Raiders Flex Their Muscle As Archbishop Ryan Advances Past E-Town To Head Into Quarterfinal Round of PIAA-5A Playoffs
Written by: Andy Herr on Wednesday, March 11th, 2020
Let’s face it. Now, given the world in which we all find ourselves living in, we’re all guilty in some form or fashion of falling victim to it. That being the struggle to find patience.
In fact, while the saying itself hasn’t actually gone anywhere, the premise of, “There’s beauty in the struggle,” may not exactly be a concept as whole-heartedly shared by the masses as it once was. Yes, whether it’s having to deal with those annoying and pesky ads when trying to watch videos on our phones —sidenote, try coming to grips with that idea back in the predicted doom days of Y2K—-or even having to sit idly by while our food takes it sweet time to warm up in the microwave, for better or worse, we now live in a world of instant gratification. But honestly, perhaps nowhere in society is that found more prevalent than in the world of sports. And yes, the far-less glamorous lifestyle of high school athletics isn’t exactly immune to this wide-sweeping generalization either. Just take the E-Town Bears for instance.
Yes, while it might have been a gradual build and a steady burn up to this point, the Bears of 2019-20 are pretty much exactly what head coach Rocky Parise had envisioned long-term when he essentially had to start from the ground up in terms of helping wake up one of the Lancaster-Lebanon League’s preeminent sleeping giants after stepping into the top chair on the E-Town bench now four years ago. And while it hasn’t exactly happened overnight, especially given the 5-17 and 10-12 seasons which the Bears posted during those first two years, those around the program and the league itself knew full-well that the incremental progress associated in E-Town’s eventual ascension to the top of the L-L League wasn’t a matter of if, but when.
Then, last year, E-Town made it back to the postseason in a clean sweep of all three possible tournaments –the league, district and PIAA playoffs—before having their season to come a close in an overtime loss against Johnstown in the first round of the state tournament one year ago. But, even despite losing the school’s all-time leading scorer to graduation at the end of last season, Larry Locker, the Bears seemed poise for another long jaunt through the postseason yet again this year. Sure enough, after finishing second to Warwick in the L-L Section Two standings, the Bears were indeed able to make good on making it back to all three postseason tournaments made available to them, including wins in the L-L and District 3 bracket before being awarded the #7 seed out of District 3 heading into the PIAA-5A tournament. And again, E-Town would have to load up a bus and head westward after drawing a WPIAL giant, Mars, in the opening round of states this time around.
But this night wouldn’t exactly shake itself out to look like an exact replica as the outcome experienced last year. Far from it actually.
This time, all of those cold nights and long bus rides in years’ previous may have somewhat seemed worth it for E-Town as the Bears sent seismic shockwaves around the state in defeating one of the presumed favorites to perhaps make a run towards Hershey and the 5A state final over the next two weeks, defeating the Fighting Plants by 58-56 final decision, in overtime no less, giving the E-Town program their first win ever in the state tournament.
Afterwards, the celebration videos on social media were understandably all the rage, including seeing the hometown heroes be treated exactly like once they arrived home after a four-hour bus ride from New Kensington to be showered with praise as their fellow classmates were already in the midst of their Minithon celebration.
And while the win was special and the memories will never, ever fade, there was still work left to be done after knocking off Mars. In fact, the Bears just so happened to be pitted against yet another beast once the second round of state competition rolled around on Tuesday night.
In Pennsylvania, there is no better high school basketball league in the entire state than the Philadelphia Catholic League. None. Zilch. Nada.
Aside from the scores of Division 1 talent pumped out each and every year from arguably one of the more celebrated conferences on the entire eastern seaboard, the teams contained with the prestigious league more often times than not can start making hotel and transportation arrangements for the middle of March in Hershey given the fact that any given Catholic League member typically finds themselves inside Giant Center competing for a state championship on the last weekend of the season, no matter which classification level you prefer. Well, needless to say, drawing an illustrious and proud program the likes of Archbishop Ryan, the #3 ranked team in the state to go along with their Catholic League semifinal finish this year hailing from the northeast corner of the city even despite the incredible amount of sheer youth found on this edition of the Raiders’ roster, Ryan was sure to be E-Town’s toughest test of the season once both teams finally arrived in Coatesville on Tuesday evening with the winner advances on to Friday’s Elite Eight round.
Yet whether it be a byproduct of playing within the gauntlet that this is the Philadelphia Catholic League over the course of an entire season, or simply just the fact that Archbishop Ryan is a team worthy of their esteemed rankings based on their merit alone, the Raiders proved to those in attendance and around the state as to why seeing them play for the right to bring home the state championship trophy in a week and a half is certainly not out of the realm of possibility. In fact, it may even be likely.
