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Loyalsock wins PIAA Class AAA boys basketball championship

DAVE KENNEDY/Sun-Gazette Loyalsock fans cheer during Saturday's PIAA Class AAA championship game against Brookville in Hershey.

HERSHEY–They traveled all over the state, played so many tournaments and spent countless hours working together. And that was not just this year, but the past nine.

The road included some twists, turns and bumps but it all led to Hershey’s Giant Center.

And that is where Loyalsock kicked down the gates of history and gained high school immortality. All the work led to Saturday’s moment and Loyalsock owned it.

A program started in 1963 is finally a state champion. Four players scored in double figures, it dominated all facets and Loyalsock left no doubt Saturday afternoon that it is the state’s best Class AAA team, routing Brookville, 75-53, and capturing the program’s first state championship.

“It’s a great feeling and it didn’t come by surprise and it didn’t come by just talent. Nobody has seen the amount of time we put in during the offseason in the gym,” senior guard Eli Gair said after scoring 16 points. “It’s working and working and working non-stop for five or six hours at a time sometimes. To be the first team ever in Loyalsock history to win a state championship feels pretty damn good.”

DAVE KENNEDY/Sun-Gazette Loyalsock's Eli Gair attempts to score during Saturday's PIAA Class AAA championship.

Loyalsock (25-1) also is the first area team to capture a state title since the 1999 Williamsport boys claimed the 4A crown and the first District 4 boys team to do so since that year. The Lancers were the first area team, period, to play in a state final since the Montoursville girls in 2000 and they made the wait well worth it for long-time coach Ron Insinger.

Pennsylvania’s all-time wins leader now is a state champion for the first time and Insinger’s team won that elusive title in impressive fashion. On the state’s biggest stage every player did his part and the Lancers outscored Brookville (23-3) in every quarter.

A year ago, Loyalsock reached the state quarterfinals but never had the chance to play because COVID-19 shut down the season. The Lancers, 53-2 the past two seasons, developed the slogan “Unfinished business,” this year and now are 11-0 over the last two postseasons.

They certainly finished that business Saturday.

“It’s an amazing feeling. It’s just so surreal,” point guard Idris Ali said after scoring 16 points. “Every time we step on that court, we become a family, and this is best feeling to walk onto this court with this family and get the win.”

DAVE KENNEDY/Sun-Gazette Loyalsock's Sean Jensen tries to block a shot during Saturday's PIAA Class AAA championship game.

Loyalsock is the first public school to win the AAA crown in 10 years and started dominating after falling behind 8-3 early. The Lancers scored the game’s next 16 points and Brookville never pulled closer than eight again. Dom Jennings again was spectacular and scored a game-high 21 points while hitting five 3-pointers, but so were his teammates.

Gair grabbed six rebounds, Idris Ali added six assists and Loyalsock shot a blistering 57.1% from the field. That included going 9 for 14 from 3-point range and scoring at least 15 points in all four quarters.

This group said back in elementary school that it would be the first Loyalsock state champion. Given that opportunity, the Lancers showed no fear and had the 650 Loyalsock fans in attendance cheering loud all afternoon.

“It’s like a big weight lifted off our shoulders but it doesn’t feel real yet. It’s not going to hit until later. I’m just waiting for it to kick in,” forward Julian Wilson said after grabbing five rebounds off the bench. “To be the first Loyalsock state champion ever is crazy. We felt like it was the best thing for us to be all together growing up and our senior year together we won it.”

Loyalsock built a 10-point first-quarter lead and three 3-pointers by Jennings and Ali helped it go up, 36-15 less than five minutes into the second quarter. The Lancers made six of their first seven 3-pointers and Saraj Ali opened up the perimeter by starting strong inside and forcing Brookville to double team him.

DAVE KENNEDY/Sun-Gazette Loyalsock's Idris Ali goes for a layup against Brookville in Saturday's PIAA Class AAA championship game.

Brookville had to pick its poison, but as so many Lancer opponents learned, whatever option it chose proved lethal. All five starters scored in the first quarter, Wilson commanded attention inside during the first half and Loyalsock threatened to potentially mercy rule Brookville by halftime.

