When talking about the top high school athletic programs in the midstate, it is downright impossible to have any such conversation without including the Saints of Berks Catholic. No doubt about it, any list that would be devoid of having Berks Catholic mentioned would simply be incomplete at best. If nothing else, it’d certainly be fair to say that the school on located on the western banks of the Schuylkill River in Reading have not just won in a handful of sports over the last few years, they’ve downright dominated.
On the gridiron, the Saints’ achievements truly stand on their own merit. Over the course of the last half decade alone, Berks Catholic has appeared in five consecutive district title games at Hersheypark Stadium, coming away with the gold hardware the last three years, before eventually bowing out in the PIAA Western 4A Final the last two seasons. And although the Saints’ postseason football romps have come up just shy of the ultimate prize, it’s really no surprise to see that Berks Catholic has gone on to achieve remarkable success on the hardwood as well. A fact that becomes crystalized when considering what the Saints’ core group of hoopsters consists of.
Venture over to the Forino Sports Complex on a crisp fall Friday evening sometime and you’re likely to hear just a few of these very same names being blared over the loudspeaker as they game-changing plays all over the field for the Saints–Luis Garcia, Brandon George, Tre Dabney, and Terry Derr just to name a few.
The scary part about that list? That doesn’t even include everyone who makes the transition of turning in the oblong-shaped pigskin for the smooth leather of the roundball at the start of the winter months where more often times than not, Berks Catholic has gone on to enjoy the same type of success no matter what the playing surface.
Without question, the mindset and DNA of a winner is an intangible factor that teams either simply have or they don’t. And when speaking about Berks Catholic on the basketball floor, it’s become pretty apparent that the Saints have that exact moxie by the boatload. And when you add in talented ingredients such as Casey Jack and Keba Mitchell who just so happen to be among the best in Berks County to a mix of already-proven footballers, you certainly come away with a dish that is deserving of fine-dining acclaim during hoops season.
For most teams, last year for the Saints would be considered a banner year that most would celebrate and regard as the best in a generation. But as we have come to discover, this season has morphed into a mission of completing some unfinished business as far as Berks Catholic was concerned.
Yes, although Berks Catholic would come up empty in terms of capturing the Berks, District 3 or PIAA titles, the Saints did not exactly make quiet exits for each of those three tournaments during the 2106-17 campaign.
In a game that will forever go down in history as one of the greatest “tall tales” in Berks County sports history in terms of it’s almost-unthinkable circumstances surely for years and decades to come, the Reading Red Knights were able to turn the lights out on Berks Catholic both literally and figuratively as Reading went on to be crowned the king of Berks after besting the Saints 61-39 in a game that will forever be remembered as the night defined by an infamous power outage that left everyone inside Santander Arena in the dark for quite some time.
After their second-place finish in the county title game a year ago, the Saints proceeded to roar their way through the District 3 playoffs before eventually stubbing their toe against Middletown in the semifinal round by the narrowest of margins, 44-43. From there, Berks Catholic set their sights on the state tournament before their stellar season would come to an end in a second round defeat at the hands of Audenried.
But with a rejuvenated and refreshed outlook on this season, the Saints have been on a tear proving to everyone that they are most certainly out to make amends for their playoff shortcomings.
After soaring through the regular season with a 20-2 overall record and going undefeated in Berks play, Berks Catholic would make it a successful return trip to the BCIAA Tournament this year as the Saints navigated past Governor Mifflin and Conrad Weiser where they would be able to exact some payback against an old nemesis, as BC went on to unseat mighty-Reading from the throne, 51-46 in the championship game.
Ironically, for a team that was expected to be a postseason fixture yet again this year at the start of preseason practices like that of Berks Catholic, the same might not be said for their opening opponent in the 2018 District 3 4A tournament.
When trying to prognosticate and project each year in Lancaster Lebanon League Boys’ Basketball, there are inevitably your prohibitive favorites that you can take to the bank along with a certain few that exceed the preseason expectations set forth by the general public and surprise the masses. When touching on this year’s edition of the Northern Lebanon Vikings, the latter is more apt the description.
Yet in many ways, we probably should have seen this coming. Bolstered by a nine man senior class that has paid their dues and then some over the course of their careers, the Vikings have shown themselves to be the most-talked-about squads in the L-L this season.
But make no mistake about it, this group of Vikings has been more than just a feel-good story. These Vikings have consistently shown the ability to rise up and bite even the best of them.
When talking about L-L Section 3 basketball, the conversation more often times than not is centered around two main programs—Lancaster Mennonite and Lancaster Catholic. And while it is generally apropos to do that given the way that both programs tend to rise to the up above the fray on an annual basis, let’s just say that both the Blazers and Crusaders have to be overjoyed in knowing that they do not have to gas up the bus and venture north to Fredericksburg any time soon.
