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Despite Slugglish Start, Cumberland Valley’s ‘Dudes’ Come Alive In Second Half Against Cedar Crest As Eagles Advance To District 3-6A Final Four, Await Championship Rematch Against Reading High At Home

Despite Slugglish Start, Cumberland Valley’s ‘Dudes’ Come Alive In Second Half Against Cedar Crest As Eagles Advance To District 3-6A Final Four, Await Championship Rematch Against Reading High At Home

Written by: Andy Herr on February 24, 2024


While some may not care any less about the row to hoe if they are fortunate enough to make the postseason, it’d be kind of understandable if Cedar Crest may have been a bit miffed as to why they garnered such an arduous task compared to most others this year in terms of the District 3 playoffs.

Not that they’re necessarily complaining about it of course. If anything, for a program that uses stuff like this as a trip to the gas station when it comes to filling their internal tanks up with even more fuel to burn for the ride, seeing the Falcons navigate their way into Friday night’s District 3-6A quarterfinal game against Cumberland Valley inside the spacious “Dome” just sort of seemed right, you know?

Now, if we want to talk in terms of the sheer logistics as to how this all transpired, we can certainly do so. In that respect, it came to fruition once Cedar Crest, an eventual 16-5 regular season finisher, came away with the #7 seed into the 6A bracket once the standings became crystalized at the cut-off date of Valentine’s Day this year. And because they drew the seventh seeded line, their reward was anything but considering it meant a date with the Wilson Bulldogs, a matchup which would be the fourth within the last two seasons between these two regional stalwarts.

But that’s only part of the story.

After the brackets were unveiled for all to see in the middle portion of last week, there was additional legwork to complete once the Berks, Lancaster-Lebanon, and Mid-Penn Conferences played out their respective league tourneys in the days that followed.

In Berks, Wilson ended up topping one of their foremost rivals, Reading High, in the championship affair to knock off the defending 6A state titleholders. In the L-L corner of the universe, Cedar Crest, one of the foremost favorites heading into the season, ending up striking gold for the fourth time within the last decade at Manheim Township in that league’s title fight as the Falcons got the better of Warwick this past Friday night. From there, in what is arguably the toughest conference from top-to-bottom on a perennial basis, Cumberland Valley was able to come away with the spoils of being coined a conference champ in their own right as the Eagles won the four-team sprint that takes only division winners, a far cry and reduction in size comparatively speaking to the other two.

So, what does that all mean? Well, first and foremost that one of those two championship representatives, either Cedar Crest or Wilson, would see their season abruptly end just 72 hours after heading home with gold medals around their necks. Talk about a drastic about-face, eh?

Fortunately, as far as the Lebanon County crew saw it play out, their team would indeed be the ones to live on and fight another day –Friday as it turned out– as Cedar Crest drew Cumberland Valley for the right to advance onward and into the 6A round of four. Yes, a two-game gauntlet that featured nothing but 6A champs right out of the gate from the Falcons’ collective perspective.

Again, not that Cedar Crest exactly cared about what the road looked like. For them, a core group that has been building towards this postseason march for the last couple of seasons now, they probably would’ve preferred to go right thru the wall as opposed to skating around it. Simply put, that’s exactly the chore they found themselves with whether they preferred it or not once they rolled into Cumberland Valley at the end of the work week to face off against an Eagles team that may not wow you with a breadth of star power necessarily, but they certainly command your upmost attention in terms of the execution aspect when it comes to the span of all 32 minutes. 

And as fate would have it, while Cumberland Valley would get off to a somewhat pedestrian start on the night against Cedar Crest in this one, that same formula of execution over 30+ minutes and sticking to your guns being exemplified to a T–along with a good bit of dudes just being dudes too – helped to pave the way for the Eagles to make a staunch second half charge and into the 6A round of the four come Tuesday evening.

But Cumberland Valley wouldn’t be the only ones starting the contest off in molasses following the opening tap.

