Nativity Starts Fast, Rises Past Lancaster Country Day As Hilltoppers Set Their Sights On Quarterfinal Round of PIAA-1A Tournament

Written by: on Saturday, March 12th, 2022

 

In a lot of ways, it’s one of the worst kept secrets known to man. Well, maybe not to ALL of mankind I suppose, but certainly for those who operate and reside within the high school basketball community that is. And of course, that “secret” being that the further and further you advance in the state tournament, the competition will only get that much stronger and stronger in each coming round. And boy oh boy, did that notion ever ring true in spades for Lancaster Country Day most specifically in terms of their Friday night second round assignment at nearby Cedar Crest.

While someone typically must draw the inauspicious task of having to go up against a defending state champion somewhere along the line, it just happened that the opportunity for the Cougars came a-knockin’ in the second round of the PIAA-1A bracket against Pottsville-Nativity, a senior-laden squad that appears to possess all the trimmings of perhaps cutting down the nets and hoisting the gold trophy at Giant Center yet again roughly two weeks from now. To be perfectly frank though, that’s not exactly the most courteous of draws for a district runner-up almost right out of the chute to try and contend with, something which the Cougars are this season, but such is a fact of life when only 16 teams remain statewide after emerging out from the opening night of PIAA play.

Yet even with that being said, it wasn’t as if Country Day needed to feel as if they were in over their heads as they rode the bus northward to Lebanon County on this night. In fact, it could largely be argued that playing an outfit the likes of Nativity at this stage of the campaign is precisely the silver-lining and byproduct that the Cougars are able to reconcile with while playing inside Section Five of the Lancaster-Lebanon League –a division that produced two other District 3 champions this year as most are already keenly aware of – along with the simple fact that the Cougars know full-well that they are the only 1A school that the conference itself contains. Sure enough, to quote Country Day head coach Jon Shultz himself before his squad took on another defending champion not all that long ago in this year’s District 3 playoffs, Mount Calvary who was last year’s D3-1A champ, “As I told (his players), ‘To be the man, you’ve got to beat the man.’ They’re the man.”’ And if you’re wondering, yes, the Cougars were able to knock off ‘the man’ named Mount Calvary on that night by 57-48 final count, on the Chargers’ home floor no less, for a victory which sent LCD to the Giant Center for the title fight before they succumbed to Linville Hill and settling for silver medals in the championship affair.

So again, while the Hilltoppers from Nativity by way of Pottsville would undoubtedly be the biggest fish for which Country Day had yet to catch this season, it would have been nothing if not an extreme disservice to label this along the lines of a David vs Goliath-type matchup here. Instead rather, you could best believe that these Cougars, a team who is no stranger to a championship-perigee in its own right, would take their best shot at serving notice not to a statewide audience that this is indeed a program appearing fast-tracked for success within the 1A landscape over the long term. Suffice to say, a triumph on Friday night would most certainly lend even further credence to that very notion.

However, while Country Day would have their moments throughout the course of Friday night at times, it was equally evident that Nativity is a ballclub with their sights dead-set on making a return trip back to Hershey.

Speaking of the Cougars’ moments, they wouldn’t waste much time in getting that accomplished. Case in point, Country Day being able to break the scoring seal at 2-0 in the early going, along with the Cougars’ active 2-3 zone being somewhat perplexing to the Hilltoppers offensively, or so it would have appeared. But if the Country Day zone was indeed a riddle, Nativity quickly solved it from there on out.

Admittedly, while it would have been next to impossible to predict at that exact moment in time, the Cougars’ early lead would be the last time they would play from the front for the remainder of the evening.

Yep, sure enough, Nativity wasted little time in asserting themselves after spotting the opposition the two-point cushion. For that, Nativity’s Marquis Ratcliff allowed the squad from Pottsville to enjoy an early bit of breathing room as the Hilltoppers’ 6’6 all-state senior forward finished off an old school three-point play to put Nativity by a half dozen, 8-2, with 4:20 left to play in the opening period. From there, the Hilltoppers would finish off their impromptu 10-0 salvo with another bucket tallied inside by way of Ratcliff, as Nativity’s rangy frontline dynamo would add two more en route to his eventual 16-point outing by the time the evening was finished, but his most recent bucket here leading to a quick Country Day timeout in order to try and stem the tide at 10-2 with 2:41 then remaining in the opening stanza.

