Historic Cocalico Postseason Run Ends In Heart-Wrenching Fashion As Eagles Fall In Final Seconds To Lower Dauphin In District 3-5A Title Game
Written by: Andy Herr on Friday, March 12th, 2021
Typically, when we think of the month of March, we generally think of two things. Ironically, they just so happen to go hand in hand. First and foremost, we think of the game of basketball. After all, “March Madness” is a phrase that has become so popular that it has worked its way into the vernacular of nearly facet of society, even those who have no rooting or spectating interest in game of roundball whatsoever. Secondly, although we barely hear her name uttered for nearly the 11 other months during the year, March has somehow morphed itself into a four-week period where we pay homage to Cinderella. In short, if the princess is still in the business of collecting royalty checks for each time her name is said aloud, rest assured she could easily pay to have her pumpkin carriage retrofitted into a limousine thanks to sports fans in the month of March alone, but we digress. Anyway, in this instance of course, “Cinderella’s” are the teams that are looked over, thought to be immediate outs, longshots, insert any other adjective of the like for your personal choosing, but they inevitably become the feel-good stories as the massive, initial brackets shrink bit by bit. This year, the Lancaster-Lebanon League also just so happened to have its own Cinderella left dancing well into the District 3-5A playoffs.
In some ways though, labeling the 2020-21 Cocalico Eagles Boys’ Basketball team as an unexpected darling is a bit of an overreach. Granted, while the Eagles entered the D3-5A tournament with ownership of the #5 seed, it’s not as if success on the hardwood in Denver was unforeseen this season. In fact, considered by some to be the preseason favorite in the L-L Section 3 ranks coming into the year, the Eagles would make good on that accomplishment –with plenty of twists and turns along the way mind, not all of which were of their own accord—locking up the division title and the only bid into the league playoffs given the 50% decrease in entries into the field due to various outside factors. Then, after bowing out to eventual league champion Lebanon in the semifinal round, that’s where things got even more nutty for the Eagles.
Thanks to you know, the global pandemic and all, the District 3 tournament in 2021 was already going to be unlike any of its previous predecessors. First and foremost being of course that champions only would move on into the PIAA bracket. In terms of the 5A world, this move shifted the tectonic plates. Being without question the largest classification that District 3 has to offer, the 16-team bracket always had a loser’s bracket contained within it. To gain entry into that, teams could even lose their first game of the district tournament so long as you didn’t slip up the rest of the rest of the way of course. Needless to say, eliminating what are normally nine tickets into the state playoffs down to just one was quite a seismic shift which left literally no one with any margin for error. Another sign of times? Any team that could not play due to COVID-19 would then be forced to forfeit.
Speaking on that last point, things already became memorable for Cocalico before they even stepped on the floor. Originally scheduled to play West York in the opening round, the Eagles got the automatic pass into the quarterfinal round right out of the chute due to the Bulldogs being forced to shut things down due to the virus. When they did get out on the court though, Cocalico quickly made up for lost time.
To put mildly, the Eagles would probably not be fans of the Mona Lisa. In fact, if they prefer any art at all, it probably be more of the abstract variety. In some ways though, that’s what makes the Eagles a thing of beauty. You see, Cocalico knows their identity. No matter who their opponent on any given night, the Eagles want to muddy the game up so much for the opposition by using a suffocating defense coupled with a prolonged offensive attack that the first team to 50, possibly 40-45 in some instances, will end up being the eventual victor. Using that same tried and true gameplan, Cocalico was able to upend #4 Hershey on the Trojans’ home floor in a 39-36 slugfest before following that up with a heart-stopping win in the semifinal round the next time out at home against York Suburban, thanks to a last-second Trey Rios 3-ball at the final horn to prevail 43-40, vaulting the Eagles into the championship round where they drew #2 Lower Dauphin on Thursday night in Hummelstown. Suffice to say, there was little mystery as to what Cocalico’s plan of attack would be against the Mid-Penn’s Falcons. In that regard, the piece that the Eagles painted in Thursday night’s title fight was genius. Unfortunately, it was just a few strokes short of being immaculate.
For a Cocalico plan of attack coming into the evening that was dressed in as much subtlety as a 2×4 to the head, Lower Dauphin appeared to have the same methodology in the early going on the offensive end.
