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It’s hard to overlook Wellsboro boys after big win over South

Wellsboro returned four starters this season. But none were seniors. And explosive guard Joe Grab transferred.

So although a talented core was in place, Wellsboro felt overlooked. But it’s hard to overlook the Green Hornets these days. Wellsboro (11-3) won at South Williamsport, 54-44, last Friday and is a few plays from being undefeated, losing its three games by five total points.

A program which captured a District 4 Class AAA championship three years ago has reloaded. With all five starters underclassmen, the present and the future look mighty bright.

“Of course, we’re going to miss Joe and he was a really strong player for us, but we also saw this as an opportunity because this is going to be our team for the next couple of years and the more we play, the better we’ll be,” center Liam Manning said after collecting his eighth double-double in the South win. “This year we did expect to make some noise but we’re really just strengthening ourselves for this year and next year.”

Wellsboro went 12-11 last year after losing four starters from the 2019 district finalist. Grab was the only starter back then, so it was a learning year for Manning, Isaac Keane, Conner Adams and Darryn Callahan. They understood one person could not replace Grab, but if they collectively improved the team could become a title contender again.

Sophomore guard Peyton McClure moved into the starting lineup and is one of three players scoring in double figures, joining Manning and Callahan. Keane had 13 points, eight rebounds and five assists against South, and Adams added eight points and six assists. Hayes Campbell and Drew Manning were strong off the bench as well.

They are still young, but these Hornets are also pretty well-rounded.

“There’s confidence. I’ve been playing with these guys since first grade all the way up through,” Keane said. “We know when we’re going to cut, where to cut and everything like that. We know everyone’s strengths and weaknesses pretty well.”

“When we talk about a team these guys are really a team,” Wellsboro coach Steve Adams said. “They’re extremely unselfish and they’re so happy when their teammate does well.”

That bond has grown stronger though gut-wrenching losses. Wellsboro’s three defeats are by five combined points. Two came in a recent four-day stretch when Northeast Bradford banked in a buzzer-beating 3-pointer and Troy hit a go-ahead 3-pointer in the final seconds. All three losses came after Wellsboro held fourth-quarter leads as well.

When South turned up the pressure Friday and twice cut an 18-point late third-quarter deficit to six in the fourth, Wellsboro collected itself and responded. The Hornets allowed only two points over the last three minutes, executed the offense well and received four straight clutch free throws from Keane and Adams.

It was another step along the growing process. It was a pretty big one, too, coming against a team two nights removed from handing St. John Neumann its first loss.

“They handled the pressure,” Adams said. “We didn’t play with the fear of losing. We just cut it loose.”

Adams said he wanted his players thinking about playing basketball more than learning plays this season. He estimates that they have installed 55% of their motion offense.

And that is one of many reasons he is especially excited. As much as Wellsboro has already grown, they still have ample room to progress. Overlook the Hornets at our own peril.

“We’ve gotten over the hump, but we still have 45 percent to improve on,” Adams said. “If we do that, those weapons are really going to shine.”

“Seeing how we are now going against teams with a lot of seniors starting and we’re all underclassmen and doing well is exciting,” Keane said. “Looking at this year and next year we have high hopes.”

STUDENT OF THE GAME

Sophomore Luke Kaiser did not score in Hughesville’s 45-41 win against Sullivan County Saturday, but he made one of the game’s biggest impacts. Kaiser guarded Tournament MVP Jalen Thomas in the final game of the round robin Bill Babcock Tournament and neutralized the dynamic playmaker in the second half.

Thomas had willed Sullivan back into the game late in the second quarter after it trailed by eight and he still played well in the second half. Kaiser and fellow sophomore Josh Heiney, though, did a nice job keeping the ball away from Thomas in those last two quarters while limiting his drives to the basket.

Kaiser is receiving varsity minutes for the first time and is one of many promising players on a team which has no seniors. This was the latest step in his development, and it was a big one.

“I cannot say enough about Luke Kaiser overall. He’s been one of our most consistent guys in a year where nothing has been consistent. It’s been the weirdest year ever, but that kid is here every day,” Hughesville coach Nick Tagliaferri said. “Luke’s a guy that gets online and does film and does scouting reports. He’s really elevated himself. He has a way to go yet, but he’s become a competitive kid.”

