Montour boys back from sluggish start

The early-season adversity could have broken Montoursville.

Instead, it might have strengthened Montoursville. The Warriors started the season 2-5 and lost those five games by 23 combined points, including two in overtime. A few plays and/or shots here or there and Montoursville could have been 7-0.

So when Jersey Shore rallied to tie last Wednesday’s game with four minutes remaining, the Warriors were in familiar territory. But this time they played some of their best basketball and they might have completely changed the complexion of their season in the process.

Montoursville dominated the final four minutes of that game, missing just one of 15 shots from the field and the line while pulling away for a 71-58 road victory. Two nights later, the Warriors played maybe their best game this season, throttling Mifflinburg, 68-27 as four players scored in double figures. Montoursville (4-5) has plenty of work ahead, starting tonight with another tough game at surging Milton, but it is starting to look like the District 4 Class AAAA title contender many thought it could be entering the season.

“We knew we had the pieces, we just hadn’t figured out how to play the game quite yet, especially at the end,” Montoursville coach Mike Mussina said after the Jersey Shore win. “We know with all the close games we’ve had and the schedule we play it’s going to be something similar to this. We just had to get some maturity and some basketball sense and understand what’s going on in the game. Do we need to shoot or should we work the clock and things like that. We did a nice job of that (Wednesday).”

If Montoursville goes on to achieve playoff success, it might look back at the Jersey Shore win as a turning point. All eight players Mussina used made nice impacts and all are embracing their roles. They delivered when the pressure was high and when their season seemed like it might be teetering on the brink of going off the rails. Then they built on the momentum and hammered a team that also has playoff potential. It was a good week and Montoursville is hoping it is a good start.

“We have the mentality that we have to come to practice every day hard, but we also have to execute in the fourth quarter and that had been our biggest struggle,” point guard Noah Fagnano said after hitting eight straight free throws in the final two minutes at Jersey Shore. “It started (Wednesday) in the locker room with coach. He gave us a big speech about all the fourth quarters we’ve been in. We needed to execute in those situations and we went out and did that.”

Helping Montoursville is that it is healthy for the first time this season. The Warriors opened the season with 17 varsity and JV players but that number quickly was down to 13 because of various injuries, including especially costly ones to senior Nate Ripley and junior Owen Kiess. Both came up big in the fourth quarter against Jersey Shore and both are returning to full strength. Kiess missed the team’s first five games and his return is especially important since he does a bit of everything and adds depth to a suddenly deep eight-man rotation.

Fagnano and Brycen Mussina both average in double figures but the emergence of other weapons, especially center Ethan Buirch is another encouraging sign. Buirch played his best high school game against Jersey Shore, scoring 20 points and grabbing 13 rebounds. The 6-foot-5 center can be a game-changer and create more opportunities for a team that features some good shooters as well as players who can attack the basket.

Instead of just a few players carrying the offensive load, Montoursville is spreading things out now and four scored in double figures against Mifflinburg. Kiess had a career-high and guard Abdi Rodriguez added a season-high 11.

Not that it is all about scoring. It took some time, but players are accepting their roles and starting to do whatever it takes to win. Montoursville might not have the best record right now, but Class AAAA is wide-open and it can match up with any team in the field. They started slow, but the Warriors can still do some big things.

“When you can get the kids to understand it’s about the scoreboard and not about the scorebook that is a huge boost,” Mussina said. “Whatever it is, there’s other aspects to the game that you have to be willing to do even though it doesn’t show up in the newspaper and it doesn’t show up in the boxscore. It’s the team concept of knowing what your job is, knowing what your role is and committing to it and being the best you can at that job. (Wednesday) our guys were the best they could be at their jobs and looked like a basketball team.”

If Montoursville continues building off what it did last week, it could become a really good basketball team.

THE MISSING PIECE: Some might have written off Lewisburg after it lost all-time leading scorer Sam Allen and 1,000-point scorer Matt Fedorjaka to graduation. The Dragons, however, showed they are still a good team early with quality wins at Shamokin and Montoursville. Two losses, however, followed and Lewisburg was 2-3.

A few days after Lewisburg suffered that third loss, senior guard Adam Cole returned from injury. The Dragons have not lost since.

Lewisburg is 4-0 since Cole returned and recorded two impressive wins last week, defeating Lourdes and Loyalsock during a three-day span. The Dragons (6-3) dominated the fourth quarter at Lourdes, winning 53-46 before overcoming a seven-point halftime deficit and edging Loyalsock, 68-66 in the first game at their new high school gym. Cole, a key member of two straight soccer state champions, is a defensive specialist who often hounds the opponent’s best guard.

But this year, Cole also is showing some offensive punch and is averaging nearly 10 points per game. Cole has scored in double figures in three straight games and complements a solid lineup that includes Sal Brown (24 points against Loyalsock), double-digit scorers Dylan Farronato and Nate Liscum, and emerging freshman Nick Shedleski. Cole’s return seems to have brought everything together and Lewisburg again looks mighty dangerous.

“Getting Adam Cole back was a really big plus for us,” Lewisburg coach John Vaji said after the Lourdes win. “He plays really good defense and he came up big in the fourth quarter so hopefully with him back now we can just keep going and make it a good season.”

