JOHNSTOWN - Northern Cambria's splendidly talented class of senior basketball players racked up a bevy of accomplishments during its collective high school career, including four appearances in the PIAA state playoffs, a District 6-A championship last season, and a spot in this year's District 6-AA title game.
But unless a team can win out through the state playoffs, every season invariably ends on a sad and difficult note, and such a fate befell the Colts Wednesday night.
Northern Cambria ran into a buzzsaw in the second round of the PIAA Class AA playoffs, fell behind District 5 champion Conemaugh Township early, and never recovered.
Northern?Cambria’s Derek Bearer looks for a teammate to pass the ball to while the Indians’ Jeff Fisher looks on.
The Colts' 22-6 season wrapped with a resounding 65-46 loss to Township (25-3) at the Richland High School Sports Center.
Northern Cambria coach Dan Weber and his players wanted to remember all the positives that brought them to this point, rather than the down note on which the Colts' season ended.
"It's tough, but you can't make this about tonight,'' Weber said. "You have to make this about the four years these kids put into this program. Conemaugh Township is a great team, and they beat us in all aspects of the game tonight. I don't want our kids dwelling on tonight.''
That was easier said than done for outgoing seniors like guard Adam Polites, whose game-high 28 points weren't enough to advance the Colts into Saturday's quarterfinal round against District 10 champion West Middlesex, a 61-54 winner over Bishop McCort Wednesday.
Polites was visibly distraught in the aftermath of his last high school game Wednesday.
"Right now, it really [stinks],'' Polites said. "But I don't want it to be just about tonight. I want it to be about the six years that all of us seniors put into this program, and how far we've come as a group. It's been a pleasure and a blessing to play basketball with everybody here. I'm really sad that it's over.''
Conemaugh Township set the tone early in Wednesday's game, building a 13-3 lead out of the gates and never looking back.
Senior forward Jeremy Sotosky's putback opened the scoring for Township, and senior guard Austin Speigle drained a 3-point shot from the left side to make it a 5-0 game. Another Sotosky rebound bucket gave Township a 7-1 lead, before senior guard Dillon Boyer hit two consecutive 3-point field goals for the 13-3 Township lead midway through the first quarter.
"Being down is tough for any team to claw back from, especially in the playoffs,'' Boyer said. "We're playing good basketball right now. If we can cut down on our turnovers, I think we'll be OK Saturday.''
Turnovers hurt Northern Cambria in Wednesday's game. Township's pressure defense forced the Colts to cough up the basketball 11 times in the first half, as Township built a 36-23 lead by intermission.
"That's been our M.O., to have our defense create some offense,'' Township coach Chuck Lesko said. "I thought our defense kept them off-balance most of the night, and we settled into our game.''
Township enjoyed good balance and depth. Boyer led the Indians with 15 points, while junior forward Jeff Callihan came off the bench to score 14 and Sotosky added 11. Sotosky and starting senior guard Josh Burns sat out much of the second half after incurring their fourth fouls, and both fouled out before game's end.
But Township's bench, led by Callihan, filled the void.
"Our bench played fantastic, both offensively and defensively,'' Boyer said.
Northern Cambria, which got 13 points and 14 rebounds from senior forward Jeff Hogan, didn't help itself by making just 15 of 56 floor shots, including only two in the third quarter, when the Colts might have had a chance to chip away at their deficit.
"We had some good looks, but we were struggling to put the ball in the basket,'' Weber said.
Township - which carved out a 32-26 rebounding edge with senior forward Jeff Fisher grabbing 14 - led, 49-32 after three quarters and played the game in cruise control throughout the fourth.
"In the second half, we backed off a little defensively,'' Lesko said. "We wanted to try to force [Northern Cambria] to make shots.''
The Colts' graduating seniors - five of whom comprised the team's starting lineup - left a legacy that the underclassmen will strive to emulate.
"To get into the District 6-AA championship game this year was one of our goals,'' said Weber, whose squad lost to Penn Cambria in the district title game. "We had a few disappointing losses this year, but we bounced back every time. Our seniors delivered a very powerful message - that winning is a part of who we are.''
NORTHERN CAMBRIA (46): Bearer 0 1-3 1, Polites 9 4-5 28, Bonatesta 1 1-4 3, N. Lee 0 1-2 1, Hogan 5 3-4 13, Atkins 0 0-0 0, Z. Lee 0 0-0 0. Totals - 15 10-16 46.
CONEMAUGH TOWNSHIP (65): Speigle 2 0-0 6, Burns 2 2-2 6, Boyer 5 2-3 15, Sotosky 5 1-1 11, Fisher 4 1-2 9, Callihan 4 6-7 14, Formica 2 0-0 4. Totals - 24 12-15 65.
SCORE BY QUARTERS
Northern Cambria8 15 9 14 - 46
Conemaugh Township15 21 13 16 - 65
3-point goals: Northern Cambria 6 (Polites 6); Conemaugh Township 5 (Boyer 3, Speigle 2).
Records: Northern Cambria (22-6); Conemaugh Township (25-3).
Officials: Andrew Mickens, Paul Sroka, Jerry Susi.