Octorara Erases Early Deficit, Storms Past Northern Lebanon As Braves Complete Series Sweep
Written by: Andy Herr on Friday, February 5th, 2021
We all knew heading into the 2020-21 high school basketball season that things were inevitably going to be different. Truth is however, I don’t think we really understood what exactly that really meant.
For the Lancaster-Lebanon League, the conference’s tournament is without a shadow of a doubt the best league tournament going in all of District 3. After all, how can you go wrong when you can pluck the top two teams from each of the league’s five sections, bring them all together, and stage a six-day war between ten worthy squads to see who truly can lay claim to having the best team inside the confines of either Lancaster or Lebanon County? Hard to pass up, right? Well, not if COVID-19 happens to be pulling the strings of course.
To be fair, everyone also knew going in that shutdowns and startups would also come with the territory once this season got underway. And while that sentiment continued to remain true throughout, the sheer number of teams forced to either go into quarantine themselves or lose a game here or there at no fault of their own due to outstanding circumstances, the possibility of rescheduling games before the mandatory cutoff dates for postseason play looms ever more arduous with each passing day it seems. So, as a result, while still unofficial, all indications appear to point to the L-L League taking section champions only as the prerequisite for making it into this season’s conference tournament. Long story short, in some sections, the race for the top two spots was never going to look any different regardless of what the decision ultimately ends up being. For others, it makes a world of difference. Take L-L Section Four for example.
For as much turmoil and unexpectedness that 2020-21 has brought to the table, one thing still appears to unphased by a global pandemic. That of course being the Lancaster Catholic Crusaders running roughshod over their divisional competition, all but assuring themselves of another section crown this season barring an unprecedented and unforeseen collapse heading down the final stretch of the regular season. Behind them however was a logjam to end all logjams. Located inside the congestion? Octorara and Northern Lebanon.
No matter how many teams do end up making it into the field this year, don’t bother telling that to Northern Lebanon. At least not on Wednesday night mind you.
On Wednesday evening, the Vikings were able to pull off their biggest win of the season up until that point, knocking off archival rival ELCO for a gritty 51-45 victory against a Raiders team that was arguably the darling of the entire L-L League heading into this past week given their laundry list of impressive exploits. With the win, Northern Lebanon then got within a game of second place, something that either may or may not end up being a critical position depending on the league’s final call. So, suffice to say, 24 hours later against Octorara would then loom even larger in the Vikings’ next outing.
Speaking of Octorara, they too found themselves tied amongst the demolition derby of second place teams heading into the evening. Ironically, the Braves’ last triumph also just so happened to come against ELCO as well when the Braves rolled into Myerstown and ran home with the surprising 50-45 road win at the beginning of last week.
All that being said, regardless of whether or not Thursday night’s tussle in Fredericksburg would end up being a moot point as far as the league playoffs are concerned, both teams still entered the evening holding out hope for a possible District 3 tournament bid in their 4A and 5A fields respectively. Oh, and if that wasn’t already enough, consider that the distances on the map between Northern Lebanon and Octorara’s high school campuses lie roughly an hour and a half apart from one another, easily the greatest distance between two divisional foes in the entire L-L League. In the end however, it would prove to be Octorara who would go on to enjoy all the spoils of that roughly 60-mile journey back home to Chester County late on Thursday night.
It certainly didn’t start out that way though. Not when you consider that the visitors from Atglen found themselves on the opposite end of a 12-0 Northern Lebanon rally –the last five of which came courtesy of Vikings’ 5’6 junior guard, Peyton Wolfe—giving the hosts the 12-2 cushion with 4:13 left in the opening period as Octorara was forced to call a timeout and regroup. Unfortunately, as far as the Braves’ contingent was concerned, there would be no regrouping whatsoever over the next few minutes seeing as how the Vikes proceeded to expand their lead out to a dozen at 17-5 following the fourth Northern Lebanon trifecta of the initial frame –this one from 6’0 senior forward, Ian Herman—with two minutes now left to play in the first quarter.
And while Octorara would only be able to cross the double-digit threshold near the one-minute mark of the period thanks to a determined take to the rack from 5’9 freshman guard, Zach Kirk, making it a 20-10 ballgame, the Vikings answered right back with their fifth triple of the opening eight minutes as an Owen Treadway long-range bomb capped off Northern Lebanon’s dizzying first quarter effort, ushering the Vikings into the second quarter in command with ownership of the 23-10 advantage.
The one thing Northern Lebanon was about to receive a lesson on if they hadn’t already figured it out? Putting Octorara away for good is a chore far easier said than actually done.
To their credit, Octorara’s comeback bid was slow and methodical. So much so in fact that their persistence could have been perceived as consistent body blows to the Vikings’ collective psyche as the second quarter wore along. Case in point, a tough, man-sized Naji Hamilton take to the rack to get the Braves within shouting distance at 25-14 with 3:45 left before the half as the Braves’ physically imposing 6’8 senior center was able to put forth just one example of how he was able to patrol the paint all game long on both ends of the floor. From there, Octorara continued to keep on pushing as a 5-0 run courtesy of 6’1 senior guard, Phillip Brandon, made it a 27-19 affair in favor of the hosts with 1:40 now left to play before intermission.
Eventually, for as well as Northern Lebanon had played on both the offensive and defensive ends throughout much of the first 16 minutes, their lead only stood at a half dozen, 27-21, once both teams retired to their respective locker rooms for the halftime respite.
At the onset of the third quarter, Octorara simply kept on coming.
