Winning championships at the highest level should always be the goal. There's no question about that.
But there's also nothing quite like being the biggest, baddest kid on your own block. And three county programs - Cedar Crest, Elco and Lebanon - will have the chance to claim that title beginning Saturday at the start of the Lancaster-Lebanon League boys basketball tournament.
The Falcons and Cedars will both tip at 7 p.m., while the Raiders visit McCaskey for a 6 p.m. quarterfinal showdown. Below is a complete look at each of their respective matchups and how they can all advance to Tuesday's semifinals.
at Section Three champion Lampeter-Strasburg
How they got here: The Falcons (17-5, 12-4 Lancaster-Lebanon) slid into Section One's second-place spot with a victory in their regular-season finale at Penn Manor, as Hempfield, which then held a tiebreaker over them, lost at McCaskey. Thus, the possibility of a league title three-peat remains.
And that possibility appeared arguably to be a slight probability when Cedar Crest ripped off a 10-game mid-season win streak that came to a grinding halt via a bad home loss to the Red Tornadoes on Jan. 19 and two ensuing road defeats against section competition. But the victory in Millersville, save for some shoddy free-throw shooting, played out like many of the balanced, grinding efforts that pushed the Falcons to championship heights a year ago. Whether or not Tom Smith's crew can carry the same urgency and balance into Saturday now remains to be seen.
Opponent's scouting report: Those tracing the steps of Lampeter-Strasburg (21-1, 15-1 L-L) this winter have remarked that these Pioneers look an awful lot like the past couple versions of Cedar Crest. And they're not far off.
Led by a veteran group with no obvious weak points, Lampeter-Strasburg nearly ran the table despite competing against one of the deepest Section Three groups in years and arguably the league's best section this season. Akin to 2014-15 Cedar Crest, the Pioneers' top talent is a junior who's just as likely to jump out of the gym as he is fill up a stat sheet. And it's almost guaranteed that the Falcons' then junior and current senior, Evan Horn, will be charged with stopping this 6-foot-4 force known as Ben Sandberg.
Yet it's hardly a one-man show in Lampeter, where Matt Achille, the son of coach John Achille, is running the point. A deft decision-maker and all-around contributor, Achille not only finished second on the team in scoring, but above 70 percent from the foul line for the third straight year. The Pioneers also boast a handful of other strong individual defenders and shooters, namely the Beers brothers, Isaac and Luke. Those two, as well as Connor Brown, each racked up more than 140 points over their one-loss campaign.
Game plan: Presuming Horn's defense can serve as a parking boot on Sandberg, the next step for Cedar Crest is making Achille uncomfortable at the helm. Forcing him or others to cough up turnovers that lead to easy buckets will be the Falcons' greatest asset, not only because transition is where they're most comfortable, but because the Pioneers' length and togetherness will make it difficult to score in the half-court. Lastly, Cedar Crest must locate a reliable second and third scorer to keep Lampeter-Strasburg's bevy of defenses at bay, as the Pioneers are guaranteed to throw multiple looks against the two-time reigning champs.
at Section One champion McCaskey
How they got here: Firing out of the season's gates at 7-0, the Raiders' first defeat came in a battle of the unbeatens against Lampeter-Strasburg, which converted an instant double-digit lead into a one-game standings edge on Dec. 21. Later, Elco (19-3, 13-3) fell to the Pioneers down in Lampeter, essentially handing over the section crown after again falling behind early. Sandwiched in between those losses was a shocking home upset dealt by Donegal.
Otherwise, fourth-year Raiders Colton Lawrence and Caleb Buchmoyer have shot down every opponent with an average winning margin of just under 20 points per game, also aided by the 3-point bombing of junior Mason Bossert. Most importantly, Elco took care of business down the stretch, dispatching reigning section champ Manheim Central and old foe Donegal in its final regular-season contests to secure a playoff date with the Red Tornadoes.
Opponent's scouting report: As in years past, the 2015-16 version of McCaskey (16-5, 14-2) is best when in motion, either flying back for a defensive rebound or turnover for a quick transition bucket. Senior Kobe Gantz garners most of the headlines as the league's most talented offensive force, but backcourt mates Randolph Speller and Ricky Cruz are equally as dangerous when on the fast break. Undersized Greg Nunez serves as the Red Tornadoes' lone post threat, while Gantz will also man the block defensively when McCaskey sets up in some form of zone.
