Central York's 'Cardiac Cats' beat York High in another dramatic finish

The Panthers came back to win 68-65 and continued a run of four games decided by a combined eight points.

Thomas Kendziora
York Dispatch

Central York boys’ basketball coach Jeff Hoke has taken to calling this year’s team “Cardiac Cats.” And his Panthers have certainly earned the moniker with their penchant for playing in close contests.

Central’s last four games have been decided by a combined eight points. The Panthers opened York-Adams Division I play with a 61-58 nailbiter of a win against Red Lion. They went to Dallastown and blew a double-digit lead before surviving in double-overtime, 81-80. They played a non-league game against Father Judge in Philadelphia and lost 60-59 on a buzzer-beating 3-pointer after leading throughout the second half.

Then came Tuesday’s clash with rival York High, which also entered 2-0 in the division. The visiting Bearcats jumped out to an early lead, forcing the Panthers to dig deep. Central York closed the gap by halftime, leveled the score in the third quarter and pulled ahead down the stretch for a 68-65 victory.

“These are games we probably wouldn’t have finished really well last year or the year before,” Hoke said. “We know that the little things are gonna be the difference.”

Central York's Saxton Suchanic beats J. P. McCaskey's Elias Garcia under the basket during action at Central Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2022. Central cruised to a 89-63 win. Bill Kalina photo

Central York’s talent was never in question this season. The Panthers brought back 6-foot-7 forward Greg Guidinger, who missed half of last season with an injury, as well as senior guard Ethan Dodson and sophomore guard Ben Natal. They added sophomore Ben Rill, a 6-foot-8 college prospect who spent last year at a charter school. The question was how well, and how quickly, Hoke’s team could mesh with a top six that included four sophomores, a junior and a senior.

That youth is even more exposed now. Dodson broke his wrist in the first half of the Father Judge game, Hoke said. While the senior finished that contest — he led the team with 17 points and threw down a go-ahead dunk in the final seconds — he’s expected to miss six to eight weeks, which will run through most of the regular season.

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Hoke said the Panthers had a “horrible” practice Monday after learning the news, and he believes Dodson’s absence contributed to Tuesday’s slow start. York High jumped out to a 15-7 lead and led 21-13 after the first period. The Bearcats were blitzing Central with their energy and physicality.

“We just weren’t ready for their intensity,” Hoke said. “We knew they would bring it — they’re a talented team, Clovis (Gallon) is a really good coach and they play as hard as any team you’re ever gonna see. … We didn’t bring it. It was live-ball turnovers, we were sloppy, and that’s where Ethan wouldn’t have let that happen.”

Central York's Ethan Dodson drives to the hoop past J. P. McCaskey's Jared Kumah (14) during action at Central Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2022. Central cruised to a 89-63 win. Bill Kalina photo

Eventually, though, the Panthers’ young backcourt stepped up. Natal scored 15 of his 22 points in the second half, highlighted by a smooth stepback that gave Central a 60-58 lead with 1:28 remaining. And freshman RB Brown chipped in seven points off the bench in his first crunch-time varsity action.

Brown’s previous lack of playing time was more about Hoke’s loyalty to tight rotations than anything; the freshman has never lacked confidence, nor have his teammates doubted him. His older brother KB played for the Panthers before graduating in 2021 and “had the heart of a lion,” Hoke said. So nobody was surprised when the freshman was ready for the moment.

“Over the summer, we actually played in tournaments and he played up with us on varsity,” Natal said of Brown. “So I know he’s already comfortable with us, and I think that helped him out tonight.”

York High led 31-28 at halftime, then started the third quarter on a 6-0 run to go up nine. But Central clawed back and sent the game to the fourth at 42-42. The teams went back and forth in the final frame; Brown had two go-ahead buckets, including a reverse layup that had the student section jumping around in disbelief. That was part of an 8-0 Central run to go up 58-53, and although the Bearcats tied it again at 58, they ran out of answers after Natal’s stepback. 

A slew of Panther free throws in the last minute made it 68-62 before Daveyon Lydner hit a 3-pointer at the buzzer. Natal, Guidinger and Rill combined to make all eight of their foul shots in the fourth — they finished with 22, 17 and 17 points, respectively.

William Penn boys basketball's Daveyon Lydner at the high school winter sports media day 1 in York on Nov. 9, 2022.

Lydner finished with 26 points for the Bearcats (3-2, 2-1), including 11 in the first quarter and nine in the fourth. Jacere Vega and Juelz Tucker each scored 10 while big man Omarion Newson tallied nine. In the end, though, it was a night of “almost” for York High, which made just 4 of 9 free throws in the fourth quarter and 6 of 12 in the game.

“We’re gonna focus on the things that we need to improve on the defensive end,” Gallon said, pointing to rebounding, help defense and contesting shots. “All in all, I have no doubt that these guys are prepared to take on the challenge to rebound from this.”

It’s still early in the York-Adams League season, but both of these teams figure to remain firmly in the mix. So does Dallastown, which fell 69-66 to York High before taking Central to double-overtime last week. The Wildcats beat Red Lion 61-50 on Tuesday for their first Division I win.

Central York's Head Coach Jeff Hoke during YAIAA boys' basketball action against Northeastern at Central York High School in Springettsbury Township, Friday, Feb. 19, 2021. Northeastern would win the game 71-68. Dawn J. Sagert photo

The Panthers (4-2, 3-0) have their next test Thursday at Spring Grove, which improved to 2-0 in the division (4-2 overall) by beating Northeastern 62-57 on Tuesday. Central will then compete in a holiday tournament at Hempfield next week before resuming league play in 2023.

While the “Cardiac Cats” have put themselves under plenty of stress, Hoke believes all this experience against tough competition will pay off in a big way when it matters.

“We have a really good, mature, unselfish group,” Hoke said. “When we learn to put it all together, we’re gonna be tough. It’s defense, doing the little things right and knowing how to play hard.”