Red Knights Make It A Successful Homecoming As Reading Handles McCaskey, Improves To 2-0
Written by: Andy Herr on Wednesday, December 15th, 2021
If there’s anything that has somewhat united us over the last year and a half, it’s the fact that trying to figure out how to live our lives amidst a global pandemic has been a chore for each one of us in some form or fashion. That said, as in the case with most everything else in life, the difficulties aren’t always as evenly distributed across the board. However, in the very same breath, how you can handle and respond to adversity placed upon you that you did not ask for is the true determining factor that truly shows off the nature of your character. And if we’re speaking that matter of factly, the Reading Boys’ Basketball team has nothing but rock-solid character oozing out at the seams.
Even if you know their story, it bears repeating, even if in an abridged version. First, after appearing that they would not even have a season to play at all, arguably the best boys team in the 6A ranks of Pennsylvania high school basketball was forced to play all its “home” games on the road at Berks Catholic. But to their credit, the Red Knights made the best out of their newfound living arrangements and then some thanks to the olive branch extended their way by of the Saints’ staff at Berks Catholic, by eventually vanquishing an incredibly worthy foe in fellow Berks Section One rival, Wilson, in the District 3-6A championship game to cap off an incredibly wild and entertaining season-long series against the Bulldogs that stole the show in the entirety of District 3. Then, thanks to the truncated state playoff format of last season, Reading made it all the way back to one of their properties that has turned itself into another one the Red Knights’ homes away from home, the Giant Center, as the District 3 champion found itself back in the 6A state championship game for the second time in the last five seasons.
And yes, while the scene and environment that enveloped Giant Center for the 2017 finale will never ever again be equaled, the 2021 version was quite possibly just as impressive given the circumstances.
Just like in the 2017, the scene outside Hershey’s palatial palace of hoops looked as if it was straight out of a time machine. Tailgating and grilling outside in the parking lot that came coupled with nothing but droves of red-clad fans eagerly flooding nearly all the entry ways into the Giant Center to get was in many cases the very first live, in-person look at their beloved hometown team in action given a winter full of nothing but strict crowd restrictions. Finally, after getting a bit of respite from the latter given the Giant Center opening its doors to even just a limited number of spectators, this game too would also fall victim to a sellout just like in 2017, undoubtedly largely driven by the droves of Reading fans who would’ve crawled across shards of broken glass at the opportunity to support their team on the biggest of stages.
But unlike the last time, the Red Knights savored and relished in the opportunity of embracing the underdog role in the state title, a theme that could just as easily be woven into the very fabric of the jerseys that Reading High’s players happen to wear. And fittingly, in a way which best personifies the very city itself, the Red Knights were able to lean on their home court advantage -no matter how small it was in sheer numbers- en route to an upset victory over perennial Philadelphia Catholic League powerhouse, Archbishop Wood, for the all-time winningest high school program’s second state title that set off another wild celebration that only the Red Knights can provide.
And with a bevy of those very same players back in the fold this season, there is more than ample reason to believe that the Red Knights can make it right back to the state finals yet again this season as well. Of course, if they do so this year, the Reading Army -the same fanbase that was literally locked out of traveling with their team just one year ago- will be there in droves every step of the way. For starters though came the coronation on Tuesday night back at home in Geigle.
Yet while for as abnormal as the entirety of last season was, playing back at home inside “The Castle on The Hill,” as it is most affectionally known against the McCaskey Red Tornado made everything seem as if we were right back on the road to normalcy given the storied history between the two very proud city programs that have produced far too many memorable moments off-hand to count.
Speaking of normal, the schedule right out of the blocks was certainly that and then some as far as the Tornado were concerned. That is of course unless you’re unfamiliar with the types of opponents McCaskey seems to line up against most every single year.
