For whatever the reason, the L-L League Boys’ Basketball tournament has always shown an uncanny knack for producing monumental semifinal games the last few years. In fact, it could very well be argued that some of these games featured head to head matchups that most would have considered to be the de-facto championship games as two prize fighters would enter the ring with only one surviving to play the weekend at Manheim Township in the finale.
Just try a couple of these on for size and see if they don’t spark up memories of yesteryear.
2008: Columbia takes their shot at the king of the hill as the Adam Pittman and Mike Seibert engineered Tide nearly pull off a miraculous comeback against the three-time defending league champs as darn near the entire town of Columbia was in the stands that night at L-S supporting their beloved Crimson Tide, seeing them simply run out of steam to future Pitt Panther and Atlanta Hawk Lamar Patterson alongside his Red Tornado ‘mates to help move McCaskey along into the finals where they would capture the league title later that weekend against Hempfield in the first ever Lancaster Lebanon League championship game contested at the brand-new Manheim Township Arena.
2013: Who could ever forget this one? They might still be trying to leave the traffic jam at Conestoga Valley now five years later. In the ultimate David vs Goliath matchup, the unbeaten Donegal Indians hurled their stone at the McCaskey juggernaut in a game which quite possibly remains the most anticipated game in the LL ever played over the last decade. On that wintry night in Witmer, Donegal fought tooth and nail the entire way, but was never able to capture the lead as McCaskey was pushed to the absolute limit before surviving and living to tell the tale, toppling Donegal by a 72-65 count before going on to defeat Cedar Crest to claim league gold with a 62-41 triumph over the Falcons just a few days later. It would be a game which would later serve as one of the driving forces behind the intense McCaskey/Cedar Crest rivalry that would take shape over the next few years to come.
2015: Hard to do much better than a game between perhaps the two greatest teams in each school’s history when Manheim Central and Cedar Crest got together to duke it out at Lebanon Valley College in a sold-out game between the Section 1 and Section 3 champions where fans without tickets were turned away almost immediately. Some of the names alone stand the test of time. Walsh, Funk, and Wiederrecht for the Barons. Horn, Eberhart, and Bucher for the Falcons. In a grind-it-out kinda game, Cedar Crest was the last one left standing after a 45-40 victory over the Barons, vaulting them into the final round against rival McCaskey where the Falcons would eventually reign supreme for the second straight year in the L-L, adding yet another chapter to an already sensational series that came to life back in 2013.
Hit the fast forward button to L-L Final Four night 2018 and history had a funny way of repeating itself once again when Hempfield and Lampeter-Strasburg squared off to determine who would earn the right to play defending champ Lancaster Catholic on Friday night in the title bout.
Why such an anticipated game that is deserving of being placed among that heralded list? How about why not?
During their 2017-18 campaigns, both the Black Knights and Pioneers were seen running roughshod over the competition in their respective neighborhoods of Section 1 and Section 2. All in all, both Hempfield and L-S came into Wednesday night’s blockbuster with a combined 25-3 mark in their sections during the regular season while boasting a simply staggering shared 42-4 overall record between them.
With such an impressive stretch of basketball being played between the two suburban schools over the span of the last two months, District 3 also had a way of rewarding both the Pioneers and Black Knights for a job well done, placing L-S on the #1 seed line in the upcoming 5A tournament while giving Hempfield the #2 distinction in the 6A field, trailing only the defending 6A state champion, Reading. So not only was this a monster inside the confines of Lancaster County, but other District 3 aficionados likely found their way to Millersville to check out these two sensational teams as both would continue to possess dreams of playing on the gorgeous Giant Center floor in just a couple of weeks, quite possibly for district gold no matter what the outcome on Wednesday night. And just in case you needed further validation as to just how remarkable those accomplishments are, 5A and 6A are the two ‘big boy’ brackets in District 3 where all the big name giants reside.
Add in the fact that two of the best players in the entire league in Ryan Smith of L-S and Ryan Moffatt of Hempfield would be going head to head against one another and you quickly had all the makings of an all-time classic set to combust in front of a raucous, jam-packed capacity crowd at Penn Manor with the Comets’ home floor serving as center stage.
Once the pomp and circumstance finally subsided giving way to the actual game at hand, the game could not have started out any better for L-S even if they were accomplished Hollywood directors trying to write a brilliant script.
It didn’t take the Pioneers long to find their main man as L-S used the tried and true formula of getting the ball into the mitts of their 6’10” towering senior big man Ryan Smith who able to deliver the goods by scoring inside to collect the first points of the ballgame creating a 2-0 L-S advantage with just 40 seconds gone by.
And although Hempfield’s Elijah Washington would counter back with a bank off the glass to tie things up at 2-2 just over the six minute mark, L-S proceeded to ride a run for the rest of the opening quarter. Or really to be more precise, a tidal wave.
