Lancaster Catholic Serves Notice As Crusaders Refuse To Yield, Come Away With Crucial Road Win At Manheim Central

Written by: on Saturday, January 22nd, 2022

 

At this time a year ago, much of the discussion around the Lancaster Catholic Crusaders’ program was centered around how high the ceiling could possibly be for arguably one of the Lancaster-Lebanon League’s most successful and well-known brands. Well, sure enough, that proverbial ceiling proved to be quite high for Lancaster Catholic last season considering the Crusaders’ Section Four championship, District 3-3A championship, all of which were tallied before a state quarterfinal round loss to Math, Civics, and Sciences on a half-court buzzer at the hands of Nisine Poplar, currently receiving a free college education to play basketball for the Miami Hurricanes. This year though, as is the case with most every team that graduates the type of talent seen in Devin Atkinson, Ross Conway and Nevin Roman to name just a few, this season has proven to be remarkably different in terms of the overall narrative for this group of Crusaders.

Simply put, for a program that has grown accustomed to nothing but winning basketball, it is admittedly rather odd to look at the standings heading into the final stretch of the regular season and seeing the Crusaders a small handful of games below .500 overall with January starting to wind down. That said, for a program whose culture is so engrained with nothing but success, those types of intangibles don’t just suddenly up and leave you. In fact, many of those same hard-earned lessons have likely come in handy considering the Crusaders’ most recent stretch of contests here lately.

Since essentially the start of January onward, Lancaster Catholic has slowly but surely started to turn the page past a pesky December by appearing on the correct side of the win/loss ledger more often than not. But hey, would it really be Lancaster Catholic if the games weren’t decided in the most thrilling, nay excruciating, of ways possible? I mean, for a program that has essentially been able to trademark the term, “Cardiac Crusaders,” is it really that much of a surprise to notice that the largest margin of difference between either themselves or their opponents this month save for a game against York Catholic has been decided by no more than six points? Oh yes, for added flair, consider the fact that 1/3rd of the Crusaders’ games in the month have wound up going into overtime as well. In terms of eventual outcomes though however, Catholic had been able to prevail in both of those extra-time games against Donegal and Solanco respectively. Yep, try as they might, there just doesn’t appear to be anything but an easy night at the office for Lancaster Catholic yet again this season. But when you find yourself possibly righting the ship with your season already starting to teeter on the verge, cosmetics probably really don’t matter all that much.

Ironically, the Crusaders’ opponent on Friday night has indeed made a habit of making cosmetically-sound basketball their own calling card of late.

Coming into this week, arguably no other L-L League team except for Lampeter-Strasburg and/or Columbia had been hotter than Manheim Central.  After starting off the campaign at 0-2 following losses to Warwick and the aforementioned Pioneers, the Barons proceeded to go on a tear by winning their next 10-consecutive outings before stubbing their toe in their most recent affair on Tuesday night against Donegal, a 49-30 final verdict that was never really in doubt right from the opening jump. Yet amidst that double digit winning streak that was snapped by the Indians earlier this week, the Barons’ had been able to exert their will over their opponents by and large inside that sizzling stretch considering the 13-point average margin of victory in those 10 triumphs alone. However, the key for Central heading into the evening was not to let the loss against Donegal possibly bleed its way over into their Friday night hosting duties once the Crusaders rolled into town.

And in a game that would prove to be rather seismic in terms of both the L-L Section Three and Section Four standings given that this was a crossover matchup with league tournament berths still remaining well up for grabs, the stakes heading into this particular matchup could not have been any more overstated. In the end though, as Manheim Central was about to find out, stopping those Cardiac Crusaders is a chore more often easier said than done.

Right from the start, things couldn’t have started off much better for the visitors from Lancaster city. In fact, after kicking the contest off with a 4-0 lead following a take to the tin by way of Lancaster Catholic senior guard, Jack Engle, the Crusaders’ lead would later swell to a half-dozen thanks to a runout layup in transition from another senior guard, Nahjeir “Bam” Aikens, roughly one minute and some change later which quickly made it a 6-0 Crusaders’ advantage with 4:30 left to play in the opening period with Central looking all out of sorts.

But alas as far as the Crusaders were concerned, there would be no shutout of the Barons for the remainder of the first frame.

