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New-Look Cougars Fall Just Short Of Completing Miracle Comeback As Lancaster Country Day Exits To High Point Baptist In District 3-1A Quarterfinal Round, Leaving No Margin For Error In Upcoming Consolation Bracket Journey

New-Look Cougars Fall Just Short Of Completing Miracle Comeback As Lancaster Country Day Exits To High Point Baptist In District 3-1A Quarterfinal Round, Leaving No Margin For Error In Upcoming Consolation Bracket Journey

Written by: Andy Herr on February 23, 2024


Typically, one would rightly equate receiving a postseason bid with that of a continuation of sorts in terms of your overall regular season legwork. And while that would indeed be the case and should not in any way diminish what Lancaster Country Day was able to achieve in the wake of their 14-8 overall record that culminated in the Cougars claiming the #2 seed into the District 3-1A field this season, the elephant in the room as far as they were concerned heading into their Thursday night playoff opener against High Point Baptist really took the form of a 6’0 junior guard rather than an actual four-legged mammal with tusks.

His name is Chris Dukes. And suffice to say, the southpaw largely took Lancaster-Lebanon League Section Four, if not the entire league in some regards, by storm this winter in ripping off a 17-point-per-game average in his initial foray wearing a Country Day uniform. However, while Dukes would finish the months of December through early to mid-February by leading his fellow Cougars in scoring, due to the 11th-grader falling victim to the PIAA transfer policy that now forces him exit stage right and miss the entirety of the postseason, Country Day would be without the services of their top-scorer at the most critical point of the season to make the situation very black and white.

Granted, while there understandably figured to be a bit of a learning curve when High Point came calling in the 1A quarterfinal round on Thursday night, it’s equally important to note that the Cougars were anything but a one-trick pony this year.

Yes, while Dukes’ absence left a major void in the Country Day rotation with a bid to the state tourney anything but locked up at this point, there were still plenty of other pieces in which sixth-year Country Day head man, Jon Shultz, a district champ during his early tenure already, could lean on here. Chief among them being the other stud in the LCD backcourt, Jordan Ashby, as the 5’10 sophomore guard seems to contain all the intangibles and overall scoring explosiveness that figures to make Ashby a household name to remember inside L-L League circles as his career until continues to ramp up form here on out. From there, there’s Kane Kirby, a Swiss Army knife of sorts who can be a multi-level scorer with a pretty impressive wingspan defensively to boot. Beyond that, as Country Day so oft seems to have at their disposal, a “big” man who simply puts his head and mixes it up inside, this role played by all of 6’2 Ben Sponaugle this season, gave Country Day more than their fair share of weaponry, yes, despite losing an incredibly key piece to the puzzle. And oh by the way, even though we’re talking about the 2024 postseason most specifically, let us not lose sight that there is not one Cougar on the entire roster this season. Just food for thought is all.

But in many ways, perhaps that was most fitting. For a team trying to start anew in a sense, starting fresh against this particular opponent, High Point Baptist, was certainly a welcomed challenge for Country Day to try and partake of out the gate in District 3 play considering that the Eagles were able to get the better of the Cougars –in Parent’s Fieldhouse no less- by a 67-60 verdict exactly two weeks prior.

Yet in the end, while the margin would be closer by comparison in this the second go ‘round, it would only prove to be just a brand-new chapter in the exact same book between these two nonconference foes albeit written 14 days apart.

Right from the opening tap, it seemed evident that both teams were somewhat stuck in the mud offensively. In fact, it took the hosts upwards of two minutes –and a handful of possessions within that span—before tallying their first field goal which came to fruition once the one tasked with trying to fill the bulk of Dukes’ minutes, Cam Harris, sunk a 3-ball, as the 6’1 freshman guard made it an early 5-2 Country Day lead with 5:50 left in the opening frame.

But from there on out as far as the initial eight minutes were concerned, both the Cougars and Eagles find some shared rhythms while operating on the offensive end.

Over the span of the next two minutes, High Point would take command of the scoreboard via a 4-0 spurt that was punctuated with an Austin May take to the cup, making it a 6-5 Eagles’ advantage, before a quick 5-0 personal rebuttal conversely tossed in by Jordan Ashby promptly put Country Day back in front at a 10-6 count over the ensuing few Cougars’ trips down the floor.

Speaking of exclusive 5-0 runs, High Point saw Ashby’s and immediately decided to follow suit.

Well, technically it would be Nehemiah Seifert the primary party to follow suit as the High Point senior wing notched five straight Eagles’ points which saw the blue-clad guests surge back to the pole position.

