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New Oxford closes in on elusive District 3 appearance

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Sean Bair understands what he has on the floor every night.

He calls the New Oxford boys' basketball team "a special group." Skill-wise, it's the best team Bair has coached in his four years at the helm of the New Oxford program.

But the "special" tag comes from the way the team has learned to play together and prepare with a certain level of intensity. Bair points to the second half of the 2015-16 season as a turning point. The program enjoyed a competitive stretch at the end of the season, but how his players reacted to those losses late season showed him the potential New Oxford (10-8) possessed.

"Our guys just weren't satisfied, and that was great to see as a coach," Bair said. "Even if we played a great game but lost, there were no moral victories."

That win-first attitude has carried over to this year, with Bair highlighting some of his team's close losses to playoff-bound teams.

"Those have been great reminders of how far we have yet to go," he said.

Unselfish, and willing to move the ball around, New Oxford finds itself in a somewhat unique situation. The Colonials are on the verge of qualifying for the District 3 tournament. New Oxford entered Wednesday night in the 14th slot in the Class 5A bracket. Sixteen teams qualify, so that's by no means a slam dunk to reach the postseason.

But consider where the Colonials have been. New Oxford could be looking at its first postseason appearance since 2009, when the Colonials earned their second of back-to-back district berths. During the last decade, the 2008 and 2009 squads are the only New Oxford teams to advance to the district tournament.

Junior John Wessel, who at 6-foot-5 should continue to cause matchup issues for most teams, complements 6-5 post player Ben Lehman and small forward Jordin Brown.

Able to play point forward, Wessel is sure-handed enough to bring the ball up the floor and distribute. But he's also big enough to be a force in the paint.

"John's awesome because he's so versatile," Bair said.

"Bigger guys can't stay with him and quicker guys, maybe, can't guard him inside, so he draws a lot of attention," Bair said.

And therein lies the problem for opponents. They can try to shut down Wessel, but Wessel can also dish to his teammates.

Still, New Oxford enters Wednesday with a losing record (5-6) in Division I.

"The league is just brutal," he said.

New Oxford had a double-digit lead on Spring Grove (13-4) and lost Friday. Then came a two-point loss to Palmyra (17-2) on Saturday. Both of those opponents are ranked in the top five in the Class 5A rankings.

"Those were really tough to swallow," Lehman said.

But the tough league schedule, and difficult losses down the stretch, could be a perfect training ground for a District 3 appearance that has eluded the program for almost a decade. The Colonials gutted out a win against Dallastown on Tuesday, rallying from an eight-point deficit with less than four minutes to play.

Afterward Bair highlighted the effort given by each of his players in the second half as a turning point, and even sophomore Jaren Rex powered through the lane to hit a runner for a go-ahead bucket in the final moments.

"I feel like we have a lot of momentum, we feel like we can beat anyone now," Lehman said.