The St. John Neumann players stood like statues, staring straight ahead while looking as glum as an offensive lineman at a salad bar.
Sullivan County had just rallied in the final minutes and edged it, 34-30 while capturing the District 4 Class A championship last March. The Knights had made a stunning turnaround after winning just two games the previous season, but Sullivan denied it the storybook ending.
Still, it is not that painful loss that keeps some of those players up at night. It's not the overtime game it lost to Sullivan a few weeks earlier either. The one that stings the most is the 69-44 beating Neumann suffered in Laporte, the first time these HAC-III rivals played. That game was over early and was the worst loss Neumann suffered all season.
The Knights have not forgotten.
"I think last year that stung when we went up there and got hammered. We were done very quickly in that game," Neumann coach Paul Petcavage said. "A lot of them have said, 'We still feel that,' and I said, good.' That's a good thing. But now we can't go up there an do the same thing this time."
Neumann goes back to the scene of the crime tonight in a game that really is big as a regular-season contest can get. The Knights and Sullivan are a combined 17-0, tied for first in the HAC-III and looking like serious district title contenders again. The winner of tonight's game takes a step toward a league title in a fierce race that also includes Bloomsburg, Muncy and South Williamsport and moves a step closer to earning a top district seed.
For Neumann, though, it is really all about redemption. The first loss was the most painful for the players, but going 0-3 against Sullivan hurts equally bad.
"I'm looking forward to it. We went 0-3 against them last year and we have to get our first win," Neumann guard Jordan Cole said after scoring 19 points in a 57-48 win over Montoursville last Wednesday. "We were so close, so that gives us a lot of motivation."
Neumann is off to its best start this century. Not even the Knights teams of Brad Litchfield and Steven Heffner that won three straight league championships and the 2000 district crown started this well. Cole, Alize Johnson, Tyree Vidal all started on last year's team that reached the second round of states and all are scoring in double figures as is talented point guard Richard Allen. Noah Beiter plays strong defense and Ryan Reid and Isaac Beiter are two players who provide some quality depth.
The Knights have pounded six of their opponents by 18 or more points and also have quality wins over Lourdes (8-2) and Montoursville. Those who thought the team would take a step back after losing all-state center Mike Wenner have been sorely mistaken.
"These guys are gamers," Petcavage said. "When they come to play, they come to play. They just kind of dig in and it's nice to see that."
Sullivan is the same way. And really, taking away that first game last year, these teams are mirror images. Both have four scorers in double figures, both lost all-state players from last year, both reached the state tournament's second round a year ago and both play the same way while having undefeated records.
Neumann-Sullivan is developing into a big-time rivalry but the nice thing is that both teams and fan bases respect each other a lot. Both teams played their state tournament games on the same courts last year and both times Sullivan fans cheered for Neumann and vice-versa. It was refreshing in this day and age and said a lot about how similar these teams are.
After tonight, though, there will be at least a little separation between the two teams-for a few weeks anyway.
"I think it will be a great game," Petcavage said. "It's a great rivalry."
A IN CHEMISTRY: Muncy might have lost its two leading scorers from last year, but it might be even more dangerous. The Indians (5-1) won back-to-back games last weekend and are on a five-game winning streak while being tied for first in the HAC-III. Muncy features a strong starting lineup and all five starters are capable of having big nights. Three are scoring in double figures while point guard Ammar Sabanovic averages more than 10 assists and Teddy Clark is a versatile player who plays good defense.
Clark and Nick Ring are the two new starters after Doug Zehner and Rijad Sabanovic graduated. Both have made a seamless transition and Ring has recorded six double-doubles. Friday, both scored in double figures as Muncy won at South Williamsport, 66-57 for the first time in five years.
"Over the summer they were in the gym, they worked hard and there's definitely chemistry," Muncy coach Jason Gresh said. "It doesn't matter if it's Dawson or Nick or Ammar or Bill or Ted or Jeff (Scott), we have somebody that will step up and I have confidence that will happen. Last year the focus was primarily on Doug and Rijad, but this year you can't really pick one."
Four players scored in double figures against South and Muncy has a nice inside-outside game. The Indians also run the court well and played great together. Muncy finished third in District 4 last year and looks like a title contender again. This is a big week with games against Bloomsburg and Sullivan County, but the Indians look well-equipped to handle the pressure.
