Improved regular season has helped in March

Loyalsock and Williamsport played a fantastic game in front of a sold-out crowd last January. Williamsport won 66-54 in a game that felt like a district championship as fans from both schools roared all night.

Last week, they met again even though nobody knew it. There were no fans to watch it this time but the rivals played at Williamsport days before opening their respective state tournaments. It was yet another tough game for Loyalsock but that is the way it likes things.

That is a big reason Loyalsock is still playing. The Lancers (26-3) face Trinity in the Class AA state quarterfinals today at Pottsville’s Martz Hall. Their challenging schedule has helped fuel the run.

“That definitely helped out, playing great schools like Williamsport and State College,” point guard Kyle Datres said. “We scrimmaged Williamsport right before states and I can’t even describe how much that helped us mentally and physically playing great players like that.”

Loyalsock plays in District 4’s toughest conference, the HAC-II, but knew it needed to schedule strong outside the conference if it wanted to excel at the state level. The Lancers played State College last December and Williamsport two weeks later while also facing District 12 champion Communications Tech early last month.

They lost all three games but it did not matter. The exposure was the important thing. Loyalsock simply wanted to get better and the best way to do that is by playing some of the state’s premier teams.

“If you’re going to lose I’d much rather lose to a 4A school that is a quality team. I never lost any sleep about playing them,” Loyalsock coach Ron Insinger said. “I knew two years ago Williamsport was going to be outstanding so if we were afraid of that we wouldn’t have scheduled them. I just wanted the guys to be exposed to a playoff atmosphere in the middle of the season.”

They were and now they are excelling at the end. Loyalsock has won 11 straight, including five in the playoffs. Three of those wins came against state-ranked Lewisburg. The Lancers opened states by beating the state’s No. 8-ranked team Mid Valley before exacting revenge on No. 5 Comm Tech Wednesday, 51-48.

District 4 has struggled throughout the 21st century in the state tournament but Loyalsock is following the blueprint that helped Hughesville achieve tremendous success from 2008-2010. The Spartans played the district’s toughest schedule each of those seasons and won six state playoff games during that span while reaching 2009’s state semifinals.

Loyalsock duplicated that type of schedule and now is enjoying similar success. As the schedule has grown stronger Loyalsock has become a statewide commodity.

“Early in the year you look at all these teams in the state that have all these players back like (Wilkes-Barre) Meyers who we lost to over the summer and you think it’s going to be tough,” senior center Roger Wilson said. “But going throughout the season it’s like, this is the team we have and we’re the team to beat around here so why can’t we go to states and do well? I guess we’re showing that now.”

Not that Loyalsock is satisfied. Loyalsock scheduled strong not because it hoped to reach the state quarterfinals, but because it hoped to go all the way. The next obstacle is Trinity, but the Lancers enter prepared. Loyalsock played Trinity, along with several other elite teams over the summer, so between that and all the tough regular-season games, they have all the necessary big-game exposure.

Loyalsock has played in playoff atmospheres all season. This is nothing new. This is why the Lancers played all those tough games. They paid the price and this run, today’s game are the rewards.

“It helped us a lot. You have top-ranked teams that we’re going against early in the season and that prepares us,” Wilson said. “We stay at practice and work hard and keep on working to beat the teams we lost to earlier. That’s what you have to do. That is what it takes to get better.”