Lancaster Catholic: 2003 Look back by Gordie Jones

Written by: on Sunday, March 6th, 2022


EDITOR’S NOTE: With Lampeter-Strasburg 27-0 heading into the PIAA Tournament, here is a look back at the only Lancaster County team that finished as an undefeated state champion — Lancaster Catholic’s 2002-03 club, which went 35-0. A longer version of this story will be part of
LLHoops.coms upcoming book about the 50th anniversary of the Lancaster-Lebanon League
. Thanks to Coach Joe Klazas for sharing some images.

LNP credit

A Driven Coach, a Resourceful Star and a Connected Cast: How Lancaster Catholic Ran the Table in 2002-03
By Gordie Jones

I recall when you filled it on up

And you bowed to the crowd

The girls in the short skirts screaming loud

– Bruce Hornsby, “Stander on the Mountain.”

They’re all in their mid-30s now, all roughly twice as old as they were when they scaled the heights. And blessed with the perspective time brings, the key figures of Lancaster Catholic’s unbeaten 2002-03 state-championship team now fully understand what it took to get there, in a way that might not have been possible in the moment.

“Looking back on it, we obviously knew what we were doing,” Zach Shedleski, a junior guard on that team, says now. “We thought it was just what happens. Looking back on it now, it’s not just what happens.”

Those Crusaders went 35-0.

Thirty-five and zero – not one misstep in four months of play, including six weeks of tournament competition. Think about how difficult that is to do at the high school level, where disaster is often a foul-out, flunk-out or parental freakout away.

Yet that team, which competed in 3A, stayed the course, and to date is one of just 33 schools to run the table in the 101 years the PIAA championships have been contested. Only one of those unbeaten teams – Elk Lake, which went 36-0 in 1977 – has ever exceeded the Crusaders’ victory total.

Joe Klazas, an assistant to Bill Southward in 2003 and Catholic High’s head coach now, recalls a coaching friend suggesting during that run that it wouldn’t be the worst thing for the Crusaders to lose a game before the postseason. His thinking was that that “0” becomes heavier and heavier, the further you have to lug it.

“In a way I see what he means,” Klazas says, “but that wouldn’t have been acceptable to those kids.”

Hardened by previous postseason failures (notably blowout losses to McCaskey in the ‘01 and ‘02 Lancaster-Lebanon League championship games), the Crusaders were diligent and driven, committed and connected. In Southward they had a coach who wouldn’t let them relax. In senior guard Greg Testa, their best player, they had a guy who simply wouldn’t let them lose.

The rest of the cast was no less impressive. Junior center Ryan Purvis, a surpassing athlete, would go on to play tight end at Boston College and (briefly) in the NFL; his two biggest games that season were the last two. Shedleski, a streaky spot-up shooter, likewise saved some of his best performances for the postseason. Senior forward Keith Keller, the team’s third-leading scorer, contributed the single biggest basket of the title run.

The fifth starter, senior forward Mason Weeks, was a dirty-work guy, and the top subs – senior guards Ian Giblin and Andrew Koehler and junior center Steve Schmalhofer – all stepped up when they were most needed.

Today Weeks downplays his own ability – “I wasn’t that good,” he says – while at the same time appreciating the uniqueness of the time, and the team.

“I just remember the brotherhood – how we played for each other,” he says. “I know it’s corny, but we were playing for the name on the front (of the jersey) instead of the name on the back.”

The journey ended with a surprisingly routine 75-59 victory over Perry Traditional Academy in the state final, on March 21, 2003.

It began long before that. With the Crusaders returning five starters from a team that had gone 23-10 in 2001-02. With Southward storming out of Hempfield’s gym after his guys performed poorly in summer-league play and saying the following to his assistants: “We’re not gonna win a game all year.”

Others were, shall we say, a bit more optimistic. Shedleski claims he went so far as to tell a friend before the season that Catholic High was going to go undefeated, but Southward was determined to nip any hint of complacency in the bud.

“I’ve always taken from him you can never be satisfied with one good practice,” Klazas says. “Every day out there, you’ve got to get better.”

Adds Testa, “I remember one time he told us, ‘Never let down after a win. … After a win, go even harder.’ He got the most out of us, for sure.”

Not that Testa, for one, needed much motivation. The third-oldest of four children from a highly athletic, highly competitive family — his older sister Gina, for instance, was a multi-sport star at LCHS, and later played field hockey at Cornell — his fire always burned hot.

“Like Charles Barkley said, I hate to lose more than I like to win,” he says.

That was coupled with an unusual feel for the game.

“I’m not a huge hockey guy,” Weeks says, “but people talk about (Wayne) Gretzky seeing stuff before it happens. Greg was always in the right place at the right time. He was there too often to call it coincidence. The way he processes things is just different. … He’s such a rare person. I’ve never met anyone like him. I doubt I will again.”

Weeks freely admitted that season that he was “in awe” of his fellow senior, and Southward labeled Testa “a natural winner.”  All of that would be on display as the weeks and months unspooled.

