Bobcats revel, as title weight finally lifts (column)
The wait is over at Northeastern High School, and the smile Jon Eyster wore following Friday's YAIAA championship said it all.
Winning a league title is hard. The Bobcats had never captured one prior to Friday.
That was a startling statistic. Forget the fact the last YAIAA boys’ basketball championship coming from that region of the county was at Manchester High in 1957. In recent history, the Bobcats have had good teams – really good ones, as a matter of fact. Northeastern pocketed at least 20 wins in three straight seasons, yet the Bobcats hadn't made it out of the league semifinals since 2003.
That changed Wednesday in an exhilarating, 69-66 semifinal victory against York Catholic at Red Lion High School.
And the long championship drought came to an end Friday with a 62-51 win against Central York at York College's Grumbacher Center.
“It actually means quite a lot, yeah,” Eyster said. “Every time we play a game, for the last 22 years, there’s 900 people who are experts at the game.”
He then added with a laugh and a fist bump: “What do I care what they think at this point?”
The Bobcats were jubilant following their league title. Players celebrated with fans on the court while everyone wore broad smiles. The traditional net cutting and team photos were part of the postgame festivities. Not only was the title wait over, but the weight of expectations had finally been lifted, as well.
“Just a lot of respect goes out to the alumni,” said junior guard Antonio Rizzuto. “I’ve already had people come over to me and just say, ‘Thanks for this.’ It just feels really good from that aspect.”
Eyster won a YAIAA championship as a player in 1982 at West York High School. His coach then was his uncle, John Eyster, who has been an assistant coach at Northeastern the past three seasons.
John Eyster said his nephew has done an outstanding job this year having the Bobcats play unselfish basketball as a cohesive unit. Northeastern has a talented core of players – particularly the team’s starting lineup: seniors Austin Greene (guard) and Brandon Coleman (forward), along with juniors Rizzuto and Fred Mulbah (guard) and freshman Nate Wilson (wing).
“I think it means the world to him right now,” John Eyster said of his nephew. “He’s been coaching a long time now, and he’s had a lot of good teams there. Never won a county championship. I think this is a special situation.”
Jon Eyster has been leading the Northeastern boys’ basketball program since the 1993-94 season, minus two years when he briefly stepped away.
And while a lot of preseason talk centered around the Bobcats being YAIAA Division I favorites entering this year, Jon Eyster said that creates its own sense of challenges in itself.
"It makes it tough. You put expectations on guys,” he said. “They rose to the occasion. I'm happy for the kids. They wanted it.”
John Eyster said the move to YAIAA Division I helped the Bobcats this year. He said the division — which was highly competitive top to bottom – provided Northeastern with a stiff test every night and pushed the Bobcats to a 20-2 regular season record. It also prepared the Bobcats for the postseason.
One of those regular-season losses came to Central York, and in Friday's opening quarter it looked like a repeat performance could be in store.
The Panthers controlled the pace of play, while the Bobcats played too quick for their own good, rushing their offense and putting up hurried shots. Central York led, 18-11, after the opening stanza.
The second quarter turned the tide, however.
Northeastern began playing pressure defense on Central, forced missed shots and turnovers and got into the open floor on the other end.
The Bobcats outscored the Panthers, 20-8, in the period, and wouldn’t look back.
“In the beginning of the game we just had to feel them out. Remember how they play a little bit,” Greene said. “And then, second quarter, we just started picking it up a little bit, played our game.”
While the District 3 tournament awaits, there’s no denying that the YAIAA tournament has special meaning, particularly for a program savoring its first championship.
“There were almost 3,000 people at Red Lion High School (for the semifinals). I mean, that’s crazy,” Jon Eyster said. “Spring Grove is a small, tight-knit community. ... Ours is a small, tight-knit community. York Catholic has got a history and a family setting too. It means a lot, while it’s going on.”
Following the game, Greene looked down and let out a soft laugh. His friends and teammates surrounded him. He then gave a quick head nod in the direction of his head coach.
“I know coach is happy,” Greene said. “We had to do this for him, too.”