Was the 2018-19 season the best in program history for the Elizabethtown Area High School boys basketball?
It’s up there. The Bears finished 13-9 in the regular season, an impressive result considering how difficult their schedule was. That was good for second in Section Two of the Lancaster-Lebanon League behind Warwick. Elizabethtown went on to beat ELCO and upset top-seeded Lampeter-Strasburg in the league playoffs before falling to eventual champion Manheim Township.
But the year didn’t stop that. Back in the district playoffs for the first time since 2013, the Bears clinched a berth in states, their first since 2009, with a buzzer-beater in the first round at Shippensburg; they’d again come up short against the team who would go on to win the title, Lower Dauphin, later taking sixth place overall in Class 5A for District 3. Elizabethtown’s season ended with a wild overtime loss to Greater Johnstown in the first round of states.
Got all that? It’s a lot to take in, even more so for the team as they reflect ahead of this upcoming season. It’s also a lot to live up to. There may have been better overall campaigns for the Bears in the past. That 2008-09 team, which won the section title and finished fourth in the Class 4A playoffs comes to mind, as does the 1971 district runner-up squad. But no other group had to fight as much as last year’s. Now, the returning players have to focus on moving ahead.
“Just knowing that we have returning players and a strong core coming back helps,” senior Elijah Eberly said. “I feel like we’re a controlled group. We know how to play and how to avoid that outside noise.”
“The pressure is more motivation,” senior Ryan Parise said. “With everyone saying that we lost Larry, Amos and Dylan, we just sort of have a chip on our shoulder to prove everyone wrong again this year.”
Ryan is referring to the 2019 senior class of Larry Locker, Amos Kollie and Dylan Sweger. A small departing group in terms of numbers, but not when it comes to their contributions on the court. Kollie, a jack-of-all-trades in the backcourt, and Sweger, a sharpshooter off the bench, performed their roles to perfection, stepping up in big moments when they had to. Kollie, for instance, sank the game-tying basket in states just to keep the Bears’ season alive. Sweger knocked down five 3-pointers in the aforementioned upset over L-S in leagues as well.
Then there’s Locker, who became the all-time leading scorer in program history late during the regular season. He led the team and was third in the league with 19 points per game. He also had a pair of late-game heroics in the postseason: the game-winning and-one off a Kollie assist against L-S and a fadeaway jumper as time expired against Shippensburg.
“The first thing we’ll miss is their leadership,” head coach Rocky Parise said. “We’re really gonna miss Amos, Dylan and Larry, and they all made big plays when we needed them to last year, so other guys need to step up and make those plays. But I think with every team, you develop new leaders, and then those leaders leave and new ones come in. I think we’ve done a pretty good job this offseason in developing new leaders. The thing that we have back this year is guys that have been playing a ton of varsity minutes. Ryan and Elijah have combined for 125 games going into this year, which is a lot for two players.”
Eberly (9.7 points, 7.3 rebounds and 2 blocks per game) and Ryan Parise (9.3 points, 4.8 assists per game) have been starting for two years now. Junior Luke Pierson (7.2 points, 2.3 steals, 1.6 blocks per game) is the other returning starter for Elizabethtown as well. Not many L-L teams have that sort of experience.
“It’s gonna really help, especially for the beginning of the season,” Eberly said. “We’re gonna be better prepared with more experience. We focused more on the weight room with a good workout program. We got in there at least three days a week and just went hard at it.”
On the other hand, the Bears will have just one other regular rotation player back from last season: senior Brody Beach, who may have had the biggest leap in development from start to finish. Beginning the year as a player who other teams may have viewed as an extra hand off the bench, Beach ultimately finished second on the team with 33 3-pointers (just one behind Sweger), notably leading Elizabethtown in scoring during two of their district playoff games. He’ll be the standard that the rising players in the program will look to meet.
“I wanted to prove that I’m not an afterthought,” Beach said. “I’m a legit basketball player who can stretch the floor on offense and play all-around on defense. My goal was just to keep up with Ryan and Amos in the backcourt, and I think I did that.”
“It’s interesting because, if you look at the program in general, we have program-developed kids,” Coach Parise said, citing Beach as an example. “Guys who bought into what we were trying to do, showed up to everything, didn’t miss anything and had a great attitude. They aren’t entitled at all. They just worked hard, and now they’ve earned some time. I haven’t seen one group of guys improve this much in one offseason after 13 years of coaching high school basketball. It’s a testament to their work ethic; playing AAU in the spring, lifting all summer, playing summer league, going to team camp, playing in some really competitive tournaments in the fall. That really makes us excited for the year.”