Having the immense size advantage inside thanks to Cocalico’s 6’8 junior forward, Augie Gerhart, starting off on the bench, the Falcons made little bones about how they wanted to play, perhaps best evidenced in a big way both literally and figuratively. With Lower Dauphin using the imposing frame possessed by senior center, Caleb Gibbs, the Falcons roared out of the gates en route to a 9-0 lead with Gibbs tallying all nine before a Carter Nuneville take to the cup on the Eagles’ ensuing offensive possession finally got the visitors on the board, albeit with 3:15 left to play in the opening frame. From there, Lower Dauphin was able to compound the issue, eventually putting the Eagles down by double figures at 13-2 following a magnificent spin move at the rack by Tyson Hofsass before the first quarter clock ran out with the Falcons’ lead holding firm at 13-4.
Thankfully, as far the guests were most concerned, Cocalico finally started to find their footing in the second stanza.
Most assuredly ignited by an Augie Gerhart dunk in the opening few minutes of the second, the Eagles raced back to within shouting distance at 13-8 following a hoop plus the harm inside, again all thanks to Gerhart. Then, for as much damage as Lower Dauphin appeared to inflict on the Eagles throughout the entirety of the opening eight minutes, that all appeared to be washed away following a timely Trey Rios trifecta at the 2:27 mark of the second, making it a 13-11 contest in favor of the hosts. As it turned out, that’s exactly where things remained once the two teams retired to their respective dressing rooms for the intermission with the Falcons maintaining that two-point bulge. Speaking of Rios though, the Eagles’ 5’11 junior guard was the star that shone brightest for Cocalico on a night was scoring was at a premium to say the least given his team-high 10-point outing to help lead the charge.
So, with their defensive-minded attack already appearing to be on steroids given that Cocalico had been able to hold one of the Mid-Penn’s best outfits to just a baker’s dozen on their home floor in the opening 16 minutes, including blanking Lower Dauphin to zero throughout the entirety of the second frame, surely the Eagles couldn’t maintain that same posture the rest of the way, right? Um, no. That would be false.
With their gnarly defensive intensity acting as the entrée of the night all game long, Cocalico was finally able to get back on level-footing near the midway point of the third thanks to a fearless drive to the tin by Rios, making it a 15-15 slobber-knocker with 5:20 still left to go. Finally, and not a moment too soon as far the Falcons were concerned, a much-needed Caleb Gibbs bucket from point-blank range gave the lead right back to Lower Dauphin at 17-15 nearly four minutes later. Ironically, 17-15 would remain the score as the final 1:30 eventually melted away off the third quarter clock.
The fourth quarter? Why that’s Trey Rios’ time to shine of course.
With their offense bogged down in the mud and the game still well up for grabs, the Eagles’ diminutive guard wisely chased down the offensive rebound following a missed Cocalico shot before earning himself a put-back inside, knotting the affair up at 17-17 with 5:41 left to go.
But he wasn’t done there.
After seeing Gibbs split the pair on a batch of earlier free throws just moments prior on Lower Dauphin’s side, Rios proceeded to fire in what was an enormous triple, thus putting Cocalico back in front at 20-18 with nearly two minutes left in regulation.
From that point on however, both teams took their turns answering back with one another.
Following the Rios 3-ball, Lower Dauphin came right down the floor and promptly answered with one of their own, this one thanks to the Falcons’ courageous freshman, Charlie Fortney, as Fortney’s triple gave the slim lead right back to LD. Then, needing to score, Cocalico found their cut man in Brycen Flinton as the 5’11 junior guard came right down the floor on the Eagles’ next offensive trip and finished things off with a man-sized take to the hole, handing the advantage right back to the guests at 22-21 with time starting to wind down, but the intensity picking up ten-fold.
Then, on the next Lower Dauphin offensive trip, Cocalico could not have asked for anything more as the Falcons came up empty-handed, giving the ball right back to the Eagles with the opportunity to inflict even more, perhaps lethal damage to their adversary. However, that would not come to pass as a stifling dose of Lower Dauphin defense was far too frantic for the Eagles to handle as evidenced by their untimely turnover, handing the ball right back to the Falcons with the game now inside of a minute left to play.
So, it all came down to this. Do or die. Win or go home. Oh yeah, a sought-after District 3 title hanging in the balance as well.
