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ELCO Finds Team Win ‘Pretty Cool’ As Raiders Withstand Persistent Octorara Challenges, Sets Up Mammoth Regular Season Finale At Home Against Donegal With Postseason Berth Still Within Reach

ELCO Finds Team Win ‘Pretty Cool’ As Raiders Withstand Persistent Octorara Challenges, Sets Up Mammoth Regular Season Finale At Home Against Donegal With Postseason Berth Still Within Reach

Written by: Andy Herr on February 7, 2024


To say that Tuesday night’s Octorara and ELCO game was simply “important” might be the biggest undersell of all-time.

Alright, alright. Extreme hyperbolic language pushed to the side for just a moment, the fact of the matter was that history was on the line once the Octorara Braves loaded up the bus and ventured northward and into the south end of Myerstown for the final matchup in their season series against Eastern Lebanon County School District. Historic in the sense that since Octorara School District became a full-fledged member of the Lancaster-Lebanon League six years ago now, arguably the school’s flagship athletic program, the boys’ basketball team, has yet to post an L-L League championship banner of any kind in the gym which would complement the Chest-Mont and District 1 pennants that already hang above in such regard. Not only that, but the Braves have also only navigated their way into the L-L League tournament once thus far during that span of time, a game that unfortunately ended in a bit of an unceremonious play-in round exit two years ago in a loss to the defending champs at the time, the Lebanon Cedars.  

This winter, while the Braves came to Lebanon County on Tuesday without having locked up either the divisional crown and/or a league tourney bid that could yet be etched in stone, the Braves were largely well in control of their own destiny as far as checking off both of those boxes. Admittedly though, the chore would’ve been far easier –if even required at all– had Octorara been not riding a two-game losing skid found in fumbling a pair of matchups against their Section Three brethren in L-S and Cocalico respectively their last two times out, putting the Braves on the razor’s edge in terms of perhaps falling out the league race altogether in the event they not handle their business against ELCO and Lancaster Catholic inside this final week of play and leave outside things up to chance considering their current 8-2 league record which matches them dead even alongside Lampeter-Strasburg with Cocalico still lurking over their shoulder as the Eagles began the week with three Section Three games left outstanding on their slate. However, provided that Octorara would be able to win at least one of their final two games, the Braves would indeed make it back to the league tourney for the second time in program history with their seed and matchup being determined by what L-S also does in their remaining games. That, and perhaps a bit of mathematics to resolve the difference if necessary.

On the other bench, they would gladly accept a postseason bid of any kind if such an offer would happen to get extended towards them.

That said, while the prospect of seeing the ELCO Raiders compete in the Lancaster-Lebanon League tourney this year is already out of the cards, this group still had plenty, plenty to play for heading down the stretch. Ironically, well, perhaps they’d use another word or two if they had to describe it themselves, those same Cocalico Eagles threw a wrench into the Raiders’ best laid postseason plans last week in the form of a 59-51 victory in which Cocalico erased a massive early deficit to storm back and capture. For it would prove to be a costly setback not just in the sense that it dashed ELCO’s league dreams, but it also knocked them down a precious peg or two when it comes to their District 3-4A playoff aspirations as well considering only ten teams get invites to that particular party and ELCO now found entering the night at the #12 position.

So, without much in the way of further illumination being required, it was evident as to why this matchup between Chester and Lebanon County foes would prove to be critical in terms of the Lancaster-Lebanon League playoff picture. Go figure.

Fittingly, in a game that personified everything about a quasi-playoff game before the actual playoffs get underway, the war between Octorara and ELCO waged on Tuesday night will be one that the folks in Myerstown surely won’t soon forget.

Ironically, much like the way they began the first meeting down in Atglen earlier this month by racing out to an eye-popping 18-2 lead, ELCO couldn’t have possibly scripted a better start on Tuesday night either.

This time around, the Raiders proceeded to roar out of the chute to an early 8-0 bulge, thanks in large part to Micah Gray’s exploits, as the ELCO 6’0 junior wing contributed a large swath of the early scoring to get things underway. And while the Braves would finally crack the scoreboard with a put-back bunny inside chipped in by way of Vince Thaler, the ELCO advantage would swell upwards to nine, 11-2, courtesy of Gray taking his early act outside the arc by then bombing in a trifecta en route to what would be a sharing of team-high scoring honors on the night with the bucketing of 17 points.