Ignited by a pair of Naji Hamilton buckets inside to start the proceedings, the Braves suddenly found themselves within two in the early going, down 29-27, as Northern Lebanon called yet another timeout during an Octorara rally. Shortly thereafter, the Braves were finally able to capture their first lead of the night since it was 2-0 in their favor following a trifecta rained down by 5’9 senior guard, Josh Wallace, making it a 30-29 Braves’ advantage at the 3:30 mark of the third quarter. On the night, while the Braves would get steady contributions from all members of their backcourt, Wallace would be the one to do the lion’s share of the scoring, finishing with a splendid 21-point outburst. From there, Octorara only continued to exacerbate the Vikings’ open wound as an old-fashioned three-point play from Hamilton put the Braves up by a half dozen, 37-31, before the guests were able to steamroll into the final stanza with the commanding 42-33 lead. Speaking of scoring, there would be none better in terms of one donning an Octorara jersey on Thursday evening than the Braves’ towering inside presence, as Naji Hamilton went on to finish the night by capturing game-high scoring honors with an emphatic 23-point showing.
Speaking of Naji Hamilton, he was up to his old tricks once the fourth quarter got underway as well. Case in point, his abuse of a Northern Lebanon rim in the early moments of the final period as Hamilton’s one-handed dunk made it a 20-point Octorara lead at 50-30, before a triple sunk by Wallace on the Braves’ ensuing offensive trip gave Octorara their largest lead of the evening, 53-30, with just under five minutes left to go.
And while the hometown Vikings would get solid contributions down the final stretch with a bevy of positive moments that included a strong take to the cup from 5’10 senior guard, Rasheed Beldor, a sweet Euro-step bucket courtesy of 5’11 senior guard, Gavin Rollman, and a hoop plus the harm from another Northern Lebanon senior, Aiden Zechman, the damage put forth by Octorara from the waning moments of the first quarter onward proved far too great to overcome as Octorara was able to head home happy by virtue of their 65-48 final triumph over Northern Lebanon.
Granted, while Octorara was ultimately able to win going away, it was even more remarkable considering that the Braves were able to put forth such an effort while essentially only playing three “good” quarters of ball on Thursday night. In some ways however, such a sluggish start might have been predicted.
“Honestly, we had been off. Yesterday was our only practice since our game on Saturday,” longtime Octorara head coach Gene Lambert said following his team’s victory in the nether regions of Lebanon County late Thursday evening. “Then, you have two guys who aren’t playing (Cole Shatto and Elijah Hamilton) that start, so the other guys have to get used to trying to do what they need to do. I give them credit because they did,” Lambert went on to say of his bench players thrust into starring roles against Northern Lebanon. “Defensively, in the second quarter, we held (Northern Lebanon) to four points and that’s what we needed to do. They can shoot the ball, especially in their gym. Those Northern Lebanon kids play hard and they do a good job. That’s a good team we just played.”
Ironically, with their win against Northern Lebanon, Octorara suddenly positioned themselves into a solid stance to capture the second seed out of L-L Section Four should the Braves be able to handle their own internal business the rest of the way. As mentioned however, that may all be for not in terms of the league playoff picture in just a few weeks’ time. Even still, Coach Lambert was eager to get out a plea to the parties that be.
“I just hope that they give more kids a chance,” said Lambert about opening the field up to its prototypical ten-team format. “In this pandemic, it’s one game. Okay, if you lose, you’re out. I mean, we made it this far. If teams don’t want to play, that’s on them. I think it’s kind of like the college football bowls…If we made the league playoffs, our kids would be so happy,” Lambert went to say. “I know the league has to do what they have to do, but I just think that they should add on some games.”
Lastly, as far as that that three-hour trip up Fredericksburg and back is concerned? Well, even though the Braves have made the trek for a few years now, three to be exact, it’s a road trip that still doesn’t seem to get any more normal with age, nor will it.
“No, you never get used to this trip and it’ll never get normal,” Lambert said with a laugh before preparing to leave the gym late Thursday night. “To be fair, (Northern Lebanon) won’t either. The thing is, when you’re traveling this far, you know you’re going to have a good game. When they come to us, they know we’re going to give them a game. When we come up here, we know it’s going to be a game. I’m fine with traveling an hour and a half if we know it’s going to be a good ballgame.”
“We played very well for three quarters tonight,” Octorara’s head man added in closing. “Usually though, things start changing up here with it being a nice gym and everything and you just never really know.”
NEXT UP: What Octorara does know is that they will return to their home floor on Friday night when they welcome Cocalico into town for a crossover tilt in a rescheduled game against an Eagles’ squad eager to play this week after witnessing their two original opponents, Lampeter-Strasburg and Solanco, having to bow out due to COVID protocols. From there, it will be an interesting close to the regular season slate for the Braves to be sure. First, a road trip to face off with a very dangerous Manheim Central crew. From there, “The Brave Bowl” series against bitter rival, Pequea Valley, before finishing off with two impressive teams hailing from the Section Three ranks in Garden Spot and L-S respectively. Needless to say, if the Braves are able to earn a ticket to any one of the postseason dances, they will most certainly have earned it.
On the other side of the coin, Northern Lebanon will also take their shot at Cocalico as well when the Vikings welcome the Eagles into the cozy confines the very next night on Saturday. Speaking of a closing stretch, Northern Lebanon’s is no less daunting considering that the road ahead as of now is filled with nothing but Section Three crossover competition coming on the heels of their Monday night game at Donegal, a game in which the Vikings prevailed by an eight-point margin, 61-53, in the first meeting between two way back on January 8th.
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