“That’s a coach’s dream to have that. That doesn’t happen every year,” Insinger said. “Sometimes you have to build the team around one or two kids. This year we had a whole nucleus to build around.”

Although Loyalsock won by 22, Brookville did not quietly go away. The West champions cut that 21-point deficit to 38-24 by halftime, then made three straight shots on their opening three second-half possessions. In a flash, the Raiders were within eight and 14 minutes, 35 seconds still remained.

Jennings, however, helped settle Loyalsock by hitting a runner and then feeding Saraj Ali inside. Ali then delivered the game’s signature play, throwing down a thunderous one-handed dunk on a breakaway. The Lancers dominated from there, going up by 15 after three quarters and turning the fourth quarter into a coronation as they ascended to the state’s throne.

“We had a halftime talk and it was it was nothing but positivity,” Gair said. “It was about playing our game. That’s what we did and we kind of ran away with it.”

DAVE KENNEDY/Sun-Gazette Loyalsock's Dom Jennings gets tripped up during Saturday's PIAA Class AAA championship game against Brookville.

“Of course, it’s a big game, we had a lot of nerves in the beginning but once we started picking up the pace I knew it was over from there,” Wilson said. “Once we got the lead, we weren’t letting it go.”

Idris Ali opened the fourth quarter with a driving basket and Jennings followed with a 3-pointer. Two Eli Gair free throws had Loyalsock up 61-41 three minutes into the fourth quarter and the countdown to glory was on.

Jennings made 5 of 7 3-point attempts and he stuck in the dagger at the two-minute mark. Loyalsock was running clock, but when Brookville left him open behind the arc, Jennings could not resist and drained his final 3-pointer. Ali then made a steal and found Jennings under the basket as Loyalsock went up, 73-51.

Following a timeout, Insinger emptied his bench and every Lancer played. It was a just reward for all the reserves who were so crucial to helping this team become the state’s best all season but whose contributions never were seen in the boxscores.

Those Lancers played the final 90 seconds and around 4 p.m., it became official. Time expired and Loyalsock was the new state champion. Players stormed the court and jumped for joy together at midcourt. The seniors were presented the championship plaque and held it high as blue and maroon-clad fans cheered and quickly snapped off photos.

DAVE KENNEDY/Sun-Gazette Loyalsock coach Ron Insinger is carried off the court by his players after the Lancers defeated Brookville to win the PIAA Class AAA championship Saturday in Hershey.

One of those photos will hang forever in the Loyalsock trophy case and a big championship banner soon will hang in the gym. Wherever they go, whatever they do these 2021 Lancers will be linked, champions forever.

“I know a lot of people we’re probably taking that lightly, us saying unfinished business this season, but we meant it the whole way,” Idris Ali said. “We knew we were going to get here.”

BROOKVILLE (53)

Robert Keth 1 2-4 4, Hunter Geer 1 2-2 4, Danny Lauer 2 0-0 4, Griffin Ruhlman 8 3-3 19, Jace Miner 8 3-8 19, Ian Pete 1 1-2 3. Totals 21 11-18 53.

LOYALSOCK (75)

Eli Gair 5 4-6 16, Saraj Ali 6 2-4 14, Sean Jensen 1 0-0 2, Idris Ali 6 2-2 16, Dominic Jennings 7 2-2 21, Grayson Watkins 1 0-0 2, Tyler Gee 0 0-0 0, Braydon Miller 0 0-0 0, Brendan Clark 0 0-0 0, Gage Patterson 0 0-0 0, Nathan Bauman 0 0-0 0, Cy Cavanaugh 0 0-0 0, Julian Wilson 2 0-0 4. Totals 28 10-14 75.

Brookville 13 11 14 15–53

Loyalsock 23 15 15 23–75

3-point goals: Loyalsock 9 (Jennings 5, Gair 2, I. Ali 2).

Records: Loyalsock 25-1. Brookville 23-3.

DAVE KENNEDY/Sun-Gazette Loyalsock's Idris Ali goes up for a basket against Brookville in Saturday's state final.

DAVE KENNEDY/Sun-Gazette Loyalsock's players and coaches pose for a photo together with a giant Hershey bar and the PIAA Class AAA championship trophy.

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