While the Vikes started out this season with a bang by racking up the wins in bunches, it still somewhat felt like Northern Lebanon was playing amidst the drone of persistent naysayers. But those very same skeptics were forced to be silent following the night of January 9th. That would prove to be the moment where NL would put the rest of the league on notice.
On a night that may have seemed like any other, the Vikings welcomed the Blazers from Lancaster Mennonite to their impenetrable den, coming away with a dramatic 63-62 triumph that kept the Vikes unbeaten in Section 3 play up until that point as NL would then be tripped up on the road at Lancaster Catholic the very next night. A game that would prove to stick in the Vikings’ craw for the remainder of the season.
To their credit, the aforementioned setback to Lancaster Catholic did nothing to deter NL’s hot start as the Vikings went on to post victories in seven of their next eight contests which set up Northern Lebanon v Lancaster Catholic Part II.
In a game that was defined by it’s palpable levels of pregame excitement and anticipation, the Vikings and Crusaders proceeded to battle it out over the course of the next 32 minutes and then some inside the renowned yellow walls of Northern Lebanon’s cozy confines.
In the end, it would come down to a Johnny Besecker trifecta over several outstretched arms of Northern Lebanon defenders just as final seconds ticked off the clock, still much to the chagrin of those in Viking Country as the Crusaders made it a happy bus ride home to Lancaster city with the 55-54 thrilling victory in their possession.
But all was not lost for Northern Lebanon following their last second loss to Catholic. No, far from it in fact.
Although the Vikes went on to drop their last two regular season games against Mennonite and ELCO respectively, Northern Lebanon’s body of work was solid enough for the Vikings to earn their first trip to L-L League Playoffs for the first time in four seasons for an opening round game at Hempfield. Once there, the Vikings would give Section 1 champ Black Knights all they could handle in the early going before eventually running out of steam against the solid all-around weapons maintained by one of the best 6A teams in all of District 3. A remarkable achievement of reaching the league tournament that was certainly deserving of praise and recognition no matter what the outcome would decide that night in Landisville.
Immediately following their abrupt exit from the L-L tourney, the Vikings were then able to right the ship and exact some revenge in their own right against fellow Lebanon County foe ELCO as the Vikes were able to climb out of a seven point halftime deficit, topping their rivals from Myerstown by a 74-65 count, in front of a raucous sell-out crowd in Fredericksburg.
And with it, Northern Lebanon was able to latch onto their underdog collar yet again as the Vikings made their second trip of the year across the Berks County line, this time of the upmost significance, for a Thursday night date with the high-flying display known as Berks Catholic in the second round of districts.
At center court of Berks Catholic’s gymnasium floor lies a painted caricature of a Saint Bernard’s likeness. And ironically enough, that would prove to be a fitting indication of how the opening quarter would play out as the Saints began the game by hounding their guests relentlessly on defensive end.
The Saints wasted little time in taking command of the scoreboard as Berks Catholic opened up the game with a quick 4-0 spurt following a nice move inside by 6’4” senior center Keba Mitchell only to see Alex Yeager answer back with an early triple for Northern Lebanon which cut the lead down to one at 4-3 just two minutes into the contest.
But from that point on however, Berks Catholic was deemed clear for takeoff.
Aided by a persistent, tenacious level of defense that led to more than it’s fair share of Northern Lebanon turnovers, the Saints proceeded to string off a 8-0 run which made it 12-3 in favor of the home-standing Saints at the 3:50 mark of the opening period as the Vikings were forced to call a timeout and adjust in the face of the early Berks Catholic salvo.
Yet once Northern Lebanon was able to find their footing and settle into a groove offensively, the Vikings started chipping away at BC’s advantage.
Aided by a 3 ball that was splashed home by 5’11” senior guard Caleb Light, the Vikes had cut the deficit in half at 12-6 before a knockdown jumper stuck by Alex Yeager got NL within four at 12-8 as the Vikes closed the books on the opening quarter of play with a 5-0 blitz.
Once the second quarter got underway, the Vikings were able to cut it to within three at 14-11 following another jumper by Caleb Light who would go on to finish with team-high scoring honors for the Vikes by posting a 14 point performance.
After his early second quarter jumper, Light helped cut the margin down to just one at 14-13 following a pair of freebies from the charity stripe at the 5:20 mark, helping serve notice to Berks Catholic that Northern Lebanon was here for the fight.
And just as they had all season long, the Vikings just kept pushing and pushing as they would eventually meet Berks Catholic on the scoreboard at 16-16 at the five minute mark thanks to a Cameron Gensler trifecta before the 6’2” senior big man would go on to convert from the free throw line shortly thereafter to give NL their first lead of the night at 17-16.
But unfortunately for those who made the trek from Lebanon County, that brief, fleeting moment would prove to be NL’s first and only lead for the remainder of the contest.
