When thinking of the PIAA state playoffs, chances are that most of the matchups — especially those that take place in the first round — are games that feature two teams from various of pockets of the commonwealth against one another that often have no history whatsoever. But on Saturday afternoon at Father Judge High School in Philadelphia, that assumption couldn’t have been further from the truth.
If you’re talking about high school basketball powerhouses in the state of Pennsylvania, the conversation likely starts (and quite possibly ends) with the Neumann-Goretti Saints. And for good reason too. Over the course of the last five consecutive years, the Saints have found themselves hoisting the state championship trophy high atop their heads on the Giant Center floor once the final buzzer rang out and the season reached its final climax. Yet ironically enough, their pathways to Hershey over the years have included numerous excursions through the Lancaster-Lebanon League which saw the mighty Saints take out the likes of Manheim Central, ELCO, and yes, even Lancaster Mennonite, as Neumann-Goretti powered through their annual rampages in a quest to claim the state’s ultimate prize in their designated classification once the journey came to a conclusion.
And yet even though the statewide audience generally points to Neumann-Goretti as arguably the state’s most recognizable and best basketball brand, their opponents from the L-L League have more often than not provided the Saints with their stiffest tests during the two-week chase to Chocolatetown. In fact, the last team to beat Neumann-Goretti in the state playoffs? That once in a lifetime 2013 Donegal Indians team which got the better of Neumann-Goretti at Coatesville in front of nearly the entire community of Mount Joy that had traveled eastward on that unforgettable March evening.
But even just two years ago, it had appeared for a moment that Neumann-Goretti’s yearly journey that seems to always end with gold medals wrapped around their necks would come to an abrupt and untimely finish.
To say that the 2017 state playoffs were unique would be putting it mildly. Aside from the fact that it was the first year of the newly introduced six classification system in Pennsylvania high school basketball, Mother Nature simply refused to go down without a fight through it all by rearing her ugly head throughout various rounds, postponing numerous games. As a result, it forced the PIAA’s hand and led to a measure that almost assuredly will not soon be replicated: State playoff games being contested on a Sunday.
One of those matchups? A late afternoon tipoff at Reading’s Santander Arena in the 3A quarterfinal round between Neumann-Goretti and Lancaster Mennonite.
While most teams usually quiver and quake at just the mere thought of having to line up against N-G, it quickly became apparent on that day that the Blazers from Lancaster Mennonite more than relished and embraced the challenge of dethroning the champs. Despite the fact that Mennonite was outsized and thought to be extremely overmatched considering the embarrassment of riches found in so many high-major future Division 1 talents lining up on the opposite side from them, the Blazers continued to throw haymaker after haymaker at the Saints, as Mennonite went into the final eight minutes trailing by just two points before they would ultimately yielding after putting up a valiant fight, 69-56.
Yet while Mennonite had turned many heads around the state as the persistent score updates continued to go viral on that mid-March afternoon, this past season proved that their memorable run to the state quarterfinal round in 2017 was the furthest thing from a fluke as evidenced by their remarkable trek through the western portion of the bracket into the state semifinal round where the Blazers would fall just one game short of playing in last year’s 3A state final — ironically enough against Neumann-Goretti — thanks to a halfcourt buzzer beater fired in by Tyler Zimmerman, sending the Richland Rams to Hershey with a championship date against N-G instead.
And wouldn’t you know it, everything seemed to come full circle yet again on Saturday afternoon with the Blazers and Saints set to write the newest chapter of their quasi rivalry in the opening round of the 2019 state tournament at Father Judge.
But on this day, Neumann-Goretti would leave little doubt as to who would be authoring the story.
When playing arguably the best basketball program in the state, getting off to an early start is a task that immediately takes on the upmost of importance. Unfortunately for the contingent from Lancaster, the Blazers would ultimately come out of the starting blocks slow, eventually looking up to see themselves staring at 7-0 defect through the first 1:30 on Saturday afternoon following a steal and finish at the cup from Neumann-Goretti’s Rider-bound senior point guard, Chris Ings, as the Saints opened up an early bulge on the scoreboard to keep the black-clad Blazers at arm’s length right of the chute. In fact, the Neumann-Goretti lead would eventually rise to as many as eight points in the early going following a knock-down trifecta buried from 5’10 junior guard, Hakim Byrd.
