Lancaster Catholic and postseason basketball. In many ways, the two pair together as nicely as even the most killer of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. And this year too has proved to be no exception to the norm.
If you live on the eastern side of the state, chances are that you really don’t need a history lesson here on the long-standing success put together by the program from Lancaster City. Fair enough. But even with their perfect 35-0 state championship season in 2003, handfuls of District 3 title game appearances, and countless league playoff berths pushed to the side for just a moment, it would only be appropriate to recognize this group of Crusaders for all that they have accomplished thus far this year to rightfully place their names right alongside some of their more illustrious brethren who have worn the purple and gold before them.
But it hasn’t been easy mind you. Beset by key injuries along the way, the Crusaders were able to weather the storm by reassigning roles and finding key contributions from others when the chips were down, truly defining one of the key characteristics comprised of any Lancaster Catholic team throughout the course of history. For their efforts, the Crusaders were able to secure yet another L-L Section title, erase a 15-point first quarter deficit on the road 50 miles away at Littlestown in their first game of the District 3-4A tournament before advancing all the way to the title game, before finally earning a spot into the state playoff field once again in 2018-19 once the dust had finally settled. And after an emphatic 63-45 beatdown of Northwestern Lehigh on the opening night of state play on Friday night, the Crusaders found themselves moving on to the second round of the prestigious state tournament.
Speaking on the topic of things not coming easy, their second-round opponent on Tuesday night at the historic Geigle Complex at Reading High School would serve as the definition of anything but.
When you’re talking about the best conferences in the Pennsylvania, there is arguably none better than the Philadelphia Catholic League. Each and every season, it inevitably seems that scores of teams from the famed conference of superpowers often find their way to Hershey throughout the various levels of the newfound classification system for the opportunity to bring back state gold to the City of Brotherly Love. But even if they don’t ultimately make it there, seeing a Catholic League opponent on your upcoming bracket line prior to arriving in Chocolatetown can understandably make even the most mentally-strong of squads pause with hesitation. Now, whether or not frivolous things such as that truly was the case for Lancaster Catholic or not on Tuesday evening, the Crusaders did find themselves lining up against a Catholic League foe when they went toe-to-toe with Archbishop Carroll, and a Patriots program that had knocked off last season’s L-L League champion, Lampeter-Strasburg, in the same exact same round of the PIAA-5A playoffs nearly 365 days ago.
In the early going on Tuesday evening, it was hard to find much in terms of separation conjured up between the Crusaders and Patriots. Never more was that evident than with Archbishop Carroll jumping out to an ultra-quick 4-0 lead, only to ultimately relinquish it shortly thereafter following a smooth and fearless Justin Baker spot-up jumper for Lancaster Catholic, as the 6’3 senior knotted things up at 4-4 with 5:20 left to play in the first.
But once distance was ultimately created by either side, it would ultimately be the Patriots who would be the ones leading the cavalry.
With the two combatants trading body blows with one another throughout the first few minutes of action, Archbishop Carroll, well Padraig Casey to be more exact, started to heat up, as the 6’2 senior guard promptly rattled in back-to-back triples in successive fashion which opened things up at 10-4 in favor of the Patriots with 3:31 remaining in the opening period as the Crusaders were forced to call timeout and unplug the current Carroll salvo.
Unfortunately for the purple-clad Crusaders, Archbishop Carroll only continued to exacerbate the matter as a 2-2 trip to the charity stripe from 6’3 junior guard Ny’Mire Little allowed the Patriots to have their lead flirt with double-digits at 14-5 heading into the second stanza.
In many ways, it appeared that the Lancaster Catholic troops were in grave danger for the rest of the evening considering how easy things had seemed for Archbishop Carroll on their opening possession of the quarter as a Little layup in transition gave the Patriots their largest lead of the young evening at 16-5.
So, with a quick and immediate answer of the upmost importance for Lancaster Catholic, the Crusaders responded with a gritty, hard-nosed effort that epitomized this year’s bunch.
