Shore win has sprung Sullivan County boys

One can trace Sullivan County’s resurgence to Dec. 28 at the Hughesville Christmas Tournament. That night, the Griffins trailed Jersey Shore by 14 late in the third quarter and appeared headed toward both the consolation game and a .500 record.

Four-year starting point guard John Saxe was playing another strong game, but wherever he went a sea of orange and white defenders followed. Then Sam Carpenter drained a 3-pointer. Then Dave Pardoe heated up inside. Then freshman Jalen Thomas started making steals and finding open players. Suddenly, Sullivan stormed back, stunned Jersey Shore, 47-41 and captured the tournament championship a night later.

Sullivan really has not stopped since. The Griffins (13-4) are not just Saxe and a group of other players. They have become a team. A darn good team, as a matter of fact. Sullivan has won nine of its last 10 games and avenged its only defeat during that stretch last Wednesday when it defeated St. John Neumann, 53-50 and handed the Knights their first league loss since 2013.

“At the beginning of the year I was forcing a lot of things because I didn’t trust my teammates. Now that we have had a couple big wins and they have stepped up I feel like I can pass the ball when I’m being face-guarded,” Saxe said. “I don’t feel like I have to have the ball in my hands all the time any more. Everyone can score.”

That is a huge plus. Saxe is a terrific all-around player who has topped both 1,300 career points and 300 assists. He and Alex Baumunk were the only returning starters back from last year’s 16-win team and it has not been rocket science figuring out opponents’ strategy when playing Sullivan. Name a defense and Saxe has encountered it this season. And early on it paid dividends.

But those days are over. Baumunk is averaging in double figures and Carpenter has developed into one of the area’s premier shooters. Dylan Hottenstein is becoming a complete player and was sensational against Neumann, scoring 12 points, grabbing seven rebounds and adding five assists. Justin Metzger shined in his first start, scoring 10 points, hitting all four of his shots and drilling a crucial late-game 3-pointer.

Saxe is just as dangerous a passer as he is a scorer, leading the area in assists. He had 12 the first time Sullivan played Neumann so opponents now have their hands full and must pick their poison.

“Early in the season it was a big guessing game. We knew we had John and we had Alex, our two seniors but who else is going to make the plays to help us win?'” Sullivan coach Glenn Vaughan said. “We have guys out there laying it out defensively and guys who aren’t afraid to make shots. That’s one of the things I can say about these kids who haven’t played varsity before. They’re not afraid.”

That has become especially evident over the past two weeks. A week before beating Neumann for the first time since 2012, doing so without an injured Carpenter, Sullivan thumped Millville, 52-35, ending the Quakers’ undefeated season. The Griffins have avenged both Mid-Penn Conference losses and look like a different team than the one that started the season.

“Anybody on our team can do it. We’re confident in everybody out there,” Hottenstein said. “We’ve come a long way. We’ve grown so much.”

That makes Sullivan especially dangerous as the playoffs approach. The Class A field is rugged and any of the current top five seeds can win the championship. Vaughan has helped Sullivan create quite a tradition this decade and Sullivan is seeking its sixth state tournament appearance during that time.

Doing so felt like a stretch early this season. Now it seems well within reach. That is because Sullivan has become quite the dangerous team.

“It was a team that won the second half (against Neumann). John had a heck of a first half and it was nice to see everyone to chip in during the second half,” Vaughan said. “Neumann’s game plan, like a lot of teams was stop John Saxe and take him out of the game. They showed again tonight, he’s not our whole team.”

BUILDING BLOCKS: Neumann responded just fine from the Sullivan loss, routing 14-win Muncy, 78-41 Saturday. The Knights (12-5, 10-1) are tied for first in the Mid-Penn and have won 10 of their last 12 games. They absorbed some early-season losses to 4A and 6A schools like Montoursville, Wellsboro and Owen J Roberts, but the experiences may have benefited them. Neumann is playing with nice chemistry and is receiving steady contributions throughout its roster.

The Knights also are as deep as they have been since 2014. Coach Mike Kirby is using an 8-10 player rotation and different players are taking their turns providing strong production. Saturday, it was Jaiden Lynch scoring 29 points and grabbing 14 rebounds. Other nights it has been Noah Persun, Jaiden Cioffi or David Hill. Throw in Dalton Gough contributing 14 assists in his last two games and Andrew Fish being a zone-busting 3-pointer shooter and Neumann looks dangerous again.

“We do have some nice weapons and it’s just a matter of getting them comfortable and doing what they do,” Kirby said. “That’s probably the most used words this year, ‘do what you do.’ Once you start getting outside that framework is when things don’t work as well. I’m pleased with them. I think they’re on the right path.”

Neumann put together five straight undefeated regular seasons entering this year but Montoursville ended hopes early of doing that again. The end game, however, is what matters and everything that Neumann wants to achieve is still a possibility. The Knights obviously would have rather won all those games, but might be a better team because they endured those defeats.

“Every loss has taught us something different against every good team we’ve played,” Lynch said. “It’s showed us what we need to work on. Losses show weaknesses and they’re helping us work on those weaknesses to get better.”