The Springboard

They breezed through the regular season, then won their first two Lancaster-Lebanon League playoff games, over Solanco and Lancaster Mennonite, to improve to 23-0. That earned them a third straight meeting with McCaskey in the title game. The Tornado had belted them 69-45 and 78-41 the two previous seasons, and the latter game remains the most one-sided final in L-L history.

To say the Crusaders welcomed another shot would be an understatement.

“We circled that (game) on the calendar,” Testa recalls. “They kicked our butts two straight years. We were peaking toward that moment.”

And indeed Catholic High took the game to the Tornado from the opening tip, prevailing 58-47 behind 22 points from Testa, 16 from Purvis and 14 from Shedleski.

Looking back now, Keller says, there is little doubt that that game served as a “catapult” for the Crusaders.

“That,” Shedleski adds, “was probably when people started taking us seriously.”

Still, there was a long way to go, and they would be repeatedly challenged throughout the District Three and PIAA Tournaments. They met each and every one of them, however.

“It’s not like we were going in and blowing people out,” Southward says. “I think people might have that concept. We just grinded it out.”

They notably collided with Lebanon in the district semis, and were down 53-52 with a little over two minutes left. Testa had his shot blocked, but forced a tie-up that enabled the Crusaders to keep the ball on alternate possession, resulting in a Purvis three-point play. That gave them the lead for good, in an eventual 59-54 victory.

Testa then rained in 31 points, matching his career high, to lead Catholic High to an 81-67 victory over lordly Steel-High in the district final, a game that also saw Shedleski equal his two-game-old season high of 23. Between them the two guards nailed 10 of 15 3-point attempts, including Shedleski’s 6-for-7 sniping, as Catholic led the last 29:04 and was up by at least 10 all but 14 seconds of the last 16:45.

The Seminal Moment

They dismissed Oxford and Allentown Central Catholic in the first two rounds of states, putting them opposite District One champion Harriton in the Eastern semis.

The Rams, spurred by a 30-point explosion on the part of Lafayette-bound guard Marcus Harley, moved to a 60-49 lead with 5:55 left. But they stopped attacking, resulting in the usual Crusader counterpunch.

Still, Catholic High was down 64-62 in the closing seconds. The ball again found its way to Testa and he charged upcourt, veering right as he passed the center-jump circle.

Then he fell to his knees.

Asked afterward what was going through his mind, Shedleski said, “How’s he gonna get outta this one?”

Purvis recalls being less optimistic.

“I was like, ‘Oh no, this is it,’” he says.

Ryan Purvis: photo Dave Porter

Only it wasn’t. Testa’s best sport in his younger years had been baseball, and in this instance, he recalls, “I just did a pop-up slide.”

He also kept his dribble while doing so. And here’s the thing: The two defenders who had converged on him relaxed for a split-second.

“How do you defend somebody in the middle of a baseball slide?” he asks now. “It was like the Red Sea parted.”

He knifed into the lane, and into another thicket of defenders. And somehow, some way, he slipped a pass to Keller, who was standing all by himself under the basket. His layup with .3 of a second left tied it, and the Crusaders went on to win in overtime, 74-69, as Purvis scored eight of his 14 points in the extra period.

“It’s one of those moments in life that kind of slows down, and you think, ‘This is it,’” Weeks says. “Then Greg pulls another rabbit out of his hat. We shouldn’t have expected anything less.”

They would face Steel-High again in the Eastern final, and with the Rollers intent on taking away Catholic High’s perimeter game, Purvis worked inside for 24 points and nine rebounds, keying a 66-60 victory. (It should be noted, however, that yet another fourth-quarter deficit evaporated courtesy of a 9-0 rush triggered by Testa’s steal and layup.)

Purvis followed that with a 25-point, 14-board effort in the state final against Perry, and the championship was theirs.

Their Legacy

The quote, uttered nearly a half-century ago, is from hockey, not basketball. But it applies to nearly every championship team. It speaks to the sacrifices made, the struggle that was undertaken and the bonds that are formed.

It originated with Fred Shero, late coach of the Flyers, who as his team was poised to win the 1974 Stanley Cup said the following: “Win together today, and we walk together forever.”

And so it is with those Crusaders. All of the starters are husbands and fathers now. All of them are well into their careers. Three of them – Testa, Weeks and Shedleski – have settled in Lancaster County. The other two, Purvis and Keller, live outside Philadelphia.

Weeks was the best man in Testa’s wedding. Shedleski’s wife, a jewelry designer, fashioned the engagement and wedding rings for Weeks and his wife. Shedleski and Purvis work in adjacent businesses within the roofing industry, meaning they are in frequent contact. And all of them congregate for the golf tournament Klazas stages every September at Overlook.

“There’s always gonna be that brotherly bond between us,” Keller says. “That will continue on, the rest of our lives.”

