Third Quarter Surge Proves Vital As Hempfield Fends Off Feisty Warwick Charge As Black Knights Advance To Second Consecutive League Final Following Series’ Latest Thriller

Written by: on Thursday, February 17th, 2022

 

You know, for all the excitement that comes with teams making Cinderella-type runs throughout postseason tournaments, sometimes there’s simply nothing that can match the prospect of two heavyweight giants meeting up and trading body blows against one another, especially once the stakes get ratcheted up to an entirely different level that is altogether different. Well, if you yourself happen to believe that you too reside within that very same faction of like-minded folks, rest assured that the punctuation mark of Wednesday night’s Lancaster-Lebanon League tournament semifinal twin-bill that pitted Hempfield up against Warwick at Conestoga Valley’s Rill Gymnasium was affair almost specifically built for your enjoyment.

In some ways, it seemed nothing if not apropos given that Monday was Valentine’s Day and these two programs happened to draw one another in the final four of 2021-22 league tournament. After all, isn’t there a saying out there that goes, “Absence makes the heart grow fonder?” True enough, but while both Hempfield and Warwick have certainly had their fair share of battles that were contested against one another not all that long ago inside the perennial gauntlet that is L-L Section One, these two schools have somehow actually raised the excitement level in their head-to-head battles once Warwick completed the move down to the Section Two ranks back in 2017-18. Sure, while there’s that multiple overtime war waged between the two a handful of years ago now that was held over in Lititz that is still somewhat the story of legend and folklore, both the Black Knights and Warriors have been able to look across the fence and see the other program residing at or near the top of each of their respective divisions at nearly every turn once they went their separate ways. In short, while Hempfield v Warwick was nothing more than your prototypical run of the mill Section One contest for years and years and not really anything more by and large, since Warriors’ move, it has evolved into what must now be recognized and appreciated as one of the league’s most fruitful of budding and emerging rivalries.

As far as this year goes, it too has held relatively true to form as far as either side had to be concerned.

For Hempfield, while the Black Knights figured to be the odds on preseason favorite within the Section One rank and file heading into the season, while they would indeed finish right there at the #1-line once the dust had finally settled, it certainly wasn’t without its trials and tribulations along the way seeing as Hempfield ended up sharing the division title alongside Manheim Township, thanks in large part to the Knights’ pair of consecutive losses at the hands of Township and McCaskey respectively inside the final week and change of the regular season. That said, thanks in large part to their collective resume earned throughout the earlier portion of the regular season slate – including going on two separate spans of eight-game winning streaks throughout the season-long jaunt – proved to be enough margin for error in terms of Hempfield walking away with another feat of Section One supremacy yet again in this campaign as well. And on Monday night, Hempfield looked all the parts of a Section One champion in a methodical and dominant display in the dispatching of a cagy ELCO squad playing on their home floor to vault the Black Knights into Wednesday’s semis.

On the other side, it’s been another case of same ol’ same ol’ for Warwick. To be sure, arguably one of the biggest catalysts behind the Warriors’ ascension up to a level of success currently that the program hasn’t enjoyed since the 1980’s has most definitely been fueled by that aforementioned move down to Section Two. How successful you ask? Well, how about the simple fact this year marked the fourth consecutive season in which the gang from Lititz ended the regular season with the divisional title? Suffice to say, that’s quite an achievement for a program that went nearly two entire decades without appearing in the league tournament field at all, save for one lone trip in 2007. Yes, it’s been quite a meteoric rise under seventh-year head coach Chris Christensen, a welcomed breath of fresh air that came to lead the program from behind enemy lines by way of the school’s most “ardent” of rivals shall we say, Manheim Township. And speaking of the league playoffs themselves, the Warriors entered their mid-week affair against Hempfield coming off an impressive double digit triumph over Section Five champ Columbia on Monday night in Lititz, a win which put the Warriors right on the precipice of returning to the championship round for what would be the third time in four seasons should they be able to knock off the Black Knights.

However, it likely didn’t figure to be an easy assignment considering their Section One foes got the better of them in the season’s lone matchup between the pair, a thrilling contest that went right down to the wire –as nearly every challenge in this series tends to be over the last handful of seasons – when Hempfield junior forward, Michael Rieker, was able to bury a buzzer-beating triple at the final gun to send the Warriors home with a bitter 55-53 defeat which prompted a wild postgame celebration over in Landisville back on January 14th.

And wouldn’t you know it, but this one too would end in white-knuckle fashion just as its most recent predecessor had done. The thing was though, there would be no role reversal on this night. Instead, it would end up being the Black Knight’s turn to make a return trip back to the league finals for the second consecutive season. Oh yeah, with a little help from Rieker yet again.

