SCOTT BAKER’S WALKIN’ THE SIDELINES: History Can Provide Valuable Lessons
Something most athletes and coaches chase after this time of year. It’s the time of year for championships. The time of year for champions.
It’s the post-season.
Most athletes and coaches will tell you that the post-season is a special time that you play for. A time that you dream about. A time when unforgettable memories can be made.
It is, because the winter sports teams will soon embark upon that time that I write this particular column. I do not write this to remind readers of the championship won by the 2016-2017 Wildcats Boy’s Basketball team, but rather as a story to inspire all that anything can happen in the post-season.
Regardless of what happened in the regular season, everything starts anew. If you have a breath, you have life. This is true not only in sports, but in life as well.
During the course of most seasons, there is just one thing that you can be certain of: Nothing is for certain.
The 2016-17 Wildcats Boy’s Basketball team entered the season with high hopes. We had set two goals. First, we wanted to win the Pennsylvania Heartland Conference Championship. Second, we wanted to claim Central Mountain’s first District VI basketball championship. Both were goals that we knew would challenge us, but at the same time, we believed 100% that they were both very attainable.
The season began with three consecutive victories of nearly 30 points each over Bellefonte, Jersey Shore and Midd-West. At 3-0, we then faced an early test on the road at Hollidaysburg. Now, at this point in the season, few would see such a game as critical. It wasn’t. However, because Hollidaysburg was the team that we figured would be the biggest challenge for us in capturing the district championship that we desired, we wanted to play very well. For a half of basketball, we did just that. For the majority of the game, we battled the home team before eventually falling by a 61-54 score. While we were disappointed in losing, we learned that night that we could compete.
We rebounded from that loss with wins over Mifflin County and Huntingdon before welcoming a very athletic Williamsport team to our gym. While we did some good things against the Millionaires, we simply did not have enough to stay with them and lost by 20.
That loss was followed by a road game against Selinsgrove, the team we felt we would need to defeat to win the PHAC Championship. We played very well for most of the game, but a several minute stretch in the second half spelled doom and we dropped a heartbreaker, 57-56. That loss hurt because we knew that our margin for error would be slight the rest of the way if we were going to earn a spot in the PHAC tournament, and thus have a chance to win a league title. While we knew that Selinsgrove would visit us later on and we could beat them, other losses could not be suffered in conference.
We responded exceptionally well from the Selinsgrove loss with seven straight wins to push our record to 12-3 with a home match-up against Hollidaysburg on the schedule. A huge and loud CM crowd welcomed the Tigers for a rematch of the early season match-up. However, once again it was the Tigers that won the contest, again by seven points.
So while we knew that we could play with Hollidaysburg, I suspect a bit of doubt was beginning to creep into our minds as to whether or not we could beat them. Ironically, we got just what we needed in the very next game.
Selinsgrove visited us and we played perhaps our best game of the season, shot the lights out and hammered the visitors. We were back in the thick of the conference race.
Then almost immediately disaster struck.
We went on the road for a Saturday afternoon contest at Shamokin against a team we had fairly easily defeated earlier in the season at home. That afternoon we were very uninterested in playing a basketball game and we got embarrassed. The result of the loss was that we strongly felt that winning our division was no longer possible, but we had a chance to slip into the conference playoffs as the wildcard if we could win out within the conference.
Next, we headed to Montoursville to play a Warriors team that was dangerous, but not exceptionally talented or deep overall. Prior to the game, we held a team meeting to discuss our conduct during the game at Shamokin as well as to discuss our approach moving forward. Unfortunately, while we did some good things against Montoursville, we lost a close contest, 60-59. No question that our chances for a berth in the conference tournament had slipped away.
Not so fast though.
After a dismantling of Shikellamy and a victory over Huntingdon, we learned that the basketball gods were on our side.
Lewisburg had been upset in their final league game and we earned the conference wildcard by the slightest of winning percentage margins.
We still had a breath.
We still had life.
We were in the four-team playoff field with a chance to achieve one of the goals we had established from the beginning. We were the 4th seed. Our opponent: Loyalsock.
A solid team, yet one we had destroyed on their court earlier in the season. We were confident, but in no way would I say over-confident.
The game did not go as planned.
We were terrible in the early part of the game. In fact, we went scoreless in the first period. It was a nightmare. We played decent the rest of the way, but had dug ourselves too big of a hole and ultimately lost 52-44.
One dream shattered.
All we could do was clear our heads and move on to goal number two: win a district championship.
For the first time ever, we had the unique and advantageous opportunity to host a playoff game.
Our first round opponent would be Bellefonte. Remember, the team we had beaten by 30 the first game of the season on their court. We will cruise, right?
Not a chance.
We knew it wouldn’t be easy. Bellefonte was a team that had gotten steadily better as the season progressed. Boy, were we right. It was a tight game throughout. The Red Raiders actually had us on the ropes late in the game, but we somehow responded to win a slugfest, 47-44.
Next up, round three with Hollidaysburg. This time, the winner would get the hardware. The District VI AAAAA Championship to be held at Mt. Aloysius College.
The game was nip and tuck throughout the first half. We hit a spurt and actually took a nine point lead with approximately five minutes remaining in the game, only to see Hollidaysburg storm back to take a one point lead. Their crowd was going crazy. However, this night would be different. The hearts of champions found their beat. We made several key plays in the closing minutes and won the contest, 65-63, to earn Central Mountain’s first district basketball championship.
As the final horn sounded, it was total bedlam for our coaches, players and fans. It was the culmination of what we had all dreamed about for so long. It was special for sure. So special, that I have honestly not yet watched a replay of that game. I haven’t needed to. Someday I will. Until then, I will just relish in the accomplishment of a group of guys playing and winning together.
What I learned from the ups and downs of the season was that you must never lose hope. Playing every game and every play with purpose is so critical. Realistically, you never know when a break or two might go your way. While we could have been out on numerous occasions, we kept going. The reward was the long sought after championship.
We were not finished, as a result of our championship, however.
We played Erie Cathedral Prep at Bald Eagle Area High School in the first round of the state tournament. We certainly represented ourselves very well, but ultimately fell short and the dream season was over at 17-9.
While the games will never be replayed, those who coached, played and followed the 2016-2017 Wildcats will long have memories of a roller coaster ride that ended with CM being on top of the mountain.
Now, as I stated in the beginning, this story is not written to recognize the 2016-2017 Wildcat basketball squad. Yes, I truly hope that those who played and experienced the season enjoyed this ride down memory lane. However, this was written for all of those athletes and teams who will be entering postseason play, perhaps tonight (Central Mountain Boy’s Basketball) or within the next week or two.
I sincerely pray that you can forget about the ups and downs that you might have experienced throughout the course of the season, and focus on the task at hand.
Does it matter now that the CM Boy’s Basketball team was once again defeated twice by Hollidaysburg in the regular season?
No, it does not.
Does it matter now that the Wildcats wrestlers failed to win the district duals championship?
No, it does not.
And does it matter now that the swimmers might have had some ups and downs this season?
No, it does not.
You each have a new life. Focus on one play, one game, one match, one swim at a time and perhaps any championship aspirations that you might have can be realized.
One thing I can assure you is that the memories you make along the way will be lasting.
I pray that when it’s all over, you too will be on top of the mountain.