R.J. Van Tash (above) and Lancaster Catholic have defied expectations so far this season. (Photo: Michael Bullock/CoBL)
Michael Bullock (@thebullp_n)
LANCASTER — Wish a sizable portion of your roster the best going forward and one might expect the following season to be filled with countless ups, downs and even some newly discovered directions.
Well, thus far, that definitely has not been the case at Lancaster Catholic.
Returning essentially just two players who logged important minutes a season ago, veteran skipper Joe Klazas has unleashed a passionate bunch that really likes to get into people defensively, create offensive opportunities from its defensive handiwork and play at a crisp tempo.
Oh, lest we forget, these guys share the basketball just as much as the balanced, unselfish squad Klazas coached last year to a District 3 Class 4A championship — Catholic defeated Middletown in overtime — and a berth in the PIAA’s Class 4A tournament.
Yet while a loss to West Philadelphia in the opening round of states ended quite a few basketball careers, it may have led the Crusader Crazies student section to begin thinking rebuilding year.
These Crusaders (10-2, 6-0) have been mighty successful, too, victimizing 10 of their first 12 opponents while bouncing to the top of the Lancaster-Lebanon League’s Section 3 standings.
Catholic also began the week at No. 9 in City of Basketball Love’s latest Class 4A rankings.
“I didn’t expect us to get out to quite this start, but I thought right at the end of our open gyms and right before practice started that things began to click for them and they started to have a pretty good understanding. We talked a lot about energy and simple execution.
“We as a program have always tried to do all the small things, realize that hustle plays are real important for us. We’ve won some close games and we’ve been able to learn from them, which has been a big help. … These kids have adapted to wanting to get better every time they get on the floor.”
Klazas’ determined bunch took down No. 10 Thursday night at home, quickly opening a sizable lead on visiting Northern Lebanon and wheeling to a 61-38 victory. Johnny Besecker was the Crusaders’ only player to reach double figures — he scored 13 points — and he had that at halftime.
Northern Lebanon (8-3, 5-1 in L-L 3), by the way, came into the game sharing the Section 3 lead with the host Crusaders. And the Vikings found themselves in trouble against Catholic’s high-octane man and full-court pressure, as Catholic opened a 13-2 lead with 2:35 left in the first quarter.
“We can talk a lot about Xs and Os, but if we don’t come out with a lot of energy you can void a lot of that stuff,” Klazas admitted. “We’ve been really good at coming out and being explosive from the start.”
“A lot of it is our defensive effort,” added senior R.J. Van Tash, referring to Catholic’s start. “We didn’t know what it was going to be like this season, because we weren’t playing well in summer league games. Once the season started, our defense really helped us. We’ve been holding some teams.”
The Crusaders never let themselves coast either, as their commanding lead grew to as many as 24 points (35-11 and 37-13) with more than two minutes to go in the opening half — even though Klazas dispatched 12 guys into the fray before the break.
“We didn’t expect to blow them out,” Van Tash said.
“We thought it was probably going to be a grind, but we just jumped on them quick.”
Part of playing so many people was a reward for how hard these Crusaders go at it during practice, part of it was wanting to continue to attack with fresh legs on the floor and part of it was wanting to leave something in the tank for another L-L 3 scrap Friday night at Lancaster Mennonite.
Catholic also will visit Eastern York, a possible District 3 Class 4A opponent, on Saturday.
“The great thing about this group is it’s been very, very competitive in practices,” Klazas said. “We do our best to make sure everyone’s prepared.
“We use ‘positionless’ a lot, because we have guys who can play different roles in different games. I’ve been real impressed with how we’ve been able to step up and handle different situations,” Klazas added. “As competitive as practices have been, it helps us prepare for games.”
“If you’re not bringing it in practice, you’re not gonna play in games,” Van Tash continued.
“Especially early on.”
Yet while many on the outside undoubtedly are surprised by what the Crusaders have accomplished so far, it’s possible those inside the Catholic locker room are just as startled. Especially since the springy 6-2 Van Tash and 5-10 senior Miles McCaskey were really the only veterans back.
McCaskey actually came off the bench Thursday night, making his return to the lineup after missing four games with mononucleosis. He still brought plenty of energy, particularly defensively.
“I really had no idea what to expect this season,” Van Tash continued.
“We’ve been gelling really well lately.”
“They’ve been two great leaders,” Klazas said. “When you talk about hustle, R.J. could be labeled as ‘R.J. Hustle.’ That kid is constantly all over the floor. I’m telling our kids all the time, ‘You’ve got to follow R.J.’s lead.’ He may not be the most vocal at times, but his hustle [is constant] and people are learning to follow that. Again, it’s interesting to see what they get from following R.J.’s lead.”
While Van Tash added eight points and a pair of boards to Catholic’s lethal mix against Northern Lebanon, his leadership qualities have really shown through as a young group received a crash course in varsity expectations and loads of on-the-job training through the season’s first month.
Although the 5-11 Besecker provides the Crusaders with a dangerous perimeter threat, he also ran a nice baseline cut midway through the second quarter, caressed a slick McCaskey dish off penetration and turned it into an old-school three-point play that made the score 33-11.
Long, athletic bigs such as 6-4 junior Dwayne Caine (8 points) and 6-6 sophomore David Kamwanga (6 points) provide rim protection, but they also are capable of sliding to the perimeter and burying mid-range jump shots. Caine and Kamwanga also can run the floor.
Meanwhile, what Van Tash and 6-0 senior Connor Engle do is work tirelessly.
Another invaluable piece to Catholic’s balanced yet unselfish puzzle is 6-1 sophomore guard Denzel Kabasele, who scored six points but also delivered at least six assists. His length proves troublesome for opposing guards, yet his ability in the open floor fuels the Crusaders in transition.
While cousins Kamwanga and Kabasele aren’t new to the Lancaster Catholic program, they arrived last fall from their native Africa and reside with an uncle just outside the city.
“We’ve gotten a lot of help from David and Denzel, because we wouldn’t be as deep [or as good a team] without them,” Van Tash admitted.
Yet even though new faces are popping up everywhere, balance remains a constant.
So is unselfishness.
“I think all of our guards are really good at figuring when guys are open,” Van Tash suggested.
Only Besecker (11.4) and Van Tash (10.1) went into Thursday night’s scrap averaging in double figures. Kamwanga (9.2), Caine (8.4) and McCaskey (7.6) weren’t far behind, however.
“There’s no doubt this group benefited from being around last year’s group,” said Klazas, whose Crusaders have beaten Central York and an improving Garden Spot squad. Catholic’s only losses were to Lampeter-Strasburg and last weekend to York Catholic in overtime.
“There was so much to learn. That group was really special in the sense that they knew how it all fits together and [the importance of] playing team basketball. We had some individuals when they first suited up, but they’re really beginning to understand how important it is to do things together.”
Let’s just say that something’s working.
And despite some mighty heavy graduation losses, these Crusaders will be back at it Friday night chasing yet another victory at Lancaster Mennonite that would leave them perfect at the Section 3 turn.
Klazas claims it’s not some sort of coaching magic, but …
Said Van Tash: “It’s pretty amazing.”