Octorara Finishes Strong, Silences Solanco As Braves Begin Playoff Push With Crossover Victory
Written by: Andy Herr on Friday, January 17th, 2020
As crazy as it is to believe, just one look at the calendar likely causes more than a few teams in the Lancaster-Lebanon League to recognize that their season has now reached its bewitching hour. Not the least of which likely just so happened to be the Octorara Braves.
For the Braves, a school in their sophomore season in terms of being L-L League members, a season that began with so much promise has certainly been rather perplexing to say the least. To be sure, while it had appeared that the Braves could’ve rightly entertained the thought of playing inside Hershey’s Giant Center for the right to play for the District 3-4A championship game early on in the campaign, Octorara’s season has instead mimicked some of the world-famous roller coasters found inside Hersheypark itself.
And while Octorara still may very well end up snatching a bid into the tournament before embarking on a quest that they certainly hope eventually does indeed lead them to the Giant Center, the Braves most certainly needed to get started immediately in terms of righting the ship and snapping out of their existing L-L League hex considering that the Braves entered Thursday night while lugging around a 1-5 league record dating back to their December 18th setback at the hands of Lampeter-Strasburg. Yet even for all their hardships of late, Octorara was still well within striking distance of securing a berth into the field considering that the Braves entered the evening as the #11-seed in a tournament that only takes ten participants.
So, first on the docket in terms of Octorara assignments came a trip to Quarryville to tangle with the Solanco Golden Mules, a squad starving for any type of success considering the Mules’ last win of any kind came two weeks before the Christmas holiday.
In the early going on Thursday night once things got underway, you would’ve been hard-pressed to believe that Solanco was a ballclub that entered the evening with a lengthy losing skid to their name. In fact, the Golden Mules started off exactly that, golden, as a sweet dish from senior guard, Jalen Henry, to a streaking freshman guard, Tyler Burger, pushed the Mules out of the chute to the 7-3 lead just 2:15 into the contest.
From there however, Octorara was able to withstand the Golden Mules’ early punch by promptly retaliating right back with by proceeding to go on a 7-2 jaunt over the course of the next two minutes and change as a confident spot-up jumper knocked down by Octorara 6’7 junior forward, Naji Hamilton, gave the visiting Braves the 10-9 lead with 3:40 now left to play in the opening period.
But the Braves’ early charge only grew onward and upward from there.
In fact, after stymieing the Mules on Solanco’s next offensive possession, the Octorara lead would then swell up to three as a smooth baseline drive courtesy of 6’0 junior forward, Phillip Brandon, gave the visitors from Chester County the 12-9 advantage with Solanco forced to take their second timeout of the first quarter with 3:10 still left to tick off the clock in order to stop the Mules’ early bleeding.
But to their credit, it would now prove to Solanco’s turn in terms of coming out the other side of an Octorara rally.
Sure enough, the Mules would be able to mount a charge in hopes of overtaking the lead as 3-ball pumped in Solanco 6’1 junior swingman, Colesen Shaeffer, got the Mules within a point at 16-15 with just a shade over one-minute left to play in the first quarter.
Ironically, speaking of 3-balls, the Mules’ last one of the opening period would have registered as a perfect 10, even by the Russian judge no less if scores were being handed out in terms of dramatics considering 5’10 freshman guard, Tyler Burger, proceeded to kiss one off the glass just past the halfcourt line, making things all square at 18-18 just mere seconds before the first quarter buzzer sounded.
In the second quarter, both Octorara and Solanco took their turns at trading volleys back and forth against one another yet again.
In fact, just when a Tyler Burger runner in the lane gave the Solanco the 20-18 lead on the Mules’ first offensive trip inside the second stanza, Octorara would come roaring right back as an old-fashioned three-point play authored by Naji Hamilton, capped off the Braves’ impromptu 5-0 blitz, giving the visitors the 23-20 cushion with 6:17 left to play before the half.
But even though Solanco would refuse to let Octorara simply run away and hide – perhaps best evidenced by a pair of Colesen Shaeffer buckets tallied in successive fashion which cut Octorara’s lead down to just a pair at 26-24 – the Braves would be able to maintain their distance over the final few minutes of the second quarter as a timely put-back by Octorara 6’3 senior forward, Matt Keating, helped usher the Braves into the halftime recess with ownership of the 31-26 lead.
Once again though, even with a brand-new second half getting set to commence, the prevailing theme of the opening half seemed to take shape once again once the third quarter rolled around as well.