Shortly after spotting Archbishop Carroll the 11-point cushion at the outset of the second quarter, back-to-back buckets from point-blank range put home by 6’5 junior big man Trey Wells and 6’6 junior wing David Kamwanga respectively had allowed the Crusaders to get back within shouting distance at 16-9 in the face of the Patriots’ swing. From there however, the Crusaders kept surging forward as a 2-2 trip to the line from Kamwanga and a kiss off the glass from Justin Baker allowed the Crusaders to come roaring right back into the thick of things, slicing the Archbishop Carroll lead down to a modest three points at 20-17 with roughly half the quarter left to play.
Over the course of the ensuing few minutes however, the Patriots would stop the Crusaders right in their tracks.
Ignited by a powerful and bruising bucket inside thanks to the yeoman’s work effort of 6’7 junior forward Tairi Ketner that was quickly paired with a Ny’Mire Little bucket in transition, and suddenly the Patriots had mounted a fast and furious 5-0 blitz to knock the Crusaders back on their heels with 2:46 left before halftime as Carroll jumped back in front, 25-17. From there, the hill only continued to grow steeper for Lancaster Catholic to climb as the first half trudged along as a 3-ball sunk by Ny’Mire Little at the 1:45 mark allowed the Patriots to sprint off into the intermission with their lead standing at 34-23 once the opening half drew to a close.
But just as they had been able to do for a majority of the second period, Lancaster Catholic continued to mount up and come charging right back in the face of the Patriots to get the third quarter fireworks underway.
While being held to just two points throughout the opening 16 minutes of action on Tuesday night, Johnny Besecker, arguably the most lethal sharpshooter that the Lancaster-Lebanon League has to offer, immediately sprayed back-to-back trifectas in the opening minutes of the third quarter to get the Crusaders back within a half dozen once again at 37-31, with Archbishop Carroll now being forced to call a timeout in order to quell the Lancaster Catholic avalanche of momentum.
In the immediate aftermath however, the Patriots timeout did nothing to slow down Besecker at least, as the Crusaders’ sensational 5’11 senior guard followed up his three-point shooting barrage with a fearless take to the rack, cutting the Carroll lead back down to four at 37-33.
However, much in the same vein that they too were able to follow the same script that had played out in the second quarter, Archbishop Carroll proceeded to take off with a full head of steam and author a back-breaking run as a 3-ball dialed up from 6’4 senior forward Cole Burkitt propelled the Patriots out to a nine-point advantage before a finish by way of 6’4 senior guard Luke House would follow suit, allowing Carroll to see their lead balloon back up to double figures at 48-37 with the quarter now past its halfway point.
Needless to say, it became imperative that Lancaster Catholic offer something up in terms of slowing down the Archbishop Carroll charge if the Crusaders had any desires of making the Patriots sweat it out heading down the homeward stretch. Over the course of the few minutes though, Archbishop Carroll continued to reign supreme over their opposition.
After a Ny’Mire Little bucket in transition, the Crusaders had no choice but to burn a timeout with their deficit now a baker’s dozen at 50-37 with 2:21 left in the third. Speaking of Little for just a moment, if you feel that you have consistently been seeing his name mentioned throughout, it is surely is no misprint. On the evening, the Patriots’ floor general helped command the Archbishop Carroll effort all night long by tossing in 19 points to aid the Archbishop Carroll cause.
From there however, the Crusaders’ open wound only continued to be gashed in the closing minutes of the third quarter as yet another physically-imposing at the cup thanks to the efforts of Tairi Ketner had allowed Carroll to head off into the final quarter in possession of the commanding 58-40 advantage. Speaking of commanding, Ketner was certainly that and then some for Archbishop Carroll throughout the contest in the low-post as the 6’7 junior forward paced the Patriots’ effort with a game-high 22-point outburst.
Once the fourth quarter got underway, it had largely appeared that Archbishop Carroll would end up having their way with the Crusaders heading down the final furlong as evidenced by a sweet dish from 6’2 senior point guard Kiyl Mack to a willing and able Cole Burkitt underneath the bucket, as the senior duo hooked up to put the Patriots in front at 62-44 with 4:30 left to play.
Yet to their credit, Lancaster Catholic wouldn’t make it a leisurely stroll through the park in the final minutes for Archbishop Carroll.