Due to its lack of size, the Red Tornadoes' offense is supplied almost exclusively through the fast break and perimeter. Cruz's best 3-point looks come from the corners, while Gantz is a threat to shoot or drive seemingly whenever he touches the ball.
“I know he’s real smooth and can take over a game whenever. That’ll be something we have to look at," Lawrence said of Gantz, a summer-league teammate. "They have scorers up and down the lineup. They’re scrappy, and that’s something we’re not used to, so we’re going to have prepare ourselves for that.”
Game plan: What's the only way to survive an incoming tornado? Hunker down. Well, that's precisely what Elco must do Saturday at McCaskey to have a shot at the semifinals.
While the following suggestion may appear absurd on its surface, all but abandoning the offensive boards should be considered early, given it'll afford the Raiders' transition defense a chance on every possession. Additionally, a sizable first-half deficit has been responsible for two-thirds of Elco's defeats this year, and the fastest way the Red Torandoes can jump ahead would be through the fast break. Keeping them in low gear, particularly during the first half, must be the Raiders' priority. Then, they can build from there.
Unfortunately, Elco's offensive strengths do not match up with the Red Tornadoes' interior weaknesses, so it simply must better execute on the perimeter. Mix sideline-to-sideline passing with drives and kicks to wear McCaskey down, as Hempfield did twice this year. Over these long possessions, Elco should be able to spring one of its multitude of shooters loose for a decent look. Patience in such an environment will be tough to maintain, but as the Raiders will tell you, they can't wait for the challenge. And they've got the horses to answer the call.
“We’re going to have to play a really good game, but I’m looking forward to it," Elco coach Brad Conners said. "The kids are really looking forward to it.”
vs. Section Four runner-up Lancaster Mennonite
How they got here: The Cedars' second section title in three years arrived through a campaign that can only be described as up-and-down. Given their final regular-season week finished 1-2, perhaps it's no surprise that Lebanon (15-7, 12-4) is pegged by some league coaches to make another upswing during the league tournament and do some damage.
Back on Dec. 4, the Cedars handled Lancaster Mennonite, 69-56, in their season opener, a game that finished far closer than it played out. Next up, Lebanon took eight of nine heading into the New Year, before consecutive losses and an injury to sharpshooter Cam Shaak. While the Cedars quickly refound their mojo with a two-game win streak, which included a triumph over Hempfield, they dropped a pair immediately after to rivals McCaskey and Cedar Crest, both by double-digits.
Yet again Tim Speraw's group responded, extending a section lead that only managed to shrink Monday in a nail-biter against Solanco. Less than 24 hours later, though, Lebanon had its Section Two crown and a rematch with the Blazers.
Opponent's scouting report: Well-coached and well balanced, Lancaster Mennonite (11-11, 10-6) makes its return to the L-L tournament on the backs of six players who notched at least 155 points this season. The key, however, according to Speraw, will be honing in on just a handful of them on the outside.
"They have some athletic guards, and they have three guys that can really shoot," Speraw said. "We've got to make sure we're covering out on the perimeter, make sure that we're keeping people in front of us and contesting shooters. It'll be making sure we know our assignments and we're executing defensively, as well as offensively."
Having long locked up an L-L playoff berth, the Blazers have simultaneously been able to work on the holes in their game and prepare for Lebanon over the end of the regular season. During that stretch, Lancaster Mennonite did lose by 18 to Elco, which edged the Cedars on a buzzer-beater two months ago. Therefore, considering also the rest of their body of work, it's difficult to deny the real gap in quality between these two teams .
Though that idea can be tossed directly out the window if Richard Rosas, Kyle Kerr and Nathaniel Jean-Philippe catch fire from the perimeter, because in the world of one-and-done, all it takes is a flash in the pan to send you home.
Game plan: Forget about the week and remember what they do best: defend and run.
There's no doubt Lancaster Mennonite's greatest threat lies on the 3-point arc and taking that away should be focus No. 1 in the half-court. When Lebanon can otherwise push the pace and can into a baseline-to-baseline contest, it should.
Senior Allan Escoto has played terrific basketball for the Cedars over the season's latter half, particularly on the offensive end where he's kept them in certain ball games. His ability to not only rebound but dribble well out of the low post, skills similarly shared by teammate Shaq Ortiz, poses significant matchup problems for opponents. With senior guards Matty Lopez, Justin Baker and Danny Caricabeur also very capable out on the break, Lebanon should run as often as it can with all five players to put the Blazers on their heels.
Get in the Blazers' chests, force turnovers and get out with a win.