Old Forge Pulls Out All The Stops (And Scores) As Blue Devils Get Past Lancaster Mennonite For Second Consecutive Season To Reach The PIAA-2A State Semifinals
Written by: Andy Herr on Thursday, March 17th, 2022
The following are simply cold-hard facts. The state of Pennsylvania ranks as the fifth-most populous state in all the Union. With such a distinction, it’s easy to reconcile that fact once you consider that the state is home to some roughly 13-million people and change. Not only that, but the state’s governing scholastic sports body, the PIAA, is the membership house for 583 high schools also contained within the Commonwealth who choose to actively participate in the field of athletics. Suffice to say, the state of Pennsylvania, particularly within the high school sports realm, is quite large in size and stature to be putting it mildly. Of course, if you happen to ask this year’s edition of the Lancaster Mennonite boys’ basketball team, they just might take you up on that argument. In fact, you might say that their current world happens to be especially small.
Simply put, if the Blazers found their postseason pathway to be eerily similar to that of the one which they had just embarked on one year ago, it’d be easy to see why. After all, once Mennonite was able to roll into McSherrystown and knock off Delone Catholic with a scintillating performance on the road which locked up a second consecutive berth in the district title game for the small private school quietly nestled alongside Route 30 right beside the Rockvale Outlets outside of Lancaster city a few weeks ago now, it meant yet another title fight against a blossoming rival of sorts in the District 3 ranks, the Antietam Mountaineers. Granted, while this year’s championship game wouldn’t be nearly as consequential given that both the gold and silver medalists from this contest would ultimately scoop up state tournament bids starting the next week, something left out of the equation don’t you recall last year at this time? And while the stage would be different –Hershey’s Giant Center as opposed to Lancaster Mennonite’s campus – the end-result would prove to be the same as the Blazers were the ones donning gold medals and hoisting a trophy come day’s end as Mennonite’s second straight District 3 crown over Antietam sent the Blazers into the PIAA bracket with assuredly an extra pep in their collective step.
Unlike last year though, with Mennonite receiving the automatic bye in the state quarterfinal round following their first of what would be two straight district title at the hands of Antietam, the Blazers would have some work to do this year before reaching that very same stage of the bracket.
To put it mildly, the Blazers’ journey to get Wednesday night’s Elite Eight game at Bethlehem’s Liberty High School was anything but a waltz. Case in point, the Blazers very nearly stubbing their toe right of the chute in the opening round against Windber, the second-place finisher out of District 5, as a late-game Mennonite rally on their home floor — a 73-68 final verdict by way of overtime – sent Mennonite to Cardinal O’Hara this past Sunday afternoon. There, waiting for them was the always-tricky assignment of drawing a squad from District 12, Philadelphia’s region, where the Blazers would draw Paul Robeson. And while that victory over the Huskies did get slightly hairy at times in the second half this weekend, Mennonite proved to be no worse for the wear given a 71-59 triumph.
Okay, while it’s fair to say that the odds of the same two schools facing off against one another for two straight seasons to a decide a District 3 championship game, regardless of whichever class you fancy aren’t all that great, they certainly aren’t impossible that is. Sure, but how about you parlay that with seeing the same exact team, in the same exact spot inside the state playoffs for two years in a row and then get back to me? Yes, someone place a call to Vegas please. Urgency requested.
Yes, ironically enough, after Mennonite’s triumph over Robeson on Sunday, another old nemesis from their not-too-distant past was right there waiting for them in the quarterfinal round of the state 2A bracket once again, the Old Forge Blue Devils.
Granted, while it probably would’ve been foolish for Mennonite to print a bunch of t-shirts prior to the start of the season that read something along the lines of, “We Want Old Forge,” given those aforementioned, relatively astronomical-type odds, you probably couldn’t find fault if the Blazers happened to feel that way inside over these last couple days at least. After all, getting a second-chance at rectifying the wrongs from less than one year ago were an opportunity that LMH was surely chomping at the bit to partake of come Wednesday night in Bethlehem.
