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Loyalsock boys aren’t intimidated by any opponent they face in playoffs

RALPH WILSON/Sun-Gazette Correspondent Loyalsock’s Saraj Ali shoots around Holy Redeemer’s Justice Shoats (11) and Mathew Carty (13) during a game in January at Loyalsock. The Lancers have played challenging teams all season and are 23-1 as Loyalsock plays Maths, Civics and Sciences in tonight’s PIAA Class AAA semifinal.

Loyalsock knew Executive Education featured an LSU recruit and an Ivy League recruit. It knew how good the Raptors were.

The Lancers just did not care. They are pretty good themselves. They respect every opponent, but fear none.

That is a valuable asset as Loyalsock (23-1) prepares to play Math, Civics and Sciences in tonight’s Class AAA state semifinals. MCS is led by Miami recruit Nisine Poplar and is a traditional power.

Loyalsock, though, will do what it always does. It will focus on itself. It has worked all season, it worked in Saturday’s 79-75 quarterfinal win and there is no way Loyalsock is changing its approach now.

“We’ve been playing challenging teams all season and all summer. Offers don’t really mean anything when we play a game,” Loyalsock guard Dom Jennings said following a 16-point performance Saturday. “We know we don’t have offers, so we know we have to play up to that capability.”

“We don’t care about any of that,” forward Saraj Ali said after his 19-point, 10-rebound effort. “We’re just here to play and to try to get the trophy and prove everyone wrong. We just have to focus on us now.”

Loyalsock really has been preparing for this year’s run since they were little kids. The team features four senior starters, and its core has been together the entire journey up the basketball ladder. The Lancers have won at every stop along the way and that includes capturing three straight District 4 championships and five consecutive league titles.

Loyalsock is 51-2 over the last two seasons and reached last year’s state quarterfinals before the COVID-19 shutdown ended its state title dreams. The Lancers understand every opponent they play this late in the season is outstanding. They also understand that they’re pretty good, too, and that provides valuable confidence.

“We’ve been playing together for years, since we were in elementary school, and we’ve had so many wins where we come back and play a great game,” Idris Ali said after going for 25 points and four assists against Executive. “We’re just a winning team.”

“That’s something you can’t coach. It’s something that’s inborn or developed over repetition and success,” Loyalsock coach Ron Insinger said. “If you win enough games, you’re going to feel like you can win some more.”

Insinger knows that well. He is the state’s all-time wins leader with 1,064 wins in 46 years. Success often breeds success and that is all this program has known.

That long-term success has provided Loyalsock an advantage over the years at the local level. And seeing how that advantage can negatively influence other teams helps prevent Loyalsock from falling into that same trap when it reaches the state tournament. The Lancers have made two Final Four appearances since 2015 in addition to three state quarterfinal appearances in four years and are becoming accustomed at playing deep into March.

“People tell me that when their teams come in here, they have that fear and intimidation,” Insinger said. “If we’re going to have that, then you’re down 10 points before the ball is thrown up to start the game.”

And that is why Loyalsock focuses on its own game. That is why it plays fearless, too. Loyalsock attacked Executive from the start and falling behind by nine in the second quarter hardly rattled it. The Lancers answered with a big run, led by 13 in the third quarter and never buckled after that lead disappeared late in the game.

Loyalsock does not run from these challenges, it embraces them. Down two in the final 90 seconds, it did so again.

“We went to the huddle after they took the lead and (assistant coach) Jeff (Everett) said your season depends on stops,” Saraj Ali said. “We went at them all night, but our fate depends on whether we want to play defense or not.”

They did.

Saraj made a game-tying steal and layup. Eli Gair scored the go-ahead basket a possession later, and Idris Ali sealed the victory with a last-second steal and layup. Executive players had the Division I offers, but Loyalsock had the coveted Final Four trip.

“We had been scouting them and we know they have some D1 recruits, but we came in here confident,” Idris Ali said. “We knew they were a great team and us knowing that they’re a great team helps us play even better.”

Gair capped a furious second-half rally in last year’s second round of states when he drained a last-second 3-pointer which gave Loyalsock a 66-65 victory over Camp Hill. Up next was perennial power Neumann-Goretti. Many had labeled the Saints as the state title favorite, and their resume certainly warranted it.

But Loyalsock could not wait to play Neumann-Goretti. The Lancers knew how good it was but never doubted themselves either. Unfortunately, they never found out what would have happened.

The way last season ended created this year’s “Unfinished business,” motto. That has fueled Loyalsock all year and now has it a victory from becoming the first area boys’ team since Williamsport in 1999 to reach a state final.

“We did indeed have some unfinished business coming into the season,” Insinger said. “Even though we were going to go against Neumann-Goretti these kids didn’t fear them. They were ready. They wanted to play. I’m just so happy for them to get another chance.”

Loyalsock never even knew if it would have a season following a three-week shutdown last December. The Lancers never stopped working, though. They made sure they were ready when the season started Jan. 8.

Business has been booming since, but the work is not complete. Another chance awaits. The strategy, though, remains the same.

“We know they have big guys and D1 offers and everything like that, but we don’t really care,” Jennings said. “We just prepare well and work on what we have to do to get the job done.”

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