In sports, there are fast starts and then there are truly fast starts. For the Penn Manor Comets, the beginning of the 2018-19 campaign has been one for the ages. Literally.
When one thinks of Lancaster-Lebanon League Section 1 basketball throughout the last handful of years, chances are that the same few teams typically come to mind. After all, how could we possibly forget about Hempfield, Cedar Crest, Manheim Township, and of course McCaskey. But perhaps the most ironic thing regarding that list, especially this season given a revamped look to the Section 1 landscape? The fact that it leaves just one team out: Penn Manor.
Now sure, while some may have been overlooking the Comets at the outset of the year given just how strong the Section 1 class appeared to be yet again this season, rest assured that no one is sleeping any easier at night when they see Penn Manor pop up on their upcoming schedule these days.
As far as the history books will tell you up until this point, the 2018-19 edition of the Comets is the greatest Penn Manor team in a generation. And while it certainly remains to be seen if that consensus ultimately comes to pass by season’s end, you simply cannot deny the fact that the Comets’ 4-0 start to this season was without a shadow of a doubt that best that had been seen in Millersville in 20 years. Yet even though Penn Manor would eventually get tripped up by the likes of E-Town and Lebanon following their scintillating 4-0 start, the Comets have remained white-hot ever since, including a successful pair of games in Quarryville last week which saw Penn Manor return home with the Solanco Holiday Tournament trophy proudly in their possession.
And while some in the jury may have continued to reserve their judgement on the Comets until witnessing Section 1 play get underway in full, their opening game out of the chute would certainly go a long way in proving the remaining naysayers wrong when Penn Manor welcomed Hempfield, a program that has made deep trips into the state playoffs seem almost routine, into their palatial estate to officially raise the curtain on L-L Section 1 play once and for all this season.
In terms of starts to a game, it was hard to envision one much better than the one the Black Knights were able to author on Thursday evening. In total, Hempfield was able to burn the opening 1:20 of the first quarter off the clock, capping their impressive opening possession off with an Eli Washington bucket underneath to draw first blood at 2-0.
But this would prove to be much more than a finger prick that Hempfield was able to inflict upon their hosts in the game’s early going.
In fact, Hempfield was able to jump out to the quick 6-0 advantage following four straight points courtesy of 6’2 senior forward Austin Groft, forcing Penn Manor to call their first timeout in an attempt to right the ship with 4:32 left to go in the opening period.
Luckily for Penn Manor, the ship was indeed put right back on its intended course immediately following the timeout as Ethan Hine was able to knock down a triple for the Comets, slicing the Hempfield lead in half at 6-3 with 3:40 left in the first.
Yet just when it seemed that Penn Manor had finally gotten rid of their early sputters and had gotten back within shouting distance, Hempfield clearly had other ideas in mind for their hosts.
After Hine’s early triple which had knocked Hempfield back on their heels somewhat, the Black Knights did not flinch throughout the remainder of the game’s opening period. In fact, Hempfield was able to close the quarter on an 5-2 run, pushing their lead back up to half a dozen at 11-5 once the opening eight minutes of action had finally reached its conclusion.
But as would be the case all night long, Hempfield was about to find out that putting this Penn Manor team away is a chore that is far easier said than done.
For as much as Hempfield was able to impose their will and set the precedent at the beginning of the first quarter, Penn Manor was able to flip the script to start the second frame. Almost from the get-go, Penn Manor was able to start chipping away at the Hempfield advantage, eventually cutting the Black Knights’ lead down to just a deuce at 13-11 following a sweet dish from Ethan Hine to Kevin Roldan for the easy flip and score inside for the Comets.
However, much in the same vein as the game’s opening quarter, any Penn Manor momentum was quickly halted by a Hempfield response. Only this time, the Black Knights’ response was totally offered by one individual: Eli Washington.
With his team facing an early bout of adversity, the Black Knights’ 5’11 epitome of a floor general was able to show all of those in attendance why he is arguably the best point guard in the entire L-L League by promptly firing back with a 7 straight in retaliation to the Penn Manor threat, pushing the Hempfield lead back up to a touchdown at 20-13 with 4:29 left to go in the first half.
Now, with the need for an answer being of the upmost importance, someone from Penn Manor needed to step and make a play for their team as the Comets’ backs were clearly pushed up against the wall. Well, fortunately for Penn Manor, they had an ace up their sleeve in the form of long range marksman Ethan Hine. And right on cue, Hine was able to show off his shooting prowess by draining a trifecta plus the foul on top of things, as the 5’10 junior guard’s rare four-point play helped bring the Comets back within a pair at 24-22 with two minutes left to go in the first half.
As fate would have it, two points would remain the difference between the two squads once intermission came about as a Jaden Matias floater just before horn allowed Hempfield to cling to the 26-24 advantage at the halftime break.
Why use the word cling? Well, let’s just say that Hempfield was about to lose their grip once the second half got underway.