In the early going on Tuesday night with the stakes being as high as they were, it was expected to see both the Bears and Raiders fight tooth and nail for the opportunity to advance on to Friday night’s quarterfinal round. In that regard though, hang a star next to E-Town’s name in the opening quarter.
To say that the Bears won the hustle play battle in the first few minutes might be a bit of an undersell. Aside from a ferocious intensity in cleaning the glass to go along with deflecting passes and diving on the floor after loose balls, E-Town simply refused to budge in the opening few minutes, perhaps best exemplified by Elijah Eberly’s spot-up jumper at the 2:30 mark of the opening frame, giving the blue-clad Bears the slim 6-5 lead at that point in time.
However, and as would be the case throughout the majority of the opening stanza, Archbishop Ryan and E-Town took their turns trading barbs back and forth at one another.
In fact, on the Raiders’ very next possession, Ryan went on to overtake the lead on a bucket chipped in by way of 6’4 senior forward, Gediminas Mokseckas, giving Ryan the 7-6 cushion immediately on the heels of Eberly’s previous go-ahead bucket. From there, Ryan’s lead continued to swell up ever so slightly as a 3-ball knocked down by 6’0 sophomore guard, Luke Boyd, his second of the opening stanza, made it a 10-8 Raiders’ lead before the final 1:20 ticked off the first quarter clock with Archbishop Ryan holding serve at 10-9 over E-Town.
By and large, if it had seemed as if E-Town was fearless given the gravity and magnitude of the situation they currently found themselves in, they had certainly proven that and then so over the opening eight minutes of the ballgame. And honestly, the early portion of the second quarter truly was no different in that respect considering the fact that a smooth take to the rack by Elijah Eberly gave the lead right back to E-Town just 1:50 in the second act at 13-11.
But that was when Archbishop Ryan’s tide finally began to roll ashore.
Sensing the opportunity to strike and knock E-Town back on their heels somewhat with a majority of the second quarter still yet to be played, that is precisely what Archbishop Ryan did from that moment on.
In fact, immediately following the early Eberly deuce which had put E-Town back on top in the early portion of the second quarter, Archbishop Ryan proceeded to retaliate right back by promptly going off a 9-0 run, capped off an old-fashioned three-point play authored by Ryan’s 6’0 tough-as-nails junior floor general, Dom Vazquez, forcing E-Town to burn a timeout to try and regroup while staring at a 20-13 deficit with 4:40 left to play before the break.
Shortly thereafter, E-Town was able to right the ship somewhat following a gorgeous hi-lo set that ended in yet another bucket inside by 6’4 senior forward, Elijah Eberly, only to see that bucket be immediately answered by yet another Ryan bucket on the Raiders’ next possession, this time by Mokseckas, propelling Ryan out to the 24-16 lead with a minute and change prior to recess. And while Archbishop Ryan was clearly flirting with a double-digit lead at that point in time, the Raiders were eventually able to make good on fulfilling that goal given the fact that Archbishop Ryan proceeded to go into the halftime break with ownership of the 26-16 advantage.
Granted, even though Ryan found themselves with the lead at that point in time, the fact of the matter was that E-Town had largely played the Raiders even throughout the opening 16 minutes. Well, that is of course if you look past the handful of missed bunnies from point-blank range along with the untimely turnovers that the Bears were stymied with as well throughout much of the second quarter.
But in the third quarter though, it quickly became apparent that there would be no prevailing sense of “evenness” from there on out. Instead, Archbishop Ryan went pedal down and didn’t care who might have been standing in their direct path during the second half on Tuesday evening.
Truthfully, Ryan came out firing right from the get-go in the early stages of the third quarter considering that the Raiders’ 6’6 senior big man, Christian Isopi, tallied a deuce inside on Ryan’s first possession of the second half, upping the Raiders’ lead to a dozen at 28-16. From there, Isopi continued to have the hot-hand for Archbishop Ryan seeing as how yet another bucket of his in the paint, this one thrown his way by Gediminas Mokseckas, gave the Raiders the 34-21 cushion with the third quarter quickly nearing its midway point.
And if Isopi wasn’t the one doing the scoring for Archbishop Ryan on this night, Dom Vazquez certainly had no issues whatsoever in filling it up for the Raiders as the gutsy junior’s steal and finish at the cup down on the other end helped give Ryan their largest lead of the night up until that point at 36-21, prompting E-Town to call yet another timeout in the face of an Archbishop Ryan blitz. Then, if he wasn’t scoring inside, Vazquez would then proceed to take his talents from out behind the arc as Vazquez then pumped in a trifecta just a little bit later, giving the Raiders the comfortable 41-25 lead.
On the night, while Vazquez would not end up as Ryan’s leading scorer considering that honor went to Mokseckas who pumped in a game-high 20 to spearhead the Raiders’ effort, Vazquez was certainly not far behind, especially considering his litany of highlight reels plays throughout the entirety of the evening as the Archbishop Ryan junior guard went on to post a scintillating 19-point night of work.
