It’s a beautiful and wondrous thing when a plan comes together so perfectly isn’t it? Sure, while that saying may be true when applying it to every-day life, it also just so happened to be applicable when talking about this year’s Lancaster Country Day squad as well.
Rewind the clock back to this time a year ago, and the Cougars found themselves playing on central PA’s grandest of stages, Hershey’s Giant Center, in the District 3-1A championship game against a stingy York Country Day outfit. But on that day 364 days ago, Lancaster County Day would come up just seven points shy, ultimately falling to their neighbors to the west by a 61-54 final decision.
So, with that afternoon defeat against York Country Day undoubtedly serving as their driving fuel all offseason long, the Cougars began this season in earnest by embarking on a quest to make good on a return trip back to Hershey. Only this time however, the Cougars hoped to return home back to the Red Rose City and their gorgeous, sprawling campus with some new medals that contained a far shinier tint, and basketball-shaped trophy encased in gold as well.
Yet even with the underlying determination of hoping to have history repeat itself with back-to-back trips to Hershey, the Cougars’ 2018-19 campaign promised to be unlike anything the team, and the school for that matter, had ever experienced. Literally.
Among the changes at hand, it’s probably best to start off at the top. Aside from becoming a full-fledged Lancaster-Lebanon League member for the very first time starting in the 2018-19 academic school year, Lancaster Country Day would also welcome the arrival of a new athletic director in Zac Kraft, who came over from the same position after the guiding the Conestoga Valley athletic department for a number of years, and a new head boys’ basketball coach with Buckskins’ ties as well in Jon Shultz.
But even through it all and a prevailing sense of “newness” that had likely enveloped the Lancaster Country Day campus, the core nucleus of the LCD hoops squad largely figured to be the prevailing force of old while amidst such sweeping, wide-scale changes going on all around them. And wouldn’t you know it, they would prove to be all that and then some.
Although Lancaster Country Day would fall just shy of making it into the L-L League playoffs in their inaugural season, the Cougars were still able to put together a strong enough resume to warrant them receiving District 3’s #3-seed in this year’s 1A field when the prestigious tournament got underway last week. And after successfully navigating past Lancaster County Christian and Greenwood respectively in their first two District 3 playoff matchups, the Cougars had once again booked a ticket to dance in the district title fight when they lined up against the Halifax Wildcats on Wednesday afternoon. In doing so, Lancaster Country Day’s journey had truly and ironically come full-circle in their matchup against the Wildcats considering that the two were old foes from the Cougars’ most recent days spent competing in the Tri-Valley Conference.
But on this day, much to the delight of Lancaster Country Day and their adoring fans, the Cougars’ recent history on this stage would fail to serve as an indicator of the events yet to unfold.
Whether it be nerves, an adjustment to overwhelmingly large surroundings, or a variety of other factors at work, both Halifax and Lancaster Country Day seemed to struggle mightily coming out of the chute with the Wildcats plagued by cold shooting, while the Cougars were seen battling a nasty bout with the turnover bug in the early going. So much so in fact that neither side was able to generate much in terms of separation through much of the opening quarter. Never more so did that theme ring true than with Will Lisk’s old-school three-point play with one-minute left to play in the first quarter, as the 5’11 senior guard propelled Lancaster Country Day out to what had been their largest lead of the young afternoon at 9-5.
But that early breathing room would prove to be short-lived however as a smooth pullup jumper cashed in by Halifax 6’1 senior forward Logan Stiely immediately cut the Cougars’ early lead back down to a pair at 9-7 as the game moved into the second quarter.
The only thing was, a much different and improved Halifax team seemed to remerge from the huddle in between quarters.
Ignited by a 3-ball splashed in by way of 5’7 senior guard Dylan Wells on the Wildcats’ first offensive trip of the second frame, a trifecta which gave the lead back to Halifax, the #1-seeded Wildcats quickly saw their lead swell up to five at 20-15 following a traditional three-point play put together by 5’7 senior guard Tyler Berzowski with 2:30 left to play in the opening half.
Unfortunately for the Lancaster Country Day contingent that made the trip northward up to Hershey for the happy hour tip, the Cougars would only find themselves in a much deeper hole later in the second quarter following a nifty flip from point-blank range authored by 6’2 senior center Clayton Paul, making it a 22-15 Wildcats’ lead shortly thereafter.
Yet even with time winding down in the opening half, that proved to be more than enough for Halifax to inflict even more damage.
While holding the ball for the last shot with the second quarter clock now ticking under a minute left to go, the ball found itself in the hands of 6’1 senior forward London Johnson. And with the poise and steely nerves exhibited by a senior who has been in this situation a time or two previously, Johnson fired in a back-breaking triple just before the first half buzzer to usher the white-clad Wildcats into the recess with their largest lead of the afternoon at 27-19.
So, with Halifax heading into halftime with an understandable added pep in their step given their second quarter surge, starting fast became the foremost objective for Lancaster Country Day coming out the break.
Yet not only would the Cougars start the third frame with a bang, they would finish with one as well.