No, not if Judd Novak had anything to say about it as the Manheim Central senior point guard was able to collect a steal and layup, good for the Barons’ first field goal of the evening, as the Novak pilfer and finish trimmed the Catholic lead down to a pair at 6-4 with the first quarter already going past its halfway mark. Later, while they had largely been able to keep the Barons’ most volatile of weapons, Trey Grube, under wraps for a majority of the opening period proceedings, the Manheim Central junior marksman worked himself free from the Crusaders’ clutches as his smooth pullup jumper sliced the Catholic cushion down to the slimmest of margins at 10-9 with the quarter rapidly winding down.

However, for a first quarter that was defined by what felt like nothing but up-and -own, transition-like play, the Crusaders would be the ones to author the final charge of the stanza as a spinning move by way of Catholic senior guard, Mason Moore, on the heels of the Grube bucket served as the catalyst for the 6-2 Catholic sprint the rest of the way as the guests went into the second quarter with ownership of the 16-11 lead from there.

Yet speaking of Grube, he would yet again get loose and prove lethal to Lancaster Catholic’s wishes of keeping him from inflicting any great amount of damage upon them.  

Case in point, a pair of back-breaking triples sunk by the diminutive shooter with almost margin of daylight between himself and the defender that gave Manheim Central their initial lead of the evening, 21-19, as the Barons had successfully erased the six-point Catholic lead that was seen at the onset of the quarter. Then, the Central lead only kept getting built up from there seeing as how a put-back off an offensive rebound from senior forward, Logan Hostetter, put the Barons up 23-19 on the next trip down the floor following the latest Grube trifecta.

But just as they had been able to do over the final stretch of the first quarter, Lancaster Catholic would yet again have the final say as far as the second frame was concerned as well.

Despite allowing the Barons to enjoy their largest lead of the evening at that point in time, the Crusaders would then promptly respond with a Raaker Smith take to the cup which cut the Central lead in half at 25-23, all before a pair of Aikens freebies at the charity stripe inside the final minute of the second quarter helped send both teams into their respective dressing rooms with nothing having been decided whatsoever given the 25-25 stalemate at the game’s intermission.

At the start of the third, it had appeared as if Manheim Central had finally been able to figure out what had ailed them inside the halftime recess. For proof of that, look to Judd Novak’s trifecta to start the second half off, making it a 28-25 Barons’ lead, good for three more en route to the senior’s 15-point evening.

The thing was though, that Manheim Central momentum would prove to be very short-lived.

After surrendering the Novak long-ball, the Crusaders would counter back with a 4-0 spurt of their own that was capped off by an easy bucket tallied by Mason Moore who had worked himself free from behind the backline of the Manheim Central defensive wall, putting the Crusaders back in front at 29-28 with four minutes left to play in the third. Later, the Catholic lead would bubble-up to a 32-28 count following a 3-ball cashed in by Jack Engle, as the Crusaders’ senior table-setter would go on to finish with team-high scoring honors in posting a 16-point outing to pace the Lancaster Catholic cause. Yet in terms of shooting from beyond the arc, that too would seem to be rather contagious amongst the Catholic unit as another trey, this one splashed in by senior Raaker Smith, put the Crusaders up by a touchdown, 35-28, with Central needing to call a timeout in order to stem the tide.

Fortunately, as far as the Barons were most concerned, Novak was up for the challenge with momentum starting to swing against his side seeing as how his pair of back-to-back drives following the timeout propelled the hosts right back into the thick of things at 35-32, only to see that gap then double back up in size and stature on the Crusaders’ ensuing offensive trip following the most recent Novak bucket thanks to yet another Smith bomb from bonus distance, a six-point gap between the two teams that would remain in place over the final two minutes and change with Lancaster Catholic out in front, 40-34.

And for a contest that seemed so evenly-played up until that point, it should’ve come as no surprise to anyone in attendance that neither side would be able to run away and hide inside the final frame as well. Sure enough, the score remained at a dead-heat at 42-apiece following a Trey Grube pullup jumper at the 3:30 mark of the fourth. Speaking of Grube, he would finish this night too by capturing game-high scoring honors, as he so often has to the tendency to do considering he is the L-L League scoring leader, with Grube ending the night with a 19-point performance to lead all scorers on Friday.   

But with the game still well in doubt, there opportunity was there for either one of the two combatants to rise up and take control of the matter. As it turned out, it would prove to be the Crusaders’ time to shine.

Following the Grube deuce which had knotted things back up at 42-42, Lancaster Catholic to proceed to rattle off a timely 4-0 blitz that was punctuated by a Bam Aikens theft and subsequent find to Mason Moore left alone underneath, as the Catholic senior duo made it a 46-42 count in favor of the guests.  And while a Novak answer would come immediately afterwards which closed the gap back down to a pair at 46-44, the Crusaders’ ability to put this one away at the foul line suddenly became the overarching theme of the contest yet to be decided.

