Year to remember, even if it falls short of Hershey

The rare air tastes so sweet. Throughout the season, St. John Neumann coach Paul Petcavage kept telling his players that as they pursued the program’s first state championship since 1972. Win a state title and one gains basketball immortality.

Math, Civics and Sciences denied Neumann that dream Tuesday, erupting in the second half and rallying for a 76-53 Class A Eastern Region championship win.

Neumann might not taste that sweetest air but they sure elevated this program. And they sure put themselves up there among the best teams in school history. The Knights (30-1) won 30 straight games, captured division, conference and district championships and reached the state’s Final 4 for the first time in 42 years.

What the Knights did is rare indeed.

“It hasn’t happened since 1972 so, like coach said, for us to do this is really big,” said

Alize Johnson, a statewide Player of the Year candidate. “It’s going to push the players that come back next year to want to go farther and want to get a state championship and I hope they do.”

“Personally I’d like to get it all but we had a pretty good run,” said Kamaal Burkholder, who scored 10 points and grabbed four rebounds off the bench. “I enjoyed myself.”

The only way a playoff team ends its season with a celebration is if it wins the state championship. Neumann fell just short but that does not diminish its accomplishments. That does not mean it cannot celebrate once the pain diminishes.

It really is staggering thinking about what this team achieved. Doing just about anything 30 straight times is difficult. But the Knights went out 30 straight times, faced strong teams who wanted to take them down bad and kept winning. Neumann vanquished one strong team after another, including the state’s Nos. 2-3 Class AA teams at one point, two district champions, three district runners-up and even a strong team from Maryland.

Neumann also raised the profile of District 4, becoming the first team to reach the Final 4 since Hughesville in 2009. The Knights do not have to apologize for anything. It would be wrong to think about this team for what it did not do. Focus on everything it did do and one cannot help but be impressed.

“Being 30-1 is great too,” Petcavage said. “They’ll hang a banner in the gym and their names will be on there and that will be great. Hopefully they’ll look back and say wow, we were a part of that and we were part of a good team.”

Neumann did more in one season than some programs do in decades. It also attracted a passionate following that grew huge as the wins piled up and the road trips mounted. The Knights were the last area team standing and the Greater Williamsport area seemed swept up in what it kept achieving.

Last night’s game was a near sell-out. One could nearly count the MCS fans on two hands.

The rest were Neumann fans. That tells one as much about what this team did as the wins and championships do. It is not easy to captivate a community. This team did.

“They love us. Everything is about Neumann,” Burkholder said. “It’s all Neumann around Williamsport.”

“We love everyone that came out tonight to try and help us get the win,” said Johnson after recording his ninth straight playoff double-double. “This has been a great time, a great season for Williamsport.”

All that is left are the memories. But what a collection those are. From beating Loyalsock for the first time since 2005 for the Heartland Conference championship, to repeating as district champions, to rallying in the fourth quarter for state tournament wins against Phil-Mont Christian and New Hope Academy, this team went on one pretty remarkable journey.

Petcavage said people still remember he and his teammates from 42 years ago. Neumann fans will remember this team just as much, no doubt about it. They will remember Johnson dazzling every night, Richard Allen’s all-around brilliance, Kevin Anderson’s emergence,

Njoku-Ibe Amanze’s thunderous dunks and Ryan Reid’s hustle. The list goes on and on just like the team’s accomplishments did.

Neumann did not reach the rarest air, but it reached heights so few do. Now, as Fred Shero once said, they will walk together forever.

“We’re a family,” Burkholder said. “You never forget family.”