Up until that point all night long, the Comets had constantly found themselves on the short end of the stick when it came to who had the ultimate authority up on the scoreboard. But as it soon turned out, Penn Manor wouldn’t have to wait very long to claim that elusive advantage. In fact, it would take the Comets all of the two minutes once the third quarter got underway to ultimately lay claim to the lead as a corner 3-ball cashed in by Kevin Roldan gave Penn Manor their first lead of the night, 29-28.
From that moment on, Penn Manor would never trail again.
While it may have been impossible to know the magnitude of the situation at the time, rest assured that the Comets’ snowball was already moving downhill at a dangerous pace for the Black Knights to try and contain following the Roldan triple. Sure enough, Penn Manor was able to build upon their lead from there as a spot-up jumper sunk in the middle of Hempfield zone by, you guessed it, Kevin Roldan, made it an eight point Comet lead at 38-30 with 1:48 to play in third as Hempfield was forced to call timeout.
But unfortunately for those who had made the short trip over to Millersville, the Black Knights’ deficit only continued to grow larger following the timeout as a nice move inside by Jakob Matias pushed the Penn Manor lead over the double-digit plateau with the Comets continuing to play well while expanding their lead their lead in the process, 43-32.
Yet even though the Black Knights were ultimately able to crawl back within single figures inside the last minute of the third frame, Penn Manor still carried the sizable 43-35 advantage with them heading into the final eight minutes.
Needless to say, the fourth quarter hole did not sit well with Hempfield. It showed.
For as large as the Penn Manor lead had grown throughout portions of the second half, the Black Knights remained persistent in their attack, consistently whittling away at the Comets’ cushion. Once again, Hempfield was able to replicate some of that same success as the fourth quarter moved along as evidenced by a big-time tack to the rack by 5’11 sophomore guard Ryan Hilton helped shave the Penn Manor lead down to four at 45-41 with 5:53 to play.
Only this time, it would prove to be the Comets who would have the answer during this exchange as a timely triple cashed in from Ethan Hine, good for three of his team-high 20-points on the evening, halted the Hempfield charge but more importantly, put the Comets back up by seven at 48-41 with time of the essence.
But just when it had seemed that Penn Manor was finally out of the woods once and for all, the Black Knights came roaring back.
In fact, things got extremely tense in the waning stages when Hempfield’s Austin Groft was able to bank in a triple which made it a 58-55 ballgame with just 23.5 left to go. And on the ensuing inbounds, things only continued to grow more arduous for Penn Manor as the Comets were whistled for a traveling violation which gave the ball back to the Black Knights with the chance to tie things up. Sure enough, that is exactly what happened when Eli Washington was able to shake free and fire in a triple, knotting the score up at 58-58 with time running out.
In a situation such as one that Penn Manor had now found themselves in with the chance to come away with a walk-off win, sometimes it is best just to let the players have the ultimate say. Well, in this case, the Comets had no choice but to let things play out as the Comets had no more timeouts left at their disposal. But even if there were one or two left in their back pocket, chances are that very few plays that could be drawn up would prove be as fruitful when compared to what was about to take place.
With time winding down and the opportunity ripe for someone to go down in Penn Manor lore, the ball found itself in the hands of Comets’ senior point guard Kevin Roldan. As it turned out, there would be no better place for the ball to reside as Roldan came down the floor and fired in a fearless triple that found nothing but the bottom of the net, rightly sending the home crowd into a frenzy. And with the last four seconds ticking helplessly off the clock, much to the chagrin of Hempfield, a court storming immediately ensued. In many ways, the impromptu and joyous celebration that was now taking place at center court seemed as the most perfect way to illustrate the sheer excitement behind Penn Manor’s incredible start to this season. And truth be told, it has been a remarkable start that was best exemplified with Thursday night’s dramatic triumph over Hempfield, 61-58.
“Yeah,” an excited Penn Manor head coach Larry Bellew said with a smile in the postgame when asked if he was surprised by Roldan’s pull-up from behind the arc with time running out. “We work in practice getting downhill, getting into the lane, and finding the open man,” Bellew stated. “But, it’s a shot he makes.”
“I didn’t necessarily approve of it, but I like it now,” the Comets’ head man went on to say with a chuckle.
As far as the hero himself? He viewed it as the perfect opportunity to make amends for what had just transpired down on the other end of the court defensively.
“Eli (Washington) hit a three and that was my side,” Roldan said reflecting on the moments leading up to his game-winner. “I felt like I had to get him back so I just came down, he gave me some room, and I shot it.”
And once he did, it proved to be the shot heard ‘round Section 1 as the Comets had officially put the rest of the league on notice by virtue of their dramatic 61-58 triumph over the Black Knights.
NEXT UP: From here, Penn Manor will look to keep the train moving down the tracks as the Comets square off with Dallastown on Saturday in a nonleague tester before jumping back in the Section 1 pool head-first with a road game in Lancaster against McCaskey.
After Thursday night’s bitter defeat at the hands of Penn Manor, Hempfield will look to pick up the pieces on Saturday as well when the Black Knights go toe-to-toe against West York as a part of the annual “War of the Roses.” The key now for Hempfield will be not to have this loss manifest itself into any more down the line here as Hempfield will look to regain some traction in the Section 1 race when they meet up with Cedar Crest on Tuesday night in Landisville.