Sure, while Cedar Crest would find themselves in front by a 4-2 margin just a tick past the first quarter’s halfway point following a reverse finish at the cup executed by its bruising senior guard, Fernando Marquez, that largely was the lone highlight put forth by either team on the offensive end Friday night. As far as the defensive side was concerned, there were three Falcons’ blocks found inside of the final minute, two of which were rather emphatic courtesy of 6’6 future Lehigh football tight end, Aiden Schomp, before a rapidly moving opening frame expired with the hosts maintaining a somewhat puzzling 5-4 lead with bettors rushing to the window to put money on the under.

Finally, from the onset of the second frame however, it felt as if Cumberland Valley was starting to get into a bit of a groove.

For that, following a triple and subsequent Euro-step finish in back-to-back fashion put home by Eagles’ 6’2 junior guard, JJ Lebo, the home side found themselves with their largest lead of the evening at that point, 10-4, with any bit of multiple possession leads figuring to be massive given the way this game was suddenly taking shape.

Well, massive if you can keep hold of it that is.

Almost immediately following Cumberland Valley’s early surge, Cedar Crest was in a retaliatory kind of mood. For them, the answer would come in the form of two straight RJ Young bunnies from around the rim with the Falcons’ 6’7 junior big finishing the night in leading the Cedar Crest collective effort with a baker’s dozen tallied in the scoring column. Then, with Young laying the groundwork of the foundation, an Owen Chernich floater in the lane not long afterwards put the guests back on top, 11-10, before a 3-ball dialed up by the 6’1 Falcons’ floor general put the finishing touches on an impressive 11-0 rebuttal and a 15-10 Cedar Crest lead after being down by six just a few moments prior against a program that rarely lets you back up for air more often than not once they have you down.

But that wasn’t even the last of it.

Right on the heels of Chernich’s latest bit of offensive heroics, a steal and finish compiled by the other member of the Cedar Crest backcourt, Leo Tirado, made it a touchdown-sized lead for this group of Falcons –many of whom are football players themselves and will be once their post-secondary endeavors begin ironically enough—with Cumberland Valley forced to burn a timeout amid the Cedar Crest charge with 1:53 left before the halftime break.

And while it may have been easy to overlook given the nature of what the first 16 minutes of the night looked like, a Lebo floater in the lane on the ensuing Eagles’ possession following the stoppage was critical in the sense that it helped Cumberland Valley stay within shouting distance at 20-13 despite an opening half that saw them look somewhat atypical by their standards.

In the second half though? Yeah, that would be vintage Cumberland Valley by and large.

To start it off, a downhill drive to the tin plus the foul added on top by way of 6’4 senior forward, Jake Snyder, allowed the Eagles to enjoy a bit of mojo and momentum come the start of the third. From there, while a stick-back finish at the goal tallied by 6’4 junior forward, Creston Austin, made it a five-point deficit at 22-17 with 5:40 left in the third, it was evident that the worm was starting to turn in favor of the hosts at that point.

And while he may have been somewhat kept in check by that point in the evening, it was finally time for Nolan Buzalka to emerge.

Granted, while the Cumberland Valley 6’3 junior forward’s game may not be the most glamorous in that it offers the show-stopping highlights at the end of every turn, who really cares? Ask anyone around if they’d rather have a that or someone the likes of Buzalka, someone who just always seems to make the right plays at the exact right times while never shutting his motor off, such the nature that Buzalka’s game encompasses, and you’ll probably have coaches crawling over broken glass to have that type of player inside their rotation. Fortunately for CV head man, David Vespignani, his southpaw would then leave his imprint on the game just when they needed it most.

Again, while not in necessarily the most boisterous of fashions known to man, a pair of Buzalka takes to the tin within the third quarter were nonetheless paramount in the sense that they helped push the Eagles back within three, 28-25, with time in the frame running out. Yet while only mere seconds separated this game from reaching its final period, that was more than enough time for Buzalka to intercept a Cedar Crest inbounds play at midcourt and race to the cup for an easy layup before the clock hit zeroes as Cumberland Valley had successfully clawed their way back within a point at 28-27 once the third quarter horn sounded which also helped the junior workhorse finish the night with a 13-point effort to pace the CV troops on Friday.