After trying to get something set up against the Eagles’ perplexing amoeba-like defense, the Falcons called a timeout to reset things and draw up one final try with just 26.2 seconds remaining. And while Cocalico’s defensive effort was stout throughout on Thursday night except for perhaps the initial few minutes of the contest, the Eagles didn’t close out on a shooter quite fast enough as Tyson Hofsass was left alone at the extended elbow for a just a moment too soon as the Falcons’ senior sniper fired in the biggest shot of the entire season, vaulting the Falcons out in front, 24-22, with just eight seconds left. Then, following Hofsass’ gargantuan shot, Cocalico opted to play things out while passing on their final timeout. Unfortunately, as far as those who had traveled west from Denver were most concerned, while the Eagles’ last-second was a good look, the orange leather cruelly bounced off the front rim, leading to a hometown court-storming that coincided with Lower Dauphin’s District 3-5A title, a victory which gives the Falcons homecourt advantage until the state finals are played literally just up the road at Hershey’s Giant Center.
As expected, the gravity of just how close the Eagles came became evident in the immediate moments after the final buzzer sounded. While tears were shed and players were seen doubled over after exhausting every last ounce of effort they had in their collective tanks, it was apparent that the gut-punch effects of this one would take some time to heal for those residing in the Eagles’ camp.
“In the moment, it’s a frustrating situation that we didn’t get out on (Hofsass). That’s their best three-point shooter and we knew that. We just didn’t get out on him on that one possession and he just knocked it down,” Cocalico head coach Seth Sigman said while taking time to pack his silver medal inside his backpack prior to leaving Lower Dauphin on Thursday night outside this team’s locker room. “It’s a frustrating situation, but when you look big picture, we held (Lower Dauphin) to 24 points. That’s what we’ve done all season. We try to make it ugly and try to score enough. Tonight, we made it ugly, but we didn’t score enough,” Sigman then said with a bit of a light-hearted touch to bring some levity to the situation. “Our effort was amazing. Our guys played their butts off just like they always do. That’s never going to be a question for us. For us, it’s more the X’s and O’s, like do we execute? Do we make shots? We missed several layups in the second half and in a 20-point game, that all adds up and it kills you.”
Granted, while falling just shy of securing the program’s first District 3 title since 1977–the year in which they last won a state championship– was hurtful enough, the elephant in the room that made Thursday night’s setback even more painful was that the winner –in this case Lower Dauphin—would suddenly find themselves in the state quarterfinal round while also having the homecourt advantage for the first two games of the PIAA tournament before the state finals. That, perhaps more than anything else, is what makes this defeat extremely hard to stomach.
“Obviously you want to get here,” Sigman said of reaching the District 3 finals. “In a normal year, we would have already qualified for states. This year, you had to go the whole way in districts to get it done. At the beginning of the season, it was one of our goals. Win the section championship, win a district title, make a run in states. That was all stuff that we talked about. Other people probably outside of our locker room thought that was crazy, but we don’t care. We don’t care if the game is ugly, we don’t care if the game is pretty, we don’t care. (His Cocalico players) all play together. They all play for each other and everyone is unselfish. That’s the building blocks for the program. Being unselfish and doing whatever it takes to win. The foundation is set that way.”
“We talked with them to enjoy this moment because you may never get this moment ever again,” said Sigman of what he implored on his troops. “We as a program, me as a coach, them as players, it’s rare. It’s not common to get to the district final, you know? We haven’t been in a final since 1983, so it’s frustrating. It’s frustrating knowing that we could’ve been hosting a state playoff game. We’ll give ourselves some time before we try to analyze everything, but you’re aware of the situation. I’m crouched down there watching us play defense and I’m thinking, ‘I think Lower Dauphin has only hit one 3 in the second half. Let’s get a stop here and we’re going to the state playoffs.’ It just didn’t work out. It stings. It stings pretty bad right now.”
“It’s just been such a fun year,” Sigman said in closing. “They’re awesome kids and really good people who come from great families. It’s just a joy to coach them. They listen, they do what we ask, they’re an awesome group. It’s sad to lose the seniors that we’re losing because they’re great people. They know we love them. Regardless of what happened, win or lose, it doesn’t change how we feel about them. We’ll still love them 15 years from now. We said, ‘We know it hurts right now. It’s really painful right now, but give it a little time and you’ll be able to look back on it with a little perspective to know this was a good run we went on.’ We won a lot of games, did a lot of things people didn’t think we could do. We just didn’t quite finish the job. That’s just what happens sometimes.”
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