Montoursville wins D4 title with new cast

MARK NANCE/Sun-Gazette Montoursville coaches Mark Mussina, left, Eric Wise, center, and Mike Mussina, right, sit on the bench last month during a game against Shamokin. Montoursville opens the state tournament Friday against Middletown.

The high school basketball game dramatically has changed over the last 33 years. The rules, the styles, programs rising, falling and rising again.

A constant, though, had been Montoursville boys basketball not winning a district championship. After the Warriors won the 1985 Class AAA crown, a drought began. It started with good teams that could not get over the hump. It continued with the program falling on hard times in the 2000s that included a winless season, three two-win campaigns and one playoff win before 2016.

And with four starters gone from last year’s team the thought of the 2018 Warriors ending that district championship drought seemed as likely as 1980s band Devo winning multiple Grammys.

But there Montoursville was Friday at Shikellamy celebrating with fellow students before receiving District 4 Class AAAA gold medals. The drought is over. A new era has been ushered in and these Warriors have grabbed a unique piece of program history.

“It’s crazy. We’re glad to be the first ones in 33 years to do this,” forward Tyler Reidy said after recording a double-double in the 46-32 championship win against Mifflinburg. “We knew ever since middle school that we wanted to do this and we proved to everyone that we can.”

“I was a 16-year-old shooting guard playing with a group that got to do this. You don’t think about the next opportunity, especially when you’re a 16 year old kid. When you win a championship you think this is cool and it makes it seem easy and then all the sudden it’s not that easy,” Montoursville coach Mike Mussina said. “We’ve had very few opportunities for this program in the last 33 years. It’s been so long and I’m proud of these guys and what the staff has been able to do, giving these guys opportunities to do all the things it takes to give they kids what they need. These guys provide it and because of that we’ve been able to get to this point.”

Montoursville (19-6) tries building on its championship season Friday at Shikellamy when it plays Middletown in the opening round of the state tournament.

Mussina inherited a program in the 2013 that endured five straight losing seasons. The streak extended to seven Mussina’s first two years, but a breakthrough occurred in 2016 when the Warriors reached the playoffs in a non-open format for the first time since 2008 and won the program’s first playoff game in 10 years. Another playoff appearance followed last season, but it seemed the good times might be ending when those four starters graduated.

Point guard Owen Kiess was the only starter back. Reidy and guard Luke Warnecke were really the only other players who had received significant varsity minutes. Combine that with a demanding schedule that started against three defending district champions and there were few who thought Montoursville could even make the playoffs, let alone win a district championship.

What the doubters did not know was how dedicated and hard-working this new-look team was. They did not realize how talented these players were either. The players knew. Because of that, they carried around a collective chip on their shoulders that felt more like a boulder as the season progressed.

“Nobody believed in us except us. That was all that mattered,” Kiess said. “Our coaches believed in us and we believed in each other. Now we have the gold and that means everything.”

Montoursville made an immediate statement when it went on the road and defeated defending District 4 Class AAA champion Hughesville in its opener. Three nights later, the Warriors ended St. John Neumann’s 90-game regular-season winning streak before beating defending Class AAAA champion Lewisburg for the first time in the 2000s. All three games were close, all three games featured Montoursville building solid leads, holding off furious comebacks and making key plays under pressure.

The way Montoursville won those games was as surprising as them winning them. A year ago, Montoursville lost a series of heartbreakers and seemingly were a few plays from having a much different season. This time, Montoursville repeatedly has found ways to win close games. The Warriors are 7-2 in games decided by seven points or fewer and rallied from seven and six-point halftime deficits in both the semifinals and championship.

“That was the mentality (Friday), refuse to lose,” Reidy said. “We’ve been after this forever. We had it right in front of us so everyone came out and gave it their best shot.”

Montoursville generated community buzz not just with those early-season wins, but by how it played. Long-time Montoursville fans marveled at how well the group played together. A student section grew larger and more thunderous and now makes road games feel like they are being played back at Montoursville. This is an unselfish team that efficiently moves the ball, sets each other up for good shots and creates a strong inside-outside game. John McCarthy and Kiess average in double figures, but the top six players in the rotation also have produced multiple double-digit scoring performances.

The thing is, nobody cares who is scoring. There are no egos on this team. Stats do not make these players happy. Wins do.

“There’s no person on this team that sticks out,” Dylan Bower said after scoring a game-high 16 points in the championship. “One night one person can have a big game and the next night another person can come out and have a big game. We all play together and we all want to win.”

“We have to do our part in order for us to win. If someone drops 40 points and we lose that doesn’t matter because we lost,” Kiess said. “Everyone does their part. That’s what our team is. Doing what we have to do to win is all that matters.”

Montoursville has won a lot. The 19 wins are the most for the program since 1995. Just by finishing the regular season 16-6, Montoursville had the program’s most wins in 21 years. It beat rival Loyalsock, it snapped Neumann’s winning streak, it exorcized the Lewisburg demons and it captured that elusive championship.

Obviously, Montoursville wants more and would love to make a big state tournament impact. Whatever happens, this team’s legacy is secure. That championship plaque says everything.

“It feels like I was playing and eventually it will probably feel better than when I was a player,” said Mussina who won a national championship at Stanford and two American League championships with the Yankees. “All I can do is walk around here and teach them at practice, but they have to step between the lines and win the game. You’re going to have bad breaks, get bad calls and get some bad luck, but through 25 games we kept fighting and we did something that was unexpected.

“That makes it special.”