As you would likely come to expect in an affair between two sides that are so evenly matched, the barbs traded back and forth in the early going appeared to be mirror-images. Case in point, while Hempfield would go in front by a 5-3 count following a 3-ball knocked down by way of 6’4 sophomore forward, Ben Troyer, a timely Tate Landis trey down on the other for Warwick on the ensuing possession put the Warriors back in front by the slimmest of margins thanks to the handiwork of their 5’11 senior star. And while Warwick would proceed to go back in front at 10-7 following a bucket underneath from 6’0 senior guard, Avery Sapp, Hempfield would retaliate right back with a 4-0 jaunt over the final two minutes and change of the opening frame thanks to a pair of buckets from Miguel Pena and Cole Overbaugh respectively, as the Black Knights began the second stanza with the benefit of residing on the 11-10 cushion.

Sure enough, the second quarter would do next to nothing when it came to either side roaring out to a comfortable margin against the opposition.

No, not when you factor in Miguel Pena’s stare-down trifecta, a cold-blooded 3-ball cashed in by the Knights’ 6’2 junior guard that made it a 14-12 Hempfield lead with 6:12 left to play before the halftime recess. Of course, Warwick had no interest whatsoever in terms of yielding any further back as the second quarter rolled along either. For that, you can easily point to a pair of back-to-back trips to the tin by way of 6’2 fearless freshman forward, Caleb Johnsen, an exchange in momentum which put the Warriors back out in front at 16-14 following the aforementioned Pena bucket.  And for a 16-minute opening round fight where the margin of separation seemed nothing if not nil both on the floor and scoreboard itself, it was apropos that the game remained played within a one to two-point window for the remainder of the opening half, a feat best evidenced by the 19-18 advantage that Warwick carried with them into the halftime dressing room.

Finally, in the third quarter, somebody finally put a dent in the opposition’s armor. Fittingly, it would be the Knights who would be the ones doing the jousting.

Ironically, while Hempfield’s frontline may not seem to be the most intimidating of figures, at least at first blush, good luck telling that to the legions of Warriors who found their shots being negated at the rim repeatedly inside the third frame by the Black Knights’ big men. But if there was one figure who seemed to both literally and figuratively rise above all other comers, it would be 6’5 senior forward, Cole Overbaugh.

To be sure, while the work of he and his teammates was to be recognized on the defensive end, the Black Knights’ towering forward would help kick-start the Hempfield charge with a pair of buckets from point-blank range in the early portion of the third frame, ushering the troops from Landisville out to the 24-21 advantage roughly two minutes in. From there, it would be the Black Knights’ other shot-blocker, Michael Hester, who got into the act offensively shortly thereafter as the 6’3 junior forward’s hoop plus the harm put Hempfield up by seven, 28-21, as Warwick was forced into a timeout with 4:22 left to play in the third. All told, not even the short stoppage would seem to do much in terms of halting the momentum seeing as how the Black Knights would see their cushion expand out even further following the Warriors’ timeout courtesy of a remarkable reverse finish at the tin by Ben Troyer to make it a 30-21 contest at that time.   

Needless to say, Warwick needed to retaliate back immediately if they had any desires of getting within shouting distance to make a late push before heading into the final frame. In that regard, the Warriors certainly had to feel fortunate that they had Carter Horst at their disposal.

With his team hanging right on the danger’s edge with Hempfield appearing to be on the verge of blowing this final four tilt wide-open for good, the Warriors’ 6’1 sophomore forward came away with a pair of crucial takes to the cup in the waning moments of the third quarter, an instrumental four-point swing that helped give Warwick some much-needed mojo and juice before embarking on the final eight minutes, albeit while looking up at the scoreboard and recognizing their 35-27 deficit.

Speaking of the man of the hour, Horst picked up right where he had left off once the fourth quarter got underway in earnest.

Yes, while the 10th grader’s 3-ball quickly sliced the Hempfield lead down to four at 35-31, a timely rebuke down on the other end by way of Ben Troyer on the Black Knights’ next trip down the floor continued to keep the pesky Warriors at bay. And while the Hempfield advantage would then swell up to a 41-33 count with 5:25 left coming on the heels of a key Hester trifecta, an Avery Sapp dagger from beyond the arc roughly three minutes later propelled Warwick right back to within four at 44-40 with 2:50 then left to play.

From there on out, it was evident that free throw shooting would likely be the difference between one team either reaching Manheim Township 48 hours later or having their run in the conference tournament end right there in the cold at Conestoga Valley instead.

