MILTON - As jubilant players and students celebrated behind him and tears streamed down his face, Lewisburg coach John Vaji Jr. hugged his father. John Vaji Sr., arrived from Pittsburgh earlier in the day and was watching his son's team play for the first time in three years.
As son embraced father, all the frustration, all the heartache accumulated the last three years disappeared. Wearing the suit his mother bought him when he started coaching, Vaji added another important accessory - a gold medal. It seemed ripped right from the Hollywood pages, an unlikely dream. But this was all real.
Lewisburg is the new District 4 Class AA champion.
Sam Allen, left, congratulates a Lewisburg teammate after the Green Dragons beat Loyalsock Saturday for the District 4 Class AA?title at Milton High School.?View additional photos at cu.sungazette.com.
Three players scored in double figures, the defense stifled a high-powered offense and Lewisburg dominated the final three quarters Saturday at Milton as it exorcized its demons and thumped Loyalsock, 61-45 while capturing its first district championship since 2000. Lewisburg (23-3) outscored Loyalsock 50-26 over the final three quarters and finally slayed a nemesis that had beaten it eight straight times the last three years.
"(Son) Zack brought my father up today and (son) Nathan left from West Virginia at 2:30 in the morning to get here so I felt like I had the whole family here with me to enjoy the win," Vaji said. "I just can't tell you how happy I am right now."
His players shared that feeling. Lewisburg must have felt like Sisyphus the last three seasons, constantly pushing the boulder toward the hilltop only to watch Loyaslock push it back down and over it. So many times, Lewisburg lost close games, including two in the final seconds this year. And when Loyalsock built an 8-point lead after one quarter it seemed like Lucy was getting ready to pull the football from Charlie Brown again.
Instead, Lewisburg responded by playing three of its best quarters all season. The Green Dragons outscored Loyalsock 18-8 in the fourth quarter, received strong contributions from all players used and finally reached the summit. They would have rather taken an easier route, but the difficult road made the breakthrough that much more joyful.
"It makes it so much sweeter to win it on this stage," point guard Jesse Flannery said. "It has been really tough to lose to them so many times the last few years but we knew we would get them eventually and to get them here is really special."
"It's nice to get the monkey off our backs," forward Sam Allen said. "A lot of people just look at the scores and go, 'Oh Loyalsock beat Lewisburg again,' and didn't think we could do it, but we all believed this year we could do it and we got it done."
Lewisburg earned a state tournament opener at a District 4 site next Saturday against District 2 third-place finisher Mid-Valley. Loyalsock (24-3) will meet District 3 champion Trinity at a District 3 site in a rematch of last year's state quarterfinal that the Shamrocks won in overtime.
"For as high as we were in the first quarter we went that cold the rest of the game. We've gone through spurts where the lid seemed on the basket before, but never for three quarters," Loyalsock coach Ron Insigner said. "We have the utmost respect for Lewisburg's program and Coach Vaji and they showed why they're ranked fifth in the state."
Flannery brilliantly ran the offense, scoring 10 points and dealing six assists while letting Lewisburg use Loyalsock's full-court pressure against it. Matt Fedorjaka scored a game-high 14 points, Nick Costagliola (9 points) was outstanding in the first half, Sam Allen (9 points) and Will Sigl (13 points, 8 rebounds) were tough inside and Nadir Boone flourished off the bench.
After falling behind 19-11 after one quarter, Lewisburg had little margin for error. Shoving its history aside, it blazed a new trail and played near perfect basketball from there. The Dragons allowed only nine more field goals against a team that had scored 183 points in two district playoff wins and hit an impressive 25 of 38 shots from the field.
"This means a lot," Boone said. "It's a great experience. We just didn't give up. We knew it was going to be a tough game from the start. We came back and played our hearts out."
Costagliola and Boone scored 11 points in the second quarter as Lewisburg went on a game-changing 16-2 run while turning an eight-point deficit into a six-point lead. Boone had four points and five rebounds during that second quarter while Costagliola scored seven of his 13 points. Omar Little (13 points) scored the half's final five points but Lewisburg led by one at halftime despite Allen, the team's leading scorer and rebounder sitting the entire second quarter with two fouls.
Loyalsock tied the game three times early in the second quarter, but with Allen back Lewisburg continued growing stronger. Sigl scored six early points in the third quarter and his inside jumper put Lewisburg ahead to stay, 33-31. The Dragons extended the lead to six after three quarters, but Loyalsock had seen this script before and often rallied to win.
But this was Lewisburg's time, Lewisburg's night. On a night when fans arrived two hours earlier and easily filled the gym to capacity, the Dragons made their biggest statement yet when it mattered most. The Dragons hit 6 of 9 fourth-quarter shots, limited Loyalsock to three field goals and pulled away.
Lewisburg opened a 13-point lead midway through the fourth before Kyle Datres (9 points, 8 rebounds) scored off a putback and Tommy Baggett (11 points) hit a 3-pointer in a 10-second span to make it an eight-point game. Flannery, however, quickly ended Loyalsock's comeback hopes, finding Allen for a layup that snapped the run and ignited a game-clinching 7-0 run as Lewisburg did not allow another field goal.
As Lewisburg's large and loud student section literally jumped for joy during the final minute, Lewisburg methodically worked the ball and killed the clock. Flannery literally was bouncing every time he passed the ball and his teammates had time to savor the moment, enjoy the accomplishment. Seconds later, the students stormed the floor as both they and players celebrated under the basket.
The past is history. This Lewisburg team is writing a new chapter.
"After all the setbacks we had the last few years it means a lot," Allen said. "We just had a great team effort from everyone. We opened up some eyes tonight."
Omar Little 4 3-5 13, Kyle Datres 3 2-4 9, Ben Sosa 4 1-1 9, Mike Pastore 1 0-1 3, Tommy Baggett 4 1-2 11, Brennan Casale 0 0-0 0, Wes Lapoint 0 0-0 0, Marcus Williams 0 0-0 0. Totals 16 7-13 45.
Sam Allen 4 1-2 9, Will Sigl 5 3-6 13, Matt Fedorajka 5 3-5 14, Jesse Flannery 3 2-4 10, Nick Costagliola 4 1-2 9, Tanner Host 0 0-0 0, Nadir Boone 3 0-0 6, Drew Newcomb 0 0-0 0. Totals 25 10-19 61.
Loyalsock19 7 11 8-45
Lewisburg11 16 16 18-61
3-pointers: Loyalsock 6 (Little 2, Baggett 2, Datres, Pastore); Lewisburg 3 (Flannery 2, Fedorajka).
Records: Lewisburg 23-3. Loyalsock 24-3.