Central York head boys' basketball coach Kevin Schieler heard all the noise surrounding his team before this season began.
There was no way the Panthers would amount to much, the naysayers said, not after losing nearly all of their starting five from a year ago, including the three leading scorers. That team finished as District 3 4-A runner-up.
So, the goal was simple for this year — make the playoffs in any way possible, whether it was the York-Adams League tournament or districts. Central wanted to keep alive its tradition of postseason basketball. Yet, when the Panthers found themselves at 7-6 a month into the season and on a two-game slide, any playoffs seemed unlikely. Action had to be taken.
"We sat down, both as coaches and then eventually with our players, and we said our goal is to have a postseason," Schieler said following Wednesday night's league semifinal victory over Spring Grove. "We looked at different things that we had to do. We said we gotta win these games and gotta win those games. We're looking at this ideal record. We sat down and spelled it out for each other and something clicked with our seniors and everyone else really responded."
Since that time, Central has gone 10-1, finishing third in a difficult Division I, not only qualifying for the Y-A tournament, but also for the District 3 6-A playoffs next week. The Panthers gave themselves a postseason. Now, they're looking to add some hardware.
With the 53-45 win over the Rockets on Wednesday, Central (18-7) is back in the league title game for the fourth consecutive season with a familiar foe awaiting it.
If the Panthers were a team that seemed unlikely to make it to this point, Northeastern is the polar opposite.
The Bobcats, through their athleticism and incredible start to the year, were always a trendy pick to make a run at a league title. They began the year 17-0 before Central paid them a visit on Jan. 21 and ended their unbeaten start with a 68-64 road win. For the Panthers, that was the statement victory they needed to announce that they were a real contender.
It was also retribution for an earlier 17-point loss that Northeastern handed the Panthers on their home floor at the beginning of the season.
Friday's contest, set for 7 p.m. at York College, will be the rubber game for the two D-I rivals. With Central being a 6-A school, while the Bobcats are 5-A, there will no future games after Friday. So, not only will the winner own the season series, but also grab the league crown.
The match-up: You couldn't have two more different teams squaring off.
On one side, you have uber-athletic Northeastern (22-2), a team that might not have a ton of size, but does have a bunch of guys who can out-jump just about anybody and score from just about anywhere on the floor. The Bobcats led the league in scoring this season, putting up more than 75 points per game. They like to run and gun and look to the fast-break points and highlight-reel dunks as ways to not only fire themselves up, but get the crowd involved as well. They're led by a "Big 3" of Antonio Rizzuto (19.2 ppg), Fred Mulbah (16.0 ppg) and Brandon Coleman (14.0 ppg). All three average more than the highest-scoring player for the Panthers. However, the experience of playing in a league title game isn't on their side. The Bobcats are making it back to the title game for the first time since 2003.
"(Northeastern) is more athletic than us and we have to somehow negate that," Schieler said.
On the flip side, while Central doesn't possess the athletic prowess that the Bobcats own, the Panthers work out of the half-court sets better than almost any team in the league. The Panthers will look to slow down the tempo. Unlike most teams, Central doesn't have that one player the opposition can key on. Instead, every player on the floor can score and play various roles.
Courtney Batts leads the Panthers with 12.7 points per game, while Garrett Markey (11.0 ppg) and Landyn Ray (10.4 ppg) are the only other players to average double figures in scoring.
"They're going to have a lot of guys that you have to guard," Bobcats' head coach Jon Eyster said following Wednesday's 69-66 semifinal win over York Catholic. "...They have guys that can play on the post. Their post players step out and it's a different defensive game. Offensively, we have to just stay out of foul trouble and be a little bit patient."
(75.2 ppg/55.5 ppg)
Antonio Rizzuto (19.2 ppg)
Fred Mulbah (16.0 ppg)
Nate Wilson (7.7 ppg)
Austin Green (10.1 ppg)
Brandon Coleman (14.0 ppg)
Nate Eyster (2.2 ppg)
Todd Opondo (1.5 ppg)
CENTRAL YORK (18-7)
(63.1 ppg/53.4 ppg)
Courtney Batts (12.7 ppg)
Garrett Markey (11.0 ppg)
Landyn Ray (10.4 ppg)
Nico Sobestanovich (7.3 ppg)
Evan Czulada (8.1 ppg)
Tommy O'Neill (3.8 ppg)
Cade Pribula (4.9 ppg)
Carter Luckenbaugh (4.0 ppg)
— Reach Patrick Strohecker at firstname.lastname@example.org