The Vikings clinched their first section title in 30 years on Thursday night with a hard-fought 40-32 win over Elco.
FREDERICKSBURG - It wasn't pretty, but it was the most beautiful thing anyone connected with the Northern Lebanon girls basketball program has ever seen.
At least in 30 years.
With a victory that was low on style points but high on grit and guts, the Vikings captured their first Lancaster-Lebanon League Section Three title in, oh, 30 years on Thursday night, surviving upset-minded, feisty Elco 40-32 for the section-clincher in front of a raucous crowd at Northern Lebanon High School.
The Vikings's 20th victory against just one defeat was in doubt throughout, thanks to an inspired Elco effort fronted by freshman forward Ryelle Shuey's game-high 14 points.
But Northern Lebanon's heart-and-soul starting five of Zoe Zerman, Megan Brandt, Amber Kintzer, Liz Voight and Cassiah Ray had come too far in their banner chase to be denied at the finish line.
And when they crossed it ahead of the hard-charging Raiders, they reveled in the triumph. Understandably so. They hugged, posed for countless pictures, cut down the net, and even greeted fiery head coach Ken Battistelli with a confetti shower in lieu of Gatorade.
Hey, you do something for the first time in 30 years you don't go low-key with the celebration.
"We went in the locker room and we screamed a lot," said junior point guard Zoe Zerman, grinning broadly, of the beginning of the celebration. "We were all just hugging each other, and it was chaos. This is so exciting. We've always had this goal. I'll always remember this and the people I shared it with."
Zerman and her teammates will also remember it for how difficult the clinching win was, thanks to Elco's clear desire to avoid having to witness any celebrating at their expense.
The Raiders (11-7, 8-6 Section Three) jumped to a quick 6-2 lead, then came all the way back from a 30-22 deficit early in the fourth quarter to tie it on a Shuey post move with 1:22 left.
But Voight (team-high 11 points) gave Northern Lebanon (14-1 Section Three) the lead back for good with a pair of free throws seven seconds later, beginning a string of 10 straight Viking free throw makes in the final minute and change.
"We didn't fold in one game all year. We didn't have one game all year when we weren't ready to play," said Battistelli. "That's not easy to do, and that's what makes this team what they are."
And Elco brought it out of them one more time.
"I definitely thought we played hard," said Elco coach Ashli Shay. "There were times, like the second quarter, when we couldn't score, but we never gave up. I'm really proud of their effort. I felt we played tough and gave them a good game here tonight."
A sloppy, low-scoring first half ended with Northern Lebanon up 15-10, but the quality of play improved dramatically after intermission, with the teams trading big buckets, including a third-quarter flurry highlighted by two 3-point bombs from Voight.
But it was a game that was much more about sheer will than seamless execution. And this season, that meant it was right in Northern Lebanon's wheelhouse.
"Our biggest struggle was ourselves," Zerman said. "We all knew what was at stake. I don't know if we were nervous, but we had to be tougher than they were. We did the little things like rebound and box out, and make free throws. I think that's what won the game for us."
It was a win, Battistelli felt, not only for this particular team, but for the ones that came before it in his eight-year tenure of trying to turn the perennially struggling program into a consistent winner.
"I hope every single one of my former players understands that this section championship is theirs too," Battistelli said. "Years and years ago they started working hard to change the culture of this program, and I am so proud of them. Just as much as these guys."
Well, maybe there is a little more affection for this particular group of Vikings.
"Tonight, they can go to sleep as champions," their bursting-with-pride coach said. "And there's gonna be a banner up so people remember them for the rest of their time."
Northern Lebanon 40, Elco 32
Northern Lebanon (40)
Cassiah Ray 2 4-4 9, Liz Voight 3 3-6 11, Megan Brandt 1 1-3 3, Amber Kintzer 4 0-0 8, Zoe Zerman 1 7-13 9, Jenna Wentling 0 0-0 0 Totals — 11 15-26 40.
Taylor Bossert 1 0-0 3, Chandelle Keller 1 0-0 2, Julia Nelson 0 6-6 6, Alexis Thomas 2 3-4 7, Ryelle Shuey 7 0-0 14, Emily Bidelspach 0 0-0 0, Jordan Rosengrant 0 0-0 0 Totals — 11 9-10 32 .
Elco _ 6 _ 4 _ 12 _ 10 _ — _ 32
N. Lebanon _ 9 _ 6 _ 13 _ 12 _ — _ 40
3-point goals — Elco (Bossert), NL (Ray, Voight 2).
JV score — Elco 24, Northern Lebanon 17.