"Before we're teammates were friends which helps," Muncy forward Dawson Fox said. "Chemistry is the biggest thing. Coach always says be 1/5 on the court so that's helped a lot."
PUTBACKS: Liberty pulled off a stunning upset Friday, defeating perennial District 4 Class A title contender Mansfield, 61-59. The Mounties endured a winless season last year but have every player back from that team and overcame a six-point fourth-quarter deficit against a team that has reached states in four of the last six seasons. Cody Schmouder and Jacob Spring combined for 35 points in the win ... Canton (7-4) is surging and has won six of its last seven games. Eddie Larcom (24) and Emmett Watson (21) combined for 45 points in Friday's 66-60 win over Wyalusing ... Hughesville recorded a big win Friday, rallying from 12 down at Southern Columbia to win, 51-48. ... Jersey Shore (5-4) beat Hughesville earlier in the week and has won three straight. The Bulldogs are receiving solid contributions from a variety of players and have a chance to reach the playoffs for the first time in three years.
Dr. Masse's area top five
1. Williamsport (9-2): Harrisburg displayed greater depth than Williamsport in Thursday's 76-66 win, but the Millionaires had their chances and might have won had they not endured so much foul trouble. Referees marred that game, calling way too many fouls (49) on each team. Let the kids decide the game and be consistent so that both coaches and players know what they can and cannot do instead of always changing things. Isaiah Washington had a big game against Harrisburg, scoring 25 points and helping the Millionaires make a big fourth-quarter comeback. If Harrisburg and Williamsport meet again in states like they did last year it would be a lot of fun-as long as the refs do not ruin the game and stop it every 10 seconds.
2. Loyalsock (7-1): Ben Sosa scored a career-high 18 points in Friday's 76-58 win over Mount Carmel. He combines with Roger Wilson to give Loyalsock a formidable inside game as Wilson has grabbed at least 10 rebounds in all eight games. Guard Kyle Datres scored a season-high 16 points in that win and the Lancers scored 29 second-quarter points after trailing by three after one. One might call this rivalry week for Loyalsock since it will play at Montoursville and Williamsport Friday and Saturday.
3. Lewisburg (8-0): The Green Dragons hammered Montoursville, 52-27 last Friday and appear on a collision course with Loyalsock to determine HAC-II surpremacy. Those rivals, who have split the last two league crowns, meet next Tuesday at Loyalsock. Lewisburg features a solid offense but its defense might be even better. The Dragons have held seven straight opponents to fewer than 40 points and have not allowed more than 49 all season.
4. Sullivan County (9-0): The Griffins have been on a rampage the last few weeks, winning their last five games by 25 points or more. Sullivan is playing strong defense and is displaying a nice inside-outside game. Derek Wilkins is a strong inside-player and Sullivan can pound the ball down low to him and Conner Wylie. Wilkins had two double-doubles last week and missed a third by just one rebound. Point guard Kelby Mullen had 24 points and nine steals in Saturday's 76-32 win at CMVT.
5. Wellsboro (10-1): The Green Hornets have displayed quite a flair for the dramatic the last three seasons. They beat Mansfield at the buzzer two years ago, beat it again in overtime after a fourth-quarter buzzer-beater last year and downed District 1's Octorara, 65-64 Saturday on Matt Reese's buzzer-beating 3-pointer. Wellsboro is the district's first team to reach 10 wins and likely will be the top seed in District 4 Class AA once again. Jordan Jackson is one of the area's premier players and had 16 points along with nine rebounds against Octorara.
Player of the week:
Dawson Fox, Muncy: The senior forward showed no signs of rust despite Muncy having endured a 17-day layoff before last weekend. Fox scored 44 points in wins over South Williamsport and Warrior Run and added six rebounds and five rebounds as Muncy won at South for the first time in five years. Fox scored Muncy's first 13 points in the fourth quarter as Muncy held off South's comeback attempt.
Game of the week:
Loyalsock at Williamsport: It means little in terms of playoffs, but who cares? This game has to be played every year because the community loves it and because the players love battling for local bragging rights. Both schools are selling advance tickets this week at their buildilngs and go at it like it is a district championship and two of the last three games in this series have been great ones. Saturday's could be another thriller and it should be one of the area's most fun nights of the year.