Speaking of the charity stripe, Warwick’s Tate Landis certainly did his part down the final stretch on Wednesday night to key the Warriors’ cause as the senior guard helped polish off his game-high 17-point effort by netting 4-6 freebies after getting fouled in the act shooting both times, a flurry of clutch foul shooting that got the Warriors back within three at 48-45 with time only continuing to melt away.

The funny thing was though, while he was certainly the hero for Hempfield in the previous matchup between the two sides earlier this season, the Black Knights’ savior would prove to keep his holy status this time around as well.

Held in check and kept out of the scorer’s book up until the final seconds on Wednesday night, rest assured that Hempfield’s Michael Rieker has more than proven himself to be Warwick’s kryptonite. Granted, while it may not have necessarily been nearly as glamorous as canning a triple at the final gun, sinking 4-4 free throws with the game hanging in the balance is exponentially much more difficult all things considered. Well, luckily for the Black Knights, Rieker found himself up for the task yet again as the 6’2 junior guard calmly and coolly knocked down the game-defining freebies within the final 20 seconds that came sandwiched in between a Landis take to the rack. All told, while Hempfield could have easily wilted down the stretch seeing as how their relatively large advantage had been whittled down by a consistent and persistent Warwick effort inside the closing few moments, championship-minded teams simply do not fold and do not waver. Yes, without a shadow of a doubt, that’s what this particular Hempfield teams seems to be constructed with. After all, look no further than their gut-check 52-48 triumph over Warwick to send them into Friday night’s league final opposite of Lampeter-Strasburg for proof of that.

If there’s been a prevailing theme that has seemed to envelope the Hempfield teams over the last number of years –those outfits from just a few years ago that went on deep state tournament runs in particular – it has been the sum of their parts that has helped steer them onto the correct path in terms of their overall journey. Yep, that too seems to be in play this season as well.

“The past two nights, I think Michael Hester has been outstanding,” a hoarse Hempfield head coach Danny Walck said after emerging from his team’s victorious locker room following their L-L semifinal win. “You know, you look at it and say, ‘How can I impact the game other than scoring?’ I thought Hester did that with his defense, his rebounding, altering shots around the rim, and he did Monday night (against ELCO) too. I praise that because everyone wants to come down and score double digits and do all of that, but you need those glue guys if you want a championship run and I think he’s done a great job,” said Walck.

Speaking of glue guys, it’d be impossible to overlook Michael Rieker’s play down the final furlong. Yep, those four points and all.

“He deserves credit because he’s really worked at it in practice,” Walck mentioned of his junior who has ironically scored Hempfield’s last seven points against Warwick this season. “He’s been staying after practice, working on that, and we were rewarded tonight because of his efforts.”

Candidly though, perhaps the biggest reason as to why Walck didn’t have much of a voice coming out of Wednesday night? Most certainly the fact that he too gave it his all, especially since he was keenly aware of what it took to beat Warwick.

“It’s about possessions,” he said of what has made the Hempfield and Warwick series arguably the most competitive of all inside the entire L-L League recently. “(Warwick) has tremendous heart, are well-coached, and they’re gonna lay it all out there. They are everything you want out of a team,” Walck added of the Warriors. “You need to do the same thing and hope you get just a few more possessions to try and take advantage. We were fortunate enough to do that tonight.”

 

NEXT UP: As mentioned, Hempfield will now take their shot at knocking off the league’s lone unbeaten outfit, L-S, come Friday night in a much-anticipated championship fight. Oh yeah, if you haven’t forgotten, that’s a stage that Hempfield reached last season too. Of course, it goes without saying that they don’t forget it either.

“I reminded them about that at halftime,” Walck said candidly about the message inscribed on all the Black Knights’ wrists in white athletic tape that reads 41-40, the final score against Lebanon in the L-L finals. “One step closer. Let’s see what we can do.”

However, that wasn’t the only thing that the Black Knights have transcribed this season.

“I just gave (his team) a sheet of paper and said, ‘What are you willing to do to help us win?’ They wrote it out and I wrote mine out,” the Hempfield head coach said. “Mine was to stay present and coach each possession, so I haven’t gone there yet. I’ll go there tonight,” he then admitted in terms of his L-S scouting report as of late Wednesday evening. “I do know this though, they got guys that can fill up the basket. Not just one guy, multiple guys. We’ll see what we can come up with,” he said regarding the Pioneers.

As far as Warwick is concerned, it’s right back to Section Two play. Well, not officially of course seeing as how next Tuesday night signifies the start of the District 3-6A playoffs, but the Warriors will meet their other new rival of sorts, Lebanon, when the Warriors and Cedars tangle in Lititz for the #7 vs #10 affair with the winner bound for Cumberland County come next Friday night for a matchup against the Mid-Penn’s Cumberland Valley Eagles.

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