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.