Lebanon, Elco boys prepared for states
The label of underdog offers its bearer the same choice that any slight does when founded in even a tidbit of truth.
Openly accept the unfortunate title and wear it like armor. Or allow the outside world to use the name like a needle, poking, prodding and bothering you as it sees fit.
By the looks of the Elco and Lebanon boys basketball teams this week - loose, prepared and even playful - they will don the underdog tag as closely as their jerseys this weekend during what could be their final games of the year.
The lone boys squads left standing in Lebanon County from the 2015-16 season face tall first-round climbs in their respective PIAA tournaments, beginning Friday with the Raiders' trip to Philadelphia. There, Elco will meet District 12 runner-up Neumann-Goretti at Archbishiop Ryan for a 7:30 p.m. tip-off. Less than 24 hours later, the Cedars are scheduled to clash against District 1 champion Plymouth-Whitemarsh at Great Valley in a 3 p.m. matchup.
Following a three-game losing streak, Lebanon (16-11) finished eighth in the District 3 Class AAAA tournament last week, having secured a state tournament berth via its opening-round upset of Harrisburg. The chances of another shocker unfolding have taken a huge hit with the benching of senior starters Matty Lopez and Allan Escoto, which stems from disciplinary issues.
"There's an extremely slight, slight chance they would play. Right now, they're suspended," Cedars coach Tim Speraw said. "I don't know that they're going to play Saturday. A lot of things would have to fall into place for them to play."
Already down sophomore Felix Kortright due to injury, Lebanon now faces perhaps the greatest odds of any state class AAAA tournament team against the Colonials (25-1), who embody almost an embarrassment of on-court riches.
"They're extremely balanced. They have size, they have quickness, they have, I think, a very good guard," Speraw said. "And there's a center, who's a workhorse."
But back to the star guard, 6-foot-4 Xzavier Malone, who's ticketed for Rider next fall.
"He's a player. I would say from watching him twice that he's one notch below (Reading's) Lonnie Walker," Speraw said. "I mean if you're dropping 29 on Chester, you're pretty good."
Considering both Malone's explosiveness and his team's well-rounded nature, the Cedars' keys to victory reads more like a laundry list. But before they can look across the court, Speraw's group must look inward, where the No. 1 key remains stopping a stream of unforced turnovers.
"I don't want to say we've got to play flawless, but we can't turn the ball over. We've got to knock down shots. We've got to defend," Speraw said. "They're going to have height advantage on us, so we've got to be able to keep them in front of us, rebound the ball and not give second-chance points."
Should Plymouth-Meeting stand as an embarrassment of riches, Neumann Goretti, the two-time reigning state Class AAA champion, is surely a living, breathing, dribbling fortune.
The Saints (22-4), long synonymous with the best of Philadelphia high school basketball, are led by two four-star junior recruits, guard Quade Green and 6-foot-8 Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree. Green currently holds offers from Maryland, Louisville, Syracuse and others, while Cosby-Roundtree, who scored 32 points in Neumann-Goretti's last game, an 81-79 loss to District 12 champ Del-Val Charter, could also join the Orange after graduation. And don't forget senior Zane Martin, whose 26 points led all Saints in last year's state title game.
Knowing full well it's over-matched in the athleticism department, Elco (22-5) plans to deploy the same 3-2 zone the team showcased late this season and throw in a couple other defenses to keep Neumann-Goretti off-balance. Yet even that approach, Raiders coach Brad Conners admitted, may not suffice against such a loaded opponent.
"The problem with that (zone) is they have shooters, too. They have shooters all over the floor," Conners said. "So we want to mix it up."
Additionally, when the Saints do get rolling, Elco plans to employ a more patient offensive approach, hoping to yield a made basket from its own litany of shooters, who carried the team to its first-ever state tournament berth.
"When they do go on a run, for us the focus will be let's keep it a 6-0 run and not a 16-0 run," Conners said. "We want to make the extra pass and take a good shot because we're going to shoot it lots. We're not going to change who we are, but we do want to limit those runs."
Seniors Colton Lawrence and Caleb Buchmoyer figure to hoist the majority of those shots, as well as junior 3-point specialist Mason Bossert, who's made 22 treys over his last five games. But arguably an equally important ingredient to an upset recipe lies with center Ryan Eshleman. Per Conners, the junior big man will be called upon in a slightly different capacity against Neumann-Goretti than in games past, as the Raiders look to defeat a hounding press.
"With their defense, they're going to be in our shorts," Conners said. "It'll be all pressure defense."
And if that wasn't enough to slap on the underdog tag, the coach also offered this:
"They can all score, they're all quick," he said. "They're maybe the quickest high school team I've ever seen."