Finally, surely not a moment too soon as far as the Cougars had to be concerned, a timely triple sunk by Country Day senior forward, Chris Hedbavny, stopped the bleeding for the squad from the Red Rose city before a strong and determined take to the cup by LCD sophomore guard, Jake Kumah, got the Cougars back to within four at 11-7 with time starting to run out in the initial stanza. However, an immediate 3-ball sunk on the Hilltoppers’ ensuing possession following the Kumah take courtesy of 6’1 senior guard, Jack Miller, allowed Nativity to double-up Country Day at a 14-7 count once the final 30 seconds of the first quarter clock eventually expired.

If anything, it seemed as if Nativity’s first quarter performance was quickly serving as a precursor of sorts once the second quarter got underway on Friday night. Yes, speaking of haymaker-esque salvos, Nativity had more of those in the chamber as the second round of eight minutes got underway. In that respect, look to another 4-0 Hilltoppers’ rally engineered by Ratcliff before a baseline take to the cup by Nativity 6’3 senior forward, Ben Sipes, prompted yet another Lancaster Country Day timeout with 4:11 left before intermission with the Cougars looking upward at a 20-7 deficit.

Ironically though, in keeping with more of the first quarter’s prevailing themes, the Cougars would appear to have an answer for this current bit of Hilltoppers’ momentum too.

Sure enough, following a pair of 3-balls sunk by Kumah and Christian Hoin respectively in successive fashion, Country Day was able to get back within single figures at 24-15 with just inside of three minutes left to play in the opening half at that time.

But speaking of runs, Nativity would author a back-breaker of their own inside those final few minutes as key 6-0 Hilltoppers’ flurry to close the second quarter proceedings, punctuated by a floater in the lane to beat the first half buzzer from 5’9 freshman guard, Ty Kaunas, allowed the defending state champs to once again double-up their adversaries at 30-15 as both squads attempted to recalibrate themselves inside their respective dressing rooms for the halftime respite.

Suffice to say, if there was one prevailing theme that had overlaid the opening 16 minutes of this one, it was undoubtedly the work that Nativity was able to do as a collective unit to stymie the scoring prowess of Country Day’s Grant Landis. Simply put, holding down a career 1,000-point scorer is a chore far often easier said than actually done. Even still, arduous task or not, Nativity was warm to that fight considering that the Hilltoppers were able to lean on their lethal matchup-zone in keeping tabs on Landis at seemingly every waking moment. That said however, keeping Landis under wraps for the entirety of the night didn’t seem all that likely. And sure enough, on the Cougars’ opening offensive possession of the third quarter, the Cougars’ senior guard was able to at long last finally crack into the scoring column with one of his trademark triples, a 3-ball which helped get Country Day back within a dozen, 30-18, with nearly all the third frame yet to be played.

This time though, Nativity’s next barrage would prove to be lethal.

Here, with momentum perhaps starting to teeter back in the direction of Lancaster Country Day following what could have been Landis opening the floodgates for both he and his mates, Nativity’s Cody Miller simply wasn’t having any of that. To be more precise, the Hilltoppers’ 6’2 senior guard proceeded to bury a triumvirate of beautiful, yet back-breaking triples in successive fashion, all of which took place before he would later take his act inside the arc by finishing off a breakaway layup in transition as Miller’s personal 11-0 jaunt forced Country Day to burn yet another timeout, this time down by a 41-18 difference with 5:05 left in the third.

But Miller wasn’t done there.