If you recall, in that state quarterfinal round game last season –held on Mennonite’s campus too I may add — Old Forge remained undaunted throughout, through 40 minutes to be precise, as the Devil’s heart-stopping 69-64 victory over Mennonite vaulted the small public school from “The “Pizza Capital of the World” into the state semis opposite of Philadelphia’s Constitution High before the Devils would fall short in that game against the Generals, nabbing them of a chance in competing for the state’s ultimate prize last season.
Yet even with last year’s dynamic regarding this one gently pushed to the side for just a moment, a date in the semifinal round this season by either the Blazers or Devils would be quite an achievement to say the least. For Old Forge, it would mean obviously a mulligan if you will at perhaps rectifying their previous shortcomings found last year against Constitution this coming Saturday, or perhaps it meant that Lancaster Mennonite would be making their first return trip to the state’s Final Four since the 2017-18 campaign when the Blazers fell on a last-second halfcourt prayer at the buzzer courtesy of Richland’s Tyler Zimmerman, the type of crushing defeat that no one truly every gets over if they’re being perfectly honest. And yes, if you’re wondering, that is still the furthest that any Lancaster-Lebanon League boys’ basketball team has advanced to in the years since that heart-pounding game held on a Saturday afternoon in Chambersburg.
However, in the end come the 9 o’clock hour on Wednesday night, history would once again end up repeating itself as far both these of two teams happened to be concerned.
Suffice to say, if the goal in this quarterfinal round matchup was to jump out to a quick start, Old Forge certainly aced that test with flying colors. To be sure, a message was assuredly delivered by the Blue Devils collectively courtesy of a lightning-quick 9-0 rally out of the chute which effectively knocked the Mennonite troops back on their heels right from the outset.
Of course, early volley aside, the Blazers would repudiate Old Forge’s start.
For that, Mennonite’s impromptu rebuttal would start with a nice scoop shot in the lane by way of senior guard, Jaedon Mast, a bucket which signified LMH’s first points of the evening at the 4:05 mark of the opening frame. From there, an old fashioned three-point play by the Blazers’ underrated and underappreciated junior big man, David Weaver, got the Blazers within four at a 9-5 count before Mennonite would then slice the Blue Devil lead down to the slimmest of margins, 9-8, following a trifecta sunk by another Mennonite senior guard, Declan Hersh, as Old Forge was forced into taking a timeout of their own at the 2:39 mark as a means to try and stem the tide then rising against them at that point.
Granted, while the Blue Devils’ timeout may not have appeared to reap its benefits in the immediate aftermath considering Mennonite was able to claim their first lead of the evening roughly 40 seconds later following another Weaver bucket inside from point-blank range on the Blazers’ next offensive trip, Old Forge would however be able to close the first period out on a 5-2 charge, awarding them the 14-12 advantage following an eccentric opening stanza to say the least.
And while the first quarter on Wednesday night was largely defined by the pair of runs that seemed to stymie the opposition, the second quarter would prove to be all of that and then some.
Case in point, a three-point play cashed in by way of Old Forge 6’1 junior guard, Joe Macciocco, to start the proceedings, only to then see that rebuked by way of one contributed via David Weaver on the Blazers’ next trip down to quickly follow suit, keeping the Devils’ two-point lead intact, 19-17, just two minutes into the second period. Then, even if Jaedon Mast was seen firing in a 3-ball from beyond the arc to help the LMH cause, Matt Kuckla had no qualms whatsoever in retaliating for the Old Forge effort which the Blue Devils’ junior forward would then do right on cue following Mast’s exploits, as Kuckla’s triple made it a 24-20 affair in favor of the squad near Scranton with five minutes left to be played before the halftime recess.
But while the early portion of the second quarter was one doused with plenty of momentum shifts, Old Forge proceeded to then make it a tidal wave in their favor over the course of the final few minutes and change.
