York Country Day boys' basketball coach Corey Stiles woke up Saturday morning with his District 3-A gold medal still around his neck.
It was then that it finally sank in that he and his team were district champions. It took those 12 or so hours for a moment that probably felt like a dream four years ago, to truly feel like reality.
It wasn't long ago that the Greyhounds were a winless, hopeless program and Stiles was there for that part too. Now in his fourth year with the program and second as the team's head coach, he's helped guide the team from the lowest of lows to the highest of highs and everything in between.
So, how did a group of teenage boys turn a program that didn't win a game just a few seasons ago into an undefeated district champion? Well, to begin, it started well before the three-month journey of practices and games that commenced back in December.
Getting the pieces: Stiles remembers finding out that DeAireus Brown and D.J. Hamilton would be attending YCD and subsequently joining his team just a few weeks before the school year began.
The two Northeastern High School transfers instantly transformed the Greyhounds into a potentially good team into one that could be something special. The addition of the two to go along with junior Jordan Ray, who has been in the YCD system for several years, finally gave Stiles and the rest of the Greyhounds a full arsenal of talent that seemingly had unlimited expectations.
All the team had to do was not get too far ahead of itself and navigate the season without any significant injuries and a season of great hope would potentially come to fruition.
Realizing potential: It didn't take long for Stiles to realize just how special his group of players could be this season.
He didn't even need to see the team in regular season action to understand that this year was going to be different from past years.
While it didn't count toward to the team's win-loss record, the preseason scrimmage against Delone Catholic was the moment the light went off in Stiles' head. His team led by nine against the Class AA school heading into the fourth quarter, but lost. It was the only time all year his team would come up on the wrong end of the scoreboard.
"I knew that if we could hang with a Delone team, that has done very well in Division III, I knew that we had something really special," Stiles said.
It was that meaningless defeat when Stiles saw the potential in his team. It was just days later, in YCD's first regular season game, at its tipoff tournament hosted by Lititz Christian, that Stiles' expectations for the year skyrocketed through the roof.
The Greyhounds thumped Biglerville by 26 points, the beginning of a season filled with blowout victories. Win after win followed that Dec. 4 triumph and by the turn of the new year, YCD was already 8-0. 2016 was hardly any different from the end of 2015, as the win total continued to build for the Greyhounds, all while keeping an unblemished record.
If the undefeated record wasn't already enough to deal with, the weekly run atop the District 3-A power rankings only added to the growing pressure surrounding YCD. And still, the team continued to avoid the noise and go about its business.
"The biggest thing was keeping the guys humble and keeping them hungry," Stiles said. "What I try and do is really emphasize to my guys that every game is a championship game. That doesn't matter if you're playing a team that barely has any wins or a team that has all wins and no losses, you have to enter that game with the same mentality that it's a championship game and don't take any plays off, make sure that you take care of the basketball and you play great defense."
A dream fulfilled:
By the time the Greyhounds got to the District 3-A tournament, they were 19-0, with 17 of those wins coming by double digits.
Despite it being a tournament atmosphere, nothing changed in how YCD played and neither did the results. First, there was a 21-point win over Veritas Academy to get to the semifinals and that was followed by a 28-point victory over Lancaster County Christian to reach the finals.
By getting to that point, Stiles and Ray fulfilled their goal that was set years ago to make the district tournament and play for a gold medal at the Giant Center. While the championship game didn't start the way the Greyhounds would've liked, trailing at halftime, they rallied and still found a way to win by double figures for the 20th time in 22 chances. And Stiles wasn't naive to think that the two times his team was tested down the stretch during the regular season didn't help his team find the heart to dig down deep and comeback to win the gold medal.
"When you play through adversity and have to dig down and fight your way back and you've proven to yourself that you can do it," he said, "it would've been completely different if we had a record of 19-3 and you played and lost every close game, then it knocks your confidence down. But, winning those close games, it really builds up your confidence, so now when you get in that position again, now you're confident enough in your abilities and your teammates and you trust everyone to do the right things to get you back in the game, that was big for us to have some adversity against Fairfield and Big Spring earlier in the year to help us get back and pull out the win on Friday against Greenwood."
The journey isn't over yet for YCD as it now sets its sight on the state tournament.
It remains to be seen just how far the Greyhounds can take this run, but they understand that their first loss will be their only one and end their season. York Country Day came a long way from where it was just a few years ago and the future remains bright as Ray, Hamilton and Brown all return next season.
But, that hasn't stopped Stiles from reminding his players every day that they can't assume what they've done this season will translate to next year. The team won't take anything for granted and whenever the journey comes to an end, it knows that it was one heck of a run.
— Reach Patrick Strohecker at firstname.lastname@example.org