In fact, not long after his 11-0 exploits did the senior sniper offer up another personal rally, this of the 5-0 variety, as Miller’s 16-point third quarter helped pave the way for his game-high 18-point outburst once the night was over with. And oh yeah, he didn’t mind getting into things defensively either considering his rejection of a would-be Country Day shot at the third quarter horn which helped punctuate arguably one of the best quarters that anyone in the entire state tourney can try and lay claim to personally as Nativity was able to roll into the final period with decisive ownership of the 53-23 cushion, much obliged to the handiwork of one Cody Miller.

Granted, with the Mercy Rule already having been triggered given the 30-point difference prior to the start of the final eight minutes of play, the outcome here was all but a formality. And while that may be true, it wasn’t as if the last batch of eight minutes would be devoid of storylines to try and follow.

For that, it’s easy to point to a nice move inside by Country Day’s Logan Lee, as the Cougars’ departing senior was able to forever tally his name into the scorebook of a state tournament contest. Ironically though, on the Hilltoppers’ very next trip down the floor, one of their senior big men would enjoy that very same distinction as well. In that regard, one of the loudest roars that came inside Cedar Crest’s “Cage” all night long was contributed once Nativity 6’6 senior center, Liam Reiley, was able to author a powerful move inside against Cougars’ D as the big man’s bucket from point-blank range was cause for even more celebration as far as the throngs of green-clad folks who had ventured to the southern edge of Lebanon on this evening were most concerned.  

And once the final buzzer sounded not long after, it left little doubt as to what had taken place over the previous 32 minutes of play as Nativity was able to roar into the Elite Eight round of the PIAA-1A field for a date against fellow Lancaster County-based outfit, Mount Calvary Christian, on Tuesday night following their impressive 58-32 triumph over Lancaster Country Day.

“We were sloppy with the ball tonight. There’s no doubt about it. We were playing a little faster than we’d like to play,” Country Day head coach Jon Shultz acknowledged while standing outside his team’s locker room late Friday night after their season had just ended. “(Nativity) was playing this little 2-3 matchup zone and we haven’t seen anything like that this year. That’s a pretty advanced team for single-A basketball. They’re the state champs and they have a good program,” he lauded of the Hilltoppers and their collective gameplan which had caused some trepidation on LCD’s part offensively. “We worked on that in practice, but it’s hard to replicate 6’6, 6’7, even 6’2 guards that are long like that.”

Of course, while Nativity’s work collectively was strong at locking down most everyone in a Cougars’ uniform, something best evidenced by the fact that no Country Day player was able to reach double figures on this particular night, limiting Grant Landis to just six points was arguably one of the key ingredients which had helped Nativity live to see another night in the state bracket.

“We’re gonna miss his points,” Shultz admitted regarding his departing senior guard. “We’re gonna miss that threat to where teams really have to guard him and have eyes on him. He’s had a pretty stellar career offensively. Where do we fill those points in? If we can get three, four guys to pick that up, we’ll see. That’s what the offseason is all about.”  

Speaking of which, while the sting of seeing a state tournament run abruptly end was there, it should be dully noted that Shultz was equally enthused to offer his long-term forecast on where he feels his Country Day program stood at the end of their 2021-22 campaign once asked.

“For the program, I’m extremely happy. This is my fourth-year. These seniors this year were freshmen when I started. When they were freshmen, only one of them played any varsity at all, Grant Landis. He had 19 points total his freshman year. We had a good team that won the district title that year. Then in their sophomore year, they took their lumps, won seven games. Last year, we won 10, then this year we won 17. As a program, I’m thrilled. They’ve stuck with it, stuck with the system. All of those freshmen except for one made it through and there was nine of them,” said Shultz. “Next year, we got three starters back, so yeah, I’m really pleased with where we’re headed.”

And while Lancaster Country Day may not steal all the headlines inside the L-L League on a consistent, every day basis, one would be foolish to not acknowledge that the Cougars have turned themselves into one of the highest-achieving programs on a perennial basis found anywhere from within the conference. Suffice to say, if the only head man that the program has ever known from their time in the L-L League is excited about the outlook of the future, despite the elimination of Section Five and the reinstallation of four sections and everything that comes with it next season, buying Lancaster Country Day stock sooner rather than later seems like a pretty sound and wise investment to add to your portfolio.

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