District 3 boys hoops: '3' shooters, two classes, one Cinderella
The signs you pass driving in declare it to be the sweetest place on Earth.
For the next two weeks, those signs will lie.
Hershey, or more specifically its Giant Center, will soon be home to all four District 3 boys basketball tournaments and consequently some of the fiercest, most intense and competitive high school basketball in the state.
Sweet? Ha. Try again.
Beginning Tuesday, four Lebanon County teams hold a chance to enter the Giant fray and perhaps also win a ticket to the state tournament. Whether that ticket is punched or torn up is up to them. For now, here's what you need to know about this year's district qualifiers:
Championship Game: Sat., Feb. 27, 1 p.m., Giant Center
The top seeds: 1.Central York, 2.Reading, 3.Northeastern, 4.Spring Grove
A litany of old nemeses await the eighth-seeded Falcons (19-6) on another venture into district play, as this year's Lancaster-Lebanon League runner-ups attempt to reach their third consecutive tournament final. Cedar Crest can also secure a third straight state tournament trip with a first-round victory Wednesday over No. 9 Hempfield. That's a feat that fits squarely under the category of easier said than done, however.
The Black Knights (14-7) have solely been resting and practicing since a regular-season finale loss on Feb. 2 that sent Cedar Crest to the L-L tournament in their place. Additionally, each of the section foes' clashes this year were decided by five points or fewer. The makings and motivation for another close shave at The Cage lay perfectly in place.
Should the Falcons advance, most would size up top-seeded Central York (20-3) as a massive and favored roadblock in the next round. And indeed the Panthers are ranked No. 1 for many reasons. Yet two arguments stand to say that the Falcons are fortunate in their potentially quick draw of the district's top team.
First, Cedar Crest matched up quite with the Panthers in late December during a 75-69 loss that went into the books less than 24 hours after a devastating defeat at McCaskey. Additionally, a dominant, Lonnie Walker-led Reading squad sits far on the other side of the bracket in the No. 2 slot. So when it comes to picking your poison as a middling seed, the Falcons chose well.
And should they move past Central York, old friend and fifth-seeded McCaskey could very well await in the semifinals.
What Tom Smith's bunch must do in order to relive their recent District 3 history is continue to receive the bench contributions they did over the first half of the L-L championship against the Red Tornadoes. And senior captain Evan Horn cannot slip off his Superman cape for more than a quarter. Even forgetting all the work he's done for Cedar Crest flying to clean the glass, Horn averaged better than 25 points over the L-L tournament. That figure must stay high or the Falcons will fall.
If ever another example were needed to assert that timing certainly is everything, the Cedars' campaign to date would unfortunately serve quite nicely. No. 11 Lebanon (15-8) paired a mid-season rough patch with two late-season losses to non-district teams, thus limiting its pool of potential first-round opponents down to a collection of perennial District 3 heavyweights. And who did this year's Section Two champion draw?
Mid Penn Conference runner-up and sixth-seeded Harrisburg.
Now last time we saw them, the Cedars were shot out of their own gym by Lancaster Mennonite during an L-L tournament quarterfinal upset on Feb. 6. If Lebanon is to spring its own upset, it ought to follow a similar formula. While team defense against the potent Cougars (17-5) will no doubt be of top priority, 3-point shooting shouldn't get slotted far behind. The Cedars will need a top performance beyond its starting five to beat Harrisburg, namely through long-range bench shooters Logan Blouch and Dante Vargas.
Blouch has thrice canned at least four treys in a game this season, while Vargas consistently picked up his scoring late in the year. A couple of first-quarter long balls from either would not only afford Lebanon a critical early lead, but open floor space for its dribble-drive threats. Combine those efforts with the offensive rebounding of Matty Lopez, Allan Escoto and Shaq Ortiz and there's an underdog's chance despite the probable return of Harrisburg's top scorer, Chris Whitaker.
If the Cedars manage to reach the quarterfinals, they would likely meet another offensive juggernaut in No. 3 Northeastern, which lost just twice this season.
Championship Game: Thurs, Feb. 25, 8 p.m., Giant Center
The top seeds: 1.Milton Hershey, 2.Lampeter-Strasburg, 3.Bishop McDevitt, 4.Eastern York.
Less than a week after earning a rare L-L tournament bid, the Raiders suffered an early exit in the bracket's very first game. Though they've found quite the soft landing via the fifth seed in this year's district bracket.
A 19-3 regular-season campaign tends to have that effect.
As a result of its high standing, Elco will host No. 12 Steel-High on Tuesday in Myerstown at 7 p.m. The Steamrollers (12-9) finished in the middle of the pack of this year's Mid Penn Captial Division, a group headed by Class AAA's top seed, Milton Hershey. Steel-High twice gave the Spartans a run for their money, once in a two-point defeat and later over three quarters of an 83-69 February loss. How well the Raiders can learn from their own recent undoing, a 16-point L-L quarterfinal downer at McCaskey, could dictate the flow of this game.
The Rollers love to run and, led by prolific leading scorer Jaqui Jenkins, can get ahead of teams in a hurry, as the Red Tornadoes executed against Elco through their own fast break on Feb. 6. In turn, the Raiders must adhere to the more patient drive-and-kick approach that yielded their best offense down the stretch and not engage in a series of 1-on-1 contests or a track meet. There will be simply no denying Jenkins his points, only limiting them.
Elco should keep its focus there and then answering on its own terms through Colton Lawrence, Mason Bossert, Caleb Buchmoyer and a half-court game. The winner of No. 4 Eastern York/No. 13 Middletown awaits.
Looking for a Cinderella choice in this year's bracket? Pete Conrad's crew is your pick.
The seventh-seeded Cougars (17-5) are a battle-tested, greater-than-the-sum-of-their-parts squad that boasts two star talents and a bevy of surrounding players that fit well together. Senior guard Austin Yetter, who should be recovered from a minor ankle sprain suffered on Feb. 2, headlines this bunch with his 1,000-point career and lethal 3-point shot. Not far behind is junior Isaac Blatt, a crafty inside-out threat, who dropped 29 points in Palmyra's regular-season finale, which was the 12th win of their last 14 tip-offs.
No. 10 Gettysburg currently stands in the way of the Cougars' next potential victory, which would award a district quarterfinal berth at Giant Center on Friday. The Warriors (12-8) lost six of nine to conclude a .500 campaign in the YAIAA's Division II, a stretch that also featured one loss against their only common opponent with the Cougars, Susquehannock.
Palmyra beat Susquehannock, 52-50, in the aforementioned finale, which did not include Yetter. If the Cougars advance, it's likely they would tip against No. 2 Lampeter-Strasburg, a team they match up quite well against despite the Pioneers' 21-2 mark. From there, Palmyra could clash again with Mid-Penn Keystone champion Bishop McDevitt (16-6), with whom it split a season series.
However, no matter who the Cougars face, their potential for a deep run could come down to a key as simple as the number 61 - in all five of Palmyra's losses this season, it was held to 60 points or fewer. If Yetter and Co. get their way often enough through a fast start, they could very well enjoy a happy, glass-slipper ending.