The Lebanon Catholic boys' basketball team sure looked to be district championship-caliber on Monday night. Friday, in that place that tends to smell a bit like chocolate, the Beavers will get to find out for sure.
Actually, it was close for a time. Largely on the strength of the 3-point marksmanship of Pletz and Thomas, the Beavers managed to forge an uncomfortable-looking 26-18 halftime lead against the wildly athletic and just as wildly erratic Mighty Ants.
But second-seeded Catholic stormed out of the locker room and proceeded to put on a third-quarter clinic, racking up 25 points in the eight-minute frame on the way to cruising into Friday's 5 p.m. title clash at the Giant Center. Waiting for the now 17-7 Beavers will be top-seeded nemesis Greenwood, which dismantled Harrisburg Christian 57-24 in Monday's other Class A semi at East Pennsboro.
And when the Beavers arrive in Chocolatetown on Friday, they don't figure to spend too much time whiffing the chocolate in the air or drinking in their spacious surroundings. There will be other, more important, matters to attend to.
"It's always nice to go there, but our goal wasn't to get to the Giant Center," said head coach Scott Clentimack, who also took the Beavers to - and won - district finals in 2000, 2005 and 2006. "Our goal was to win a district championship. We've kinda taken that approach all year long, it's 'District championship or bust.' While we're excited to be there, we're not done."
The Beavers' play against New Hope certainly gives credence to Clentimack's sentiments.
Though it did struggle a bit early against the Mighty Ants' length - all five starters over 6-feet tall - and athleticism, Catholic spent the better part of the contest looking like it smelled the Hershey chocolate all the way from Enola. At the exact same time.
Orr slashed his way to a game-high 23 points but had plenty of company in the spotlight. Frattaroli provided 16 key points and some needed scoring punch inside.
Pletz canned four treys on the way to 14 points, Thomas staked Catholic to a 6-0 lead a minute into the contest with two of his three bombs from beyond, Colon handed out eight assists from his point guard slot, and Groh provided needed muscle and production off the bench.
"I think everybody did their part, everybody chipped in," said Orr, the Beavers' lone senior. "That was a good thing, it takes the pressure off."
And make no mistake about it, the Beavers were under some pressure in the first half. Though their 26-point output was respectable, it came through one-dimensional means, with the first 15 points coming off five 3-pointers.
Catholic's first points not from beyond the arc came with 5:42 left in the half when Frattaroli scored on an old-school 3-point play to put Catholic up 18-14.
But in the third, the Beavers started scoring by any and all means, racking up just one less point than they had in the entire first half. A switch to a dribble-drive attack was the key, according to Orr.
"I think it was a good decision by coach to go to the dribble-drive," Orr said. "Then I could drive and kick to shooters and what-not."
What followed was a scintillating stretch of basketball. New Hope (17-5) would get the first two buckets of the second half from Ishmael Brown (team-high 16 points) to pull to within 26-22 two minutes into the period, but it was all Beavers from there.
Frattaroli started what would be a 25-8 spurt with another conventional three-point play, and Groh capped it with an insider banker to make it 51-30 heading into the fourth.
Needless to say, it was kinda fun to be a Beaver during those eight minutes.
"Oh, it was awesome," Pletz said with a wide smile of the third quarter. "The crowd's going crazy. It was an amazing feeling."
"I thought the kids really found a nice pace and a nice rhythm in the third quarter," Clentimack said. "That was the key. I can talk all I want, but they have to go out and do it. They just kinda found a nice rhythm, and they all relaxed a little bit. They weren't too quick with the ball."
Meanwhile, New Hope was struggling to find any mojo of its own offensively, thanks to Catholic's uncharacteristic use of a zone defense to negate the Ants' athleticism and highlight their lack of perimeter shooting.
"I don't play zone, we don't even practice zone," Clentimack said. "But I put it in in the two weeks we were off, and when we got the lead I thought we gotta make them make shots here. I don't know what (percentage) they shot, but I don't think they made too many jump shots. I don't think we played the zone great, but it was good enough to make them miss shots."
And good enough to send Catholic to the desired destination of every red-blooded central Pennsylvania high school hoops team. Giant Center, meet Beaver Nation.
"This is my third year of varsity ball, and this is my dream so far," said Pletz, who spent his first two years of high school at Elco. "I just wanted to get to the Giant Center, and finally made it."
"It's definitely awesome," Orr said. "We got pretty far my freshman year, but failed to get to the Giant Center. So it's pretty cool to get there finally."