The Raiders would be even further along in their development had Stevie Fortna and Kate Pastal not been in their gym on Monday night.
The dynamic senior guard duo of Fortna and Pastal combined for 38 of Lebanon Catholic's 46 points, superb floor leadership and big basket after big basket as the Beavers survived a significant upset bid from the increasingly pesky Raiders, 46-37, in a Section Three-Four crossover contest at Elco High School.
The matchup stood in stark contrast to the first meeting between the two teams this season - a not-that-close 57-44 Catholic victory in the title game of the Lebanon Holiday Tournament. But the stellar play of Fortna and Pastal, who tallied 21 and 17 points, respectively, assured that the bottom-line outcome would remain the same.
"Absolutely, I don't think there's a doubt about it," said Elco coach Ashli Shay to the suggestion that her now 5-11 squad could have pulled the upset on the 12-4 Beavers minus the big-time efforts by Fortna and Pastal. "Those two hit big shots when they needed to hit big shots. They both just step up when they need to."
Lebanon Catholic coach Patti Hower has said repeatedly this season that she believes her guard
And it was a good thing, too, considering Elco was breathing down Catholic's neck most of the night behind 16 points and four 3-pointers from sophomore sniper Cheyenne Hassler and a strong 10-point effort from steady senior point guard Carissa Mehaffey.
"I think they work nicely together," Hower said of Fortna and Pastal. "Stevie and Kate make good decisions, they work well together and they're hitting their shots, so we have to kinda live and die by that."
"It was a good game. Elco's improved since we played them the first time, they've definitely improved. They have some young players out there that are only gonna get better."
Early on, it didn't look like the Beavers would need any heroics to walk away with a victory, running off the first six points of the game with tremendous ease and forcing Shay to burn a timeout just 1:14 into the opening quarter.
But out of the timeout, the Raiders swiftly broke Catholic's fullcourt press and got an easy bucket for Mehaffey to join the fight and stay in it the
Elco (3-7 Section Three) was never able to wrest the lead away from Catholic, but it did get to within 18-16 on a Kady Yoders layup with 4:55 left in the first half, trailed just 22-18 at intermission and was still within 30-27 after Hassler hit a cutting Mehaffey for a layup with 1:18 left in the third.
"We had so many good looks," said Shay, who also got some nice work from Yoders, Halie Parker and Celeste Shimp on Monday. "Our offense looked (great) at times, because we were being patient. I think that's the difference from the beginning of the season to now. We're starting to relax a little bit.
"Ever since the Manheim Central game (a 40-36 loss 10 days ago), we've competed with everybody. We've played really hard and not played as sloppy. We've seen a much more patient team. Now we just need to execute a little better and defensively come up with some more stops."
Had the Raiders gotten a couple more stops at the end of the third quarter, their upset chances would have been greatly enhanced. But Abby Shay, who tallied the Beavers' other eight points, scored on a putback with 25 ticks left in the period, and Fortna threw in a desperation "3" at the third-quarter buzzer to push the lead to 35-27.
Mehaffey got Elco back to within six on a baseline jumper with 5:39 left, but Pastal eventually responded with a left wing "3" that essentially served as a dagger to the home team's hopes. And if that didn't do it, the layup Fortna hit off a beauty of a feed from Pastal with 2:35 to go to make it a 42-31 game certainly did.
"Because they're seniors, I think they know what their good shot is," Hower said of Fortna and Pastal. "And the other players know we have to work our offense until we get them in that position. I think we did a better job of that in the second half. We didn't execute in the first half, I thought our execution was poor, and I thought Elco executed very well."
Because of that, Catholic got a needed test after having an easy time with winless Donegal last Thursday, and Elco found a few more reasons to believe in what it could be down the road.
"We have come so far, and I think that says a lot about the kids," Shay said. "They're starting to build some confidence in themselves and starting to believe they can compete. It's certainly inspiring. It looks very hopeful. Now we just have to get over that hump."
For their part, the Beavers need to again find the form that led them to a 10-1 start but was lost in a trio of disheartening losses to Section Four rivals Lancaster Mennonite, Annville-Cleona and Lancaster Catholic.
"I think this was a good test," Hower said. "(Facing) a local rival, a good, improving team. I think we battled hard. We never had that deer-in-the-headlights look. I think we played with confidence."
Confidence that Fortna and Pastal helped instill with their typically productive play.