Southward, who stepped down as Catholic High’s coach in 2005, served for a time as the JV coach at Penn Manor, the district in which he taught elementary school for 35 years, ending in 2019. He then worked as a long-term sub at Lancaster Catholic, but retired for good in early December 2021.

All these years later, his hard-driving ways are vividly recalled by the players on the championship team.

“If it were up to Coach South,” Testa jokes, “we were probably still the worst team in history.”

Purvis, who finished his career with 1,371 points and over 700 rebounds, says now that his two big games at the end of the title season brought his football recruitment to full boil. He caught 113 balls during his time at BC, the last two years of which he spent as a starter, and while he went undrafted did land with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as a free agent in 2009.

He spent most of that season on the practice squad, and began the following year there, too, before his promotion to the active roster in late October. His first catch, a five-yarder, came in a victory at Arizona on Oct. 31. The first of his two starts came a month later, in Baltimore. Several friends went down for the game, only to be held up in the security line. That means they missed his 12-yard reception on the Bucs’ first series, his only one in the game and one of five grabs he had in his lone NFL season.

Also of note – the Raven who made the stop on the play was no less a player than star linebacker Ray Lewis.

“Got tackled by a Hall of Famer – claim to fame,” Purvis says with a laugh.

His other claim to fame is memorialized in the shadow box his parents made for him. It features a picture of a dunk he threw down late in the game against Perry, as well as all three medals he earned in ‘02-03, and a plaque. It hangs in the office in his home in Wayne.

“I can’t miss it,” he says. “I see it every day.”

He and his wife Katie are parents to three boys.

Shedleski, who scored 1,298 points for the Crusaders, fully intended to play at Gettysburg College after completing his high school career in 2004. But he tore the ACL in his right knee during practice for an all-star game the spring of his senior year, then tore the same ligament in the same knee in the 2005 preseason. He never did play for the Bullets.

“Definitely a bummer,” he says, “but what are you gonna do?”

He did play a good bit after college, but tore his right ACL yet again in 2013, during a game in the Lititz Rec League. By then he was cultivating a talent for writing that had taken root in college. In 2014 he self-published a book entitled “The Penguin Club: A Novel,” which he describes as a story of a guy “running away from life in general.”

“He sorta figures it out in the end,” Shedleski adds.

He has since put writing aside, and now works as an outside technical sales rep for  H.B. Fuller, an adhesive manufacturer. He treasures the continuing connection with Purvis, and also marvels at the work his wife Abby did for Weeks and his wife Annie.

“She’s really impressive,” Zach says.

The Shedleskis have a young daughter.

As for Weeks, he was reminded recently that he scored a career-high 14 points in a state-playoff victory over Oxford during the title run.

“That’s probably half the points I scored all year,” he says.

Nor could he resist a little more self-deprecation when he talked about the importance of the Crusaders’ reserves in ‘02-03.

“You can’t do what we did with five guys,” he says, “especially if I’m one of them.”

He wound up going to Temple, and is now territory manager for Boston Scientific, a medical device manufacturer. He and Annie have two daughters.

Keller played a single season at Millersville before going on to earn his business degree, enabling him to launch a career in finance.

Four years ago he co-founded KM Financial Partners in Bala Cynwyd, and recently marveled anew at the pivotal sequence in the Harriton game. Like Purvis, he thought the Crusaders were toast when Testa fell. When he regained his feet and continued toward the basket, Keller figured Testa would shoot, so he positioned himself for a rebound.

Then the ball arrived.

“I don’t know how (it) got to me,” Keller says, “but it did.”

He and his wife Stephanie, who live in Glenside, have one son and one daughter.

Speaking of Testa, it was generally assumed as the ‘02-03 season progressed that he would wind up playing at a Division III school, as several – including Franklin & Marshall and Elizabethtown – expressed interest. But when Southward said in an interview that such a place would be an ideal landing spot, Testa responded predictably.

“I was like, ‘C’mon,’” he says. “That kind of fueled me a little bit.”

He had always dreamed of playing at Villanova, and recalls that Division I schools like Penn State and St. Joe’s offered to make him a preferred walk-on. He settled on Millersville instead, scoring 1,702 points during his career despite an inauspicious start.

As he said during the speech marking his 2013 induction into the school’s Hall of Fame, his very first collegiate shot was swatted “10 rows behind (him).” He responded predictably to that, too, becoming a three-time All-Pennsylvania Conference East choice and two-time honorable mention All-American. Part of a PSAC championship team as a senior, he is still high on MU’s all-time lists in scoring (seventh), 3-pointers (fourth), 3-point percentage (10th), assists (eighth) and steals (third).

Testa, who with his wife Jamie has three daughters, is now the vice president of sales for Direct Wire and Cable in Denver. And when he thinks of that championship season, he most remembers that it was the culmination of a long uphill climb.

“There was a ton of blood, sweat and tears,” he says. “It didn’t come out of thin air.”

That’s where that team ended up, though – at the very summit. In the rarest of rarefied air.

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