By Andy Backstrom, Co-Editor-in-Chief
As I walked into the small gymnasium of Conestoga High School prior to the girls’ basketball PIAA District One Tournament debut versus Unionville, I witnessed senior boys basketball player Jack Baker practicing his three-point shot, two and a half hours before his team would take on Great Valley High School. He was the only one there.
The Conestoga boys basketball team is, in basketball terms “small.” It has been their quickness, skill and leadership that has led them to a 16-6 (11-4 Central League) record, and a third-place regular season finish in the Central League. With a multitude of three-point marksmen, the Pioneers have been able to shift the momentum of games within just a few minutes.
However, the team was “dry” when they faced Ridley in the Central League Championship at Marple Newtown High School on Feb. 8, as they shot one for 17 from three-point land. There was no shift in momentum, and the Green Raiders defeated ’Stoga 62-38.
The boys came into the District Tournament as the 14th seed, matching up against the 19th seeded Great Valley Patriots.
Right from the get-go, the Pioneers looked to have shaken off their performance in the Central League title game – they clearly had booked a reservation for three. Conestoga, executing a fast break offense that was complemented by good ball movement, was able to drive into the paint or kick it outside at their disposal in the first half.
Senior Darryl Caldwell led the Pioneers with 23 points and several highlight-reel plays. Caldwell hit two threes in the first half, one of which was a buzzer beater that ended the second quarter, energizing the Pioneer Pit (Conestoga’s student section). At halftime, the Pioneers held a 30-13 lead, in large part due to stingy defense, which limited the Patriot’s offense.
Great Valley picked up the scoring in the second half, as senior Will Buzan started to heat up from mid-range and behind the arc. Buzan ended the contest with a game-high 24 points.
Great Valley narrowed the deficit to seven (41-48), however the Pioneers answered.
Conestoga’s three-point shot proved to extinguish any fire that Great Valley attempted to start. The Pioneers, converted 10 threes on the night, five of which came from the stroke of junior Charlie Martin (15 points total).
It was late-game shots like Baker’s three from the left corner that put a nail in the coffin for Great Valley.
’Stoga finished the game with a score of 57-45, moving on to the second round of districts for a date with 3rd seeded Downingtown West on Feb. 16.
Despite Downingtown West’s seeding, Conestoga’s head coach Mike Troy is not intimidated, as he understands the postseason’s ways.
“I have been coaching 20 years. Once you start Districts, everybody is 0-0. If you look at the scores tonight (Feb. 12), you will see it doesn’t matter what you did before. The reality is, we have as good a shot as anybody else of going to Temple and playing in the District Championship,” Troy said.
Last year, Conestoga was the number one seed in this tournament, and was bounced in the third round by Ridley. The players realize that a team’s seeding is just a number.
“I feel like we are the type of team that can make a big run and surprise a couple teams and go deep in districts, rather than last year when we were kind of expected to go far, and the only thing we could do was to disappoint,” senior Lucas Yonda said.
“I’m just thinking about last year when we were the number one seed and we lost; it’s a little bit of a role reversal, but who doesn’t love to play the underdog,” Baker said.
But, in a playoff atmosphere, senior Andrew Larkin accepts that you must take one game at a time, leaving everything you have out on the court.
“I’m just trying to embrace every moment. I know how precious every second is on that floor and I know this could have been our last game, so I just try to bring as much energy to this team as possible,” Larkin said.
It wouldn’t surprise me if Baker or other ’Stoga players will be practicing their threes in the small gymnasium of Conestoga again before their game versus Downingtown West.
After hitting that left corner three near the conclusion of Conestoga’s victory over Great Valley, emotions flooded through Baker.
“I just heard like random voices screaming my name – it’s one of those things you think about in your dreams, but you never expect it to happen and then it does,” Baker said.
Let’s see if it happens again.
Bring The Pit.
*Video footage from the game to be uploaded soon.
Read about the girls’ game here.
Andy Backstrom can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.