Lebanon Withstands Octorara Third Quarter Punch As Cedars Respond, Begin Quest To Defend League Title In Opening-Round Victory

Written by: on Monday, February 14th, 2022

 

To some, it was a mere date in history that likely got lost somewhere in time. October 20, 2016. To others though, it was a landmark day. For those with a strong rooting interest in the Octorara Braves however, that quiet Thursday some nearly seven years ago now was rather unprecedented. For it was on that day when the tiny school situated just inside the Chester County line along PA Route 41 left the only identity the school had ever known –competing in District 1, most especially the Ches-Mont League – by gaining the seal of approval to join the Lancaster-Lebanon League as a full-fledged member institution. Now sure, while some in L-L circles at the time might have raised their eyebrows over the decision to admit the only school into the conference that quite literally has a mailbox located outside of either county that bears the league’s name itself, the boys’ basketball landscape instantaneously figured to get better the moment that the Braves entered the fold. To be certain, it wasn’t all that long prior to the fall of 2016 that Octorara was seen achieving success at an incredibly high level. In fact, it could reasonably be argued that aside from a few of the more prevalent stalwarts at that particular time (the McCaskey’s, Lancaster Catholic’s, Cedar Crest’s of the world for example), Octorara quite possibly was the best performing brand that the L-L had to offer, at least in terms of recent prowess at that particular snapshot in time once they climbed onboard.

However, for whatever the reason since the addition, Octorara had gone through their own fair share of fits and starts since joining the conference, as the Braves were locked-out of securing a league playoff berth every year following their L-L indoctrination. That is of course, until this year mind you.

In short, the 2021-22 high school basketball around these parts has helped serve as a much-needed and welcomed sign of some semblance of normalcy following a turbulent last year or so. And speaking of normalcy, seeing one of the league’s biggest crown jewels, the conference tournament, go back into a full bracket format with two teams gaining entry from its various five sections was a welcomed sight for everyone involved, but perhaps especially for those that call Section Four their home most of all.

Coming into the year, that division perhaps more than any other seemed to wide-open and totally up for grabs. To be sure, with Lancaster Catholic losing the bevy of talent which they did due to graduation that helped propel them all the way to the state quarterfinals last season, both the front door and the back door appeared to be off their collective hinges between the five schools residing in Section Four as a result of not having a clear and decided favorite amongst themselves. Sure enough, while the Crusaders would indeed be there in the fight up until the final night of the regular season, the runaway style in which the division had usually played itself with one lonesome soul found left to pick up the second-place morsel of scraps was totally blown to smithereens this year seeing as how ELCO ended up winning the division with Octorara, –yes, that same Octorara program that for years had tried mightily to reach the league playoff plateau — finally found itself with a ticket into the dance for the very first time come Friday night.

Ironically though, while this would be the Braves’ first foray into the L-L tourney, their opponent on this night was a program that came drenched with a rich history that very few programs in the conference, much less the mid-state itself, can possibly bear to match up with.

In fact, the Lebanon Cedars’ history is so prevalent that they themselves had entered the year as the defending league title owners following their thrilling one-point triumph over Hempfield last season in the championship round. And yeah, aside from having an NBA lottery pick over 40 years ago now in Sam Bowie that once donned the Cedars’ blue and red, the fact that no one save for McCaskey has qualified for the league playoffs more than Lebanon speaks rather loudly considering that this year marked the 26th time in which the Cedars entered the L-L tournament, winning it all nine times previously within that nearly three-decade long stretch. For this Cedars’ team though, the road to Conestoga Valley for the opening round of the postseason over the last handful of weeks has been rather arduous all things being considered.

Quite frankly, good luck trying to find a squad anywhere on planet Earth that has had a more wild and zany last half dozen games than this Lebanon crew. Fittingly, the craziness for them might have gotten started the last time they were at CV seeing as how the Cedars would end up dropping a heart-pounding 91-84 final decision to the host Buckskins in triple overtime on Saturday January 29th, not even 24 hours following yet another overtime loss in their last time out against Manheim Township the previous night at home. From Witmer, the Cedars would find themselves in yet another overtime game seven days later, this time against Warwick in what has quickly morphed into one of the league’s best emerging rivalries, as the Warriors were able to author a sensational comeback bid and walk off with their fourth straight Section Two title by virtue of their 60-57 overtime win last Saturday afternoon to knock the Cedars down onto the #2-line within the ranks of divisional competition. All told, Lebanon entered the opening round of the playoffs on Friday with a 3-3 record in their last six outings with all their defeats coming over a combined total of five overtime periods.

