When the District 3 playoff brackets were ultimately unveiled for the first time officially and released to the general public last week, there was one theme that became abundantly clear when trying to assess where the Lancaster-Lebanon League fell in relation to the overall scope of everything. That being the fact that nearly everyone from the L-L League opened the postseason by playing on the road.
But not quite everyone mind you.
For years, the L-L League had largely gone without one its member schools on a quest to Hershey as it related to the 1A bracket. Not only that, but that fact only became more glaringly obvious in the most recent years given the PIAA’s uptick to a six-classification system. However, this year promised to be much different. Well, it actually goes back a little further than that to be more precise.
A little over two years ago, way back in December 2016, one of the county’s premier institutions, Lancaster Country Day, formally had their bid into the Lancaster-Lebanon League accepted, allowing the Cougars athletic department join the fray as the league’s 26th full-time member. And while the Cougars may have been most recognizable to a now-intrigued L-L audience by virtue of their prowess consistently demonstrated on the lacrosse field, Lancaster Country Day is not exactly a slouch on the hardwood either.
To be sure, the Cougars made it all the way to the District 3-1A title game just one year ago before ultimately falling short to York Country Day in the title fight, 61-54. And while the Cougars were undoubtedly licking their wounds after receiving silver medals on the palatial Giant Center floor last winter, they certainly seemed to show no signs of frustration shortly thereafter as Country Day was able to knock off Blacklick Valley in the opening round of the PIAA tournament, only to come short against District 2 champion Susquehanna in the following round of state competition. So, with a large portion of those same players returning to the mix which helped construct this year’s core nucleus, the general consensus around the league was one met with definitive excitement in regard to how exactly the Cougars would figure into things as a new and welcomed L-L League member, most particularly in a revamped Section Five landscape.
And as was to be expected, the Cougars showed no ill-effects in adapting to their newfound surroundings this year.
Although the Cougars fell just agonizingly shy of securing a league playoff bid in their first initial season of Lancaster-Lebanon League competition, the rest of the L-L League had certainly been put on notice given the resume that the Cougars had been able to put together through the first two months of the regular season.
Aside from winning two tournaments within the first week and a half of the season — An achievement likely unparalleled around the rest of the state —- Country Day was able to truly make their mark throughout the entirety of the year by defeating every Section 5 foe this year with the exception of one, Lancaster Mennonite, en route to a 7-3 L-L record and 16-4 mark overall in the process. And once all was ultimately said and done as it related to regular season play, Lancaster Country Day found themselves as the rightful owners of the #3 seed in the District 3-1A bracket with things getting underway on Thursday night, officially kicking off the week-long journey which the Cougars hope will lead them back to promised-land of Hershey’s Giant Center and the opportunity to compete for the gold hardware once again this season.
But as is to be expected in the wild and often crazy world of the District 3 playoffs, the challengers placed in front of you are sure to be anything but easy. For Country Day, that task certainly appeared to ring true in spades when one of the best private schools in all of Lancaster County came calling on Thursday evening, Lancaster County Christian — a school who most recently went by the name of Living Word Academy under the watchful eye of head coach Chris Burns — with the Lions sure to be hungry to exact some revenge on the Cougars given the fact that LCD had been able to get the better of LCC 59-42 in the title game of the Cougars’ tip-off tournament back in early December.
But after 32 dominating minutes of basketball put forth on Thursday night, it would prove to be Lancaster Country Day who found themselves one step closer towards making good on a trip to Hershey.
It wouldn’t take the Cougars very long in terms of getting started either. Right out the chute, Country Day was able to open up on an 8-0 salvo after back-to-back triples splashed in by the senior duo of Will Lisk and Luke Walling respectively, forcing Lancaster County Christian to call a timeout and regroup after finding themselves in a deep hole just three minutes into the contest.
Ironically enough, the Lions would be able to right the ship by dialing long distance in their own right, as 3-balls cashed in by Justin Peifer and Charles Hall helped trim the Cougars’ lead down to four at 10-6 with just 2:15 left in the first quarter. Fortunately for County Christian, Hall continued to have the hot-hand as the Lions’ junior wing sunk another trifecta just moments later, bringing the visitors to within three at 12-9 with 50 seconds left in the opening stanza. And once all was said and done after a break-neck eight minutes of action, Lancaster Country Day still found themselves holding serve by virtue of the 14-9 advantage following a late bucket to close things out.