And while it may have started off rather innocently with a bucket inside tallied by senior center, Ayden Davitt, making it a 27-22 contest in favor of the Devils, a pair of back-breaking triples sunk by way of Old Forge – the last of which came via senior guard, Mario Samony – allowed the Blue Devils to look upward before noticing that they happened to be enjoying their largest lead of the night up until that point at 33-22. Of course, that is to say that a large part of the reason as to why Old Forge was enjoying this sizable cushion was due in large part to the work which they were doing defensively on Mennonite’s Cam Hurst. In fact, the Devils’ defensive swarm proved to keep the Blazers’ all-state junior scoring machine under wraps by and large, especially considering that his put-back bunny right before the second quarter horn gave Hurst his first of the entire evening at that point. More specifically though, the Hurst bucket would allow Mennonite to go into the break still down mind you, but only by single figures given the 33-24 difference between the two sides standing in place at the half.
Ironically, for as much as Old Forge try to take control of the contest with their impressive and emphatic second quarter rally, Lancaster Mennonite simply wasn’t having any of it once the third quarter got underway.
Sure enough, ignited by a 3-ball splashed down on Mennonite’s opening offensive possession of the third quarter thanks to Declan Hersh, the Blazers’ comeback bid was already well underway. Then, with their shooting prowess clearly in good order, Mennonite proceeded to get busy in the transition game as a sweet finish at the cup from Jaedon Mast on a leak-out opportunity cut the Old Forge cushion down to just three at 38-35 with 4:51 left to play in the third, prompting the Blue Devils to call another timeout to try and regroup. However, this timeout –just like the one that had taken place in the first quarter in attempt to slow down Mennonite’s momentum at that moment time – proved to be just as fleeting in terms of dousing the Blazers’ ongoing fire as a steal and finish by Hersh swung the lead all the way back around in Mennonite’s favor as the crew from Lancaster found themselves enjoying their first lead since the waning stages of the opening frame, 39-38, with 2:30 still left to play in the third.
That said, it would prove to be the last time that Mennonite would play from in front the rest of the evening.
Yes, even despite the fact that the Blue Devils were currently found wedged beneath an onslaught of enthusiasm found going against them at that point in time, Old Forge responded marvelously to challenge set before them.
So, it was there, inside the final few minutes of the third quarter, where Old Forge would make a valiant charge. For proof of that, it’d be easy to cite yet another of Blue Devils’ eight treys on the night, this one from the handiwork of Matt Kuckla, as the junior sniper’s 3-ball helped send the blue and gold into the final frame with ownership of the slim, albeit important, three-point lead at 42-39.
In short, the fourth quarter contested between these two valiant and worthy squads seemed to serve as a bit of a microcosm for the entire night at large. With both teams taking swings and landing haymakers across the brow of one another, the game still figured to be up for grabs heading down the final furlong. And while it most certainly was, it would prove to be Old Forge’s poise and moxie which would help punctuate a wildly-entertaining evening of high-level high school playoff hoops that proved to be the difference once the final verdict was read out.
As mentioned though, there were still plenty of volleys left to be lobbed before we got that point. And sure, while things could’ve easily gone sideways for the Mennonite bunch following a crucial trifecta knocked down by Old Forge’s Joey Macciocco which gave the Devils the 48-44 buffer with 5:49 left to play, a quintessential Cam Hurst turnaround bucket in the lane trimmed the Old Forge lead back down to a pair, 50-48, roughly one-minute and some change afterwards while simultaneously keeping Mennonite right in the thick of it.
Again though, right when Old Forge would jump back out to a five-point bulge, such as the case when Kuckla was able to finish off a huge three-point play which made it a 53-48 contest with 3:46 left to go, a brilliant and gorgeous feed from Jaedon Mast to David Weaver underneath for Mennonite would quickly follow suit, an exchange which brought the Blazers back within three almost instantaneously.
