Michael Bullock (@thebullp_n)
(Ed. Note: This story is part of CoBL’s “Prepping for Preps” series, which will take a look at many of the top high school programs in the region as part of our 2017-18 season preview coverage. The complete list of schools previewed so far can be found here.)
HARRISBURG — Needing to put on an effective full-court press just to squeeze into last season’s District 3 Class 4A playoff picture, Gary Martin is hoping the momentum generated by that race for the postseason will spill into the current campaign and energize his Susquehanna Twp. program.
With six veterans returning from that late run — all of whom logged valuable minutes — Martin genuinely believes his Indians can better the 9-16 mark (4-10 in the Mid-Penn Keystone) they posted a year ago, make a charge toward a league title and stick around the postseason a bit longer.
What’s possibly more important is Martin’s players are carrying similar, if not grander, expectations.
Well, that’s hardly a news bulletin at a suburban Harrisburg school that’s enjoyed all sorts of remarkably consistent success on the basketball court that sits inside the snug Susquehanna Twp. Field House — although that has hardly been the case the past two seasons.
A member of the super-talented squad that popped Greensburg Central Catholic 71-62 to win the PIAA’s Class AA championship in 1980 at nearby Hersheypark Arena, the amiable Martin returned to his alma mater prior to last season following a terrific run at Greencastle-Antrim.
Martin, who also fronted the Cedar Cliff program for two seasons, inherited a program trying to rebound from a difficult 2015-16 campaign (4-17). Just two years earlier, the Indians were in the PIAA’s 2014 Class AAA championship game, dropping a 64-57 decision in overtime to a Neumann-Goretti squad that received an unbelievable effort from Ja’Quan Newton.
Nonetheless, perhaps last season’s late spurt and a three-game stay in the District 3 Class 4A playoffs — Susquehanna defeated Wyomissing 62-51 in the opening round, lost to eventual champion Lancaster Catholic 57-43 in the quarterfinals and dropped a 45-41 overtime decision to Littlestown in the consolation semifinals — has the ‘Hanna Tribe ready to return to District 3 prominence.
For a remarkably proud program that’s played for four state championships and collared two — Susquehanna Twp. also has been in 16 District 3 finals and claimed six — competing for league titles and reaching postseason play isn’t an occasional happening. It’s expected.
The prominent signs that fill up one wall inside the Field House, as well as the banners hanging in the foyer, scream hoops history. And this group is determined to add to Susquehanna’s sparkling legacy.
“Susquehanna traditionally has been a very good program,” said Martin, a 1981 Susquehanna Twp. graduate who had 102 coaching victories heading into last seson. “Last year the kids were just basically hoping to have a winning record. Our record didn’t indicate how well we played, because of our strength of schedule. This year it’s all about, ‘Coach, I think we can win the league.’
“They think we can make some noise in the Mid-Penn, get into districts and qualify for states. That wasn’t talked about much last year. It came to fruition a little bit when we made playoffs, to see if we could win that first game on the road and see where we could go from there. Now they’re talking much bigger than that. It makes you feel good because you’re trying to sit back and listen,” Martin added.
“It’s everybody buying in and that’s the only way we can do it. We all have to have each other’s back and work together as a team. It’s been very good. It’s been very good.”
Needless to say, expectations are high.
“Coming off that loss to Littlestown, and we didn’t lose much, so we’re really ready to just get back in they gym and get at it because we know we have a chance of going and playing at the Giant Center [for a District 3 Class 4A championship],” said springy 6-0 senior guard Roland Norfleet, who last season averaged just over seven points per game for Martin’s optimistic Indians.
“We gained experience, playoff experience, so that always helps,” added 6-2 senior lead guard Royce Urena (9 ppg). “All that experience we got, we can use this season. We’re old enough. We’ve been with our coaching staff another year, so we know there’s chemistry. We know we can do it. After the way we ended last year, we can play playoff basketball at a high level.”
While Urena and Norfleet are expected to log plenty of minutes in the Susquehanna backcourt — especially since junior guard Gerald Jarmon III transferred to Cedar Cliff — Martin also has sizable 6-3 junior Tyreese Smith (4 ppg) projected to jump in on the wing.
Lefty Bill Folk (6 ppg), a 6-5 junior with a nice shooting stroke, likely will return to the Susquehanna lineup as a face-up forward. Finally, 6-5 senior Jevon Coaxum (4 ppg) and 6-5 junior Tyrell Dawson (1 ppg) will provide the Indians with choices in the low blocks and painted area.
