Crusaders eye change, but how much? - LancasterOnline: Sports

Crusaders eye change, but how much?

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Posted: Sunday, March 25, 2012 10:45 pm | Updated: 7:38 pm, Thu Sep 12, 2013.

STATE COLLEGE - As expected in such situations, much of the talk following Lancaster Catholic's 52-33 loss to Archbishop Wood in Saturday night's PIAA Class AAA girls' basketball title game centered around the journey.

But perhaps more noteworthy, and intriguing, is the vehicle that eventually landed the Crusaders on the state's biggest stage in the first place.

Let's not forget that Catholic started this season minus a pair of All-League forwards (Ariana Nazario and Tyler Oleskowitz), along with four other key graduation losses from a team that went 25-5 a year earlier.

All of which left the Crusaders with two returning seniors - guard Alyssa Aichele and forward Amy Balasavage - and a junior center, Emily Martin, who hadn't played in nearly a year as she recovered from a torn ACL.

Sure, Catholic had, in the meantime, acquired a true scorer in junior guard and McCaskey transfer Porscha Speller. But she was about as familiar with the Crusaders' complex, bread-and-butter scheme of presses as most of us are with flying to the moon.

That Catholic would end up relying on two freshmen - guard Erin Holt and forward Elizabeth Veronis - for key minutes off the bench was another element that didn't exactly ooze confidence.

Then again, this is Lancaster Catholic, which doesn't know any other way but to succeed.

That said, no one familiar with local girls' basketball was likely all that surprised when the Crusaders went a perfect 16-0 en route to their second straight Lancaster-Lebanon League Section Four title and a record 10th L-L crown.

But when Catholic outlasted a field consisting of some of the top-ranked Class AAA teams in the state to capture a record 15th District Three title earlier this month, the surprise element had officially entered the room.

Most surprising of all, though, was that that same team was standing in Penn State's Bryce Jordan Center Saturday evening, vying for the program's fourth PIAA crown and their third under current head coach Lamar Kauffman.

On paper - using those exact two words - not even Kauffman saw that coming. Not in a million years.

So what gives?

"After that (season-opening) Hempfield Tournament, I think we just started to mesh together," Aichele said, minutes after playing the final game of her high school career Saturday night. "We got a feel of how everyone played and fortunately it all went together well."

Balasavage seconded that.

"It took us a little bit with getting to know each other because we were all so new," she said. "But after that (Hempfield) tournament things just started clicking and we became one team."

OK, so Martin was getting back in the flow. No real shock there, considering the athlete she is. Nor was it all that shocking that Veronis and Holt, as we'd come to know months later, were finding their niche off the bench.

But what about the new kid, Speller?

After all, grasping Catholic's assortment of presses isn't exactly the equivalent of learning first-grade math.

Or maybe, in a way, it can be.

"It wasn't hard at all," Speller said. "It's just practice and hustle, and if you have the heart to do it then you can do anything."

As for the ability to do anything, the Crusaders have to be feeling that way heading into next winter.

Their three leading scorers - Speller (17.3 ppg), guard Danielle Atkinson (13.0), and Martin (10.3) - are all returning, and there are others in the wings who could, in time, fill the void left by the departure of Aichele and Balasavage.

The question at this point is, who will be steering the ship? A question that surfaced seemingly out of nowhere Saturday night.

For nearly a decade, Kauffman - the Crusaders' iconic, 74-year-old coach, who's amassed 708 wins in his 30 years at Catholic - has said, "Good Lord willing," he would coach the Crusaders until, literally, his final day.

Said it kept him young. Put a fire in his belly. And that preparing for and guiding his team through another season each winter was one of the highlights of his year.

"I've said this before, at 74, I feel better when I'm coaching than at any other time," Kauffman said. "I have trouble with allergies and with sinus(es), but that's all gone when I'm out there. It's been good to me that way ... and I enjoy it."

But as quick as a lightning strike, that tone wavered a bit as he stood in the bowels of the Bryce Jordan Center following Saturday night's loss.

"The future is good for the program … but I need to rethink what I want to do," Kauffman said. "I don't want to be the coach that stayed on too long. It's been good to me for 30 years. I'm pleased with what I accomplished as a coach for Lancaster Catholic, but I don't want to hang around because of those accomplishments.

"I still have the energy, I still have the desire, but I don't want that desire to be lost part-way through the season," he continued. "I want to have that desire at the end, the way I have it now."

Returning so many players from a talented, young roster next year can only help that, right?

Certainly, Kauffman said. But there's still a lot of soul searching he needs to do over the next few days, weeks and months.

"I have quality kids who have some talent and that's what could bring me back," he acknowledged. "As I said, the future is bright for Catholic High.

"Whether I'll be the guiding light," he reiterated with a smile, "I don't know."

And if he doesn't return, what in the world would a guy who made basketball such a huge - and highly-successful - part of his life for so long do with himself come November?

"I'll go to the shore in the winter," he said with a grin. "I love the shore in the winter."

While Aichele and Balasavage won't be impacted by whatever decision Kauffman does end up making, they'll always be able to remember him as the engine of a vehicle that - somehow - powered all the way to the state final, under everybody's radar.

A ride no one saw coming.

"He's a great coach, and if he keeps going I'm sure the girls will be pleased," Balasavage said. "But (if not) it's a great way to end the season right now."

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