Case in point, a pair of trifectas sunk by Solanco 6’1 junior forward, Ryan Smith, getting the Golden Mules back to within a point at 33-32 not even two minutes into the second half. From there though, Solanco just kept coming. In fact, the Golden Mules finally saw themselves on level footing with their guests once again as a Zed Baker put-back — good for two of the 5’11 junior guard’s team-high 16 points on the evening – made it a tie ball game once again at 35-35, only to see a cold-blooded Jason Brown jumper on the Braves’ next trip down the floor give the lead right back to Octorara within the blink of an eye.
Over the course of the next few minutes however, the Golden Mules would finally be able to put together their best stretch of ball that had played up until that point. And rest assured, it likely felt like a barrage that couldn’t have come at a more opportune time.
When starting out on a run, you must first have one who turns on the ignition. Well, in that regard, the Mules turned a familiar face, their grizzled veteran if you will, Zed Baker, with the Solanco junior coming up magnificently just when his squad needed him most.
In the waning minutes of the third quarter on Thursday night, Baker would be able to rattle off his very own 5-0 blitzkrieg for a key exchange that helped propel the Golden Mules out to the 40-37 lead with just under three minutes now left to play in the third frame as the Solanco’s famed student section, “The Black Hole,” roared with their approval as well.
And while Octorara 5’10 senior point guard, Keith Lambert, would be able to cash in on a crucial triple to aid the Braves’ cause after being left all by his lonesome on an inbounds play later on which knotted things back up at 40-40 shortly thereafter, the Golden Mules would ultimately be able to race into the final period with the 44-41 lead following a put-back from point-blank range by guess who, Zed Baker, just moments before the third quarter horn blared out.
Without a shadow of a doubt, seeing Octorara and Solanco continue to trade jabs back and forth with one another inside the fourth quarter likely would not have been a surprise to anyone in attendance given how the first three quarters had played themselves out. Sure enough, the fourth quarter on Thursday night did indeed prove to emulate its earlier predecessors.
For further evidence on that very notion, just consider the handful of opening plays that helped define and shape the final period. First up, a Colesen Shaeffer drive to the rack for Solanco, giving the Mules the 46-43 advantage, only to see that later be refuted by a runner in the lane courtesy of Keith Lambert – good for a pair of his game-high 20-point outing – giving Octorara lead back, albeit by the slimmest of margins, 47-46. Yet here again though, Solanco stormed right back and refused to give nary an inch to Octorara, as a Zed Baker bucket inside gave the lead right back to the Golden Mules at 48-47 with five minutes left to play in regulation.
Suffice to say, with the neither team being able to distance themselves by more than eyelash throughout much of the evening, any and all buckets at this critical juncture could have very likely been coined as being “large.” Well, in that regard, look no further than an absolutely lethal, cold-blooded triple rung up by Octorara 6’2 sophomore guard, James Taylor, a crucial bucket which catapulted the Braves back into the lead at 53-50 with the game now inside two minutes left to play.
Yet once again, Solanco proved to be an itch that Octorara couldn’t seem to totally scratch all the way through, as a put-back by Solanco’s Ryan Smith on the Mules’ next offensive possession trimmed the Octorara lead back down to one at 53-52 with just 1:30 left to play.
But when speaking of big plays, there was none bigger throughout the entirety of the night that would prove to be any larger – both literally and figuratively – than the one that Naji Hamilton was about to author.
With Octorara largely meeting their match in terms of the Mules’ zone defense employed against them all night long, communication and athleticism for either team would likely rue the day in terms of what was about to take place given the Braves inbounding the ball underneath the Solanco basket while nursing the one-point lead with under a minute to go. Well, sure enough, a breakdown in communication led to an absolutely magnificent display in terms of athleticism as the human pogo-stick, Naji Hamilton, rose up and received the picture-perfect lob pass thrown in his general vicinity before springing to his feet and letting Sir Isaac Newton’s law of gravity do the rest, as the emphatic two-handed flush by Hamilton off the inbound set gave Octorara the 55-52 cushion.
So, with Solanco needing to answer the dinner bell immediately in terms of responding to the Octorara haymaker landed across their collective temples, the Mules’ progress was handicapped significantly in the aftermath of Hamilton’s powerful throwdown as Solanco failed to even reach the halfcourt line before committing a turnover on their ensuing offensive possession. From there, yet another breakdown in communication by the Mules defensively led to a wide-open Octorara run-out on the ensuing inbounds play, as a subsequent Phillip Brandon lay-in — with Brandon racing to the rack in full gallop — gave the Braves the now commanding 57-52 lead heading down the final stretch. And with Solanco once again coming up empty-handed on the Mules’ next trip down the floor offensively, a pair of freebies knocked down at the charity stripe by way of Octorara’s Phillip Brandon with 21.4 seconds left to go helped seal Solanco’s fate the rest of the way as the Braves would be able to hold off a valiant and remarkably courageous fight offered by the Golden Mules the entire way on Thursday night, 61-52.