Although Lancaster County Christian found themselves down at the start of the second quarter, it certainly did not take the Lions very long to revisit what had worked best for them in the opening period. And if you also thought of giving the ball to Charles Hall and letting light thing up from behind the arc, you yourself may have also been seen inside the Lions’ huddle in between quarters.
In fact, it would take Hall all of one minute to offer up his third triple in the early going, a bucket which would trim the Country Day lead down to much more manageable four-point deficit at 16-12 after the opening minute of the second frame.
Over the course of the next few minutes however, the Cougars began to finally feast on the foe who had unwelcomely wandered into their lair.
Despite seeing County Christian beset by a wicked case of the turnover bug early on Thursday night, the Cougars were never truly able to garner much in terms of separation up on the scoreboard, albeit despite coming away with a laundry list of takeaways in their favor. Well, that was of course until the Cougars’ senior class ultimately had a say of things.
While Lancaster Country Day largely spent much of the first quarter and early stages of the second quarter trying to figure out the puzzling Lion riddle, Luke Walling and Will Lisk took matters into their own hands from that point on, as evidenced by a strong finish inside by Walling which put the Cougars back up by seven at 20-13, before a hard-nosed, determined take to the cup by way of Lisk forced County Christian to burn another timeout with the Lions now staring at a double digit differential as the scoreboard read 24-13 in favor of the homestanding Cougars with 3:33 left in the opening half.
But to their credit, Lancaster County Christian would successfully chart their course through the arduous seas that had now been brewed up by Lancaster Country Day throughout the ensuing few minutes of the second quarter.
After a smooth pullup jumper was stroked home by senior guard Caleb Heck, paired nicely with a gorgeous hi-lo set that saw senior big man Seth Stoltzfus be the beneficiary, the Lions had suddenly whittled the Cougars’ lead back down to a half dozen at 26-20 with first half rapidly winding down.
Yet just as big-time players seem to always do, and Andrew Williams is certainly one that undeniably fits the description for Country Day, stepping up at the most appropriate of times when called upon is a critical piece of the job description. And right on cue, the Cougars’ senior floor general delivered a sensational no-look dime to a waiting Bradley Fry standing under the basket, as the Country Day senior tandem teamed up for momentum-swinging bucket just before the first half horn, ushering the homestanding Cougars into the third quarter with ownership of the 28-20 lead.
And while Lancaster County Christian seemed to always have an answer to whatever challenge Country Day had posed throughout the first half, the second half on Thursday night would be an entirely different narrative.
In fact, it would not take the Cougars very long to regain their sea legs coming out of the halftime recess as evidenced by a pair of Luke Walling buckets at the tin which allowed Country Day to breathe comfortably somewhat given that their lead had now swelled out to a 15-point bulge at 35-20 with 5:28 left to play in the third. From there however, the Cougars showed no signs whatsoever of slowing down, as buckets from freshman guard John Stewart and junior forward Greg Mizili respectively, helped propel Lancaster Country Day into the final stanza with the commanding 47-25 difference, effectively capping off a dominating 19-5 third quarter display put together by the home troops.
But even with eight minutes still left to be played, the Cougars were nowhere close to being satisfied with the work they had already put in.
If Andrew Williams isn’t scoring the ball for Lancaster Country Day, he certainly has no qualms whatsoever about being a distributor — something he did marvelously all-night long — but especially on a superb dish to sophomore forward Lance Lennon in the early going of the fourth period which helped set the tone for final few minutes. However, as County Christian was about to find out, keeping Williams off the scoreboard for most of the night is often a task much easier said than done as back-to-back steals and subsequent lay-ins helped signify the senior guard’s final curtain call of the evening. And once the dust had finally settled, it would prove to be Williams who would go on to finish with game-high scoring honors by bucketing a 16-point effort to aid the Country Day cause.
Yet even the outcome of the game now all but assured, there was still plenty of time for the rest of Cougars’ supporting cast to get in on the fun.
