When the Octorara School District was formally instated for full-time membership status into the Lancaster-Lebanon League now nearly three years ago, it was only natural for L-L fans both far and wide to plug the village of Atglen, Pennsylvania into their GPS systems to see where exactly this new destination would take them. But perhaps no school was more interested in this new addition to the L-L community than Northern Lebanon.
Aside from the fact that Northern Lebanon now found themselves within Section 4 alongside Octorara after the restructuring of the L-L sections this year, the situation only magnified itself once you consider that the one-way distance from Fredericksburg to Atglen measures roughly 50 miles with an estimated drive time of an hour and a half. As it turned out, that would be the very journey that the Vikings and fans would make on Tuesday night as they traversed their way en route to their final stop located within the outer regions of Chester County. And all things being considered, the trip wasn’t as bad as it may have originally seemed on the surface.
“No we didn’t,” Northern Lebanon head coach Chris George replied when asked if he and his ballclub had to make any special arrangements regarding a possible early dismissal in order to travel to Octorara on Tuesday night. “We left around 3 o’clock which is still really early for us. We brought some food with and actually went for a walk when we got here,” George added.
“The kids didn’t know it was coming. They were giggling about it,” said George of his team’s impromptu excursion around the Octorara campus. “I tell them all the time that they don’t get outside this time of year to get fresh air. It’s either the lights of a gym or the light off the Fortnite screen. I think that’s all they get,” he quipped.
“In some ways, it’s better that it’s not on Friday because we play on Saturday this week,” George said of their journey coming on a Tuesday night as opposed to leading into the weekend. “Luckily for us, we practiced Sunday night so we’re going to take tomorrow off. That kind of works out although we have one day of prep for two games against Donegal and Conrad Weiser, so that will be interesting.”
But even for all of the circumstances that go along with a long bus ride, the fact of the matter was that there was important to business to tend to for both the Vikings and Braves when they matched up against one another on Tuesday night.
For Northern Lebanon, Tuesday night marked an opportunity to finally shake free from their current four-game losing skid once and for all, with the Vikings eager to taste victory for the first time since a holiday tourney win over Tulpehocken back on December 27th.
On the other side, Octorara came into the night with likely an added bounce in their step as the Braves were coming off a thriller 60-55 overtime triumph over Kennett on Saturday afternoon. But nonleague victories aside, Tuesday night’s Section 4 tilt with Northern Lebanon also presented Octorara with another opportunity to make hay heading down the stretch as the Braves try to chase down a bid into the L-L playoffs next month.
And while the league playoffs may still be a few weeks off, Tuesday night proved that the Octorara Braves certainly contain the necessary elements to heard from down the stretch run in terms of possibly snatching a berth into the dance.
In terms of starting fast, both Keith Lambert of Octorara and Nate Shirk of Northern Lebanon could not have had much better starts to their evening. In a sense, the first few minutes became a mini game between the two opposing competitors as Shirk would start off the evening by scoring the Vikings’ first four points before Octorara’s 5’11 junior guard would counter back by pouring in back-to-back triples, helping put the home-standing Braves up by the 8-4 advantage with 4:30 left to play in the first quarter.
While Lambert was busy firing in triples from behind the arc in the early going, Alex Lantz was equally busy mixing it up inside as the Braves’ 6’2 senior big man’s put-back with 3:27 left in the first gave Octorara their largest lead of the night at 10-4, forcing Northern Lebanon to burn a timeout in order to stop the bleeding.
Sure enough, the Vikings would be able to do just that in the ensuing minutes as the visitors from Fredericksburg answered back with a 6-2 blitz over the duration of the opening period as two consecutive Josh Bowers buckets from point-blank range helped trim the Braves’ lead down to just a pair as the second quarter was set to begin with Octorara holding serve, 12-10.
While Octorara may be a fresh face to the Lancaster-Lebanon League this season, the Braves do contain one player that L-L coaches and fans alike will undoubtedly remember over the course of the next few years to come: 6’6 sophomore center turned human pogo-stick, Naji Hamilton.
Without question, Hamilton’s unique skill-set when combined with his remarkable God-given lengthy and rangy frame make him to be a formidable and downright nightmarish matchup for anyone else in the Lancaster-Lebanon League to try and contend with, much less Section 4 competition. So, with that in mind, Octorara began pounding the ball down low to their talented and not-so secret weapon. And right on cue, Hamilton was able to make good on the Braves’ collection decision by rewarding them with two straight buckets within the first three minutes of the second stanza which helped extend the Octorara lead out to eight at 18-10.
But sure enough, Northern Lebanon continued to scratch and claw their way back into it as three straight Viking buckets were tallied courtesy of Ethan Borcky which narrowed the Braves’ lead down to just four at 20-16 with 3:30 left to go in the first half.
Thankfully for Octorara contingent, Jason Brown was on the scene to author a timely bucket for the Braves, as the 5’11 junior guard helped put Octorara back up by seven at 24-17 just two minutes later. However, the chore of getting Northern Lebanon to wave the flag proved to be exactly that as the Vikings refused to go away without giving an inch throughout the remainder of the second quarter. In fact, for as many problems as Octorara’s high-octane defensive pressure posed for Northern Lebanon throughout much of the first half, the Vikings were able to weather quite nicely as they sprinted off into the halftime locker room down by just a half dozen at 26-20 following an Eyan Margut layup in transition just before the first half horn.
Coming out of the intermission, Northern Lebanon appeared to pick up right where they had left off.