His name is Isaac Beers and if Hempfield didn’t know his name before 7:30 on Wednesday night, rest assured they surely did over the course of the first quarter as Beers proved to be a one man wrecking crew, single-handedly knocking Hempfield back on their heels in this battle royale.
Doing it with a nice mix of his inside and outside repertoire, the 6’2” senior guard proceeded to go on a 9-0 run shortly after the Washington bank shot to catapult L-S into the lead at 11-2 at the 2:50 mark of the opening quarter.
But the Pios weren’t done there.
Wanting to get back into the fray, Ryan Smith was able to do that and then some as Smith was able to shake loose from his post defender, elevating into the thick, humid air inside the Penn Manor gym before finishing with a powerful two-handed jam which only poured salt into the Hempfield wound as the Pioneer lead grew to 13-2 before Beers stole the show once more with a cold-blooded trifecta as L-S had now taken the game over by storm, leading by a jaw-dropping 16-2 advantage once inside the one minute mark of the opening period.
From there, Beers continued to have the hot hand, pouring in yet another bomb from behind the arc as the Pioneers now led 19-2 which would happen to be the score would end after the first quarter of play as the Pioneers finished the quarter on a scintillating 17-0 run with Isaac Beers chipping in 15 to that effort.
Once the second quarter began it was more of the same for the Pioneers.
After a sweet dish from Peyton Denlinger to Zach Kingsley got things underway, the L-S lead had ballooned to 21-2 with Hempfield now staring at a monstrous hole.
But luckily for those that made the trek over from nearby Landisville, it just took the Black Knights a little while to warm to the fight.
Aided by David Martin Robinson jumper which finally stopped the L-S onslaught at 21-4 at the 6:45 mark of the second period, Hempfield was able to continue on their rally as the Black Knights began the second quarter with a resounding 9-2 response that was capped off by an Elijah Washington steal and lay in which made it a 23-11 L-S lead with 4:24 to go in the half, prompting L-S to burn a timeout.
Yet despite the fact that Hempfield was able to continue chipping away as evidenced by a David Martin Robinson jumper which cut the L-S lead down to ten at 23-13 at the three minute mark of the second stanza, the Pioneers fired right back with a 5-0 rebuttal of their own as an Isaac Beers triple kept Hempfield at bay with the score now sitting at 28-13, forcing Hempfield’s hand to call timeout with 2:08 to play in the opening half.
From there, Hempfield was able to score the next four points of the contest, fighting back valiantly to make a game of it at 28-17 as the two teams headed off into their respective dressing rooms for the halftime intermission.
New half. Same ole’ Isaac Beers.
After a pair of Ryan Moffatt free throws got the Black Knights within single figures at 28-19 at the onset of the second half, Mr. Beers had a thing or three to say about that as the Pioneers’ explosive senior guard stuck another 3 ball, vaulting L-S back over the ten point hill at 31-19 just one minute gone by the new half.
And although Hempfield would close back to within ten following yet another Ryan Moffatt bucket, a key offensive rebound that was collected by Zach Kingsley went on to culminate in a Ryan Smith lay in amongst the trees as the Pioneers went back up by a dozen at 33-21 midway through the third.
But Hempfield continued to keep plugging away, eating the elephant bite by bite.
After a steal and subsequent lay in was put home by Black Knight 6’1” senior guard Anthony Alston, Hempfield had trimmed the L-S down to a manageable eight, but not before another pair of Ryan Smith freebies cashed in at the charity stripe upped the Pioneers’ margin back into double digit territory at 35-25 with just one minute left to play in the third quarter.
Yet despite the fact that Hempfield was able to get back within eight following a gorgeous out of bounds play underneath which culminated in a Donovan Green lay in at the cup making it a 35-27 ballgame in favor of L-S, the Pioneers headed off into the final stanza in possession of the 35-27 lead with still only three Pioneers having entered the scoring column.
Sensing that it was now a do or die situation at hand, Hempfield was able to rally the troops and author an early fourth quarter salvo to make L-S experience some late-game playoff nerves in this developing instant classic.
It didn’t take long. All of 1:45 in fact for Hempfield to make their first move. Fueled by an acrobatic finish at the cup by Anthony Alston, the L-S had been cut down to just a half dozen at 37-31 with 6:15 left to play.
Shortly thereafter, the Pioneer cushion had been cut in half following a Ryan Moffatt steal and lay in which made it a 37-34 ballgame with L-S now on the ropes with 4:39 left to go.
But with their backs up against the wall and Hempfield charging full steam ahead, the underlying “team” dynamic that encompasses this L-S outfit showed itself in spades as a gigantic corner triple drilled by 6’1” junior guard Zach Kingsley kept the Black Knights at arm’s length at 40-34 with now four minutes left to tick off the clock.
But someone forgot to give Hempfield the memo about closing up shop and calling it a night.
