When trying to assess and determine who the most impressive basketball programs have been inside the Lancaster-Lebanon League the past two seasons, it’s understandable for one to get caught up in the same familiar names.
Names such as Cedar Crest, Hempfield, E-Town, Lampeter-Strasburg, Lancaster Mennonite, Lancaster Catholic and Manheim Township are often the ones that most often jump to the forefront of everyone’s collective minds. And while Falcons, Black Knights, Bears, Pioneers, Blazers, Crusaders and Blue Streaks all have had their fair share of memorable moments these past few seasons, there may be one team that everyone else may be overlooking: The Garden Spot Spartans.
It’s true. Without the shadow of a doubt, an argument could easily hold merit and weight when stating that the Spartans have featured one of the league’s most potent and explosive backcourts the last handful of years, which coincidently pairs quite nicely with a solid inside presence found in junior big man, Andrew Zentner. And while having the Jimmy’s and Joe’s across all five spots is undoubtedly important, it is all for not if those pieces don’t mesh and mold together in such a fashion that allows for progress and success to cultivate and take shape.
Well, in that regard, Garden Spot has been at the head of the class.
Over the last two years, the Spartans have had the unique distinction of being only one of four programs within the L-L League to reach the league playoffs, district playoffs, and the ultimate prize, the state playoffs. And while Garden Spot would fall short in both the L-L and District 3 tournaments each of the last two years, a state playoff berth was in the cards yet again this season when the Spartans traveled to Plymouth Whitemarsh High School on Friday night to square off with one of the most underrated and underappreciated teams from the outer reaches of the national hoops hotbed known as Philadelphia: The Sun Valley Vanguards who are headlined by the consistent efforts engineered by the likes of Lance Stone, Isaac Kennon, Marvin Freeman and of course, Vinny DeAngelo.
While a Lancaster-Lebanon League audience may largely be unfamiliar with the Vanguards program which hails from the quaint community of Aston found in Delaware County, they do have a very recent history scrapping with schools that call the L-L League home. In fact, just last year alone, Sun Valley squared off with both Solanco and Octorara — with the Braves still playing in the Chest-Mont League at the time — as the Vanguards posted a perfect 3-0 against the Golden Mules and Braves respectively.
So, with that in mind, Sun Valley took to the court fresh off their memorable District 1-5A title with a clear desire to continue their utter dominance against the Lancaster-Lebanon League when the Vanguards met up with Garden Spot in the first round of the state tournament in Plymouth Meeting.
In terms of getting off to a fast start, things could not have gone much better for Garden Spot on Friday night.
Ignited by a 3-ball splashed in 6’2 sophomore guard Jesse Martin on the Spartans’ opening trip of the ballgame, Garden Spot’s early lead would eventually swell up to a half dozen points at 8-2 after a smooth spot-up jumper stroked by 6’7 junior forward Andrew Zentner and a runout opportunity cashed in by 5’7 senior point Keontae Nunn added on top, which helped spark the early Garden Spot charge with 3:40 left to go in the first.
But as the Spartans were about to find out, dealing with an experienced team the likes of Sun Valley is most definitely a chore that is far easier said than done over the course of a 32-minute game with state playoff ramifications.
With their backs up against the wall throughout much of the first quarter, the Vanguards finally found their spark in the form of Marvin Freeman. To be sure, Freeman would prove to be the key piston in the Sun Valley engine throughout the remainder of the opening stanza as the Vanguards’ senior wing responded by promptly drilling three triples to close the first quarter, including one right before the buzzer, as Sun Valley had not only erased their early deficit, they had wiped it clean by virtue of their newfound 16-11 lead heading into the second frame.
The only problem was, the Vanguards would only continue to remain sultry from behind the arc once the second quarter got underway as well.
While an Andrew Zentner trifecta trimmed the Sun Valley lead down to just four points at 20-16 with 5:10 left to go before the half, Marvin Freeman continued to get loose from the Spartans’ defensive troops as yet another Freeman 3-ball, his fourth of the opening half, allowed Sun Valley to exhale somewhat as the Vanguards went back in front by a touchdown at 23-16 shortly after the Zentner bucket from bonus distance.
From there, the Sun Valley lead would grow to double-digit proportions as a 2-2 trip to the charity stripe by way of Isaac Kennon propelled the Vanguards out to a 27-16 lead with now 2:51 left showing on the second quarter clock.
Yet even with time quickly running out on the opening half and Garden Spot now having gone cold from field against the long and rangy Sun Valley zone, that would prove to be more than enough time for Marvin Freeman to pour more salt into the Spartans’ open wound as Freeman would proceed to gash the troops from New Holland with another back-breaking triple, his fifth of the opening sixteen minutes, as Vanguards raced into the halftime locker room with their lead now standing at a dozen, 30-18.
With one half already in the books and the Spartans staring at the possibility of their season not getting renewed for another night depending on what would take place over the ensuing sixteen minutes, it became paramount that Garden Spot start off on the right foot and offer up a quick jab in order to regain their footing on what had now become a very slippery slope.
Sun Valley on the other hand was about to pull the rug out from under them.