As is usually the case, McCaskey simply refuses to dodge anyone in the nonconference portion of their schedule. Sure enough, this year is once again no different given that the group from Lancaster city’s high school took their shot at another familiar heavyweight, the Chester Clippers, on Saturday night in the most recent renewal of that famed rivalry which saw the Clippers leave Lancaster a happy bunch given their 74-56 triumph. Of course, it’s also one heckuva encore to follow a season-opening game against Chester up with the defending -and likely 6A favorite- in Reading High the very next time out. If nothing else, you certainly can’t say that the Tornado will be a group lacking for worthy tests upon entering Lancaster-Lebanon Section One play which ironically gets underway on Wednesday night. After all, go ahead and find a tougher two-game opening stretch than facing Chester and Reading back-to-back.
But on this night however, it would prove to be an evening that came with all fixings befitting of honoring a defending state champion’s triumphant welcome home party.
To say that Reading came out the gates with a strong and determined emphasis as far sending a message to their opposition might be a bit of an understatement. Rest assured that the verdict was delivered loud and clear.
After starting off the ballgame on a quick 4-0 run -all of which came courtesy of Red Knights’ 6’2 bruising forward, Xavier Davis- the Reading High attack continued to dominate the McCaskey defense inside as the opening quarter continued to take shape, eventually having the Red Knights see their lead grow to a half dozen at 8-2 following yet another bucket inside -this one thanks junior guard, Ruben Rodriguez- with 6:20 still left to play in the opening quarter.
But from then on, Reading continued to run away with it. Both literally and figuratively.
After having already established the framework of one facet of their offensive attack, the Red Knights turned up the dial even more so and started to get loose in transition. Case in point, a Rodriguez layup on the break which made it a 13-4 contest before an old fashioned three-point play authored by Davis which put the hosts up by an early dozen at 16-4 shortly thereafter. Then, as if the salt in McCaskey’s wound was already stinging enough at that point, Nick Davis decided to get in on the act by pouring in a trifecta from beyond the arc to make it a 21-6 Red Knights’ advantage with three minutes and change still left to play in the opening period. On the night, Reading’s 6’1 senior guard was seen getting it done in a variety of different areas, a case best exemplified by his game-high 19-point scoring output.
Finally, in the waning stages of the opening frame, McCaskey found something to work with.
In the world of L-L Section One play, having a well-rounded big man can be worth its weight in gold. Well, in that regard, look for McCaskey’s Jared Kuhman to be a force to be reckoned with as this season progresses. And while he may be young given that the Red Tornado big is still only a sophomore, the challenge of going toe-to-toe with the physically imposing Red Knights’ front line didn’t seem to bother Kuhman too much considering he was able to net three consecutive buckets to spearhead the Red Tornado effort down the stretch in the opening quarter. However, even though McCaskey was able to enjoy its first real taste of momentum thanks to Kuhman’s handiwork late in the frame, the Reading High lead stood at a commanding 29-12 difference once the first eight minutes formally ticked off the first quarter clock.
Once inside the second quarter, the same elements continued to be in play.
In fact, on one of Reading’s first offensive possessions of the second quarter, while it didn’t start off as something very pretty, the hard-nosed effort and determination by the Red Knights’ 6’5 senior big man, Daniel Alcantara, was a definite masterpiece given his emergence from a loose ball scrum to finish through contact and add the free throw on top of it all, an emphatic exchange which made it a 36-12 Reading lead with 6:13 left to go before the half.
Yet even when it seemed as if McCaskey could finally find some mojo, Reading was right there to take it all away from them.
For proof of that, look no further than Jonathan Byrd’s layup in transition, only to see the Red Tornado junior point guard’s deuce get almost immediately doused given another Xavier Davis bucket in the paint down on the other end within the blink of an eye to then make it a 38-17 Red Knights’ advantage with 4:35 left to go in the first half.
Later, in perhaps the most apropos way possible, Reading High was able to close out a resounding first half performance out with bang.
No, this wouldn’t come by way of their offense mind you. After all, that portion of their game was certainly playing well enough given their flirtation with nearly 50 points throughout the first 16 minutes of the contest. Instead, this play would come via the defensive end as the Red Knights’ equally emphatic effort on that end of the floor was the causation for more than a handful of Red Tornado turnovers that helped largely helped set the table for the Reading High offense to seemingly operate at will. So, with the second period coming to a close, Amier Burdine was able to punctuate the opening half with an exclamation point by unselfishly giving himself by taking a charge, as the Reading High junior guard helped send his troops into the halftime break with firm ownership of the 47-23 cushion.