Fittingly, for an opening quarter that saw both teams mimic each other –both in the good and not so good variety – it seemed rather apropos that the first quarter would cease to exist with the score knotted up at 12-apeice between these small private school comrades.

Yet back and forth the volleys only continued to be lobbed inside of the second stanza as well.

Just when High Point was able to generate some separation, such as riding on the backs of Nate Lewis and Seifert respectively following their 3-ball plus steal and finish in respective fashion that gave the Eagles a 19-15 lead, a layup in transition put home by Cam Harris for the Country Day contingent made things all square once again at 19-19 with 3:18 left in the opening half. And while they may have had to wait just a little while longer, a leak-out bucket notched by way of Lancaster Country Day 5’9 sophomore guard, Connor McCaster, who was totally forgotten about and inside of his own area code behind the High Point defense, eventually put the Cougars back into the lead at a 24-23 count with roughly 90 seconds remaining before intermission.

Timely runs though. That’s what High Point brought to the table from there on out on Thursday night at Parent’s Fieldhouse against Country Day.

Throughout the first 15 minutes, it felt as if High Point was the more polished, methodical team who didn’t have to work nearly as hard for their buckets when contrasted directly against Country Day. Easy to assume all things considered if you suddenly remove a key piece from the Country Day lineup of course as stated off top, but it was largely the Cougars’ propensity for the bigger splash plays that kept them within reach while their guests were largely unable to insert an early dagger of sorts. But, with the shoe appearing to be on the other foot inside the waning stages of the second period, it would be High Point’s turn to dial up the dramatics.

Sure enough, directly on the heels of the McCaster bunny which put Country Day out in front, a surefire trifecta splashed home by High Point sophomore guard, Reagan Wodicka, put the Eagles to the front. Then, on their very next offensive trip and with time running slim, an additional High Point 3-ball, this one fired home by another 10th grader, Carlos Torres, gave the Eagles an understandable pep in their step as the proceeded to stroll into the halftime break with the spoils of a 29-24 lead to their benefit.

Despite their shortcomings found particularly on the defensive end of the floor in the latter stages of the second quarter most especially that saw them surrender the lead, it was visible to even an elementary-schooled audience that getting after it defensively was the primary topic of conversation back in the Country Day locker room during the recess. So, by turning up the dial and forcing High Point to feel perhaps the most uncomfortable they had been at any moment up until that point in the contest, a silky smooth pullup jumper sunk by Jordan Ashby, the game-high scorer on the evening by a nine-point margin that came in tossing in a 20-point showing, made it a 30-29 Cougars’ cushion with 2:20 having ticked off the third quarter clock with both facets of Country Day’s game appearing to finally work in harmony with one another.

Until they weren’t.

Sure enough, in a movie they had to feel as if they had seen just moments earlier, a pair of back-to-back High Point triples knocked down by way of Austin May and Carlos Torres respectively, allowed the Eagles to have another opportunity in playing with the lead following the six-point swing which made it a 35-30 ballgame.

It would prove to be a lead they would never relinquish the rest of the way home.

The problem for Country Day? That the Eagles’ stellar shooting from beyond the arc wasn’t exactly leaving them.  

No, not when Torres and Nick Harris proceeded to take their turns in hoisting from deep right afterwards which then cemented the somewhat rare feat of a team sinking four consecutive field goals by way of the three-point stripe as the final trifecta in the High Point quadruple effort made it a 41-30 Eagles’ lead with 2:54 left to go in the third frame.

Here again though, while High Point may have been flirting with the idea of potentially running away and hiding following this recent onslaught in particular, Country Day just kept hanging around and hanging around. A prevailing theme for the remainder of the evening as it turned out.

Needing to score in the worst possible way, Country Day gave the ball over to Jordan Ashby. Smart choice as not only did Ashby at least stop the bleeding for his fellow troops with a bucket to end the Eagles’ scoring explosion which made it a 43-32 difference with 2:12 left, but he would then come right back to the dinner table with a delicious triple to then follow that up as Ashby’s latest bit of yeoman’s work on the offensive end helped the Cougars stay within shouting distance at 46-37 come the conclusion of the period despite LCD falling victim to a litany of High Point haymakers levied against them inside the third quarter that could’ve easily broke them if they weren’t careful.

Shouting distance, you say? How about Country Day turning that into a full-throated retaliatory rendition within relatively short order.