Coming of the intermission, Lancaster Country Day proceeded to knock Halifax back on their heels by landing a quick and timely haymaker. In fact, following an offensive rebound and put-back by 5’11 senior guard Andrew Williams, the Halifax lead had been chopped down to four at 27-23 with 5:27 left to go as the Wildcats were forced to call timeout in order to right the ship.
The only problem with that? The Cougars would retaliate by throwing even more water into the Wildcats’ boat that already seemed to have sprung a leak.
In the immediate aftermath following the Williams bucket, Lancaster Country Day’s Lance Lennon would proceed to go on his own personal 4-0 rally, effectively bringing the Cougars back within a pair at 29-27 with 4:30 showing on the third quarter clock.
But simply getting back within shouting distance would not prove to be nearly enough. Not with vindication in the form of a gold trophy riding on the line.
After a pair of Luke Walling free throws which knotted things up at 29-29 just two minutes later, the Cougars’ persistent march to retake the lead became complete when Walling found a streaking John Stewart racing down the court for the bucket in transition, as the Cougars’ 5’10 rapidly improving freshman guard gave the lead back to Country Day at 31-29 before the Cougars went on to tally two more to their total before the quarter was through, effectively propelling Lancaster Country Day into the final stanza with the 33-29 advantage.
Yet with the Cougars now standing on the precipice of history by claiming the program’s first ever District 3 title, they were not about to let this chance at redemption pass them by.
To say that Andrew Williams proceeded to put together one of the better quarters of his magnificent Cougar career in final quarter of Wednesday afternoon’s championship game would not suffice to indicate his true impact. Rather, he absolutely took the game over in a variety of ways.
When Williams isn’t scoring the ball — something he does amongst the very best in the Lancaster-Lebanon League — he has no problems whatsoever with dishing to other teammates should the opportunity present itself. And right on cue, a sensational dish from Williams to fellow senior Will Lisk put the Cougars up 37-32, forcing Halifax to call timeout and regroup with 4:29 left to go. But after a Williams bucket in transition shortly thereafter, the Lancaster Country Day lead had suddenly swelled to seven at 39-32. On the day, Williams would go to finish game-high scoring honors by posting a 14-point effort, with 12 of those coming after halftime.
But as was to be expected in a championship setting, Halifax would promptly respond and come roaring right back.
In fact, after a 3-ball dialed up by senior guard Earl Stipe, the Wildcats found themselves back within a four at 39-35 with the final quarter nearing its midway point. But after a hard-nosed take by, you guessed it, Andrew Williams, the Lancaster Country Day advantage had quickly ballooned back up to a half dozen at 45-39 with 2:04 left to play.
Even despite their advantage now standing at six points, things grew more precarious for the Cougars over the course of the next 40 seconds as a 3-ball sunk by Tyler Berzowski of Halifax sliced the Lancaster Country Day lead down to just a pair at 45-43 with now 1:20 left to go.
That would prove to be all the closer the Wildcats would get for the remainder of the afternoon.
With the game heading down to the wire, free throw shooting quickly became the topic du jour for Lancaster Country Day as a means to close things out. And with the game hanging in the balance, separate 2-2 trips to the charity stripe by way of Andrew Williams and Lance Lennon in the final minute along with an air-tight defense allowed Lancaster Country Day to go on and claim their first-ever District 3 title, as the Cougars prevailed 51-43 over Halifax on Wednesday afternoon.
“They just dug in,” an elated first-year Lancaster Country Day head Jon Shultz said of his team following what was arguably the program’s biggest victory. “(His LCD players) dug in defensively the last half of the season. That’s where our bread and butter is.”
Yet while Shultz may be in his first year leading the Cougars’ program, rest assured that his veteran players knew full-well the opponent pitted across from them on Wednesday.
“They played this team three times last year. They knew what they could do” said Shultz of his team drawing the assignment of Halifax in a game of this magnitude.
“You know, Halifax handed it to Country Day last year a couple times. (The LCD players) weren’t going to let that happen anymore. Luke Walling and Andrew Williams made it a personal mission to shut those down tonight and they did it.”
And while the District 3 title game was undoubtedly the fuel which propelled Lancaster Country Day all season-long, having a team that was laser-focused dating back to the dog-days of summer is certainly one that makes any head coach’s job much easier, much less one getting set to enter his first campaign with a new group.
“It’s like the first day of practice,” Shultz said describing his squad near the tail-end of the season. “I’m telling you, when we go into practice, they go so hard every day and now it’s showing. They don’t tire out, they dig in, and they’re smart kids. That’s what’s great.”
“We send them scouting reports and they know them. They read up on (the opponents) and watch film on their own. They want to do this.”
And now, after Wednesday afternoon, the Cougars can officially say that they did it.
NEXT UP: From here, Lancaster Country Day will head off in the PIAA state tournament next Friday night by carrying the flag of District 3’s top seed in the 1A field when the Cougars square off with the #4 seed out of District 4 — a region most commonly referred to as “Coal Country” northward up to the New York state line— at a site and time yet to be determined.