State power Imhotep ends terrific Loyalsock season

HARRISBURG — That District 4 Class AAA championship banner the Loyalsock girls basketball team earned will forever hang high at the school’s gym.

The banner will say that Loyalsock was the 2019 district champion, but those who know the team best understand the real story goes far beyond that actual achievement. It was all the work behind the scenes performed by this team that created a championship, a banner and one of the best seasons in program history.

Loyalsock reached the end of its 2019 road Tuesday at Central Dauphin East High School as Philadelphia power Imhotep erased a five-point third-quarter deficit and won the second round state tournament game, 49-38.

It was a bitter end for a senior-laden team, but Loyalsock finished 24-4, won the program’s first district title since 2010 and won a state tournament opener for a second straight year, something that had not happened during the 2000s. All this after the seniors entered a program which had missed the postseason in five consecutive seasons when they reached high school.

Oh, the stories that banner could tell.

“When I come back and look at the banner I’ll know it’s because of all the hard work we all put in. We did that,” senior point guard Juliana Cruz said after calmly handling Imhotep’s stifling defense. “We made memories so when I look back at that banner I’m going to look back and remember how hard we worked at practice and all the time we spent watching film and working on team bonding. There’s so much that goes into it that people don’t realize and it’s really great that I got to make all these memories and be on such a successful team with all the girls.”

The outgoing seniors helped Loyalsock end its playoff drought in 2016 before coach Curtis Jacobson took over the following year. The Lancers reached states that season and every year since, capturing the Heartland Conference championship last year, upsetting Trinity in states, and setting the stage for 2019.

All Loyalsock did this season was win more games than any Lancer team since 2008 against one of the state’s toughest schedules. It was a schedule which featured four losses against teams which entered last night still competing in states. The Lancers romped to HAC-III and district championships, dominated the fourth quarter in states against 23-win Holy Redeemer and threw a serious scare into a bigger, faster, deeper and more athletic Imhotep team last night.

“It hasn’t just been high school. I’ve been playing with these girls since third grade so it’s been a long time in the making and we put it together the last few years and it’s been really fun getting to play with these girls and building the program up the way we did,” Cruz said. “We gave it all we had and I’m really proud of all the girls.”

“It is big for the program but at the same time we’re really disappointed. We were here to compete but we were here to win and it just makes it tough walking in the locker room afterward,” Jacobson said. “They’re going to realize not tomorrow, not in a week, but down the road, that we took over three years ago and that they never stopped working and that they put us back on the map.”

In defeat, Loyalsock made a statewide statement about how far it has come. A year ago, four-time defending state champion Neumann-Goretti buried Loyalsock in the first half of a blowout second-round win. Imhotep lost by nine to Neumann-Goretti in last month’s District 12 final, but Loyalsock never flinched, even after falling behind by eight midway through the first quarter.

The Lancers fought back the same way they won so many games this year: by playing unselfish basketball, receiving contributions throughout the roster, and using stellar defense, along with old-fashioned hustle.

The Lancers cut the deficit to one by the end of the quarter and took their first lead when Sarah Van Fleet found Anna Burdett inside and made it 14-13 early in the second. Cruz hit a 3-pointer that made it 19-16 and Sam Stopper and Cassie Gee did damage at the foul line as Loyalsock went up 24-21 at halftime.

Summer McNulty scored inside on Loyalsock’s first third-quarter possession, giving the Lancers their biggest lead at 26-21. Imhotep (19-8), however, went on an 8-0 run and maintained that lead until early in the fourth quarter.

Maddie Fox scored a game-high 16 points in her final game and her 3-pointer with 6 minutes, 47 seconds remaining gave Loyalsock its final lead, 36-34. Imhotep regained the lead 23 seconds later and never trailed again, pulling away in the final two minutes and scoring the last eight points during that span.

“A lot of people except ourselves didn’t think we could compete with a team like that,” Cruz said. “To make it past the first round the last two years is an accomplishment in itself. The fact we were able to stick with a team like that shows how hard we worked and how far we’ve come the last few years.”

“We were really confident coming in. We thought if we play our style of basketball and we played the way we wanted to play that we’d have a good shot,” Jacobson said. “They have good players, a couple of D1 commits and we know that you’re going to be up against that and unfortunately we didn’t make some of the shots we usually make and that’s how it goes. You have to be almost perfect when you play them and we played well in the first half, but we didn’t make shots that we thought we could and have.”

Loyalsock executed well and never seemed bothered by Imhotep’s full-court pressure. The Lancers worked for good shots throughout the second half, but went cold and did not score over the last four minutes following two Fox free throws that cut it to 39-38. Loyalsock made 1 of 8 fourth-quarter shots was 4 for 20 during the second half.

And yet, Loyalsock still entered the final two minutes with a good shot to win. Van Fleet played her second consecutive dominant defensive game, holding 6-foot-3, Division I-recruit Nadjy Tyler to just four points. She also grabbed a game-high 12 rebounds, dealt four assists and made two steals.

She, Fox, Stopper, Cruz and McNulty exited with seven seconds remaining, receiving a thunderous ovation from Loyalsock’s fans. As the Lancers exited the locker room, those same fans stood in the lobby and cheered again.

That might best illustrate how good a story this Loyalsock team wrote. And maybe it was just the first volume.

“They were great players but they were an even bigger part running our elementary program and going to junior high games and being a part of all that stuff. That stuff is going to help just as much as what they did on the court,” Jacobson said. “We don’t replace the shooters we had, we don’t replace the athletes we had, but we have some good players coming back. We have a pretty good feeder system that is coming and hopefully it’s not the last time that Loyalsock girls basketball is on this stage. We’re going to keep working our butts off and we’re going to again try and get back to this level.”

LOYALSOCK (38)

Maddie Fox 5 3-3 16, Summer McNulty 1 0-0 2, Sam Stopper 2 3-3 7, Juliana Cruz 1 1-2 4, Sarah Van Fleet 0 1-2 1, Cassie Gee 2 2-2 6, Anna Burdett 1 0-1 2, Sophia Gardner 0 0-0 0. Totals 12 10-13 38.

IMHOTEP (49)

Alana Swift 5 3-6 16, Nadjy Tyler 2 0-2 4, LaShanda Smith 5 3-4 14, Zamara Haynes 4 2-2 11, Alyssa Herder 2 0-2 4, Monesjia Harvey 0 0-0 0, Seamlajah Smith 0 0-0, Taliyah Carter 0 0-0 0. Totals 18 8-16 49.

Loyalsock 12 12 9 5 — 38

Imhotep 13 8 13 15 — 49

3-point goals: Loyalsock 4 (Fox 3, Cruz); Imhotep 5 (Swift 3, L. Smith, Haynes).

Records: Loyalsock (24-4); Imhotep (19-8).

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