FREDERICKSBURG – If it’s more about the journey than the destination, then what are playoffs? Playoffs are merely a tool to extend the journey.
The 2012-13 campaign has certainly been unique journeys for the Elco and Northern Lebanon girls’ basketball teams. And good, bad or indifferent, both are desperate for that journey to continue.
On Tuesday night, in a game that featured huge postseason implications, the Raiders outlasted Vikings 44-37 in the closing minutes. After sparring with each other for the better part of 22 minutes, it was Elco which was still standing at the end.
The contest contained all the intangibles of a postseason encounter – tight defense, unwavering familiarity, meaningful possessions and emotions. In fact, the final spread was the largest margin either club could manage all evening.
With two regular-season games remaining, Elco, which was without regular Katy Yoders, improved to 12-8 overall and 9-5 in Section Three of the Lancaster-Lebanon League. Northern Lebanon, which competed without the services of three injured starters, slipped to 13-7 overall and 10-4 in the same section.
Back on January 4th in Myerstown, Elco had defeated Northern Lebanon 44-33.
Both squads are in competition for the same L-L League playoff berth that goes to the runner-up in the section. And in the latest District Three power rankings, Northern Lebanon was 14th and Elco 16th, in a Class AAA field that takes 18 for its postseason tournament.
“This was important for everything,” said Elco head coach Ashli Shay. “It’s important for the league playoffs and it’s important for districts. If we could win these last three games, hopefully it would get us out of a play-in situation in districts.
“I think this (qualifying for the postseason) would be so big for them (her players),” Shay continued. “The time and work they put in, it’s a testament to them. Our practices were just brutal for a couple of weeks. They’ve come through adversity. I can’t think of a night when they haven’t given 100 percent.”
“If Mariah (LiBrandi) doesn’t come back, it’s going to be really, really hard,” said Northern Lebanon head coach Ken Battistelli of his team’s playoff chances. “If it’s (an injured ankle) just pain, she’ll come back, and everyone else kind of slides into their roles. She raises what we’re capable of. When you have all your bullets, you can aim for a ‘1o’.
‘These kids have earned my respect so much,” Battistelli added. “I’m just upset because we can’t catch a break. But I love to coach them because I know they’re going to play as hard as they can.”
The game featured six ties and eight lead changes, the last of which came at 39-37, on a Victoria Sweatlock lay-in – off a nice dish from Hailie Parker – with 2:50 remaining. Then after H. Parker nailed a short jumper a minute later, Elco exhausted a minute of crunch time by playing keep-away with the ball.
Free throws from Cheyenne Hassler and H. Parker provided the final margin, as the Vikings were held without a point for the final 3:44 of the game. Part of Northern Lebanon’s offensive woes can be contributed to the Raiders applying some late full-court pressure.
“I knew it was going to come down to some defense, and rebounding the basketball,” said Shay. “I think those things got us over the hump. That and going to full-court pressure at the end.
“I think conditioning was a factor at the end,” continued Shay. “We had contemplated getting a timeout to get a break. But they (the Vikings) looked kind of tired too. We thought our conditioning would get us through being out of gas.”
“What I think, in the end, was the difference was we had kids playing out of position,” said Battistelli. “When you put physical fatigue with unfamiliar roles, you have a small game slippage. Now I think Elco was gassed at the end too, but their players were in more familiar roles. We had to put our kids in roles they weren’t familiar with, and that’s what hurt us.
“I’m pretty sure the press was all mental,” added Battistelli. “We practiced against that press a million times, because we knew it was coming and expected it. But there’s not doubt it affected us. The press got us out of our rhythm a little bit.”
After enjoying a 24-21 margin at the break, Elco assumed a 30-26 margin 2:42 into the second half, on a short jumper from Sydnie Parker. But that would prove to be the Raiders’ last point of the third period, and Northern Lebanon grabbed a 32-30 lead on a charity toss from Taylor Smith.
“It was exactly what I expected,” said Shay of the game’s flow. “They’ve (the Vikes) played so inspired for how long? They play like Kenny coaches, with plenty of fire.
“His (Battistelli’s) team deserves so much credit,” Shay added. “The way they played without three starters. I can’t say enough about them.”
“I thought we could hang in there,” said Battistelli. “I thought we had a good game plan to limit their (the Raiders’) scoring. What we didn’t have a game plan for was how our guards would react without Emily (Brandt) and Mariah (LiBrandi). It would’ve been nice to have a game before this game to put some of these kids under fire.
“Elco played a really good game,” Battistelli continued. “We tried to do some different things.”
Hassler showed the way for the Raiders with 14 points, while S. Parker stepped in admirably for Yoders and notched a dozen. Smith pumped in 14 Viking points, and teammate Morgan Hollis counted 12 on four three-point baskets, all from the wing.
Northern Lebanon made good on only five of 13 free throw attempts. Each side employed only a couple of reserves.
“Losing Katy was a big blow to us,” said Shay. “She’ our best defender and our second leading scorer. But I thought Sydnie Parker played a heck of a game. I thought she really stepped it up in her (Yoder’s) place.
“Hailie Parker’s been so big for us,” added Shay. “She probably doesn’t get as much credit as she deserves. But she keeps our team together. She’s so quick that she can do whatever she wants to do out there.”
“I’m fat, so it can’t be easy for them,” said Battistelli of his starters’ extended playing time. “I tell them they’re tough and there’s nowhere to go.
“Ever since I’ve been here, I’ve found kids to step up,” continued Battistelli. “I couldn’t ask much more from them, and I’m going to ask for a little more.”
After staking Northern Lebanon to an early 4-0 lead, Elco recorded 15 of the game’s next 20 points, mainly by getting S. Parker out in transition. The Raiders’ 15-9 advantage represented the contest’s biggest margin until the closing moments.
“We know we have to take care of business,” said Shay. “We know we’re in a good spot. We’re hoping L-S (Lampeter-Strasburg) helps us out a little bit (against Northern Lebanon). But we just have to focus on what we need to do.”
“It stinks. It stinks so bad,” said Battistelli. “It’s not because we’re not as good as we could be. It’s because the kids keep giving me more, and they get punched in the gut. I’m not a little bitter.
“I hope it says a lot about our program and the kids we put on the court,” Battistelli continued. “When we put them on the floor, no one is ashamed of them. All we said to our ‘Bigs’ (Smith and Kristen Lessing) tonight was, ‘You’ve got to score a hundred points. And you don’t get a break – ever.'”