Yet to their credit, Mennonite would come racing right back.
While it had been evident that the mighty Saints had been the ones dominating the early minutes of the contest, the Blazers kept plugging away, eventually trimming the Neumann-Goretti lead down to four following back-to-back buckets at the tin thanks to the senior duo of Elijah Bynum and Seth Harmer respectively, as the N-G lead now stood at 14-10 with 2:30 left to go in the opening stanza. From there, Mennonite was able to keep their foot planted firmly down on the floorboard as a smooth floater in the lane cashed in by 5’8 senior guard Derrick Burnside narrowed the Neumann-Goretti lead down to just a pair at 14-12 a mere 30 seconds later.
However, even despite the fact that Mennonite had completely turned the game on its head following their impromptu blitzkrieg, Neumann-Goretti was able to fan the Blazer flames as 6’2 senior forward Ja’cor Smith proceeded to come right down the floor and fire in a back-breaking triple, as the Saints successfully regained control at 17-12 for the timely and immediate rebuttal.
Besides getting off to a quick start, the theme of negating Neumann-Goretti runouts in transition quickly became apparent to all of those in attendance if Mennonite had any hopes of returning home to the Red Rose City with a seismic victory. And while Mennonite certainly had their moments where they would successfully negate N-G from scoring opportunities while the Saints were operating in halfcourt sets, dealing with a freight train the likes of Chris Ings when heading down the floor with a full head of steam is a whole different chore altogether as Neumann-Goretti’s dynamic senior trigger man proceeded to get loose from the Mennonite troops for a key lay-in off the break which upped the Saints’ advantage to 19-12 with 30 seconds left to go in the first quarter. And once the opening eight minutes ultimately did reach their conclusion, the scoreboard hanging in the corner of the intimate confines at Father Judge showed the Neumann-Goretti lead still holding firm at seven, 21-14.
Once the second quarter got underway, the Saints proceeded to put on what could only be described as a highlight show.
After closing the first quarter with a scintillating 7-2 blitz to knock Mennonite back on their heels somewhat, the Blazer troops only continued to retreat further following back-to-back dunks flushed home by Chris Ings and 6’5 junior forward Cameron Young respectively, forcing Mennonite to call timeout and regroup as the Blazers’ deficit had suddenly reached double-digit proportions at 27-16 with 5:56 left in the opening half.
From there, Neumann-Goretti only continued to build upon their first half cushion as a 3-ball splashed in the corner from 6’5 junior forward Jordan Hall saw the Saints’ lead swell to 15 points at 36-21 with two minutes and change left to go in the half before a late 4-0 charge mounted by the Blazers sent the competing squads into the halftime recess with Neumann-Goretti holding serve, 36-25.
Coming out of the intermission, it certainly appeared the break in the action did next to nothing in terms of cooling off hot-shooting Neumann-Goretti.
In fact, it took all of 1:30 once inside the third quarter for the Saints to pour in another triple from bonus distance, as a 3-ball dialed up by rangy wing Cameron Young saw the N-G lead creep back up to a much more breathable distance for which the Saints could now work with at 41-25.
Following the Young triple for Neumann-Goretti, time was of the essence should Lancaster Mennonite be able to right the ship and trim the Saints’ lead back down to size and get back within shouting distance for the duration of the third frame. And almost right on cue, the Blazers responded with a tough-as-nails, gritty answer while amid the choppy waters.
While he may never be confused for being the tallest player on the court at any one time, the heart contained within Mennonite 6’0 junior point guard Elijah Terry is one that simply cannot be measured, as the Blazers’ fearless floor general routinely makes the most acrobatic of plays when finishing at the cup, something he did in spades during the Mennonite’s incredible romp through the western portion of the 3A state playoff bracket just one year ago. And sure enough, Terry was on the job yet again for the Lancaster Mennonite effort on Saturday afternoon by dazzling the crowd in attendance with plenty of favorable vocal reactions along the way given his constant finishes amongst the much longer Neumann-Goretti tall trees, including a take to the rack just after the halfway point of the third quarter which cut the Saints’ lead back down to a dozen at 45-33.
