L-L LEAGUE BOYS' BASKETBALL NOTEBOOK
Blazing new trails Blazing new trails BY ED GRUVER, Sports Writer
Three days into this new year and halfway through the grind that is a high school boys' basketball season, Lancaster Mennonite boss Geoff Groff offered this take on the progress of his players:
"There are enough teams that have a chance (to win Section Four)," he said. "We want to be in the mix."
At the time, Julian Collazo, Matt Hess, Zach Lehman and the rest of the young Blazers weren't only in the mix. They were sitting atop the section.
Few outside of Mennonite's inner circle saw it coming.
One of those who did will be on the opposing sideline tonight when the Blazers battle perennial champ Lancaster Catholic for the section title at Catholic.
"I saw (Mennonite) in the summer and was impressed with them," Crusaders coach Joe Klazas said. "I have tremendous respect for Coach Groff. He gets his kids to play hard; they're a super competitive group."
Competitive enough to turn Mennonite's fortunes around. Consider that the Blazers hadn't won more than eight games in each of their two previous seasons. Tonight, they will seek win No. 16.
Sweet 16 for the Blazers, since it would force a one-game playoff this week -- Thursday at Penn Manor, according to Mennonite -- for the title.
If Catholic wins, it claims its fifth straight section crown.
Regardless, both the Blazers and Crusaders have clinched berths in the league playoffs that open Monday.
Big games are business as usual for Catholic, but heady stuff for a Mennonite program that hasn't been to the L-L postseason since 2010 and, according to LLHoops.com, hasn't won a league playoff game since 2003.
The Blazers graduated key contributors in Tayler Wilson, Peter Landis, Luis Santiago, Ben Miller, Andrew Yoder and Steve Shenk. Wilson averaged just under 14 points per game last season, while Landis, Santiago, Miller, Yoder and Shenk combined to contribute 16 ppg.
At the same time, the Blazers were returning just three key players in Hess, Lehman and Jon Snader.
Snader is a senior; Lehman and Hess juniors. So the Blazers would be young, young enough to prompt guarded optimism from Groff in the preseason.
"How quickly the younger players adjust to the next level of play will be the key for us this year," he stated. "Our focus right now is (on) developing our team identity and pushing each other to get better every day in practice."
They have done so. Groff said Monday night his veterans have brought the younger players along, and created a team identity marked by a low-key attitude and a high-intensity work ethic.
And as a result, he added, these Blazers "respond well when challenged."
Perhaps no one more so than Collazo. A sophomore guard and first-year starter -- his varsity experience prior to this season consisted of one quarter in last season's final game --Collazo has responded to the challenges of varsity ball by leading Mennonite in points (316), scoring average (15 ppg.) and made 3-pointers (37).
None of the above is entirely surprising, Groff said, since Collazo fronted the JV squad in scoring his freshman season.
Now, Collazo is teaming with Hess (11.8 ppg.) to form one of the L-L's more potent backcourts.
Opponents have taken notice.
"He and Matt complement each other very well," Klazas said.
And Mennonite's outside game -- they've drained 91 threes thus far -- complements an inside attack fueled by the 6-foot-2 Lehman (12.1 ppg.), the 6-3, 200-pound Snader and the 6-2, 210-pound Darris Bair.
"They play together and they complement each other," said Klazas, who had a firsthand look in a 56-49 win at Mennonite Jan. 9.
"Try and game plan them and any of their guys can step up and hurt you. And there's no way you can take a minute off against them."
Certainly not, since by all accounts, the Blazers haven't. Nor do they expect to tonight against the champs.
"They're a confident team, they know how to win and they're well-coached," Groff said of Catholic. "If you're going to beat them, they're not going to give you anything. You have to play well."
Something Mennonite's been doing all season.
Games to Watch: Tonight, it's the Blazers-Crusaders' collision at Catholic.
Elsewhere in the L-L boys' league, all the races are for second place and a spot in the playoffs as we come to regular-season finales.
Cedar Crest (9-6), Hempfield (9-6), Warwick (9-6) and Manheim Township (8-7) are in contention for second place and a league playoff berth.
Warwick is at Township, Hempfield is at section champ McCaskey, and Crest is at Penn Manor.
In Section Two, Lebanon (8-7) leads Cocalico (7-8) and can clinch a berth with a win over visiting Ephrata. The Eagles need a Mountaineers upset victory and a home win over Solanco to force a tie.
In Section Three, Lampeter-Strasburg (11-4) is at Northern Lebanon (10-5). If the Pioneers win, they're in. If the Vikings win, they tie for second.
nLancaster Mennonite, which has a chance tonight to force Lancaster Catholic into a one-game playoff for the Section Four title, has clinched a league playoff berth with an intense blend of young players and a few key veterans.