More depth is expected to come from 6-3 junior Dola Adeniyi, 5-8 junior Yohannes Oveida and 6-3 sophomore Jacob Seigle. All three will be moving up from Susquehanna’s junior varsity group.
“I knew by January this bunch of core guys, they were getting the bulk of the minutes,” recalled Martin, whose program also lost seniors Aeneas Carter, Jermir Thomas, Larson Holley and Raunya Mitchell. “Right now, I return four seniors, and they’ll get their opportunity — but they know these other ones are ready to go, too. Our next group is always waiting to play. “So I feel like we have a lot that played, but I feel like we have a lot waiting in the wings.”
So, practices figure to be extremely competitive every time the ‘Hanna Tribe steps inside the Field House. And playing effectively for a Susquehanna club that hopes to crank up its transition game and get after opponents defensively is another must that likely will impact minutes.
Particularly against a Keystone Division slate that figures to be uber-competitive.
“We’ll be ready to go. These guys keep our conditioning up, so we’ll be ready to go,” said Urena, referring to Martin and his assistant coaches. “They work us. We’re here working and they don’t let up.
“If we don’t work really hard in practice, the game’s gonna be even harder,” Urena continued. “We’ve gotta do all the work now, so when it comes to game time we don’t gotta worry about conditioning or being tired or not even being ready to play.”
While Susquehanna Twp. will open the season against Downingtown West at Milton Hershey’s Tip-Off Tournament, the Indians also have games scheduled against Octorara, Eastern York, Camp Hill and a home-and-home with Steel-High. They also could play West York, Delone Catholic or Shippensburg.
“Everybody on this team wants to win,” Norfleet added. “Nobody on this team wants to walk out of here hanging their heads with an L. Nobody wants that same feeling we had [after losing to Littlestown].”
Since Martin’s staff includes Thomas Jordan, Lucas Lawrence, Larry Holley, Octavius Bennett, Ben Dupree and Brian Dean, everybody in the Indians’ program is suiting up or has suited up for the ‘Hanna Tribe. That’s a really big deal for Urena, Norfleet and their teammates.
Dupree was on the 2008 Susquehanna Twp. team that captured a District 3-AAA championship yet lost to Steel-High in the state final. Dean, arguably the program’s greatest player not named Clarence Smith, led the Bill Gaffey-coached Indians to state gold in 1980.
Smith, by the way, started alongside Howard Porter, Hank Siemontkowski, Chris Ford and Tom Ingelsby on the Villanova squad that fell to UCLA in the 1971 NCAA championship game — yet later had to vacate its second-place finish when it was learned Porter had signed with an agent.
So, yes, there is history here — and plenty of it
“They love the community,” Urena cracked. “They played here, so it just makes us all work harder. Our Coach Dean won one here, so it just makes us want to win one here. It just makes us want to work harder even more.”
Vince Rogers, who won nearly 200 games, four league championships, two District 3 titles and guided the Indians to a pair of state finals in 10 seasons, was Martin’s predecessor. Rogers, though, did not graduate from Susquehanna Twp.
“Last year, when Coach G came back in the building he was like, ‘I was a Susquehanna alum,’ and coached here, now we got somebody to play for,” Norfleet suggested. “Now we’ve got extra motivation to play for somebody who actually came through the building and hung one of these banners up.”
So, while the optimism continues to bubble on the eve of preseason practice, Martin’s second Susquehanna Twp. squad appears ready to attack the 2017-18 campaign the same way they ended the 2016-17 season — with enthusiasm, confidence and a drive to succeed.
“We need to pick up where we left off last year,” Martin said. “We ended with a five-out-of-seven winning streak. The kids were jelling. It was just selfless basketball. Everybody was working for each other. I could see it in the stands, where people were starting to feel a little warm and cozy — where in the beginning they didn’t really know what to expect. We came together.
“We were able to return the core. I just think our summer was fantastic,” added Martin, whose club will get preseason looks at home against McCaskey (Nov. 27) and York (Nov. 30). “We were very competitive in the fall. Our open gyms and stuff have been competitive, but it’s still a learning, teaching process. We’re sitting here talking about having a countdown to our first scrimmage.”
“I’m excited, man,” Urena admitted. “I got my guys back from football and I’m just ready to get it back and get rolling. We had a good summer. We’re just trying to get a roll on here. Can’t wait until the season starts on Dec. 8th.”