While they may have been trailing up on the scoreboard, something that had remained a constant all night long up until that point, the Vikings continued to press on in hopes of finally seizing that go-ahead advantage. And while they certainly came close after two early triples to begin the third quarter which were splashed in by Alex Folmer and Peyton Wolfe respectively, Northern Lebanon looked up and realized that they had sliced the Octorara lead down to just a deuce at 30-28 as the third quarter neared its midway point.
From that point on however, Octorara emphatically put their foot down once and for all.
Helped sparked by a floater in the lane after a tough effort by way of 5’10 senior guard Leon Brown, the Octorara cushion had suddenly swelled back up to six at 34-28 with now just three minutes left to go in the third period. Shortly thereafter, the Braves’ snowball continued to roll downhill at an alarming rate after an old-fashioned three-point play put together by 6’3 junior Matt Keating, increasing Octorara’s lead to nine at 37-28. From there, the Vikings’ deficit would go on to reach double digits as an Alex Lantz bucket at the tin gave the Braves the 39-28 lead, forcing Northern Lebanon to call yet another timeout in the face of the Octorara salvo.
Fortunately for the Vikings, Josh Bowers was able to put a stop the Braves’ onslaught by tallying a much-needed nice hoop inside just before the conclusion of the third, making it a 42-30 Octorara lead with the game set to enter its final eight minutes.
When all was said and done, it would prove to be a 12-2 run administered by the Braves over the course of the final 4:20 of the third quarter which proved to not only to be the difference in that frame, but for the remainder of the game as well.
Granted, while playing with had to feel like a pretty sizable lead at that time considering the events of which had preceded it, Octorara continued to display their beautiful mix of an inside/out punch later at the onset of the final quarter as Alex Lantz dialed up a trifecta early to give the Braves their largest lead of the night thus far, 45-30.
Yet even still, Northern Lebanon continued to throw punches up until the bitter end as the Vikings would proceed to close the gap down to eleven at 49-38 following a 2-2 trip to the charity stripe from Josh Bowers. On the night, Bowers would go on to share team-high scoring honors with freshman guard Peyton Wolfe, as both Vikings would contribute ten points each to the Northern Lebanon effort.
But when speaking about scoring, no one on Tuesday night was better than Octorara’s Alex Lantz. And with momentum ever so slightly starting to tilt back in favor of Northern Lebanon, Lantz was there to slam the door on the Vikings’ aspirations of traveling home with a victory as the senior forward’s three-point play with 1:35 left to play which put the Braves up 52-38 essentially put this one out of reach, as Lantz’s game-high 16-point performance helped propel Octorara to their third consecutive victory, 57-43 over a very game Northern Lebanon squad.
By now, you already know the story here. This season is indeed a historic one in the annals of Lancaster-Lebanon League basketball with the addition of Lancaster Country Day and Octorara respectively. And as far as the Braves are concerned, their new surroundings have fit their eye quite nicely.
“We like the competition,” long-time Octorara head coach Gene Lambert said of his new program’s indoctrination with the L-L League so far this season. “There’s some good coaches in this league and the kids play hard night in and night out no matter the situation… Donegal hasn’t won a game yet, but we went up there and they fought us. We didn’t walk out of there squeaky-clean. They got up into us,” Lambert said of the Braves’ most recent L-L League challenge prior to Tuesday night. “Northern Lebanon, I know they lost a lot of guys to graduation, but those kids played like they belonged out there. That’s good. That’s what you want.”
“That’s why I said there’s good coaches,” said Lambert. “They put their kids in good positions to be successful.”
For most teams, we have finally reached that pesky part of the season that could easily be described as the “dog days” of the high school basketball campaign. The practices get more grueling, the aches and pains get magnified, and the competition is seemingly unrelenting. Well, the thing that most teams do not have going for them is the excitement that goes along with preparing for an entirely new slate of games the remainder of the season. And you can bet that Coach Lambert and his Braves relish the opportunity that they find themselves in.
“There’s some excitement because I look at our team and I say, ‘How are (future opponents) going to take that away from us? What are they going to take away from us?’ All of the coaches do a nice job of making sure they know what we do,” Lambert added of his L-L coaching brethren. “That means they put in work and I respect that.”
NEXT UP: Since the calendar has flipped to the month of January, the Octorara Braves have seemed to get things powered into a whole different gear as evidenced by their third straight victory on Tuesday night and fourth out of their last five contests. But make no mistake about it. While Coach Lambert is without question one of the best that the L-L League has to offer in terms of coaching prowess, even he himself has not gone into the lab and concocted any sort of magic potion since the start of the new calendar year.
“I really thought at the beginning of the season that our schedule was tougher,” the 18th year sideline vet remarked. “If we could make it through there and on into January, I thought we could try and turn a corner a little bit.”
“Start believing in each other a little more, start playing harder, and believe that when we step on the floor that we have a chance to win. That’s what’s happening. They’re believing in each other more, trusting what we’re saying to them, and executing.”
And with the race for league playoff spots starting to heat up, there appears to be a force awakening down in Chester County at just the right time as the Braves will look to close out this week with two more victories over league foes at home over Solanco on Thursday night before what figures to be a doozy matchup on Saturday between the Braves and Lancaster Mennonite inside the Blazers’ house of horrors.
For Northern Lebanon, the quest to snap this lengthy losing streak will again take shape on Friday night as they welcome a Donegal Indians crew up to Fredericksburg whose goose egg in the win column this season serves as the perfect definition of the word deceptive.