PUTBACKS: Hughesville (6-4) won two straight last week and recorded an impressive 63-52 win over Southern Columbia, a team that routed 7-win Selinsgrove by 32 points. Four Spartans are averaging nine or more points and Taylor Mason recorded another triple-double against Southern. Matt Myers scored a game-high 17 points while versatile Conrad Sheatler added 12 … Milton is starting to look like a potential District 4 Class AAAA title contender and was a second from beating current top seed Danville on its home court. The Black Panthers (4-6) rallied from a 10-point halftime deficit and seven-point fourth-quarter deficit before losing 68-67 on a buzzer-beater. Ryan Emery is one of the area’s leading scorers and dynamic Keayon Williams has returned from injury to make a big impact … Jeff Fry scored 26 points in a 55-49 Muncy road win at Benton last Friday and added 20 more in a 53-49 loss at Midd-West a night later. Muncy (4-5) was seconds from handing Millville its first defeat last Wednesday, dropping a 34-33 heartbreaker … Warrior Run (6-3) also dropped a heartbreaker to Millville, but also defeated South Williamsport, 66-39 as Gage Anzulavich recorded a triple-double. Anzulavich has six double-doubles this season and finished with 18 points, 11 rebounds and 11 blocks … Canton (5-5) has been one of the area’s most improved teams. After winning just three games the past three seasons, the Warriors have won five of their last seven. Byron Matthews, Ridge Moore and Michael Smithers all scored in double figures in Thursday’s 50-37 win over Cowanesque Valley … Liberty (3-6) won its first three games, recording quality wins over Canton and Sayre, along with a 77-33 thrashing of Northern Potter. Garrett Bickhart and Brandyn Choplosky combined for 57 points in the first wins and Tyler Boyer had a season-high 16 against Sayre. Gunnar Rice and Drake Schmouder reached career-highs in the Northern Potter win.

Dr. Masse’s top five in boys basketball

1. St. John Neumann (8-0): Many, including this reporter, said there was no way Neumann could put together a fourth straight undefeated regular season. Not with a demanding schedule and three new starters to break in. There is still a long way to go, but the Knights look pretty impressive again and have already recorded a series of impressive wins. The latest came Friday as Neumann thumped Sullivan County 65-33 and had four players score in double figures. While Kevin Anderson, who nearly had two triple-doubles last week, is the focus of opponents, Neumann is developing other quality threats and Andrew Fish and Jaiden Cioffi combined for 24 points against Sullivan. This team remains strong, but also hungry.

“A lot of people said after last year we were done but I feel like this year could be one of our best years for the program,” Jaiden Lynch said after scoring 16 points and playing stifling defense. “We just have to keep going and keep improving.”

2. Williamsport (7-4): The Millionaires have been hit hard by injuries and played without dynamic forwards Qayyim Ali and Rondell Carson in Saturday’s 55-52 loss at Pottsville. Ali and Carson both are averaging near double-doubles but Williamsport still nearly beat a strong opponent and nemesis over the last three seasons. Senior Stanley Scott is looking like an all-state candidate and has topped 20 points in five straight games, averaging 26.4 points during that span. He had 21 points in a 67-47 win at Central Mountain last Wednesday as Elliott Walker and Darryl Wilson each added nine points.

3. Lewisburg (6-3): John Vaji won his 300th career game at Lourdes and is one of the most successful coaches in program history. Vaji has won 241 games since arriving at Lewisburg in 2002 and his teams have never won fewer than 15 games in a season. Vaji also has helped Lewisburg win two district championships in the past three seasons as well as two league championships. More impressive than the four straight wins Lewisburg has recorded are the teams it has defeated. In their last three games, the Dragons have beaten district title contenders who are a combined 24-7. Sal Brown is having a big debut season and torched Loyalsock. He did not play at Lourdes because of personal reasons and Lewisburg still found a way to win at a tough venue, showing that this team is as tough as it is talented.

4. Loyalsock (9-2): The Lancers immediately bounced back from the Lewisburg loss, routing Athens, 71-45 Saturday and knocking the Wildcats from the top spot in District 4 Class AAAA. Guards Marcus Williams and Gerald Ross are two of the area’s best and combined for 50 points against Mifflinburg. To make a deep postseason run, though, Loyalsock needs other players to be scoring threats and that is exactly what happened against Athens as Michael LaPoint scored 12 points and Andrew Malone added nine while Hunter Webb grabbed 12 rebounds.

5. North Penn-Mansfield (9-3): The Tigers are hitting their stride and have won five of their last six while taking sole possession of first place in the NTL-I. Mansfield won a 62-59 thriller at rival Wellsboro to take over first place, overcoming a five-point fourth-quarter deficit in what has become maybe the district’s best rivalry. Mansfield has road wins against Athens and Wellsboro, its biggest threats to league supremacy and routed Edison, New York, 62-35 Saturday. Brock Burleigh, Shane Kelly, Konnor Manikowski and Nick Kasper all are averaging in double figures. Burleigh and Kelly can be forces inside but Manikowski and Kasper playing strong on the outside has made the offense especially dynamic.

Players of the week

Cameron St. James, Montgomery and Landon Henry, Hughesville: St. James led Montgomery to its first win, scoring a career-high 36 points in Friday’s 64-41 victory against Bucktail. St. James leads the area in scoring at 23.9 points per game and topped 30 points for the third time in eight games. Even when Henry is not scoring a lot, he makes a huge impact each night. An outstanding defender, facilitator and leader, Henry nearly had a double-double against Southern and grabbed nine rebounds while dealing five assists. He also had 13 points and six assists in three quarters against Bloomsburg.

Game of the week

Danville at Loyalsock: Tonight’s showdown features serious District 4 Class AAAA and AAA contenders. A Loyalsock win would cause a three-way tie for first in the HAC-II with it, Lewisburg and Danville. Danville captured last year’s District 4 Class AA title and returns nearly every player from that team. Danville swept last year’s season series by six combined points so expect another thriller Tuesday.