Ignited by the adversity of which they were facing, Berks Catholic responded with a championship-like rebuttal as the Saints went on to close the half with a scintillating late-half volley.
Sparked by a floater in the lane that was converted by BC senior forward Tre Dabney, Keba Mitchell went on to record his first highlight-reel play of the night as BC’s towering senior center rose above the crowd huddled around the rim anticipating a rebound as Mitchell plucked the ball out of the air and finished above the fray with an emphatic two-handed put-back dunk which clearly put momentum on Berks Catholic’s bench near the conclusion of the first half.
When all was said and done, the Saints were able to shut Northern Lebanon out for the remainder of the quarter as Berks Catholic bounded into the dressing room with a noticeable extra pep in their step as BC went into the break leading 26-17.
Although the first half clearly did not end the way Northern Lebanon had originally intended, the first few minutes of the final half allowed the Vikings to have the opportunity to find some momentum and perhaps inch back closer to their hosts on this night.
However Berks Catholic would have none of that. In fact, not only were the Saints able to continue keeping NL at arm’s length, they able to expand upon their lead even further from there on.
It didn’t take Berks Catholic very long to regain the same traction that they enjoyed at the end of the opening sixteen minutes. No, in fact it only took just a few seconds to be precise as a sweet back door layup scooped up and in by BC’s Luis Garcia on the Saints’ opening possession helped set the tone for the next few minutes which would clearly be defined by Berks Catholic’s hot-start.
After the early Garcia bucket, BC’s leading scorer for the night, 6’4 senior guard Casey Jack, got in on the action as well with a strong take to the tin that was followed up with a steal and lay in on Northern Lebanon’s ensuing offensive possession that helped open the floodgates as the Vikings were forced to call another timeout, now facing a 34-17 hole right out of the chute.
However Northern Lebanon’s second half thirst would not be quenched until near midway through the third quarter as an Alex Yeager jumped finally gave relief to the Vikings as Yeager’s bucket made it a 34-19 ballgame with 4:30 left in the third frame.
But even that proved to be too close for comfort as far as BC was concerned as the Saints would later see their lead swell to 20 points after an old-fashioned three point play authored by Casey Jack along the baseline with the free throw added on top gave the Saints a 42-22 lead with one minute left on the third quarter clock before the clock would eventually expire with Berks Catholic in command, leading Northern Lebanon 42-24.
As mentioned, Casey Jack would go on to finish with game-high scoring honors for the Saints with a 17 point night at the office.
New quarter, same ole’ Saints.
Yes, Berks Catholic was able to continue laying their foot on the accelerator as yet another Luis Garcia backdoor move, good for 2 of his 14 on the night, made it a 20 point bulge in favor of BC once again at 48-28 at the 4:30 mark of the final period.
And although Michigan Daub would be able snatch his first points of the evening by knocking down a pretty baseline jumper almost immediately after the Garcia bunny from close range, it remained a 20 point lead in favor of the home team as the Saints were on the precipice of officially securing their ticket to the District 3 4A semifinal round as BC looked out over their perch with a 50-30 advantage.
Yet to their credit, Northern Lebanon played every last second over the course of the 32 minutes for which they were guaranteed as evidenced by Spencer Mullins checking into the contest and delivering solid minutes. An effort that would eventually be rewarded with a nice post move inside which made it a 52-34 ballgame which would also happen to be the score at the conclusion of the contest as Berks Catholic made good on their quest to advance to the Monday night semifinal round at Penn Manor, handling their business over a gritty Northern Lebanon squad.
“Give them a lot of credit,” Northern Lebanon head coach Chris George said after his team’s defeat at the hands of Berks Catholic. “They’re one of the best defensive teams in the area. We knew it. We preached it to them the last few days… We did a nice job in spots being patient and at other times we just didn’t,” George added bluntly. “Almost all their points came off turnovers in the first half. It’s a backbreaker. Offensively just to be sloppy like that really hurt us.”
NEXT UP: Although Northern Lebanon’s quest for a District title came to an end against Berks Catholic, the Vikings still have a chance to qualify for the state tournament. Something that should not get lost in the shuffle even despite the sting of Thursday’s setback.
“Obviously the ELCO win was really big for us at home and big from the program,” Coach George detailed regarding the week that was for the Vikings. “This was a really good experience for us, playing games like this for our program, George went on to say. “Our program hasn’t been in this spot for a long time so you just try to focus on the positive of tonight… I think you can take a lot of positives from today.”
For Berks Catholic, the redemption tour continues on as the Saints look forward to an anticipated rematch with Middletown in the semifinal round, just like one year ago as the Saints and Blue Raiders begin their preparations in earnest for one another with tipoff set for 6:30pm at Penn Manor High School in Millersville on Monday night.