So, suffice to say, something had to give on this stage. Either Lebanon would continue asserting itself as one of the premier brands to play basketball within the L-L League should they be able to squash the feel-good story sitting on the bench opposite of them on Friday night, or Octorara would serve notice to a much wider audience that they too had no fear of nudging their way into the mix and rubbing elbows with the likes of the league’s bluebloods given the stakes at hand found at the bottom of the 5 o’clock hour on Friday evening with the first game of the 2022 postseason.  

Yet on this night, in a way that seemed to play out in a way that was nothing if not fitting, the Cedars proceeded to dig down deep within themselves to eventually pull out what would have to be described as nothing other than a championship-level resolve to get past the pesky Braves.

In the early going within Friday’s dinner-hour game, both teams were clearly sluggish. So much so in fact that both Octorara and Lebanon proceeded to turn it over on their opening two possessions of the contests as neither club seemed to get themselves within any sort of rhythm or continuity out of the chute. However, once both teams eventually settled down, it would prove to be Lebanon’s key catalyst who might also have a strong argument for league MVP honors as well, Marquis Ferreira, as the Cedars’ senior point guard was able to break the scoring seal with a floater in the lane which made it a 2-0 affair in favor of the defending league champs at the 6:20 mark of the opening frame. Undaunted though, Octorara came right back after working into a bit of a groove themselves seeing as how a pair of 3-balls popped by way of Lucas Thaler and Jason Johnson respectively gave the Braves the 6-4 lead shortly thereafter. As mentioned though, keeping Lebanon clamped down over an extended period figured to be a chore far easier said than actually done. So, with that in mind, it seemed apropos to see Lebanon’s Kevin Smith come away with a theft and layup to put the Cedars up, 9-6, before the final 2:48 of the first quarter would eventually expire with the Cedars being able to pad their lead up slightly higher, carrying an 11-6 cushion with them into the second stanza.

But while Lebanon may not have known an awful lot about Octorara’s program in general heading into the night, rest assured they were about to find out as to why this Braves’ squad was eager and hungry at the opportunity to mix it up on this big of a stage.

Case in point, while the Cedars would see their lead bubble-up to a touchdown at 13-6 following a Ferreira pullup after the first minute and change within the second quarter, a pair of tough Elijah Hamilton bunnies from within the paint later on would trim the Lebanon lead right back down to a three-point difference at 13-10 roughly 40 seconds later. Yet again though, while the Cedars would build their lead right back up to seven following yet another Ferreira floater which made it a 19-12 ballgame –good for two more en route to his 16-point performance on the night — the Braves would trim the gap right back down to a much more manageable five-point difference following a smooth pullup triple sunk by fearless freshman, Jason Johnson, as Octorara once again found themselves back within five at 22-17 with two minutes to go before the halftime recess. All told, Octorara certainly had to love their current positioning by the time the intermission eventually rolled around seeing as how the Braves would head into the break down by just three points, 24-21, in a first half that seemed to favor Lebanon by what would have figured to be a much more commanding margin.

That said, while Lebanon may have won the “eye test” portion of the opening 16 minutes, Octorara seemed to care little for that, especially given the way in which the Braves began the third quarter of play.

In fact, the Braves seemed up to the scrap right from the moment their sneakers touched the floor of CV’s Rill Gymnasium coming out of the dressing room following the halftime respite seeing as how the blue-clad squad from Atglen proceeded to nab their first lead since the early portion of the first quarter courtesy of a pair of 3-balls dialed up by way of junior guard, Lucas Thaler, as Octorara went back in front by a 27-24 count just 1:40 into the second half on Friday evening.

But as Octorara was about to find out themselves, Lebanon had interest in serving as the sacrificial lamb to Octorara’s feel-good storyline that appeared to be rounding into form.

No, not when you consider how the Cedars proceeded to pound the ball inside in the immediate aftermath following the Thaler bombs as a pair of hard-nosed buckets from point-blank range thanks to the handiwork of senior forward, Nate Diaz, quickly got Lebanon back on level-ground at 28-28 near the 4:30 mark of the third quarter. However, Diaz was clearly still hungry at that point in time. The wise move? Keep feeding him. Well, that was precisely what the Cedars did in giving him the orange pill. As it turned out, that proved to be a smart decision given how yet another Diaz bunny –another deuce en route to his 11-point outing – put Lebanon back in front at 32-30 just two minutes later. From there, the Cedars would not only continue to maintain their lead, but build upon it given how the league champs took the 36-32 lead with them into the final stanza with seemingly all the momentum residing within their collective back pocket.

In the final eight minutes though, Lebanon would eventually push Octorara away for good and never look back.