Yet as would be the theme that would round into form all night long, just when it felt as if ELCO could finally escape Octorara’s reach, the Braves would immediately race back into the fold.

In this instance, while riding the wave of a pair of Jason Johnson steals and finishes at the cup, the visitors were able to scream back within five at 11-6 despite surrendering an early haymaker thrown by their hosts. On the ELCO side, when it came to then turning away this specific Octorara push, Micah Gray continued his absolutely scintillating first quarter performance by burying yet another tripe within the first eight minutes to make it a 20-9 score before an old-fashioned three-point play via Octorara 6’5 senior big man, Shane Althouse, got the Braves back within a half dozen at 20-14 before the dust would finally settle on a frantic opening stanza that showed ELCO out in front, 22-14.

In the second frame, recent history had a funny way of repeating itself.

Chief among the prevalent themes being Micah Gray of course as he would continue to his usual game-wrecking self with a take to the rack to make it a 24-16 ELCO lead before another Raiders’ deuce at the tin, this one 5’11 senior Kody Boyer, made it a 26-16 lead in favor of the hosts as ELCO was largely seen putting on a offensive masterclass in defensive dissection when it came to the first half of play while operating within the halfcourt.

Speaking of those prevalent themes, right on cue came Octorara.

For this rally, the Braves leaned on the efforts of 6’2 sophomore guard, Vito Vespe, to whittle it down to a 29-21 difference before an offensive rebound and stick-back from last year’s All-State recipient, Zach Kirk, gave the Braves’ senior his first points of the entire evening while also trimming the Raiders’ lead down to a much more modest 30-25 count with 3:40 left before recess.

But yet again, just when Octorara likely felt as if they had at long last reeled in ELCO, the Raiders would then respond in kind.

Case in point, while riding on the back of a Camden Marquette triple which gave the home team a double-digit lead again at the time, 35-25, the Raiders were able to successfully navigate their way into the dressing room with a solid 37-30 first half showing in which they simply refused to wilt while operating under the gun of the strong Octorara comeback venture.

Sensing an overarching theme here? You’re not wrong. Yep, even with a brand-new half of basketball still yet to be played, a case of déjà vu seemed to be afoot. There, once inside the third frame, it would be Octorara who would throw the first punch.

For the specifics, a bulk of its power came in the hands of Vito Vespe as the Braves’ underclassman was able to tally two more points en route to his seven-point performance while then following that up with a dish to Jason Johnson, the game’s eventual high scorer who tallied a 20-point showing next to his name, as the Braves had climbed back within three at 37-34 with just two minutes having been burned off the third quarter clock at that point.

I mean, you had to know ELCO would in turn rebuke all that right?

Sure enough, while aided in large part to a pair of monstrous triples sunk by Kody Boyer in quick succession, the Raiders were able to garner some much needed breathing room in the form of a 43-34 lead before another ELCO 3-ball, this one from senior point guard, Dallas George, made it a ten-point hole of which Octorara was tasked to find its way back out of given the ELCO lead now reflected in a 46-36 advantage with the conclusion of the third stanza quickly coming into view.

But before that buzzer would sound, Octorara had yet another push left in them.

For this, after a 4-0 salvo authored by Zach Kirk that came from both the free throw line and the field in the form of a smooth turnaround jumper, the Kirk-led charge had helped the Braves trim the lead ELCO cushion back down to size, 47-44, before a gigantic 3-ball poured in by Kody Boyer, his third such bucket of the period, propelled ELCO into the final act with the 50-44 lead in this see-saw affair through the first 24 minutes.

Needless to say, the narrative of the entire night at large was that while Octorara would fight tooth and nail to get right back into fray after allowing ELCO to gain some separation, the Braves were never able to truly summit the peak.

That said, they certainly seemed well positioned to accomplish such a feat once Chase Fetrow, a 5’9 sophomore guard, was able to complete the traditional three-point play which finally at long last got Octorara back on level ground for the first time literally since the opening tip at 54-54 with 4:58 left remaining in the fourth.

