The day after: Eastern York-Neumann-Goretti
There was a telling moment, I thought, during our chat with Eastern York coach Larry Fisher, minutes after the Golden Knights season-ending, 81-73 loss to Neumann-Goretti on Tuesday.
Fisher was asked by a reporter if he thought his team's performance -- the fact that Eastern hung with Neumann, the No. 2-ranked team in the nation according to ESPN Rise -- validated his team's season.
"Validation," Fisher said, pausing to consider the word. "I don't know if it was a validation. It was just us playing basketball and understanding that we're a good team, too, and we've accomplished a lot. So we'll hang our hats on what we accomplished and not what they have."
In that response, one could see the cruel duality of this loss for the Golden Knights. On one hand, Eastern showed it truly was one of the best teams in the state, regardless of classification. Fisher's team was within four points in the fourth quarter against a fantasy-like squad of four Division I-bound players.
After all this. After the program's first District 3 title in 22 years. After winning 31 straight games (Eastern was the last undefeated team, regardless of classification, in the state). After perhaps the most successful season in program history, the Golden Knights fell one game short of their ultimate goal. One game short of a trip to the Bryce Jordan Center. As the YDR's Jim Seip wrote in his column about the game, it doesn't seem right in a way.
Make no mistake, Neumann-Goretti was the better basketball team. Watching the Saints in warm-ups, let along the actual game, was a treat. Neumann was like a high school basketball fantasy team -- four lightning-quick guards all capable of a game-changing play and a big man, 6-foot-6 Daniel Stewart, who on five occasions threw down rim-rattling dunks.
Yet one thing was clear after the game. Eastern expected to win.
"We came in as confidence as we've been," said junior point guard Austin Tillotson.
Talking to Tillotson afterward, he sounded almost in awe when discussing the Saints. "Everything people have said, they're right," he said of Neumann. I have to say, this team was the real deal. They could burst out in transition or pull the ball back to milk the clock. I have a hard time believing Chartiers Valley -- who I saw against York Suburban -- will seriously challenge them. The Colts like to run. They like to press and unsettle opposing guards. I think it's going to be hard to do that against Neumann-Goretti's speedy fleet of ball-handlers. At the very least, there should be a lot of points in that game.
In any event, I thought Tillotson afforded himself quite well. He scuffled at times in the first half, but more than held his own in the second. His 18 second-half points were the major reason Eastern stayed within reach. There might have been moments when he tried to do too much, but I think if you showed tape of that second half to college scouts, they'd be quite impressed. Speaking of Tillotson's future, it will be interesting to see how college interest for him shakes out between now and the start of next season. Several Patriot League schools are interested -- Fisher said he talked to Lafayette on the way to Tuesday's game -- along with a couple Ivys. Yale has expressed recent interest, Fisher said.
Tillotson's junior running mate, Andrew Nicholas, had a bit tougher time Tuesday. He finished with 18 points, but didn't really get going until the fourth quarter (he shot 1-of-8 in the first half). Nicholas did hit a pair of fourth-quarter 3's, including one which had to be from about 30 feet. (There is a big "R" at mid-court of the Geigle Complex. Nicholas had to be close to that R when he shot it.) But to be honest, Eastern could have used an outburst like that a bit earlier. To Neumann's credit, they did a good job frustrating Nicholas, to the point he committed a rather silly intentional foul late in the third quarter, tripping Mustafaa Jones as the Saints broke out in transition. That was Nicholas fourth foul, and led to him sitting out much of the rest of the frame.
Tillotson and Nicholas will, of course, be back next year. Which leads us to our next question. Can Eastern repeat the success of this season?
There are two ways to look at Eastern York's prospects for next year:
On one hand, the Golden Knights two cornerstones -- Nicholas and Tillotson -- will be back. Those two should be a year better, a year stronger. And, thanks to Tuesday night, they'll be more motivated, too. Junior guard Ryky Smith, another starter, will also be back.
But make no mistake, the Golden Knights will have some holes to fill.
Starters Nathan Bollinger and Luke Barto both graduate. Bollinger was a huge piece of the puzzle this season after transferring in from Spring Grove. He was an extra ball-handler who could score, and took some pressure off Nicholas and Tillotson. Remember, Bollinger was the one who hit the game-winning shot in the District 3 championship against Lancaster Catholic. Barto, meanwhile, did all the dirty work in the paint. He played much taller than his 6-foot-3 listing indicated, and was an unsung hero on the defensive end. How does Eastern replace his size and presence down low? I'm not sure. Key reserves Davin Zimmerman (who helped keep Eastern in the game in the first half Tuesday with a trio of 3-pointers) and Mark Bailey also graduate.
"Next year, it's going to be hard to replace them," Nicholas said of the team's seniors. "They meant a lot to us. Without them this year I don't think we would have gotten this far."
Besides their three starters, the Golden Knights have just two other varsity players returning: forward Nathan Bixler and guard Dale Stoutzenberger. Both players only saw time during blowouts. Sophomore Matt Diehl, who also some sporadic garbage time toward the end of the season, is also back.
Can those players step up and fill meaningful roles? Which JV players are ready to make the jump? These are questions for Fisher to ponder. But filling the voids left by Bolligner and Barto won't be easy.
As for Nicholas and Tillotson, they have a whole summer to get bigger and better. Recall that Nicholas missed much of last summer because of an eye injury. The next several months could be hugely important for him going forward.
Issues for another day. For now, the Eastern program can reflect a bit on what was a historic season. Even if the disappointment of falling short of the state title game may linger for a bit.