To their credit though, McCaskey came out of the intermission warm to the fight.
Case in point, a 6-0 Red Tornado salvo right out the chute -four of which came via senior forward, Shamell Burke- as the visitors were able to find some rhythm to start the third quarter proceedings.
But just as they had largely done in the first half, Reading had no real intentions of allowing McCaskey to make a living off a smattering of plays.
In fact, the cold water that the Red Knights threw on the McCaskey fire came with an emphatic, one-handed flush from Ruben Rodriguez, a dunk which not only got the crowd to their loudest that it had been up until that point all night, but also made it a 53-29 Red Knights’ lead. And by that point, the Reading blitzkrieg was capped off a 7-0 run -all of which came courtesy of Nick Walker- for a late third quarter flurry that helped the Red Knights carry the 66-39 lead with them into the final eight minutes.
In the final quarter, it was time for the supporting cast from both sides to take their turn on this stage.
For the Red Tornado contingent, a nice 4-0 burst by junior forward, Elias Garcia, was cause for optimism. On Reading’s side of the ledger, a Nico Sosa isolation play that ended with the Red Knights’ sophomore, clearly a fan favorite, finishing through contact helped get the decibel levels up to the highest they would reach all night long before a strong Daquan Burgess layup at the cup in the waning minutes followed suit as well, two late buckets that were much to the Geigle crowd’s delight.
All told, while there was still ample room for opportunity to clean some things up as this young season continues to take shape, the Red Knights seemed to look the part of another 6A behemoth this year given their dominating 79-56 over McCaskey on Tuesday night.
But this night was a little more than just one game for Reading. After all, for what is arguably the most supportive fanbase in the entire state to go without a year of seeing their team play in their very own city, Tuesday night more than made up for lost time.
“I was reminded today,” Reading coach Rick Perez said with a laugh afterwards if he remembered what it felt like to play back on the team’s home floor in front of their adorning supporters. “We have those die-hard fans who have that energy. There’s just no place like the Geigle.”
Yet even with so much love and attention paid to the program itself, credit is also due where its deserved. In that respect, Reading’s coaches and players know their mission as they take the floor to represent their community on a nightly basis.
“Our obligation is to play hard, display character, display what teamwork is like, and display the fundamentals. That’s our obligation,” Perez said of his squad. “With the fundamentals of team and success, putting on ‘a show’ comes along with that at times, but sometimes it’s just those gritty, hard-nosed wins too. We gotta know that we can win in various ways.”
Speaking of wins, perhaps the most dangerous part of this edition of the Red Knights is that throughout nearly the entirety of their rotation, anyone can step up and take control on any given night. Suffice to say, the sum of their parts is greater than just one body.
“It can be anybody on any night,” Perez acknowledged. “Whoever it is on that particular night, that’s who we’re gonna be.”
And who they’re gonna be figures to be one of the best teams not just in Berks County and District 3 this year, but perhaps one of the best in the entire state as well.
NEXT UP: From the McCaskey perspective, Tuesday night’s setback at the hands of Reading and the way it unfolded will likely be a tough pill to swallow. However, if you’re a glass half full person, the good thing about basketball is that another game to try and wipe away the bitter taste is usually found right around the corner. Fittingly, the Red Tornado’s next chance at redemption comes on Wednesday night when they tangle with their neighbors from Manheim Township to help raise the curtain on the divisional slate. And for a McCaskey crew that is eager and ready to take their chance at finally ascending back up the ranks of Section One competition as so many of their previous teams seemed to make a living on doing religiously, the opportunity is now for seizing control. Ironically though, it wasn’t all that long ago where the roles were seemingly reversed between McCaskey and Reading to where the Red Tornado were the ones owning their league, making deep runs in the District 3 playoffs, before embarking on long state playoff journeys, while Reading was the program trying to regain their footing. To be sure, that’s something not lost on Reading High’s coach either.
“You just gotta stick to your principals and believe in your work,” Perez offered when harkening back to some of the same things that he himself may be able to recall in terms of what McCaskey may be going through right now. “Great things will happen in time.”
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