PUTBACKS: Hughesville finds itself in familiar territory after beating Bloomsburg, 39-35 Friday. The Spartans are 8-8 for a second straight year. Following an 8-8 start last season, Hughesville soared and captured the District 4 Class AAA championship. They have won four of their last five games and trending upward. Taylor Mason is playing really well and had 13 points, 10 rebounds and six blocks against Bloomsburg … Central Mountain captured (11-6, 8-2) captured its first HAC-I championship after beating Selinsgrove and Midd-West. The Wildcats lost four starters from last season’s team, but have continued their winning ways and will compete in the HAC Tournament for a second straight year … Jersey Shore rallied from a 13-point deficit last Thursday and defeated Shikellamy, 69-52. The Bulldogs (9-10) outscored Shikellamy 43-17 in the second half as Hunter Frantz scored 11 points and grabbed a career-high 15 rebounds … Muncy’s Matt Coyner recorded consecutive double-doubles in wins against Benton and South Williamsport, scoring 32 points and grabbing 30 rebounds … Warrior Run (11-7) clinched its third straight playoff berth when it defeated South Williamsport, 66-64. The Defenders endured a 12-year playoff drought before this current run and Ahmahd Keyes scored 25 points against South. A.J. Flick produced a career-high 21 for South in that game … Nick Kasper scored a career-high 25 points Friday as North Penn-Mansfield (13-7) defeated Towanda, 79-51. Kasper has reached or matched a career-high three times in the last three weeks … North Penn-Liberty (6-11) is coming on strong and won three straight games last week. The Mounties have given themselves a shot now at reaching districts for a third straight year.

Dr. Masse’s top five in boys basketball

1. Wellsboro (20-1): Another year, another NTL championship for the Green Hornets. Wellsboro has won at least a share of a league championship in all but one year this decade and the NTL-I is all theirs after they thumped playoff-bound Athens, 75-46 Friday. The Hornets have lost just one league game the past two seasons are 15-0 in the NTL this season and have won 19 straight games overall. Wellsboro also clinched District 4 Class AAA’s top seed last week and is 17-0 with Dalton Prough in the lineup. Prough produced 16 points, eight rebounds and seven assists against Athens. The Hornets played smothering defense as well and defeated Montoursville, 39-29 last week, the 10th time they held an opponent to fewer than 30 points.

2. Montoursville (13-5): The Warriors emphatically bounced back from the Wellsboro defeat, beating three playoff-teams in a four-night span, including HAC-I champion Central Mountain and rival Loyalsock. Montoursville avenged previous defeats to Mifflinburg and Loyalsock and drew a huge crowd for Saturday’s 42-36 win against the Lancers. Three years ago, the Montoursville current seniors were part of a 5-17 team. A year later Montoursville reached the playoffs and won a postseason game, it reached the postseason again last year and now the 13 wins are the most in a regular season since the 1990s. The Warriors have little time to bask in that success, though, with a big game at Danville tonight.

“In the five year’s I’ve been here, they’ve come a long way,” Montoursville coach Mike Mussina said. “We’ll keep working. We haven’t accomplished anything yet, but this gives us the confidence to do some stuff that maybe we haven’t done in a while.”

3. Williamsport (10-7): The Millionaires have been a hard team to figure it out at times. They have looked really strong in some games, including Wednesday’s 65-49 win at CD East but have really struggled like they did in Saturday’s 59-34 loss at Northeastern. Williamsport has not played at home in three weeks, but that streak ends Wednesday against Altoona and continues Friday and Saturday against State College and Danville.

4. Loyalsock (13-5): Facing turmoil for the first time this season, Loyalsock has to regroup fast. It plays at Jersey Shore tonight and has to win Wednesday at Danville or the Ironmen will capture the HAC-II championship. Gerald Ross had a big game in a 67-43 win against Lewisburg, scoring 25 points. He is one of four Lancers averaging in double figures.

5. Sullivan County (13-4): Baumunk has quietly been one of Sullivan’s top players the last few seasons and had 14 points, along with six rebounds in Saturday’s 63-33 win at Bucktail. Saxe had 18 points and six assists in that game. He now has 1,340 career points and moved passed Kyle Gloeckler for third all-time in program history.

Players of the week

Brandyn Tuttle, Wellsboro and Junior Armstrong, Jersey Shore: Tuttle has been a force this season, recording an area-high 15 double-doubles. Tuttle added three more last week, averaging 16 points and 13.3 rebounds in those wins. Tuttle leads the area in rebounding and also is ranked among its top five scorers. Armstrong was a force against Shikellamy and Shamokin, scoring 56 points, grabbing 17 rebounds and adding seven assists. Armstrong scored a career-high 31 points in the comeback Shikellamy win and recorded his seventh double-double, scoring 25 points, pulling down 10 rebounds and making four steals.

Game of the week

Warrior Run at Hughesville: Wednesday’s game is a rematch of the decade’s biggest comeback victory. Warrior Run rallied from a 27-point second-quarter deficit three weeks ago and stunned Hughesville, 44-40 in overtime. The Spartans likely have had this game circled on their calendar and need a win since they are fighting for their playoff lives. Do not be surprised if these rivals produce another thriller.

— CHRIS MASSE

Masse may be reached at cmasse@sungazette.com. Follow him on Twitter at @docmasse.

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