LANCASTER – Down-trodden eyes. Slumped shoulders. Pouting faces.
The Northern Lebanon girls’ basketball team’s collective body language spoke volumes. The Vikings were worn out and emotionally beaten.
But the culprit wasn’t as much Lancaster Catholic’s unrelenting full-court pressure, endless energy on the glass and admirable athleticism as it was injuries, seemingly continuous setbacks and thoughts of what could’ve been.
On Wednesday night at Lancaster Catholic, in the opening round of the District Three Class AAA playoffs, one of the most disappointing and uplifting seasons in NL program history came to a head, in a 79-37 setback to the talented Crusaders. With three injured varsity players looking on, the Vikings officially slammed head-first into that emotional wall during a third period in which they were outscored 28-8.
Up until then, Northern Lebanon still had hope.
The 14th-seeded Vikings ended their campaign at a respectable 14-9. Unbeaten Lancaster Catholic, which had turned aside Northern Lebanon in an earlier Lancaster-Lebanon Section Three-Four crossover 64-45. at the same place on Dec. 19, improved to 26-0.
“It’s bittersweet,” said a reflective Ken Battistelli, Northern Lebanon’s head coach. “Part of you thinks of what could’ve been and the other half thinks it could’ve been a lot worse. We could’ve fallen to pieces.
“Usually I would always say ‘No, this wasn’t a successful season,'” Battistelli continued. “But I have very odd feelings about this season. I feel so conflicted because I thought we were cheated out of an opportunity to be very, very good. But not many teams could lose the caliber of players we did and win as many games. For a bunch of high school girls, I think they learned about character, fortitude and toughness. We’re a half-crippled team, we came to Lancaster Catholic and we tried to beat a Lancaster Catholic team that was too good for us.”
“Before the game, we were all in the locker room and (fallen senior) Emily Brandt pulled us in,” said 12th-grader Mariah LiBrandi, who took Brandt’s point guard spot when she went down. “She said: ‘If Lancaster Catholic wins, it’s no big deal. But if Northern Lebanon beats Lancaster Catholic, we’d be heroes.’ We thought if we beat Lancaster Catholic, we’d be on top of the world. But we got to districts and fought through injuries, and I’m still on top of the world.”
The match-up had a David-vs.-Goliath feel, but David went into it without a slingshot. For the Vikings to stay with Lancaster Catholic, they had to rebound with it, handle its fullcourt pressure defense and get off to a good start.
They accomplished those tasks in only bits and pieces.
Although Northern Lebanon never led, an early inside maneuver from Taylor Smith kept it close, down 3-2. But it was at that point that Lancaster Catholic’s press kicked in.
The Crusaders ripped off seven unanswered points to grab a 10-2 lead. Then after a pair of Viking charity tosses stopped the bleeding, Lancaster Catholic tallied the next eight to open an 18-4 advantage.
“Coming in I’m thinking: ‘If we box out well, don’t give up lay-ups and all four of our seniors have good offensive games, we have a chance,'” said Battistelli. “I thought we really needed to box out, and we’ll take away any points Lancaster Catholic didn’t deserve. We didn’t win that battle, but we fought well.
“I told the girls, ‘We lost to a tremendous team that played tremendously well,'” added Battistelli. “The better team won. They (the Crusaders) were good. I told them that they (his players) gave me every minute I asked them for, and every minute was their hardest. I told them, ‘We’re as tough of a team as we can be.'”
“We practiced hard,” said LiBrandi, who tallied nine points. “We were very well prepared. We came out and played our hearts out. They (the Crusaders) shot the lights out. The four seniors played like they wanted to be here, but knew that this was probably going to be our last game.
“I thought if we played well, boxed out and finished our shots, we had a good chance,” LiBrandi added. “I think our whole team knew we had to do it. But we fell short.”
Midway through the second period, Lancaster Catholic’s lead reached 34-13. But fueled by Kristen Lessing, Northern Lebanon ended the half on a mini 8-3 run, and seemed to have some momentum at the break, despite the 37-21 that the scoreboard said.
“I thought that the start of the second half may be bigger than the start of the game,” said Battistelli. “I honestly had pretty much confidence that we were going to start the game well. I thought we played pretty well, for most of the first half. But if you’re going to play well against Lancaster Catholic for seven of eight minutes, you’re going to lose by 16 points. You’ve got to play the whole 32 minutes,”
“I think any other team that loses its starting point guard (Brandt) is thinking, ‘we’re done,'” said LiBrandi. “Coach Battistelli pulled me aside and said Lombardi – that’s what he calls me – ‘you’ve got to do it’. Then we lost another starter. But we played really well throughout the season, even though we lost so many girls.”
Smith scored 16 points and was the only Viking to reach double figures. From three-point land, the Crusaders outscored the Vikings 27-3.
“I was worried about that (the so-called Lancaster Catholic mystique), but I didn’t feel that from the kids,” said Battistelli. “As a coach, you worry about self-defeating thoughts. I don’t think we lost for any other reason than they were better than us.
“What I learned from this season is that even though you lose someone, you can work through it,” said LiBrandi. “There’s always light on the other end. I think all the girls bonded really well. We were like sisters.”
Scoring points in bunches quickly, the Crusaders opened the second half with an 8-1 burst that expanded their lead to 45-22. Then for good measure, Lancaster Catholic closed the third quarter on a 13-1 streak, and with a 65-29 bulge.
During the third period, Lancaster Catholic drained four three-pointers.
“I think it was in the third quarter when I saw the body language,” said Battistelli. “I don’t think you can put a value on fatigue. To play this kind of game without subs is tough.
“I saw more individual play,” Battistelli continued. “We can’t beat the Lancaster Catholic press with one man, any more. That’s what I started to see. In one or two people you could see fatigue, and we’d be out of position.”
“At the beginning of the year, I put on my goals sheet: ‘Make it to districts and play as a team,'” said LiBrandi, her eyes tearing up. “We all decided we could do it and make it to Giant Center. When we lost Emily, we had our doubts. But we played together. And I couldn’t ask for a better year.”