PUTBACKS

South Williamsport (14-4) defeated Neumann for the first time since 2012 with that last-second win on Wednesday and bounced back from the Wellsboro loss Saturday by defeating Midd-West, 61-51. Secoy Roberts produced 24 points, seven rebounds and five assists. The Mounties are tied with Neumann in the Mid-Penn and seeking their first league title since 2010 … Max Rymsza is playing his best basketball during Muncy’s four-game winning streak. The senior guard has averaged 17.3 points, 9.5 rebounds and five assists, helping the Indians improve to 12-3 … Damian McAllister earned all-tournament honors at Hughesville and his buzzer-beating 3-pointer forced overtime in a game Jersey Shore won, 66-56. McAllister scored 24 points in that game and erupted for a career-high 30 in a one-point loss at Shamokin … Wilkes-bound forward Ethan Hartman is having an outstanding senior season for Warrior Run and is averaging 25.5 points over his last four games, including a 49-43 victory at Milton on Saturday.

Dr. Masse’s Top 5

1. Loyalsock (17-1)

The Lancers captured their fourth consecutive HAC-II championship in impressive fashion, beating Central Columbia, 79-50, last Tuesday. Loyalsock has not lost a league game since 2018, winning 35 in a row. Eli Gair, Sean Jensen and Dom Jennings all have come up big with forward Saraj Ali sidelined, helping the Lancers continue surging. Jensen is playing the best basketball of his high school career, averaging 14.5 points per game since Ali was sidelined. Gair has reached double figures in five consecutive games, Jennings hit five 3-pointers against Central, and Idris Ali had 23 points, eight rebounds and six assists.

2. St. John Neumann (13-1)

After dropping the 64-63 thriller against South, Neumann bounced back in impressive fashion, defeating Lewisburg, 76-63, two nights later. The Knights erased a 12-point deficit with four minutes remaining against South, taking a lead with 11 seconds remaining before Grant Bachman’s buzzer-beater. David Hill scored 31 points in defeat and produced a game-high 28 against Lewisburg. Naseer Dymeck and Naz Smith continue to thrive off the bench and combined for 17 points in the win. Neumann has a tough set of games this week against Loyalsock, St. Joseph’s and Danville, and all those contests should help prepare it for the postseason.

3. North Penn-Liberty (10-1)

A 29-year title drought ended last year when North Penn-Liberty captured the NTL-II championship. Now the Mounties are on the verge of a second title in a row after putting together their best performance this season and routing District 4 Class AA title contender Wyalusing, 70-45. NP-Liberty built a 32-6 first-quarter lead against a team which had won seven consecutive games, played outstanding defense, and had four players score at least nine points. The Mounties have a nice inside-outside game with Koleton Roupp and Noah Spencer draining seven 3-pointers in the victory and center Brandon Thompson scoring a game-high 20 points.

4. Montoursville (12-4)

Josh Burger saved the day for Montoursville in its first game in a week Saturday at Central Mountain. Burger hit a buzzer-beating putback as the defending District 4 Class AAAA champions escaped with a 51-50 win. The senior guard has made a lot of big plays for Montoursville the last three years, helping it win a district championship, 51 games and reach consecutive state tournaments. Montoursville is third in the 4A rankings and can ensure itself a quarterfinal home game if it closes well this week, starting with a potential playoff preview Tuesday against Jersey Shore.

5. Williamsport (7-4)

Last Friday was the first time Williamsport had practiced in eight days. The Millionaires went to Central Mountain on Tuesday having not been together since the previous Thursday but did enough to win, 69-60. Nassir Jones scored 17 points, grabbed six rebounds, dealt six assists and made five steals. A night later, point guard Kenon Brown scored 17 points in a 60-46 loss at perennial nemesis Pottsville. Despite the loss, Williamsport remained No. 2 in the District 2-4 Class AAAAAA rankings, slightly ahead of defending champion Wilkes-Barre in what is looking like a loaded field.

Players of the Week

Isaiah Niemczyk and Logan Almeida, Montgomery

Niemczyk is having a big junior season and was outstanding last week, averaging 26 points in three games. The versatile guard twice reached career-highs, ignited a second-half comeback against Montgomery, and scored a career-high 33 points in Saturday’s 85-72 win at North Penn-Mansfield. Almeida duplicated Niemczyk’s achievement, twice reaching career-highs. After scoring 31 points against Canton, Almeida closed his week with 32 against Northumberland Christian. The junior point guard averaged 26.3 points in three games and made 14 of 23 3-point attempts.

Game of the Week

St. John Neumannn at Loyalsock

Tuesday’s game has been eagerly anticipated since the schedules were released. Rivals separated by two miles have built strong basketball traditions and both are defending district champions. Last year’s game was one of the year’s most exciting with Loyalsock winning an offensive lover’s delight, 102-86.

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

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