Undaunted though, it was here where Old Forge would finally put their foot down from there on out.
In fact, coming right on the heels of the Mast to Weaver connection, Macciocco was able to tally a bucket of his own immediately afterwards, good for two more en route to his game-high 18-point outburst, making it a 55-50 Blue Devils’ lead with time starting to wind down. From there though, Old Forge simply refused to allow Mennonite to get back into the fight. Case in point, following another deuce inside, this one from Kuckla which made it a 57-50 affair with 1:15 left, an untimely Blazers’ turnover would prove costly in terms of their late-game efforts.
And as is so often the case in games like these, foul shooting largely figures to be what either gets you the win, or gets you beat. Well, in that regard, Old Forge appears to be a rather proficient bunch from the charity stripe, a fact best evidenced by a 3-4 foul shooting display by Macciocco inside the final minute, all before a Mario Samony layup which would help serve as the proverbial cherry on top, a bucket which helped pad Old Forge’s cushion that would remain firm but ultimately culminating in an impressive 66-54 victory over Lancaster Mennonite once the final buzzer had sounded, vaulting the Blue Devils right back into the state semifinals yet again, with a date against Constitution yet again, come Saturday afternoon right back at the confines of Liberty High School.
Afterwards, as one may have suspected, while the two team’s locker rooms were located just a few feet apart from one another, the differing moods contained within each could not have been any more different following a quarterfinal round state playoff game. And while Old Forge was understandably and rightly joyous following their triumph, it took Lancaster Mennonite quite a few minutes before eventually emerging as the conquering, Blue Devil heroes would proudly walk on by to their charter bus found waiting for them outside unbeknownst to anyone inside the Blazers’ dressing room while understandably grappling with the fact that their season had just to come to such an abrupt end.
“All seasons have lots of ups and downs, but these kids are amazing,” Lancaster Mennonite head coach Seth Buckwalter said after offering his last postgame message of the Blazers’ season late Wednesday night while being nearly two hours away from home. “To the person, they all got better as the season went on. Once we got on this playoff run, the group then got better, playing better together and working better together. They’re a phenomenal group.”
“You always hope,” Buckwalter then said without much hesitation when asked if this run could perhaps serve as a catalyst to get back on a similar stage come mid-March in 2023 given the mast amount of returning talent found on the Blazers’ roster in the next few years to follow. “There’s just so many things outside of your control. We’re going to control the things that we can control, but if we’re blessed to have another run like this, we’ll be super thankful.”
“For us, Declan (Hersh) and Jaedon (Mast) were such phenomenal leaders,” the Blazers’ head man was then quick to point out regarding his slim, yet intrinsically vital cast of graduating departures following this loss to Old Forge. “It’s going to be a tremendous gap for us to try and fill with everything they did for us,” he admitted of their peer-to-peer guidance most of all. “Leadership is what makes runs like this, not necessarily talent. Those guys are talented, but going into next year, our biggest question mark will be who are the leaders going to be that are going to carry our team to this place?”
Even still, while there is certainly plenty of work to get done before heading into next year, the Blazers will press pause for a little bit before trying to go about figuring those things out come the approaching summer circuit.
“These guys have been hearing from me for four straight months. I think they’ve earned a little bit of time to run with their AAU coaches and get a little bit of a breather there,” Buckwalter said with smile. “I know somebody is going to ask me when we’re going to start lifting again in probably like two weeks or so. Maybe by then I’ll be chilled-out enough to where we can start doing that stuff,” he added with a laugh. “As far as pushing things, these guys need to hear some different voices other than mine for a little while.”
And once they do inevitably happen to reconvene as an entire unit, there’s more than ample reason to believe that Lancaster Mennonite will one of the premier squads returning to the Lancaster-Lebanon League boys’ basketball ranks entering next season. In other words, right back to where the program usually resides.
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