Mar 05, 2007 Phil Blackwell Uncategorized
A single image helped portray the contrasting symbols of despair — and hope — last Friday night at Manley Field House.
On the bench, the Canastota boys basketball team tried to hold in their emotions after a tough 43-40 defeat to Hannibal in the Section III Class B-2 finals, watching as the Warriors accepted the championship banner.
Right behind them, though, stood the “Raider Nation”, a large group of Canastota students, clad in maroon T-shirts, that had flocked to Manley to see the Raiders in its first title game since 1975, trying — and coming up just short — in its quest for a first-ever sectional championship.
Despite the loss on the court, the fans were still cheering the Raiders’ all-out effort — and celebrating just how far the team had come from its recent struggles.
This big show of support can be traced to the work of head coach Bill LeClair — who, in just one season, turned a 4-16 cellar-dweller into a 17-6 power.
“I was worried about changing this team’s mindset (from past years), and they did it,” said LeClair.
At the same time, he cultivated growing student interest as the wins piled up. Soon, the “Raider Nation” concept had taken hold, giving Canastota an imposing home-court advantage that pulled the team through tough spots — including its Class B-2 quarterfinal win over Skaneateles.
After topping Lowville Feb. 24 in the B-2 semifinals at Manley, Canastota returned six days later to confront Hannibal in the finals. A resident of the tough OHSL Liberty division, the Warriors were 14-8 and, like Canastota, concentrated on defense.
This was evident throughout a tight first half. Every point was difficult to find, but Canastota, down 16-10 at one point in the second quarter, rallied and forced a 20-20 tie by halftime.
Hannibal quickly reclaimed the lead in the third period, but it never grew larger than five as the Raiders played its own brand of shutdown defense, just as LaClair wanted.
“That was what we thrived on all year,” he said.
Looking at a 33-28 deficit with less than five minutes left, the Raiders made its big move to win it. Joe Jacuk hit a rebound basket. Less than 30 seconds later, Nick Marji drove in for a lay-up.
And when Jacuk returned to hit his own lay-up with 2:57 to play, Canastota had grabbed a 34-33 lead, its first advantage since it was 8-6 late in the first quarter.
At just that moment, though, Hannibal reached into its reserves. Chad Burridge scored less than 20 seconds after Jacuk’s go-head bucket to get Hannibal back in front, and Jeff LaMont hit the game’s biggest shot, a 3-pointer from the corner with 1:45 left, to make it 38-34.
As this was going on, Canastota was getting shut out for more than two minutes. LaClair said his team rushed on these crucial possessions, not realizing it had plenty of time to find a shoot shot.
The Raiders stayed off the board until Kyle Savage banked in a 3-pointer with 12.7 seconds left to make it 40-37, but Doug Morgan’s free throw sealed the Hannibal win.
Jacuk and Matt Ghezzi led the Raiders with 10 points apiece. Marji added eight points. LaMont paced Hannibal with a game-high 13 points as Tyler Baker (nine points) and Chad Burridge (eight points) offered the support.
A strong senior class now departs, inlcuding Jacuk, Savage, Ghezzi, Mickey Rouse, James Lesher, Dan Campanaro and Joe DiGeorge. All they did was awaken Canastota basketball to what it could do, and LaClair said this magical season could have a long-term effect on the program.
“They created a buzz in the community and among the younger guys,” he said. “This is the stepping stone to building a better program.”