But just when it had seemed like the sudden spurt of momentum generated by the Blazers might help reverse their fortunes heading down the homeward mile, Chris Ings was there to slam the door for the immediate answer with a lay-in of his own, as N-G quickly went back in front by 14 as the Saints called a timeout to fix what had been ailing them defensively.
And just like a well-timed trip to the doctor’s office, the Saints quickly found the remedy for slowing the current Lancaster Mennonite onslaught during the timeout as Neumann-Goretti proceeded to hold the Blazers down for the remainder of the period, eventually closing the books on the third quarter with a key 14-1 salvo which was highlighted by a dagger triple sunk by Hakim Byrd just before the horn, vaulting the five-time defending state champions into the final period with possession of the 59-34 advantage.
Even though Lancaster Mennonite routinely found themselves at odds when trying to maintain constant footing while simultaneously trying to nip away at the Neumann-Goretti lead, the Blazers would not be able to muster one final push inside the fourth quarter, much to the chagrin of the hearty Blazer fans who made the trip the northeast corner of Philadelphia.
In fact, following a put-back by Cameron Young with 6:15 left to play, the Neumann-Goretti lead had suddenly reached its highest threshold of the entire afternoon with the score now standing at 64-44.
And while the outcome of the contest now appeared to be fully rounding into shape, no one bothered to tell that to Elijah Terry, as Mennonite’s explosive stick of dynamite proceeded to rattle in a 3-ball, effectively cutting the N-G cushion back under the 20-point at 68-40 with 4:30 remaining to play. On the afternoon, Terry played with the effort of a lion, eventually finishing the day by claiming game-high scoring honors in netting 30 points to aid the Lancaster Mennonite cause.
But while Terry was the one doing the bulk of the damage for Mennonite, Chris Ings was equally effective for Neumann-Goretti on Saturday — something that was evident all game long — but perhaps best exemplified with his tough, old-fashioned three-point play with the game winding down in an exchange which upped the N-G lead past the 30-point mark at 71-40. To be sure, Ings was a dominant force in his own right, as the D-1 floor general finished his day of work by leading the Neumann-Goretti charge with a team-high contribution of 28 points.
So, with the game heading into its final minutes, it only seemed apropos that the core nucleus making up the Lancaster Mennonite and Neumann-Goretti rosters receive their opportunity to shine on the grandest of stages that the state has to offer.
For Mennonite, 6’3 junior guard Justin Horst certainly made the most of his newfound opportunity by finishing with a nice layup at the tin to rightfully earn the honor of scoring a bucket in a state playoff contest.
On the other side, Neumann-Goretti 5’11 freshman guard Masud Stewart checked into the contest and delivered yeoman’s work down the stretch by authoring a gutty take to the cup in his own right during the waning moments. But Stewart was not alone in that regard. In fact, all but one member of the Saints’ roster got into the scoring column on Saturday afternoon — a feat which speaks to the sheer excellence that the N-G program has to offer — as Nasir Feggans, Eric Gentry, Blaise Vespe, and Baseem Cooper all chipped into the Neumann-Goretti cause once the dust had finally settled.
And when it did, it showed Neumann-Goretti successfully checking off the first box for what they hope leads to a sixth consecutive state title in a few weeks’ time, as the Saints put forth a dominant wire-to-wire performance against Lancaster Mennonite on Saturday afternoon in the form of a 83-48 final decision.
“I wish the score at the end reflected the effort that the guys put forward,” first-year Lancaster Mennonite head coach Seth Buckwalter said following the game while standing outside the Blazers’ makeshift locker room. “I really thought that we went toe-to-toe with them for 16 or 18 minutes and then the wheels kind of fell off. It’s just tough to sustain the effort that our guys were putting out for a full 32 minutes against a team that is of that quality.”
Yet while the outcome of Saturday’s contest against Neumann-Goretti could understandably take some of the shine and luster away from yet another incredible Mennonite year that was — at least in the short-term mind you— Buckwalter is sure to have much more long-lasting memories from his first year commanding the Blazers’ bench once the pain from this weekend eventually subsides.
“The guys,” Buckwalter said without hesitation when asked what he’s likely to remember most. “These guys were amazing to work with. They won a section title and qualified for states which is exciting.”
“The guys have been amazing,” he added with conviction. “They are amazing, and I love ‘em.”