LANCASTER-LEBANON LEAGUE BOYS' BASKETBALL PLAYOFFS Treasuring senior moments
nMcCaskey, with 10 seniors on the roster and an impressive showing of late by Keyon Cowan and Co., has ripped off 20 straight victories and is favored to win its 13th league championship. However, undefeated Donegal, with plenty of experience in its lineu BY ED GRUVER, Sports Writer
Some may think of it as the McCaskey Invitational.
Naturally, there are objections to tinkering with the official title of this, the 40th edition of the Lancaster-Lebanon League boys' basketball playoffs, which tip off tonight.
Said objections can surely be heard from Donegal, where the Indians boast an undefeated record.
From Lancaster Catholic, where the Crusaders fought to the last regular season game to claim their fifth straight section title and 12th in 13 seasons.
From Elizabethtown, where the Bears battled all winter and repeated as section champs for the first time in team history.
And if you listen closely, you can hear similar rumblings from Lampeter-Strasburg and Lebanon, Lancaster Mennonite and Cedar Crest.
After all, none of them are prepared to just hand the Red Tornado a second consecutive crown and league-leading 13th overall.
A fact McCaskey skipper Steve Powell made plain in the days leading up to the tournament.
"If anybody thinks (the Tornado has already won the title), then we wouldn't even have to play the tournament," he said. "People who think that are in Never-Never Land.
"Nothings a given. Nothing's guaranteed."
For proof, Powell pointed to the sometimes uneven performances of his squad, which has won 20 straight following an 0-2 start.
"You've seen us play," he told a caller Friday night. "Sometimes we show flashes of brilliance, sometimes it doesn't seem like we're interested.
''We're going into this looking to defend our title, but we know people are going to give us their best shot. And they should, because we're going to give them our best shot."
It all starts tonight, with the Section One champion Tornado (22-2) hosting Section Four runner-up Lancaster Mennonite (15-7).
At Donegal, the Section Three champion Indians (22-0) meet Section Two second seed Lebanon (13-9).
Section Two champ E-town (16-6) hosts Section Three runner-up L-S (15-7).
At Lancaster Catholic, the Section Four champs (16-6) face Section One second seed Cedar Crest (14-8).
Each game is a 7 p.m. start. Semifinals are Wednesday at Conestoga Valley and Hempfield, also at 7. The winners of Mennonite-McCaskey and Lebanon-Donegal meet at CV; Hempfield hosts the winners of L-S at E-town and Crest-Catholic.
The final is Friday night at 7 at Manheim Township.
Each quarterfinal qualifies as a mini-drama, with its own set of subplots.
And one of the more interesting stories surrounding this McCaskey squad belongs to Keyon Cowan.
The 6-foot-3 senior and power forward is a first-year starter who averages 11.9 points per game and can be counted on to stir the McCaskey contingent with one, two and sometimes three spectacular slams on a given evening.
"He's a man," Powell told Lancaster Newspapers this winter. "All season, we've talked to him about letting the game come to him. Now, he's letting it come to him."
Cowan told LNP that off-the-court issues prevented him from playing varsity basketball prior to this season.
He had played junior varsity as a freshman, so he was a known talent to his teammates. More than once, he was approached by Tornado players anxious for him to join the varsity.
Once he did, he knew he had made the right move.
"It's my first year out (with the varsity) but the chemistry is there," he said. "They've welcomed me, like a family.
"It has," he said, "been a fun year for us."
That much has been evident in his performances this winter. And now, with said issues behind him, he's able to focus entirely on his game.
"It motivated me a lot, missing those two years," he said after posting career highs with 30 points and 16 rebounds to lead the Tornado past Elizabethtown in a Jan. 18 showdown of section leaders.
"I've kind of struggled with adversity this season, but my mind set is to put it all to rest and go right at it."
And do so without a lot of chatter.
"I give it my all," he said, "and I let my game do my talking."
Needless to say, his play speaks for itself. And loudly, as opponents can attest.
"We knew coming in he was going to be a tough matchup," Bears coach Kevin Dolan said after watching Cowan dominate. "And he proved it."
Tonight, it's Mennonite's turn to try and find answers to the matchup problems posed by Cowan and Company.
Blazers boss Geoff Groff has met McCaskey in the league playoffs before. Mennonite won in 1997, the Tornado in 2001.
"Geoff's a darn good coach," Powell said. "He plays a certain way with his system and his kids are always well-prepared."
Said Groff, "McCaskey is very good, very well-coached. They're skilled, they're athletic and they play together, and that's not a good triumvirate if you're the opponent."
In the other half of that bracket, Donegal owns the most prolific offense in Section Three; Lebanon the stingiest defense in Section Two.
The Cedars have won eight straight, but did not qualify for the District Three playoffs. Both of those facts makes them a dangerous opponent, opined Indians coach Ryan Butt.
"I think they're coming in with a chip on their shoulder and they're going to give it their all," he said.
"They've been playing very well. They're physical, and they run an offense not quite like what we've seen in Sections Three and Four.
"We're going to have our hands full."
E-town and L-S, both of their coaches agree, are almost mirror images, right down to their blue-and-white team colors.
"I like the matchup," said the Pioneers' John Achille. "I think we match up well with them. They're a solid team."
Said Dolan, "(The Pioneers are) very fundamentally sound. From what I've seen, we're a lot alike."
Catholic and Crest are a lot alike in at least one respect: Both had to fight to reach their current playoff status.
The Falcons rode a furious finish -- eight wins in their final nine games -- to clinch their first L-L playoff berth since 1976.
The Crusaders had to stage a late rally as well, overcoming a 14-point second-half deficit against Lancaster Mennonite in the regular-season finale.
And despite its tradition and history, Catholic is assuming the underdog role against the Section One runner-up.
"We look at it this way, we're the smaller school," Klazas said. "Cedar Crest is a very good team. They've played great the second half of the season."
Now, it's the second season.
The McCaskey Invitational, some might call it.
Some, but not Powell.
"We don't look ahead to anything," he said. "We've got 10 seniors on this team. They know the deal."
"We'll see how it goes."
"McCaskey is very good, very well-coached. They're skilled, they're athletic and they play together, and that's not a good triumvirate if you're the opponent."
Lancaster Mennonite coach Geoff Groff