PIAA BOYS' BASKETBALL CHAMPIONSHIPS Catholic's little big man
nJunior guard Eric Schneider sparks the Crusaders by embracing the complementary tasks that must be performed by every successful team. BY ED GRUVER, Sports Writer
They've ground their way through the preseason.
Through the L-L League regular season.
Through the league's postseason.
Through the District Three playoffs.
And, yes, through playbacks.
Ground their way, in fact, through some 30 games this winter, to reach their goal.
And so here we are in March, and four L-L boys' basketball teams whose respective seasons began back in December will finally set foot on the state's biggest stage.
The PIAA tournament.
Like panting marathoners, the survivors from across the state face one final journey: The tourney.
Each is hoping it will not become their Heartbreak Hill.
Of the L-L's Fab Four, three will take the court when the tournament opens Friday night.
Donegal, 26-2 and the third seed from District Three in Class AAA, faces Wilkes-Barre GAR Memorial (17-10; 2-2) at Holy Redeemer High School at 7.
Lancaster Catholic (18-9; 3-7) takes on Greater Johnstown (15-7; 6-1) at 6:30 at Central Cambria in Ebensburg.
In Class A, district champ Lebanon Catholic (18-7) meets Sankofa Freedom (14-11; 12-3) at 6 at Lebanon High.
Saturday, McCaskey (26-3; 3-3) collides with Coatesville (22-7; 1-5) at 6:30 p.m. at Garden Spot.
Friday's winners in the field of 32 advance to Tuesday's quarterfinals; Saturday's winners to Wednesday's round.
So the grind continues. But, you say, this is the fun time of the season, the time when every game can be a team's last, when every trip up the court can be crucial, every mistake magnified.
And so it is. And of all the L-L boys' teams still standing, perhaps none has a player better equipped to handle the grind than the Crusaders' Eric Schneider.
He is a mop-topped, 5-foot-7 junior guard, but as Crusaders coach Joe Klazas will tell you, Schneider plays much bigger than 5-7.
And he does so by doing the little things. And doing them very well.
"He doesn't blow you away in the boxscore, that's for sure," Klazas said. "But he's a presence on the floor.
"He's a grinder, no doubt about that. He reminds me of (recent LCHS graduate) Phil Wenger. Phil scored more but Eric plays with that same tenacity on defense. His defensive presence does a lot for us."
Case in point came Jan. 24 at eventual district king Lebanon Catholic. Schneider and backcourt mate Josh Riley combined to limit star guard Tim Orr to eight points, 10 below his team-leading average at the time.
"Everyone has a role on this team," Schneider said afterward. "Everyone contributes."
Indeed. Junior forwards Omar Lopez (14.8) and Evan Purvis (10.8) and senior guard Erik Goldbach (13.9) are go-to guys when points are needed.
Freshman guard Randy Speller, senior forward Patrick Kenney, the aforementioned Riley and fellow junior forward Harry Heise are key contributors as well.
Klazas said he tells his players, "Collectively, as a group, appreciate what you have around you."
"Everyone has a vital role," he told a caller. "Everyone's role is important."
"He does the dirty work on the floor," Klazas said.
Clearly, it's a role Schneider relishes.
"He knows the value of his assignment and does his best with it," said Klazas.
Consider it an attitude that has helped Schneider increase his playing time from the three-to-five minutes per game Klazas estimated it to be a season ago to a starting role in every game this season.
Without doubt, Schneider is one of the more tireless workers you will see on an L-L court. Klazas relayed a story concerning a recent practice drill in which Crusader players went one-on-one for a full court game.
"Guess who won?" Klazas asked. "Eric."
"He leads by example," Klazas added. "And when you do that, people follow that path."
The Crusaders will be following the lead of Schneider, Goldbach, Lopez and Co. Friday when they face Greater Johnstown.
The Trojans, champions of the Laurel Highlands 2 League, are headed by 5-9 senior guard Phil Madison, who has posted team-high numbers with 20.7 ppg. and 36 threes.
Rashon Fields, a 6-6 senior forward, averages 11.9 ppg.
By all accounts, the Trojans are an athletic, up-tempo team. Klazas compared the District Six champs to Mid-Penn teams Milton Hershey and Bishop McDevitt.
For the record, they're two squads Catholic has played tough this season.
Donegal-GAR Memorial: The Grenadiers are coming off a 58-37 loss to Abington Heights in the District Two title game.
GAR, which finished second in Wyoming Valley 3 League, struggled to deal with Abington's inside game. This, despite the presence of 6-10 senior center Christian Skrepenak, who scored four points after producing a game-high 16 three days earlier in a 40-29 semifinal win over Crestwood.
Isaiah Francis, a 6-3 junior forward, is the Grenadiers' other scoring threat.
The Indians list four players averaging double figures in scoring: Jason Dietrich (15.5), Martin Dietrich (15.1), Matt Foltz (11.5) and Dylan Houseal (10.8).
McCaskey-Coatesville: The Red Raiders, champions of the Ches-Mont League mirror McCaskey in many ways.
Like the L-L champs, Coatesville is quick, athletic and explosive.
Trailing Methacton 42-36 after three quarters last week, the Red Raiders ripped off a 27-4 run in the final eight minutes to win 63-46.
And like the Red Tornado, the Red Raiders own a versatile offense. Senior swingman Emmett Hunt, senior guards Howard Sellars and Andre Boggs and junior forward Jaquan Hollingshed are all capable of scoring in double digits, as they did against Methaction.
McCaskey counters with its own quarter of players averaging in double figures: Devonne Pinkard (18.8), Diante Cherry (12.9), Sha-ki Staten (12.6) and Keyon Cowan (12.2). Aaron Swinton has scored 12 points or more in four of the Tornado's seven postseason games.