Incredibly, despite teetering on the edge countless times before it largely felt throughout Thursday night, Country Day could easily find themselves with reach as only a somewhat routine scoring salvo would be required of them. Here, the Cougars would indeed find such a run as a Jeremy Ouilikon kiss off the glass was paired rather nicely alongside a Cam Harris bucket found right behind it, meaning that the Country Day junior and freshman duo had closed the gap all the way back down to three, 48-45, with well over five minutes remaining by that time.

Needless to say, the momentum was almost exclusively wearing the Cougars’ school colors at that particular juncture. And to their credit, High Point would come up with the key exchange to ward off the oncoming Country Day freight train.

While it may only go inside the scorebook as routine two-point bucket, Carlos Torres’ take to the cup was anything but par for the course as the Eagles’ sophomore would finish alongside four other High Point teammates on the evening in finishing with an 11-point effort once the dust had finally settled. This time though, Torres’ latest deuce would push the High Point lead back up to five, 50-45, with the fourth quarter now past its halfway mark. But speaking of game-saving moments and outcome-altering plays specifically, there would be fewer larger in importance and significance than a kick-out trey knocked down by High Point’s Nick Harris as the Eagles’ junior upped his team’s lead to a half dozen at 53-47 with roughly three minutes to play.

Even still, just when those in attendance may have begun to think about packing up their belongings before heading home for the rest of the evening, Lancaster Country Day had other plans for them.

Wildly, even with all of exactly 60 seconds remaining in regulation, the Cougars continued to have a pulse. In this instance, the one administering the shock paddles was Country Day’s Ben Sponaugle, who yet again did his job in doing the dirty work amongst the much taller and physical tall trees of High Point Baptist, as the undersized 6’2 big finished through contact to trim the Eagles’ lead back to six at 57-51.

From there, even with darn near 30 additional seconds having evaporated from them as it related to their continuing bid to sneak out with a heroic victory at the last possible moment, Country Day kept hanging around the hen house, this time in the form of a 58-53 deficit following a Cam Harris stick-back at the tin, good for two more of the newest Cougars’ starter eight-point evening, with now 32.6 seconds remaining.

And once High Point continued to leave the door open, even if it was just ajar, that’s all Country Day truly needed when it came to perhaps taking full advantage.

Case in point, with the Eagles getting fouled and proceeding to split the offering at the charity stripe with Country Day already over the limit in terms of fouls, a timely Jordan Ashby trifecta on the very next Cougars’ trip that ended with the sophomore stick of dynamite sinking a 3-ball from the elbow-extended, somehow made it now a mind-bending 59-56 difference with all of 18.6 seconds remaining. Then, with High Point continuing to look queasy when it came to the Eagles trying to navigate against the Country Day extended zone –one of the primary catalysts that allowed the Cougars to lean in on their opposition down the final stretch—an unsightly High Point turnover as their patrons surely felt gave the ball back to Country Day while underneath the Eagles’ bucket with just 14.2 ticks of the clock to go.

Unfortunately for Country Day however, the Cougars had already exhausted all their previous miracles to get back within reach.

Although, it’d be hard to classify Country Day’s final field goal attempt in the miracle vernacular considering how the Cougars appeared to work the baseline-out-of-bounds play to perfection before getting an open look in the corner. That said, while the operation was a success, the patient was not so lucky as the Cougars’ final shot bounced high off the back rim, ending in a defensive rebound hauled down by High Point’s Mason Rogers with 6.2 seconds left. And to his credit, Rogers would be the High Point Baptist Eagle who finally shoved the door closed on Lancaster Country Day for good as the senior forward would knock down both in the offering, making it a final 61-56 count with High Point now playing the role of Cinderella if you will in the District 3-1A bracket as the #7 seeded team, a group who needed overtime in their initial game against Mount Calvary earlier in the week, now finds itself just 32 minutes away from competing on the enormous Giant Center stage in the 1A title game come next Wednesday afternoon.

For Country Day, while obviously bowing out in the round of eight isn’t what the Cougars had desired in being the #2 seed heading into it, their season is not yet done. However, while that is obviously a bit of good news for this group that simply needs even more tests when it comes to the postseason stage given what appears to be such a bright future, it’s now do-or-die time for them. And first up in that assignment comes a Monday night home game in the Country Day Bowl, as Lancaster Country Day readies to host York Country Day with the winner moving one step closer to states, while the loser on the other gets ready for spring sports. For Lancaster Country Day, they obviously hope that an early spring isn’t right around the corner and in their future.

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