Now, with the Archbishop Ryan snowball now clearly storming its way downhill at an alarming rate of speed for the Bears to try and contain, Christian Isopi was on the scene to inflict even more damage into the E-Town wound by chipping in another bucket inside, this time making it a 20-point Raiders’ advantage at 45-25 with just 1:20 left to go in the third.
But to their credit, E-Town would continue to fight by scoring the final four points of the third quarter, the last two of which came off a buzzer-beating layup inside by 6’3 sophomore forward, Pat Gilhool, making it a 45-29 Archbishop Ryan lead heading into the final eight minutes.
However, the final frame only proved to be more of the same when compared to the quarter which had just preceded it.
In fact, another hoop plus the harm –tacked on by Dom Vazquez of course– made it a 59-36 Archbishop Ryan lead with just 3:50 left to play in the game. And when he wasn’t scoring, Vazquez was certainly distributing the wealth all around to his fellow Raiders, especially on his late-game dish to a streaking David Wise heading towards the goal as the 6’0 sophomore guard finished with a finger-roll to make it a 65-38 Archbishop Ryan lead with time running out.
But even with time winding down, that was more enough of an opportunity for 6’2 sophomore Rob McConnell to get his name in the scorer’s book. Sure enough, that is precisely what McConnell then did with a bucket that drew arguably the loudest roar of any bucket from the Archbishop Ryan fans throughout the entirety of the night.
And once all was said and done, the final score seemed to give credence to the display in which Archbishop Ryan had just put on for everyone to witness as the Raiders advanced on the Elite Round of the 5A bracket in style with a commanding 67-39 final victory over E-Town.
Yes, while obviously the final score when coupled the general overall abruptness of seeing their season come to an end the way in which it did may have been hard to fathom and process, especially given the massive high which they were deservedly riding on following their triumph over Mars this past Friday night, the loss to Archbishop Ryan on Tuesday night was a little bit different for the E-Town Bears to be perfectly frank about it. Sure, while the loss to Ryan ended the Bears’ 2019-20 campaign, it also marked the final appearance in an E-Town uniform for a handful of members that made up this senior class who had taken their fair share of lumps throughout the first years of this rebuilding project housed at Daubert Gymnasium. Something certainly not lost on their head coach to say the least.
“You know what? It’s time,” fourth-year E-Town head coach Rocky Parise said after emerging from the locker room after addressing his troops for the final time this season. “It’s time for (the seniors) to move on. It’s time for the guys that are going to play in college to go play in college. We’ve been together for a really long time. We’ve been in the gym for a really long time these past two years,” said Parise. “While we didn’t want it to come to an end, I think we’re all a little bit at peace with what we did.”
“I’m just so proud of the seniors,” Parise went on to say. “I mean, those guys have been working since they’ve been in fourth grade. Their sixth-grade coach came back and saw our state win. He told me after the game, ‘I told these guys in sixth grade that they were going to be the first team to win a state playoff game in program history.’ They did it. We have nothing to hang our heads about.”
But truthfully, the prospect of seeing those very same players who were once predicted to bring home E-Town’s first-ever PIAA win sometime in the not-too-distant future probably didn’t seem all that favorable or even likely, especially given the way in which the first few seasons went which saw the Bears go through a baptism by fire when competing against the rest of the much more veteran-laden L-L League foes over the last handful of years. And yes, for better or worse, Rocky Parise can certainly recall those rough and arduous nights from winters gone by as well.
“You guys have no idea,” Parise said to the assembled media corps with a light laugh coated in equal parts disbelief and admiration when trying to assess the lengths that his program had come over the last half decade or so in building towards this very moment. “We tell this story all the time. I was sitting in our coaches’ room and we were 9-28 in our first 37 games that second year,” Parise offered candidly. “We walked into the room and I have my head in my hands and I’m almost in tears and I just said, ‘I’m a terrible coach.’ And our assistants said, ‘Stick with it. Stick with it. You’re a great coach.’ From that point on, I think we went something like 44-21 from that point right there where it was rock bottom. And the only reason it happened was because we just kept at it. We just kept working. We just kept showing up early and leaving late, not missing offseason workouts.”
“At the end of the day, more than anything, I can hang my hat on that I taught these guys that if you want to be successful in life, you gotta work your butt off,” he added. “Sometimes you don’t learn that. Sometimes it’s like you can work really hard, but you still don’t win. You still don’t see the reward. These guys worked hard. We had some great individual accomplishments and we had some awesome team accomplishments these last two years. So, when (his players) go on in life and it gets tough, they know that they’re going to be able to keep grinding and keep working because there is success at the end of that.”
And when you get right down to it, that’s not such a bad legacy to leave behind.
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