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Playoffs are new territory for PCT

MARK NANCE/Sun-Gazette Loyalsock grad Ben Sosa plays for Penn College during a game in 2018. Sosa and the Wildcats earned the program’s first NEAC postseason berth this year.

The tone that radiated through Bardo Gymnasium for the final practice of the season was unfamiliar for everyone in the room. The Penn College men’s basketball team was not just practicing for its final games of the regular season, both on the road tonight and Saturday. The Wildcats were practicing for something bigger, something that had not been accomplished before.

With a win over Gallaudet on Tuesday, the Wildcats clinched a spot in the North Eastern Athletic Conference Championship tournament for the first time in Penn College program history.

One step into the Bardo Gymnasium and the sense of resiliency embodied every player. Being able to turn the underdog mentality into a dream come true had its peaks and valleys over the four years for this senior class, but they did not fall. They persevered and turned into confident leaders that elevated the program to new levels.

In just two years the Penn College men’s basketball team went from hiring a new coach and winning just three games in two seasons to a four-win improvement and knocking off Gallaudet for the fourth seed in the playoff.

“The program has definitely come a long way, from the first day I stepped foot on campus to where we are now is polar opposites. The guys are working hard, they are getting after it every practice. It’s just been a daily improvement of coming in, working hard with a great attitude and wanting to get one percent better every day. I’ve been fortunate with a great group of seniors. We have six seniors who have bought into the program and leading the way to get everyone going in the right direction that has led to a lot of wins this year.” second-year coach Geoff Hensley said as he intently watched his team work through offensive drills to begin Thursday’s final practice.

Through the first two months of the season Penn College eclipsed 100 points in two games, but held a 2-6 record heading into the semester break. With an opening season 117-105 win at the University of Valley Forge and a 105-112 loss to SUNY Delhi, Penn College knew it had the pieces to complete the puzzle, it was just a matter of finding which pieces fit together before the heart of its conference schedule.

The Wildcats endured a seven-game losing streak before a 92-78 win over Penn State-Abington provided the team the right pieces to start the playoff push.

“It started when we got back for the second semester,” Hensley said. “We had a new team still trying to figure things out in the first semester, but the second semester the guys came back hungry, they were ready to get to work. We’ve caught our stride in the middle of January and we haven’t looked back since. We’ve been in every game against some really good teams all the way through to clinching our playoff berth. Once we came back from the break and saw how good they could be, they just took off.”

The senior class having won just six games collectively in the last two years made it a goal to prove the preseason poll wrong and see how high they could go with each possessing a different skill set to put the puzzle together. Loyalsock grad Ben Sosa leads the team in points (16.9), rebounds (7.3), assists (61), and blocks (14) per game. Elijah Vazquez complements Sosa on the floor to give the Wildcats a fierce scoring 1-2 punch with Vazquez averaging 13.6 points a game and hitting 30 of 31 free throws.

Ryan Lockman leads the conference with a 67.6 percent field goal percentage, and Carson Garvis is adding 11.7 points for a potent Wildcat offense.

“Just going through the struggles of a coach leaving midway through the season, getting a new coach, and learning a new system, I am proud of the guys. We worked for this,” Sosa said. “We won three games last year. This year they ranked us dead last in the preseason poll and it just gave us motivation to prove people wrong. We always knew we could do it, it was just a matter of putting it all together day in and day out and this year it is showing.”

Coming from District 4 perennial power Loyalsock it was a different feeling for Sosa to not play beyond the regular season. For someone who played in four district finals and made a PIAA Final Four appearance during high school, Sosa had the skills to develop into a 1,000-point scorer for the Wildcats and be the vocal leader to help turn the page in a program’s history.

“It’s big for me to lead by example being here for the last four years and a part of the program. The coaching staff leaned on me to be the role model for the team, being positive for everyone and keeping the team together. I know what to expect from everyone, for the last four years we have been working hard and we just needed to put it all together this year,” Sosa said. “Knowing where this program started until now to say we are the first team to make a championship berth, I give all the credit to the coaching staff and the team to show everyone just how far we can go.”

“For the guys that have been here for more than two years, it means a lot. We’ve had a few tough seasons and to finally clinch a playoff spot we can finally leave a legacy behind in our final season it means a lot,” Lockman said. “I was filled with so much emotion especially with it being my last season, this team feels like my home away from home. We stil have some games to play and I don’t want it to end.”

Penn College finishes its season at Keuka College today and Wells on Saturday before the NEAC tournament begins with a matchup at Lancaster Bible College, a team the senior class has never beaten.

“We lost both times to them this season. We were playing right with them until the end in both games so we know if we stick to what we do and how we play we can go there and come out with a win,” Damon Kreider said.

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