For that, look no further than Kevin Smith’s offensive rebound and stick-back – an exchange at which time made it a 41-32 buffer in favor of the Cedars – as the Lebanon senior forward only continued his sensational night of play in and around the painted area. Then, the Cedars finally appeared to break the Braves’ will for good seeing as how a pair of runouts, cashed in by Marquis Ferreira and Emanuel Mason respectively, put Lebanon up by a baker’s dozen at 47-34 with five minutes still left to play. However, speaking of Kevin Smith, he decided to cap off his marvelous outing by stepping out from beyond the arc and nailing a sweet triple from the top of the key, a 3-ball which gave the Cedars their largest lead of the night up until that point, 50-36, as Smith went on to capture game-high scoring honors with a yeoman’s 17-point night at the office.

In the end though, while Octorara would try their hardest to trim the lead back down to a bitable size inside the final few minutes –much of which came via some pretty Elijah Hamilton buckets who ended the game by netting a team-best 12-points – the hill which the Cedars had built for themselves was far too steep for the Braves to climb upward on as Lebanon was able to move into Monday’s quarterfinal round of the league tournament by virtue of their 56-43 triumph over a game Octorara squad in the opening round of the league playoffs on Friday night.

But make no mistake about it. The way in which the Cedars eventually took this game and ran away with it was largely due to their prowess underneath the cup, a tough-as-nails feat certainly not lost on their head man either.

“That’s been there for us all year. They’ve been steady for us,” Lebanon head coach Tim Speraw said of the efforts put forth by way of Kevin Smith and Nate Diaz respectively. “Nate (Diaz) is just phenomenal on the boards. They play so much bigger than what they actually are. We definitely wouldn’t be where we are now if it wasn’t for them. I thought they played well tonight, but we expect that out of them.”

Not only that, but the work put forth earlier in the season by way of a tough and respectable Lebanon resume up until this point in the campaign certainly didn’t hurt matters either.

“Playing Section Two and playing Section One with crossovers, and our nonleague was pretty good too with Palmyra twice, Hershey, Lower Dauphin, so I feel like we’re prepared,” said Speraw elaborating on his team’s battle-tested schedule that perhaps can propel them for a long jaunt over the next week within the league tournament. “We’ve played four games in a week a couple of times this year. I think we’re ready for it. Hey, if we’re playing three more games in this tournament, I’m going to be pretty happy.”

Oh yeah, there’s also that aspect of knowing that no one will be able to simply take the trophy away from the Cedars. Sure, while another team may end up cutting down the nets at Manheim Township come next Friday night, you can best believe that it will have to be a worthy opponent tasked with having to pry that thing away from Lebanon’s clutches.

“I think we recognize it and obviously the kids know about it because we were there last year,” Speraw said with a light laugh about defending the league crown. “They also have their own history though,” he added of this crew specifically. “We lost a bunch of seniors who were a key part to (winning). This is a whole new team. The majority of these kids playing played JV last year as juniors. I think only Marquis (Ferriera) and Kev (Smith) logged significant minutes for us last year.”

Yet relatively inexperienced or not, whenever you wear the Lebanon Cedars’ uniform and step onto the floor, you have to embrace everything little thing that comes with it. Simply put, they don’t just hand those things out to anyone in general. And if Friday night’s comeback bid is to serve as any indication, this group too may have all the makings of yet another Lebanon team that could end up living in infamy.

 

NEXT UP: Now, as far as the Cedars are concerned, they will take their chance at accomplishing something that no one in the 2021-22 season has been able to do thus far, defeat Lampeter-Strasburg, as Lebanon will travel southward to L-S on Monday night for tasty quarterfinal round matchup with the Pioneers, a contest that in its own right could likely serve as the league championship game between two stellar teams had the brackets been shifted slightly differently.

“I know they’re 21-0 and I know they can shoot the ball like crazy. I think they have four guys that have made 35 or more 3-pointers, so they definitely get up and down the floor and score some points,” Speraw said when asked what he may have known from a distance seeing as how Lebanon has yet to witness L-S play in person yet this season. “I’ll figure that out tonight when I get to work and start watching film on them.”

For Octorara, while the Braves’ first gander in the L-L tourney came to an abrupt end on Friday at the hands of the Cedars, the boys from Chester County will face a crucial tester on Saturday afternoon back at home in their cozy confines when they welcome Twin Valley into town for a makeup game which will be the final regular season game played of any L-L team this season. Why is it important game you ask? Well, as of Saturday morning, Octorara found themselves sitting at the #15-line, just one spot above the threshold to make the District 3 playoffs within the 5A classification. Suffice to say, dropping a game to a team below said cut line, as Twin Valley is given their #18 positioning, a loss here could prove terminal for a ballclub that eagerly wants to continue playing this year, especially given their red-hot finish within league play helped catapult them into Friday night’s affair for the first time in school history. 

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