As mentioned earlier, the Octorara Braves had certainly stubbed their toe a time or two when taking on fellow Lancaster-Lebanon League competition as of late given their one win in their last half dozen league outings. Needless to say, seeing his team come out on the positive side of the ledger was a sight for sore eyes as far as Octorara head coach Gene Lambert was concerned afterwards in Quarryville.
“We executed better at the end,” the Braves’ longtime head coach said after assessing how his team ultimately withstood Solanco’s very game challenge. “We executed on that out of bounds play where Naji (Hamilton) got the dunk. That was executed well, finally. And then we made foul shots at the end,” Lambert went on to add.
“At Northern Lebanon, (Northern Lebanon) made all their foul shots and we didn’t make all of ours, so that was tough. And you know, Northern Lebanon played great and Solanco played hard. Every night, you’re going to be in a battle,” said Lambert while evaluating his program’s still relatively new surroundings in terms of now being a willing L-L participant. “I’m looking at the other (L-L League) sections too and it’s the same way. Every night you’re in a battle.”
And while Thursday night’s triumph was big in terms of helping quench the Braves’ of picking up a league win over yet another formidable L-L foe, it was equally, nay, perhaps even more valuable considering where the Braves began the night in terms of the District 3 playoff race. But if you’re wondering as to whether the Braves’ contingent is constantly biting their fingernails over their current positioning, you clearly don’t know Octorara all that well.
“They know when we’re not playing well,” Lambert said succinctly of his team and their general awareness of the Braves’ situation at large. “I said, ‘The bottom line is, you don’t want to go to districts when you’re not playing well. You don’t deserve to go to districts when you’re not playing well. You don’t want to just slide in. So, we have to be playing our best basketball when it comes time for that time.’ I also told them, ‘Now we’re in the home stretch, so we have to play better now and continue to get better.’”
“Today was a big win,” Octorara’s boss concluded proudly before speaking even more truth when he mentioned in closing, “This was a game that we could have just as easily lost.”
But because they did indeed prevail on the road at Solanco, the Braves and their passionate fanbase can keep those playoff aspirations alive and well for yet another night.
“We want to be comfortably in,” Lambert said regarding Octorara’s desired positioning once the District 3 playoff brackets are ultimately finalized and unveiled. “We want to have a home game. That’s the goal. We want to get that first one at our place where it’s tough to play and then we’ll see what happens.”
NEXT UP: What happens next most specifically for Octorara is a Saturday evening tilt against Kennett out of Octorara’s old stomping grounds, District 1, at home in the Braves’ house of horrors in Atglen. Then, following their weekend tussle against the Blue Demons, the Braves will make arrangements to entertain the ELCO Raiders back at home on Tuesday evening before taking their show back out on the road for three consecutive outings when Octorara squares off with the likes of Lancaster Catholic, Pequea Valley and Donegal in successive fashion for a key stretch of games that will either help solidify or possibly dash Octorara’s postseason aspirations.
For Solanco, the Golden Mules unfortunately must go right back to the drawing board. From here, Solanco remains at home in the friendly confines of their gym while in search for that elusive first win since December 13th when the Mules prepare to host the Garden Spot Spartans on Tuesday evening. After that, the gauntlet certainly gets no easier considering the Mules then finish with the likes of L-S, Cocalico and Manheim Central the second time around in Section Three competition before an excursion over to York County to match up with Eastern York before closing things out with Senior Night against Warwick. And while it’s certainly fair to say that this season has not turned out the way in which those in the Mules’ camp had certainly hoped for, the signs of progress just this week alone were certainly more than visible to the naked eye considering Solanco fought tooth and nail the entire way on Thursday night, just 96 hours after spotting rival Lampeter-Strasburg a 27-5 lead in the first quarter on Monday evening.
Sometimes, when trying to construct a culture, fight is the cement that ultimately holds everything together. Well, if the last few days are to serve as any indication for the future yet to come, the cold winter nights may not feel all that cold in the very near future. After all, tallying wins on a consistent and routine basis likely feels far better than the warmth that any roaring fire could possible offer.
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