(Editor's note: This is the second in an occasional series of stories leading up to the start of the York-Adams winter sports season).
You could say it was a two-year plan for the Dallastown boys' basketball team to get back to contending in Division I of the York-Adams League.
For three seasons from 2013 to 2016, the Wildcats took steps back from being one of the top two or three teams within Division I. They were still competitive, but never truly considered threats to make a run at qualifying for the league playoffs as one of the three best teams to come from the league's top division.
But, last season marked the first of a two-year push to make Dallastown a legit threat again. It didn't culminate in the program ending a three-year drought of not qualifying for the league tournament, but the ability was there. There were just three teams slightly deeper and more experienced than the Wildcats.
And, to an extent, Dallastown was fine with that. When you looked at its roster in 2016-17, the team was made up of mostly underclassmen. It was apparent that the season was going to be about gaining experience and setting the foundation for the future.
That leads to this year, with four of the Wildcats' top players returning from a season ago. This is the season when getting the results will be imperative of gauging the team's success.
"It sounds cliché, but we're going to work hard," head coach Mike Grassel said during winter sports media day. "We brought coach (Troy) Sowers in to help with defense. We're going to play hard defensively, mix it up a little bit and let the chips fall where they may based off our effort, energy and talent we have with this group."
Maintaining hard work: There's no doubt that Dallastown has one of the hardest working teams returning from a season ago.
Effort and energy is what helped the Wildcats go 14-9 overall, 8-6 in league play and qualify for the District 3 6-A playoffs with a lineup that saw one senior, Donovan Catchings, play serious minutes. Dallastown stole some wins against teams with more experience that it probably shouldn't have won and gave plenty of other good teams tight games.
Two that come to mind were the Wildcats' match-ups against powerhouse Northeastern. In both instances, Dallastown was within a couple possessions of the Bobcats going into the final minutes, only to see a stronger Northeastern team pull away on both occasions.
The Bobcats will again be the team to beat, after going 30-3 overall, winning Division I, the league tournament, District 3 5-A and making the state semifinals. However, someone needs to give Northeastern a fight within Division I and the Wildcats feel like they have the players and varsity experience to make that happen.
"Northeastern, they had a great season,," senior forward Ben Ward said during media day. "...But, I feel like we've all been playing varsity together for two or three years, so I think we'll come together and know what we gotta do and do it on both offense and defense."
Stepping up on defense: The common point made by every player at media day — Ward, Braden Caldwell and Justin Atwood — is that, in order for Dallastown to take that next step, it starts on the defensive end.
Last season, the Wildcats ranked near the top of the league in scoring, averaging 63.8 points per game. However, the team's knack of pushing the ball up the floor at a high tempo sometimes got it into trouble, especially against teams that could handle that speed.
So, this year, Dallastown is making it a point to focus on its defense, knowing that the offense will be there. But, better defense will be the difference in getting the team back into the league tournament.
"I feel like we can compete with any team in the division, but it comes down to defense," Atwood said.
Bringing in Sowers: In order to improve on that, Grassel brought in Sowers, the longtime successful boys' coach at York High, as an assistant.
Sowers' knack for creating discipline with his players has traditionally led to his teams being some of the best defensively. It's what made the Bearcats program one of the best in District 3 and the state during his nine years as the head coach.
"Intensity and different schemes," Caldwell said is what Sowers brings to the team. "He's really telling us over and over that defense is what helps you win."
Time to win: For a squad that has eight seniors on the roster, there is no next season.
The time to win and get this program to catapult itself into the upper tier of Division I and District 3 is this year and this year alone. They won't get another crack next season and, with such a senior-laden team this year, who knows what will follow.
It's been years in the making for the Wildcats to be a legit threat in Division I.
Now, this team must prove that it has the ability to rise to expectations.
"Freshmen are happy to make the team; sophomores are happy to play a little bit; juniors are happy to start; seniors want to win," Grassel said. "So, I think we're at the point right now where guys just want to win. They don't want to miss out on league playoffs again. They don't want to feel the sense of what we felt when we got knocked off at Carlisle last year. Being close is great, but we want to take the next step."
— Reach Patrick Strohecker at firstname.lastname@example.org