the heartbreak suffered against the Red Tornado. “I wish the team we were playing wasn’t as good as Central York because they are a good team,” he added with a chuckle.
“That’s that morning where you’re like, ‘Oh my god, Central York.’ But if I had to sit after that McCaskey loss til like the following Tuesday to play a game, I think I would have gone bonkers. The fact that we got to play that game and do that was amazing.”
And while the Central York game may have been “amazing,” it in essence helped set the dominos perfectly into place for this year’s Manheim Township Blue Streaks club to rise above all the rest and say that they are the head of the class in terms of the Lancaster-Lebanon League this season. That too must feel amazing.
NEXT UP: So, with their new piece of hardware now firmly grasped in their possession, Manheim Township will head off into the District 3-6A tournament next week as the bracket’s #12 seed and Tuesday night road date against the Mid-Penn’s Central Dauphin Rams.
For Warwick, the Warriors must now regroup in their own right as they too face a stern road test on Tuesday evening by traveling into York County to tangle with the aforementioned Panthers of Central York in a #7/#10 matchup contested in the District 3-6A bracket.
And while Saturday was a certainly an event that never side will ever forget, both the Blue Streaks and Warriors must press the reset button at the beginning of this upcoming week. For if they don’t, both Warwick and Manheim Township will cruelly see their seasons come to an end should either side fall short at the end of their shared Tuesday night affairs.