Instead, the Black Knights continued to punch right back as a magnificent dipsy-do lay in at the cup put in by Elijah Washington made it 40-36 L-S lead before a strong take to the rim by David Martin Robinson made it a two point affair with L-S continuing to hang on at 40-38 with 2:40 left to play. But the situation only continued to grow more adverse for L-S after that as a highlight reel no-look laser through traffic from Elijah Washington found it’s way into the hands of Adam Wernoch as the 6’ junior guard finished with a reverse Mikan to cut the L-S advantage down to the slimmest of margins at 41-40.
Still to that point in the game, only three L-S players had their names appear in the scoring column. Luckily for the Pioneers, their fourth would arrive in dramatic fashion as Seth Beers drove to the rack for an enormous bucket to make it a 43-40 L-S lead with just 1:17 left to go and Hempfield coming at L-S full-bore.
From there, Hempfield would come back with an offensive trip that would end in free throws as Ryan Moffatt calmly knocked down a pair of freebies to cut the L-S lead back down to one at 43-42 with 45 ticks left to melt away.
But even though Hempfield tried to squeeze everything they could out of L-S in hopes of breaking them, the Pioneers held steady, finding yet another answer in the face of danger as a beautiful dime inside to Ryan Smith courtesy of Seth Beers put the Pioneers back up by three at 45-42 inside the final minute.
With Hempfield needing to offer some sort of a response and quickly, the Black Knight faithful would unfortunately see their team come away with an empty possession on the ensuing offensive trip. With Hempfield needing to foul to extend the game, Zach Kingsley went back to the stripe where he would be able to split the pair as the Pioneers were able to extend their lead to 46-42 with just over 10 seconds left to play.
However that would prove to be more than enough time for Ryan Moffatt to come right down the floor and sink a key triple, slicing the L-S advantage down to 46-45 with 4 seconds left to play as Hempfield called timeout. The only hang up to those plans was the fact that the Black Knights had already exhausted all of them, Thus, Hempfield was whistled for a technical as a result, giving L-S foul shots plus possession with just 4 seconds left to go.
From there, Isaac Beers proceeded to knock down a pivotal free throw on the exchange, extending the Pioneer lead to 47-45 with Hempfield having time for one last prayer following a turnover on the ensuing inbounds pass.
But the Black Knights’ desires to end the game in walk-off fashion went by the wayside as the last second halfcourt heave ricocheted off the top of the backboard, sending L-S into their first L-L championship game by virtue of their unforgettable 47-45 triumph over Hempfield on Wednesday night.
As mentioned Friday night marks an unprecedented opportunity in the annals of the L-S Boys’ Basketball program. The goal of being crowned the undisputed county champion. And while it’s clear that L-S began the year with that vision in mind, L-S head coach Ed Berryman was quick to point out that this group has truly taken that goal to heart in hopes of turning a dream into reality.
“Oh absolutely,” Berryman echoed after the game. “Even after we won the section and we won our first game against Mennonite, their attitude was that we haven’t done anything yet,” the Pioneer head man stated regarding his team’s mental makeup heading into the rest of the L-L tournament week. “This was a goal for us and they’re mature enough to set that goal and they’re excited about it.”
NEXT UP: It all comes down to this. The Friday night final. Lancaster Catholic in one corner. L-S in the other. Yet ironically, this was a game that was already contested earlier this year albeit back in the very beginning of the season. A time which may as well be considered ancient history in relation to the whirlwind of a season that is high school basketball.
Even still, Coach Berryman and his troops remember that game fondly and certainly hope to replicate some of the same successes that they enjoyed in a 53-41 victory over Catholic way back on December 12th.
“It’s come full circle,” the Pioneer boss said of the impending Friday night affair. “Our first game of the year was against Catholic and now we’re playing them in the league championship,” Berryman said beaming. “Any time you play Catholic you know it’s going to be a tough game. They have a great program but we’ll give them all we have.”
While the dream of playing for league gold was left unfulfilled following their setback to L-S on Wednesday night, Hempfield will go back to the lab to tinker, fine-tune and quite simply regroup in order to learn from their game against the Pioneers as the Black Knights prepare to ship off to the always-loaded District 3 6A field. And once the Black Knights get there, they will square off with either Wilson or Carlisle at home in Landisville next Friday night with the right to move on to Hershey to play in the Giant Center against a Mid Penn foe yet to be determined.
If anything, Hempfield will hope that history repeats itself, looking to rekindle some of that same magic that they were to use last year after coming up shy in the L-L semifinal round as the Black Knights proceeded to roar back with a vengeance by advancing all the way to the District final before moving on to states where they would come up short in the Elite Eight round against Archbishop Ryan hailing from the behemoth super conference known as the Philadelphia Catholic League. It won’t be an easy chore but if anyone would be up to the task, you’d have to think it would be this battle-tested group of Black Knights who refuse to back down from any challenge thrown at them.