HS BASKETBALL: Northern Cambria seniors' run comes to an end
RICHLAND TOWNSHIP — The ending wasn’t fitting.
It never is when you’re on the wrong end of the final score.
Northern Cambria, with its starting core of seniors that had played together mostly since elementary school, the veterans who knew where all the other guys were on the floor at all times, suddenly looked confused, even uncomfortable on the court. They were perplexed by Conemaugh Township’s schemes, throwing the ball away, losing the rebounding battles and shooting poorly.
The end of the run for Northern Cambria’s decorated senior class, the Colts’ 65-46 loss to Conemaugh Township in the second round of the PIAA Class AA boys’ basketball playoffs Wednesday night at the Richland High School Sports Center, stood in stark contrast to all the group had done up to that point.
“You don’t want tonight to be about what happened tonight, that it’s over,” senior guard Adam Polites said. “You want it to be about the years that were so good and how far we’ve come together and the lifelong memories we’ve made.”
In the careers of the Colts’ class of 2013, Northern Cambria won three Heritage Conference championships — two outright and one shared — and a District 6 Class A championship. The Colts appeared in two other district title games, returning to the championship game after a move up to Class AA this season, and went to the state playoffs in all four years.
“I don’t want these kids to be dwelling on tonight,” Northern Cambria coach Dan Weber said, “because there are just too many championships, too many special moments, and that’s the message that was delivered tonight.”
Conemaugh Township (25-3) stunned the Colts with a 13-3 run to open the game.
The Indians’ three-quarters-court trap defense helped create nine first-quarter turnovers, and Northern Cambria (22-6) never fully shook Conemaugh Township’s pressure all night.
The Colts also shot just 16 of 58 (27.6 percent) from the field and made only 8 of 16 free throws.
“For whatever reason, we just didn’t play our best basketball tonight. We weren’t in the game,” Weber said. “They beat us in all aspects of the game. Their offense was better. Their defense was better. Their special teams, inbounds plays, were better.”
“That’s been our M.O.,” Conemaugh Township coach Chuck Lesko said. “If our defense can create offense for us and make things easy, give us some confidence, then we settle into the game a little bit. … For the most part, I thought our defense really kept them off balance most of the night, and their ballplayers are nice ballplayers.”
In control for so much of their careers, the Colts were completely discombobulated against Conemaugh Township.
“One of the things we like to do is disguise our defensive schemes with different looks to keep people off balance,” Lesko said. “I thought we were able to change up our man and our zone coverages tonight. At times I heard their kids barking out that we were in a matching zone, and we really weren’t. … We threw a couple of different looks at them, and I thought it was probably the difference, our defensive schemes.”
Polites made six 3s, crucial in keeping Northern Cambria within striking range for as long as it was, and scored a game-high 28 points. Forward Jeff Hogan added 13 points. The two were three-year starters. Fellow seniors Derek Bearer, Josh Bonatesta and Nick Lee started the last two years.
“It’s always tough when you win a Heritage Conference and a district championship and make states with five underclassmen, because then you’re looked at as, ‘OK, here comes the same team back,’” Weber said regarding last year’s district title squad. “What are you going to do to cap that? It’s pretty hard to cap any of that in this area.
“To get back to the District 6 championship (game) after moving up to double-A was one of our goals. We accomplished that. We tried to be realistic from the perspective of making the state playoffs: Let’s get there and then try to win one at a time. We did win one game and it felt like we were going to be in position for a good game tonight and a good test, and unfortunately that’s where Conemaugh Township deserves the credit.”
The Indians shot 24 of 56 (42.9 percent), led by Dillon Boyer’s 15 points. Jeremy Sotosky scored 11, and Jeff Callihan added 14 off the bench. Conemaugh Township’s aggressive style led to foul trouble early on, but its players dealt with it well, and the Colts weren’t able to take advantage when the reserves were in, either.
“You don’t expect that to happen every night,” Lesko said of his team’s bench points, “but when it happens, you’ll take it, and we certainly needed it tonight, being that we had two seniors and two starters in foul trouble most of the evening.”
Lee, a 5-foot-11 forward whose rebounding ability exceeds his size, left late in the first half with an injury and did not return. It was just one of many things that worked to the Colts’ detriment.
“We were fighting an uphill battle most of the night, and I felt like there were times when we did get ourselves going and were playing pretty well, but never to the point where we were able to get this thing straightened out,” Weber said.
While the Northern Cambria program has a significant rebuilding project ahead, Wednesday night the Colts took time to look back and appreciate the last four years, and even what led to them.
“It was third (grade),” Polites said, noting when Bearer, Bonatesta and Hogan began playing basketball together. “I came in fourth and Nick moved in the district in ninth.
“The high school memories are really big. It’s been a pleasure with everybody. Thanks to everybody that came out and supported us every night, and this is just really sad this is over. … I’m just glad for the opportunity to play with such great guys and blessed to have the opportunity.”