Of course, in keeping with tradition, the coin was eventually flipped on the ensuing ELCO possession no less as the Raiders went back in front thanks to a Josiah Hayes bucket inside that was fed to him via Dallas George, giving the hosts a cat-quick rebuttal.

Yet if there was a play that personified the night perfectly, it would come with roughly 2:30 left.

There, with the score knotted back up at 58-apiece in the aftermath of a Vince Thaler bucket inside for Octorara, a long backcourt pass coming out of a timeout nearly resulted in an ELCO turnover which would’ve given the ball to the Braves underneath their own basket. However, while Logan Kless, who had done yeoman’s work defensively all night long for the Raiders it should be dully noted, was able to track down the loose ball while tip-toeing along the endline, the Octorara defense in turn was off-balance as they too were found trying to chase the loose pill. And once Kless was able to gather himself after getting across the timeline, the Raiders could then set up shop in the halfcourt where they would eventually find the one who had primarily raised the curtain on this night, Micah Gray, as the Raiders’ sniper fired in a back-breaking trifecta before Camden Marquette would respond in kind by selflessly taking a charge defensively on the ensuing Octorara possession with the Braves’ overall night that essentially consisted of being close but no cigar was perfectly encapsulated in said exchange with ELCO out in front, 61-58.

But remember how it was mentioned earlier on that Gray would share team-high scoring honors on Tuesday night? Well, his compadre just so happened to be one Kody Boyer.

At countless times, especially within the third quarter, the Raiders’ senior came away with some timely buckets for his team’s cause with momentum starting to tilt in the other direction. Here again, now with time winding down, Boyer was able to offer up another large bucket for his fellow troops as a two-point addition to his 17-point evening would up ELCO’s lead to a 63-58 margin with just 90 seconds left standing between them and a massive win when it came to the preservation of their season beyond this week.

C’mon now. You had to expect that Octorara had one last gasp in them, right?

As if to be right on cue, a Jason Johnson steal and layup in transition thanks to their peskiness exerted defensively resulted in the Braves coming back within three, 63-60, with just 40 seconds remaining at the time.

From there, after ELCO proceeded to split the offering at the charity stripe after Octorara had already been found over the foul limit, the Raiders had to be feeling pretty good about their prospects considering their 64-60 lead with 33.8 left to go.

And while Octorara had to like their chances too in still being within the fight at 64-62 with 20 seconds remaining following a Zach Kirk take to the cup which gave him two more en route to a 14-point effort, that would prove to be all the closer the guests would get despite their most valiant efforts.

For that would become crystalized once Josiah Hayes, ELCO’s 6’1 sophomore forward with a promising future, proceeded to toe the line with the game hanging in the balance. However, it would’ve been understandable if one had to do a double-check of the Raiders’ roster just to make absolutely sure as the 10th grader showed moxie well beyond his years by calmly sinking both found in the offering, making it a 66-62 lead with just 11.3 ticks left of the go.

And in the end, despite Octorara throwing punch after punch after punch at ELCO throughout all 32 minutes, the Raiders could stand tall and proud by virtue of their 66-62 win over the Braves that kept the Raiders’ dreams of making a District 3 playoff appearance still well within the realm of possibility heading into their final game of the season at home against Donegal on Thursday evening back within the friendly confines with whether hyperbole or not, their season essentially being entirely dependent on a win against the Indians.  

Simply put, this was in every way, shape, and form the definition of a “team” win when it came to ELCO on Tuesday night. Quite literally, everyone who saw the floor brought contributions with them which isn’t always the case at this level. That said, while he may not always receive the notoriety and headlines of others found within the same conference by comparison, quietly becoming the school’s all-time assist man somehow seems fitting for ELCO senior point, Dallas George.

“When I’m with my dad, I watch a lot of basketball. College, NBA,” said the son of a coach, Northern Lebanon’s head coach to be exact, who seems to play the game with a keen knowledge and understanding as if he stepped right out of Central Casting. “I do like college more just because it’s more competitive. The guys are more into it and are more my age so I can better relate to it than the NBA,” George remarked while he too hopes for a collegiate career in his own right. “I do play video games just like every other kid, but when I’m with my dad it’s more basketball. Sometimes he does gets on me about turning it off and going outside though,” he admitted with humor when the old man wants him to step away from the console and work on his craft.  