Sure enough, while a 1-2 split courtesy of 5’10 junior guard, Kyle Wassell, would up the Catholic advantage to a 47-44 margin with 38.4 seconds left to go, it seemed as if someone had opened up the doors at Doe Run Elementary to let a nasty draft in on the ensuing Barons’ possession as an ill-timed air ball on a 3-point try gave the ball right back to the Crusaders without any damage being inflicted upon their lead. From there, another split at the charity stripe, this one by way of Aikens with 21.4 remaining, would make it a four-point bulge in favor of the Crusaders at 48-44 with the sand dial quickly running out of remaining grains as far as the Manheim Central contingent had to be concerned. And while the Barons certainly weren’t going to pass up Trey Grube’s triple their next time down the floor which made it a 48-47 contest with just 1.6 seconds remaining, it would be a well-intended effort that would come just a little too late as a final Lancaster Catholic free throw from there would close things out for good as the Crusaders were able to piece together a key 49-47 victory that very likely caught the attention of most everyone inside L-L basketball circles.

“We get (other) teams’ best. They understand our personnel,” a happy yet perhaps more relieved Lancaster Catholic head coach Joe Klazas said in the post mortem after sending his squad home following their victory on Friday night. “It’s a matter of us just having to react to how we’re being played, being defended, and then getting stops. I was pleased, and we did a good job today of getting stops, but we’ve been known to keep teams under 50 points, yet we’ve been giving up to close 60 (points) a game. That’s been a real struggle for us,” Klazas would admit. “We strapped down and were so much more solid defensively today. Offensively, we still had some dull moments, but we were at least a little more patient than what we’ve been in past games.”

Perhaps more than anything though, for a team that seemed to be searching for that precious spark to possibly get their campaign in gear for a frantic and fruitful finish to the regular season slate, don’t be surprised if we are all able to look back on this night in particular as to when things may have finally turned around for the Crusaders, a program that finds itself in a bit of uncharted territory at this stage of the season as previously mentioned.

“We wanted to challenge (his players) with a pretty brutal schedule,” said Klazas of the intention to get this squad into game-shape by going through the fire right from the start of the season. “We haven’t taken to losing very well. That’s probably been a poor job on my part of just learning from different situations and trying to teach things differently,” Klazas candidly acknowledged. “We had the fire tonight, and there’s been times where I’ve questioned that, but it was really good to see the energy today. We were really, really motivated to come out and play well today,” he added. “Hopefully, as a carry-over, ‘energy and effort’ was our big locker theme. We had that today and it got us good results. I’m hopeful that sort of stuff can carry over to perhaps possibly open up a game for us here or there. But more than anything though, I just hope it helps us execute down the stretch.”

 

NEXT UP: It’s funny. For a school that is usually the toast of the town by now, the Crusaders have mysteriously flown far below the radar screen up until this point in the year. However, that may all be on the verge of changing seeing as how the Crusaders currently find themselves sitting in the second slot of the Section Four standings, perceived warts and all, helping set the stage for yet another league playoff push which has been a way of life for the Crusaders almost since the time man invented fire. So, coming out the other side of Friday, Lancaster Catholic will now have this weekend off before jumping back into the thick of things on Tuesday night when they make the always precarious trip up to Northern Lebanon before finishing next week off a key date against Octorara back at home on Friday night in a contest which will prove Titanic as to how exactly the division will ultimately pan out in one way or another.

Speaking of uncharted waters, the Barons have appeared to veer off track here recently. After dropping their game against Catholic at home on Friday, that now marks two consecutive losses at the hands of Section Four competition for a team that just a moment ago appeared to have been sitting pretty for a league tournament bid in their own right. But league standings aside, there’s simply no time awarded to Manheim Central from here as the Barons will return to their quasi home floor on Saturday night for a late night battle against one of the Mid-Penn’s best this season in the 5A ranks, Cedar Cliff, before venturing right back into the gauntlet on Monday night when they travel to Cocalico for the first matchup of the season between those two “friendly” foes yet this year. From there, the lack of rest only intensifies and picks up 24 hours later seeing as how the unbeaten L-S Pioneers will then roll into town, winners of their previous matchup against the Barons by a commanding 70-47 final count. Suffice to say, the time is now for the Barons to get things righted on their own accord as their upcoming schedule quite frankly does not allow for any margin of error, nor grace period seeing what Manheim Central has directly upcoming in front of them.

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