Griffins still playing despite expectations

Sullivan County point guard Sean Flannery appeared to bristle at the question. Moments after he helped lead the Griffins to a District 4 Class A semifinal win over Galeton, Flannery was asked whether this team with four new starters has exceeded expectations.

Of course not, Flannery said. This is Sullivan County after all. No matter who is on the court, winning and raising the bar have become the norm.

“We lost four starters but we gained four more,” Flannery said after scoring 16 points and making three steals in the 44-29 state qualifying win. “That is how I look at it. We all feel like we can be weapons and we looked at it like it wouldn’t be a loss.”

The Griffins might have a new look this season, but they are back in familiar territory. Sullivan (19-6) is competing in its fourth straight tournament and opens Friday against District 3 runner-up Mount Calvary. The Griffins finished second in District 4 and are a win away from winning 20 games for a program-record third straight season.

Making history is becoming a tradition. The Griffins captured their first league and district championships in 2012 before setting the program record with 23 wins last year. This team now has a chance to extend the 20-win streak and also advance farther than the two previous teams which reached the state tournament’s second round.

“What a credit to coach (Glenn) Vaughan,” St. John Neumann coach Paul Petcavage said following Friday’s 61-48 championship win. “I don’t think anybody expected them to be in this game and it’s a compliment to what he has done. What a great season they have had up there.”

While Flannery and new incoming starters Jordan Beinlich, Bob Polcrack and Adam Szklanka entered the season optimistic, many others thought Sullivan’s run of excellence might be ending. They were not just replacing four starters, but four players who were some of the most successful in program history. It was a tall order but the new starters embraced the challenge.

Sullivan opened the season with impressive wins over state qualifiers Towanda and Mansfield, immediately signaling the good times would continue. The Griffins hit some bumps in the road after that, but kept working and kept improving. When it mattered most, Sullivan has again shined, winning multiple playoff games for a fourth straight year.

Entering last Friday’s championship, Sullivan had won 12 of 14 games. The names have changed but the results have not.

“Those four guys especially came into the season with a chip on their shoulder,” Vaughan said. “There were a lot of people, whether they be in Sullivan County or outside Sullivan County, that didn’t think we were going to be nearly as good. I’m not trying to compare this year’s team to last year’s team but I think we’ve proven a lot of people wrong. They believed in themselves coming into the season and we’ve done pretty darn good.”

Flannery, Szklanka and Polcrack were key reserves on last year’s 23-win team but being thrust into the spot light is a different role. Conner Wylie is a two-year starter who also was the sixth man on the district championship team. He has led the way, the new starters have progressed and Sullivan has kept on winning.

Wylie averages a double-double, but the others have come up big throughout the season too. Flannery was the MVP in the comeback win over Galeton and Beinlich has become a defensive stopper. Szklanka has played his best basketball down the stretch and Polcrack stretches defenses while playing strong defense himself.

“We did lose four starters but they have stepped up real well. They knew what was lying ahead of them and they have done a really good job,” said Wylie, part of a senior class that has won a program-record 83 games. “Our team has stepped up quite a bit this year. Everybody knew they had to pick it up a little more each and every time and it’s shown over the season progressively.”

Like the teams before it, this Sullivan squad is as tough as it is talented. It twice won in overtime during the regular season and won two other games with fourth-quarter comebacks. The Griffins trailed by six and eight in their first two district games against Lourdes and Galeton but dominated from there both times, winning by a combined 27 points.

When other teams might buckle, Sullivan often grows stronger. That really has become the program’s way.

“Over the summer we grew a lot as a team and worked really hard,” Wylie said. “When the season started we had our goals and I feel like everybody bought in. People showed compsoure and a lot of leadership.”

What has happened at Sullivan is pretty remarkable. The program had little history until a few seasons ago, but Vaughan and his staff have helped build a District 4 power. One of the district’s smallest schools has become one of its best, earning that status through hard work and gutty play.

No wonder the team is followed by so many passionate gyms who fill nearly every gym it plays in. This is a team that has a “Hoosiers” feel to it and nobody there wants to miss seeing where the journey goes.

Neumann might have ended Sullivan’s quest for a district title, but now an even bigger quest is about to begin. The Griffins have surprised everybody except themselves and now have a chance to enhance the program’s tradition even more. It is another chance to laugh in the face of the previous doubters.

“We were here last year too. You lose in the district final it’s disappointing, but you take a day off and come back and get to work again,” Vaughan said. “We want to get ready and try and advance as far as we can because none of the guys and none of the coaching staff wants this season to be over.”