Then, in the final frame, Cumberland Valley would put the finishing touches on what would amount to a resounding final 16 minutes that totally saw them flip the script entirely against Cedar Crest.

In terms of getting over the hill and drawing even once and for all, that would come on a corner triple knocked down by 6’4 freshman guard, Aiden Diehl, making it a 30-28 CV lead with 1:45 into the fourth. From there, while the Falcons would tie things back up at 30-apiece, an old-fashioned three-point play finished off by Creston Austin turned that earlier two-point cushion into that of three, 33-30, with 5:40 then left to play.

From there on out however, Cedar Crest wasn’t really playing a basketball game so much as they were in the middle of a trip to the dentist’s office.

At nearly every turn, with the Eagles trying to be deliberate on the offensive end while also shutting the Falcons’ water off on the defensive end, Cedar Crest had a much harder chore in front of them than the three-point gap may have led one to believe. But that three-point hole would later become one of the five-point variety following another trademark Cumberland Valley offensive trip which resulted in an unselfish extra pass to Jake Snyder standing by his lonesome underneath the cup as the Eagles’ advantage now stood at a 37-32 count with roughly three minutes left at that stage following Snyder’s easy bucket.

That said, while time may have been running thin on Cedar Crest, RJ Young would continue to do yeoman’s work in terms of not letting his team go back home to Lebanon County without putting up one final fight.

In that regard, the Falcons’ towering big man was able to finish through contact amongst the CV trees as the Young hoop plus the harm trimmed Cumberland Valley’s lead back down to three, 37-34, with 1:46 remaining.

However, while not only would that prove to be all the closer Cedar Crest would get for the remainder of the final minute and change, but that would prove to be their final points of the evening in totality as Cumberland Valley was able to put their lasting stamp on a trademark and workmanlike 41-34 victory against Cedar Crest which now sees the Eagles receive a rematch of last season’s District 3-6A final, this time on their home court, as The Dome will see the Reading Red Knights come calling following their upset venture not that far down on the road on Friday night that bore witness to the defending state champs topple Carlisle on the Herd’s home floor. For Cedar Crest, they now fall to the consolation bracket of the 6A tourney where they now draw Carlisle as a result. As far as the stakes there are concerned, a win for either side on Tuesday night at Gene Evans Gymnasium would lock up a state berth for the eventual winner.

But on this night, while they may not have started off on the right foot necessarily, Cumberland Valley wasn’t one to get extra finicky and panicked about things. For that was something that left an indelible image on their head coach.

“We’ve played in playoff environments before, but this is for real. And a lot of these dudes now weren’t the ones playing in these games a year ago, two years ago,” Vespignani shared of his 2023-24 troops. “I think we were wide-eyed, stary-eyed, and Cedar Crest was playing real good defense. We were settling and being robotic with what we do,” he then said in reference to the first half especially. “We just talked at like halftime like, ‘Just relax. You’ve got the nervous energy out. Just come out in the second half and just react. Stop being robots. Just react to what (Cedar Crest) is doing and stick to what we do and stick together,’” said Vespignani about the message during the halftime recess. “The kids did it. They were the ones that turned this around. Not me.”

And he was right. His guys did make the winning plays when it mattered most. Yet while it was a total team effort across the Eagles’ board collectively, it didn’t exactly hurt matters when Nolan Buzalka largely decided to help carry Cumberland Valley on his back either during a key stretch in the third frame.

“There was that three or four-minute stretch there in third where we were getting some movement to try and get (Buzalka) isolated and get him some matchups he liked,” Vespignani stated. “At the end of the day, he put his head down and got to the rim. Not only did he make shots, but he found other guys. That steal he had there at the end of the third quarter? I think that was the major turning point. And honestly, I’m going to give credit to a freshman, Aiden (Diehl), there because when Cedar Crest was holding the ball with like 30 seconds to go, he looked at me and was like, ‘Do you want me to foul?’ It was sort of his idea to draw that foul since we had one to give to where we could switch the matchup and we ended up getting the steal and that really turned it around.”