Beyond that though, having such a keen eye for the game in having so intimately grown up around it helps George flash his remarkably high basketball IQ when it comes to serving as the Raiders’ maestro as he has done admirably over the last several years.

“I mean, I definitely feel like I’m smart on the court compared to like the average player,” said George when asked if he can innately feel the game perhaps come to himself easier than most others his age. “Just get it to the open dude. If you get it to the open guy, it forces the other guy to come close-out and it gets the other guy to post up. It’s just basic basketball to me,” he summed it. “If I get it to the open guy, it throws the whole defense off and gives us gaps to attack.”

As far his head coach was concerned however while still in the afterglow of Tuesday night’s victory, he rightly needed just a moment to finally exhale.

“Normally I’d have an opinion and a great answer for you, but I just thought the kids played so well,” ELCO head man Brad Conners said when asked to try and encapsulate his team’s victory that occurred no more than 10 minutes prior. “I mean, how about Logan Kless? Unsung hero. ‘Go guard #32 (Zach Kirk). Try not to let him catch it. When (Octorara) runs screens for him, hopefully your teammates let you know it’s coming,’” said Conners of the task asked of his tenacious 5’7 senior stalwart. “But that’s been the type of kid he’s been for us all year. He’s just the type of kid that says, ‘Coach, whatever you need, I’m here for you.’ That’s what he did tonight. Down the stretch, we made just enough plays to seal the deal.”

“It started to feel like down (at Octorara). A lot like down there,” Conners made mention in comparing his squad’s two meetings against the Braves this season where they got off to lightning-quick starts before seeing a furious Octorara charge follow suit in both instances. “We’ve done that a couple times this year where we have great starts and it just kind of fades. But you know Octorara is going to score and that they want to get up and down….It was the exact same scenario,” he would add. “Three-point lead, 15 seconds to go or whatever it was. It was the exact same scenario as it was down there. I was proud of our guys to make just enough plays to hang on to it.”

As far as those “plays” go, a majority of them were compiled because of the Raiders’ work defensively in negating any sort of Octorara bid that would get the Braves over the hill once and for all.

“The last, I don’t know, two games or so our offense has kind of sputtered now. But prior to that, we were starting to go. Teams that switch (defensively), that kind of bothers us,” Conners acknowledged. “If we can’t get downhill, and credit to (Octorara), they have great on-ball defenders. We had a hard time getting downhill tonight and creating an advantage. The east/west dribbles and handoffs, that wasn’t going to do it. So yeah, we needed the defense….We’ve been hammering defense from the start,” he would share. “We want to be the team that’s known for defense. We’ve had our moments, but I would agree that tonight was about defense and getting stops. It was hard stopping #1 (Jason Johnson) though. Lightning-quick, gets to the rim, hits jumpers, so it was a team effort.”

Oh yeah. Team spelled out in all capital letters, coach.

“Josiah Hayes hits those free throws late. Camden Marquette takes the charge. (Kody) Boyer draws two charges. Yeah, it was a team effort and that’s what it has to be with these guys,” said Conners. “We shortened up the rotation quite a bit tonight. Dallas (George) looked tired. I’d ask him throughout the second half, ‘You need one? Do you need one?’ You can just see it on his face as he’s coming over to me saying, ‘Nope. I’m good.’ At that point I’m just holding on like, ‘Okay, Dallas. Just a couple more minutes. A couple more minutes. Come get the ball. We want you to have the ball. They’re coming at you. Just take the pressure off,’” said Conners of his inner and outer monologue in hoping his floor general could keep himself out there in crunch time while having to navigate past the swarming Octorara troops.  

“Offensively, we relied on everybody tonight. Boyer had some big baskets in the third quarter. Good for him,” the Raiders’ 14th-year head man said in closing. “Micah (Gray) had a spinning bucket down the middle near the end which we needed at the time… But yeah, everyone was able to make a play tonight. That’s pretty neat. Pretty cool.”

And because of everyone’s contribution from top-to-bottom, ELCO as a team is rightly awarded with another shot when it comes to making sure that Thursday doesn’t have to be 2023-24’s final chapter.

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