And get in they would.
When watching Lancaster Country Day play this season, one thing becomes abundantly clear: The Cougars are certainly not lacking in the energy department in terms of their bench. Each and every game that LCD plays in, perhaps the loudest noise that is heard reverberating off the gym walls is courtesy of the Cougars players who consistently offer their unwavering support through thick and thin. So, with that in mind, it seemed rather apropos that the roles had now been reversed with the Cougars starters now being the ones to rally their brothers on from the sidelines.
And as if most perfectly right on cue, 6’2 sophomore forward Luke Forman got in on the act by finishing a 2-2 trip to the charity stripe, igniting a rousing roar of approval from not just the other LCD players, but their many fans in attendance as well.
But the party wasn’t over there. No way.
Shortly following the pair of free throws drilled by Forman, senior forward Matt Berkenstock made the most of his opportunity as well by knocking in a cold-blooded triple from bonus distance, perhaps rivaling or even bettering the noise heard after Forman’s freebies. Fittingly, in a way that perhaps best sums up Lancaster Country Day as a whole, the Cougars’ final bucket in the waning stages came by way of a fearless take the rack thanks to the efforts of junior guard, Waasae Ayyaz, effectively putting a bow on the Cougars’ remarkable display to begin this year’s postseason in a resounding 71-39 triumph over Lancaster County Christian on Thursday evening.
“Tonight, we really put it together if you ask me,” first-year Lancaster Country Day head Jon Shultz said following his team’s opening statement in the District 3-1A playoffs. “We played a complete game,” said Shultz. “We played a smart game. We played a fast game.”
“(Lancaster County Christian) is a very good team,” the Cougars’ boss said after assessing the opposition his team had just prevailed over. “We saw them a lot in the CCAC playoffs and they’re vastly improved…They made some shots early on, but we didn’t get out of our gameplan.”
And when you consider the fact that the Cougars had gone without seeing live action since all the way back on the evening of February 6th, it may have made Thursday night’s effort all that much more impressive. But rest assured however, Country Day wasn’t exactly kicking their heels up and taking it easy during their break in between sanctioned competition.
“We took off that Thursday and Friday,” said Shultz of his team’s regiment following their final regular season game two weeks ago against Conestoga Christian. “Then the weather was bad that Monday and Tuesday, so all of a sudden, it’s like we went from having too much time to not having enough time.”
“We were able to scrimmage Octorara and Pottstown last Friday which was a good scrimmage for us,” Shultz remarked. “They’re bigger schools, athletic schools and fast schools. That’s the type of stuff we wanted to see because that’s what we’re going to see from here on out.”
Yet while getting prepped from battle is one thing, it may prove to be a less than fruitful experiment should you lack leadership once the battle formally rages. Fortunately for Lancaster Country Day, that is just about the furthest worry from Coach Shultz’s mind heading into the postseason.
“Our seniors are so mature,” Shultz stated proudly. “They work so hard. This what they want and tonight it showed. Tonight was our best all-around game in terms of playing smart, playing together, and playing fast,” he added. “This is what we’ve been waiting for and it showed up tonight.”
NEXT UP: With their win over Lancaster County Christian now in the rearview mirror, the Cougars will begin prep work for Greenwood —- a program that is certainly no stranger to the bright lights of the District 3 small-school bracket—- when the Wildcats come calling to the Cougars’ den on Monday night for the right to advance to the Giant Center and Wednesday afternoon’s title fight.
“We take it one game at a time,” Shultz continued on. “They know what’s ahead. No matter who we play next, it’s going to be a tough game. That’s where our focus is. We said that tonight is a championship game for us. If we win this championship, then we have another championship game on Monday.”
Speaking of championships, making good on back-to-back trips to the Giant Center is a goal that has served as the carrot dangling out in front of the Cougars all season long. Now, with the prize so tantalizingly close, you had better believe that this year’s bunch is ready to pounce on the opportunity once again.
“When I met these guys for the first time, that was the first conversation,” said Shultz in regard to his introductory meeting this past summer with his new roster and their aspirations to return to the postseason. “We made no promises about anything,” he added with a light-hearted laugh, “But we know what their focus is.”