And they turned it around against a team in Cedar Crest that Vespignani spoke glowingly about both during the pre and postgame on Friday night.

“I would say Chambersburg a little bit in that Chambersburg has some big, physical guys,” said the Eagles’ head coach when asked if saw any sort of comparable foe found in Cedar Crest to that of a Mid-Penn beast he and his club routinely face in the Commonwealth gauntlet. “But we haven’t played anyone all year that can put those dudes out there that are as big, strong, and physical as they can,” he said of the Falcons, especially in reference to RJ Young, Aiden Schomp, and Fernando Marquez especially. “It might’ve been dumb on our part, but our gameplan was to switch every screen. At the end of the day, we felt like we could take them out of their flow if they were so focused on trying to take advantage of a mismatch. (Cedar Crest) got us a couple times, but to our guards’ credit, they battled when they got stuck on a big guy and we didn’t get killed with it,” he added. “I think it helped to take away some of the flow they wanted to have and it kind of forced them into some shots they wouldn’t normally take.”

Yet while this might’ve been a game that featured the L-L’s best against the Mid-Penn’s best as far those respective tournaments would lead you to believe, make no mistake about it. While District 3 may be massive in terms of its sheer size and landscape, its tentacles and overall relationships can reach outwards so much to where it feels as if someone is your neighbor next door even if they are over an hour drive’s away. And hey, if you can bend the ear of a friend from a distant land to try and gain some knowledge of an opponent you may not be all that familiar with, you’d be foolish not take advantage.

“It was Chris Christensen. Him and I spoke because they were playing Hershey when we just played them and we were playing Cedar Crest who they just played,” Ves said of reaching out to Warwick’s coach for some trading of insights the past few days about each’s upcoming assignments. “Just kind of going back and forth with him exchanging some ideas to figure some things out.”

Outside help sure, but maybe some other tidbits gained from a rival’s shared experience as well.

“Honestly, the idea we had of switching came from when we watched Cedar Crest play CD earlier in the year. Now, CD is a little more athletic than we are, but CD was switching everything that game and really trying to load the paint, so shoutout to Wayne Fletcher right there. We stole his gameplan tonight and luckily it worked out,” said Cumberland Valley’s head coach with a nod of approval to his fellow Mid-Penn Commonwealth brother in arms in reference to Fletcher’s Central Dauphin crew authoring a resounding 80-57 win over Cedar Crest back on January 20th.

Now, with Cumberland Valley fully right smack dab in the middle of another playoff push, this is exactly where they had planned to be come late February 2024. That’s especially true given how cruel and unforgiving they found March 2023 to be last season following a narrow loss to Reading in the district final before then falling to Garnet Valley at home in the opening round of states the very next week.  

“I played for Coach Kostelac at Trinity and he would always say, ‘When you get to this stage, there’s only one team that ends the year happy. There’s only one team that ends this with a smile.’ Again, a lot of these dudes now weren’t the ones playing, but they were on the bench,” said Vespignani of his crew this year. “They were at practice. They were there. They saw how we went from the district finals to thinking we could make a run in states and then boom, it’s over. Just having that sense of urgency in everything we do this time of year. There’s no tomorrow. We just have to play through everything.”

“Like I told those kids in that locker room, ‘This has nothing to do with me, man. This was all you guys,’” Vespignani said in closing while lauding his guys. Or dudes as he calls them. “’When we were bad in the first half, you guys didn’t fold. Even though I came in and yelled a little bit at half, you didn’t fold. You came out and dominated the second half.’”

And while maybe it doesn’t have an official name like “The Cumberland Valley Revenge Tour” or anything to that degree, at least not yet or publicly mind you, you can be rest assured that the Eagles are out to prove that the 2024 edition of the postseason will be a far better, longer venture than that of its most recent version. For that, the Eagles get their first true litmus test in that regard standing directly opposite of them Tuesday night in the 6A championship rematch against Reading High.




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