By and large, it was evident that if the Crusaders were going to make a charge, any sort of charge for that matter, an energy play was likely to be the key catalyst in giving Lancaster Catholic some much-needed mojo.
World, say hello to David Kamwanga.
With his team struggling to find much in the way of excitement given their current deficit and time winding down against them, the Crusaders’ multi-faceted long and rangy forward threw caution to the wind by proceeding to take off through the lane and throwing down a monstrous and downright angry one-handed flush which got the Crusaders’ contingent back up off their feet.
And while sparked by his teammate’s rim-rattling dunk, senior forward Dwayne Caine picked up right where Kamwanga had left off by splashing in consecutive 3-balls to narrow the Patriots’ lead down to 10 at 69-59 with 1:35 left to play.
Unfortunately for those that had traveled northward on Route 222 with a strong rooting interest to see the Crusaders return home with a win on Tuesday evening and date in the Elite Eight in the 4A field this upcoming Friday night, that would prove to be the last serious threat that Lancaster Catholic would be able to muster heading down the stretch as successful 2-2 trips to the foul line from Kiyl Mack and Luke House respectively would help Archbishop Carroll close things out with a second-round defeat of Lancaster Catholic, 74-62.
“Making the state tournament is always a goal,” Lancaster Catholic head coach Joe Klazas said following his team’s exit just mere minutes before. “Winning and advancing is obviously a big goal,” he added. “To get here to the Sweet Sixteen is an accomplishment. I just wish we could have played a little better early.”
“That’s certainly a very tough team to prepare for,” said Klazas echoing the talent of Archbishop Carroll. “I know I should have done a better job of trying to simulate more pressure and a little bit more physicality. It’s hard to simulate a lot of their stuff,” he remarked. “We made that little run to get there, but part of playing a team of that caliber is that they have so many weapons and so many different options. Their athleticism can be a little intimidating, but I was really proud of how we battled. I just wish that same intensity was there in the first 16 minutes.”
“Obviously we always want to win every game,” the 14th-year Lancaster Catholic head man said summing up his initial thoughts on the year that was. “We went through some adversity. There were certainly some games we felt like we could have won and there was a couple we won that maybe we shouldn’t have. You get that.”
“It’s tough,” Klazas continued. “I never want to say that we exceeded expectations. I thought early that we could have been pretty successful, but again, you go through some ups and downs. As a coach, you run into different situations that you assume kids have a better understanding of things. Again, probably not enough stuff that I’ve done in the offseason or teaching-wise that didn’t give them a better understanding of some things,” he offered candidly.
“I look at our stats,” said Klazas. “This is a team that I didn’t think would be a great defensive team, but when you look at the points we allowed per game, it was actually lower this year than it’s been the last three or four years. So that was a surprising thing. I would’ve liked us to do a better job of getting some easy baskets. That’s with execution.”
And as far as the departing senior class set to head out the door? Rest assured that they hold a special place in Klazas’ heart for all their contributions to the historic program that resides on Juliette Avenue.
“The senior class is great,” he said proudly. “I remember Johnny (Besecker) coming to open gym in 7th grade. He had a lot of desire to want to be on the floor and he worked really hard. He gave us great minutes for the two and a half years he was on the varsity.”
“Dwayne Caine really, really developed. He came in as a quiet individual, but he wants to compete at the next level. He had that in the back of his mind and that was a goal of his. He accomplished that. He’s going to go play at the D-3 level.”
“Andy Santiago,” Klazas said continuing to list his invaluable components that made up this year’s squad. “A kid that was cut as a freshman. I’ll never forget when decided to keep him as a JV player and he gave me a bear hug that I think might’ve broken three of my ribs,” said Klazas with a chuckle. “He was a great leader. He’s fearless and I’m just so proud of him.”
“JB (Justin Baker), he’s another one. He was just a tremendous off-the-court leader. He organized with getting guys onto the floor. He’s just an incredible defensive player.”
“These four kids,” the Crusaders’ boss said in closing, “They just did a great job of committing to get better. They’re first class. I just loved having them be a part of this program.”