While the second quarter narrative for Garden Spot was likely spun on the Spartans’ inability to connect on outside perimeter shots, the good news was that they had largely been free from a bout with the ever-pesky turnover bug. But like any highly potent literal or figurative virus that thrives in the winter months, the Spartans were not immune once the third quarter rolled around on Friday evening.
Beset by a handful of empty possessions that ended in untimely thefts by way of the stingy defensive performance put forth by the Vanguards, the Spartans’ deficit had quickly ballooned to 14 near the midway point of the third frame, as a 2-2 trip to the charity stripe from Vinny DeAngelo allowed Sun Valley to generate some much-needed breathing room at 34-20 with 4:40 left to go in the third.
So, needless to say, Garden Spot needed to find a spark from anyone wearing a Spartans’ uniform should the outcome of this game make a sharp and immediate left turn from what had appeared to be taking shape.
Enter Andrew Zentner to center stage.
With his team struggling to find any sort of momentum in the face of the current Sun Valley onslaught, any sort of energy play could prove to be beneficial should the Spartans be able to regain their mojo and knock the Vanguards back on their heels. And right on cue at that very precise moment, the Spartans’ junior big man proceeded to take the baton and run with it by bringing the juice.
Following a missed free throw and put-back —a play which coincidently saw Zentner collect an obscure, yet still effective three-point play in the waning stages of the third — the Spartans suddenly saw themselves back within shouting distance with gap now standing at a ten-point window at 37-27 with 2:05 left to play. From there, Zentner would continue to remain a scintillating 6’7 force by collecting another put-back, as this one officially brought Garden Spot back within single figures at 40-31 with the final quarter now set to begin.
Yet even though Garden Spot had now successfully whittled the Vanguards’ lead down to a much more manageable and workable level with the game heading into its final eight minutes, the Spartans could simply not keep up for the entirety of the evening given Sun Valley’s sensational display from behind the arc from start to finish.
While all 3-balls are of the upmost significance, especially when talking about a “survive and advance” scenario, the back-to-back triples sprayed in successive fashion by way of Dominic Valenti and Isaac Kannon respectively were pure daggers in the truest sense of the word, as the Vanguards had suddenly run away from the Spartan-charge by virtue of their 48-32 with six minutes left to play. And while 6’0 senior guard Matt Sharp would retaliate by firing in a triple of his own to help aid the Garden Spot cause with three minutes and change left to go, the Sun Valley lead had already reached a 20-point plateau at 55-35.
So, with the outcome of the game now largely already having already been decided, it seemed rather fitting that some of Sun Valley’s long-time heroes would help put a bow on the Vanguards’ opening round win in the closing moments on Friday night.
Sure enough, Vinny DeAngelo would be able to cash in with a handful of buckets down the stretch — something he has done quite often during his marvelous career as a Vanguard — as the Sun Valley senior would go on to finish yet another sensational evening by bucketing a team-high 24-point effort on the night.
Ironically, for a night that had felt like it had been bathed in the dark blue and Vegas gold hues which resemble the Vanguards’ school colors, the only thing that appeared to be absent from the previous events that had taken place over the previous minutes was a signature dunk. Well, fortunately for those that had made the trip to Plymouth Whitemarsh, Marvin Freeman was able to send the fans home happy as Freeman proceeded to take off inside the lane and soar through mid-air in the closing seconds by finishing things off with a thunderous two-handed flush, effectively putting the punctuation mark on Sun Valley’s dominating opening round performance over Garden Spot and into the second round of the state tournament on Tuesday night with a date against the Northern York Polar Bears by virtue of their 65-44 final decision over the Spartans.
“When you struggle to score the ball against a great team like Sun Valley, it’s going to come and get you,” first-year Garden Spot head coach Nate Musselman offered in the postgame. “We were defending fine, but eight empty possessions in the first half with one pass or less that led to quick shots, they are just like turnovers. When that happens, good teams are going to score and that’s what it was.”
While the outcome of Friday night’s affair ultimately signaled the end to Garden Spot’s memorable season — and the closing of an incredible two year run to be even more exact — the memories and lessons created this season are certainly things that Musselman and this year’s team can carry with them not just for the immediate future, but for the rest of their lives as well.
“We came into this year with our eyes wide-open, but we were going to do it our way,” said Musselman. “We were fighting for culture every day, but that’s what you do as a head coach. You have to win that (culture) every day.”
“I was proud of the way the seniors accepted it because it was a different regime coming in,” he added. “We kept a lot of the basics the same, but the culture was different. I give them a lot of credit for fighting through it all year. I give them credit for adapting to me. Because they did, here we are.”
And by “here,” he was clearly referencing the recent achievements of a program that has ascended to new and incredible heights in such a short amount of time.
“It’s our second appearance in L-L’s, our second appearance in districts and our second straight appearance in states. Now we just have to get over that state hump,” Musselman said with a soft smile. “I told those young guys that. We know where we are now. That’s a team (Sun Valley) that we need to strive to get to.”
“Enthusiasm,” said the Spartans’ boss in closing. “That’s all we can have. Smiles on our faces with heads up. That’s what we’re going to do.”