For now, the fifth starting spot is up for grabs. Senior Alex O’Shea, who spent most of last year on junior varsity before getting some relief minutes during the playoffs, might have first dibs. Like Kollie, he’s a bit of a jack-of-all-trades. Coach Parise complimented him for his offseason work ethic.
The other two candidates are the Gilhool brothers. The oldest is Gavin, a senior who was also a JV player last year. He’s the tallest on the team at 6-foot-6; Coach Parise lauded his dramatic improvement during the team’s fall tournament appearances. His younger brother Pat, a sophomore, has a bright future ahead of him, having earned some fill-in minutes in the playoffs as O’Shea did. Fellow sophomore Tech Gonquoi will be relied upon as a ball-handler off the bench as well. The remaining two varsity players, senior Josh Potteiger and junior Brandon Lewis, will each have opportunities to play as needed.
“Each game is different, so if a guy’s only getting in for five minutes, he has to make the most of those five minutes,” Coach Parise said. “That could turn the game for us. There are a couple of guys who might not be in the regular rotation that I can put in if the game starts becoming stagnant. They can bring a lot of energy and fire. Our depth has been talked about all offseason, and I truly believe that we might be deeper than we were last year.”
Since Coach Parise took over in 2016, he has continually preached a “one game at a time” mentality, part of an overall cultural shift for the program. If last year is any indication, it’s working. He mused about the fact that he had over 20 kids who consistently showed up to weight room sessions during the offseason, compared to just three when he started as head coach.
But he’s also got his eye on the future, as evidenced by the makeup of the JV team this year. Last season, Gonquoi and Pat Gilhool were the only two freshmen for the Bears. Now, there are six, who will team with returning junior Matt Lehman and rising junior-high sophomore Jakob Power. It was a practical move, given that a whopping 42 players tried out for the junior high team. But it also might advance progression as it did with Beach, O’Shea and the Gilhools.
“They came to a lot of stuff during the offseason and showed a willingness to work and listen, which was a really good thing for us to see,” Coach Parise said. “Some of those guys are multi-sport athletes, but they still made time for us. Mainly, it was a program decision. We’ve been losing a lot of guys between ninth and 10th grade. It was like, ‘How do we keep as many of those kids as possible to build a future around without just having 15 kids sitting on the bench at the junior high level?’ The answer was bringing some of those guys up to play on JV, which frees up space below them. We felt like we had to mix it up a little and try something new.”
“Obviously, they’re a little bit smaller, but we noticed that they’re fast, and they play together,” Ryan Parise said. “They’re willing to listen to us, and we’re hoping to pass down that team philosophy we’ve built over the years. One day, we can pass the torch.”
“They’re great listeners,” Beach said. “They do what you tell them to do, and they’ll follow you if you have the energy. They understand the game of basketball. They move well. They’re kind of all close friends, so that shows how great their chemistry is.”
After losing Locker, Kollie and Sweger at the conclusion of last year, it would be easy to assume that Elizabethtown is due to take a step down heading into this season. Conversely, with four returning regulars and a terrific offseason under their belt, the Bears could also top themselves in dominating fashion.
They’re not making any assumptions though. Elizabethtown has a long journey to tackle before even thinking about the postseason. First up? A matchup vs. Central York in Manheim Township’s tipoff tournament on Friday, Dec. 6. From there, the Bears can begin to live up to the hype.
“If anything, I feel like we have a lot to prove,” Beach said. “The preseason rankings had us at fifth in 5A, so I think we can show that we’re one of the top two. We just have to play our style of basketball and not give in to what the other team wants us to do out there.”
“We have the talent to do it,” Eberly said. “If we can just keep playing together like we have in the summer, we should be perfectly fine. We want to win as many games as possible and go as far as we can.”
“I think it’s mostly going to come down to us staying healthy as a team,” Ryan Parise said. “We’re gonna have to determine if we can get back there or not. We have to come out every night and not worry about what’s ahead of us. Just one game at a time; that’s how we like to look at it.”
“The good thing about this group is that they don’t really think about expectations and big picture,” Coach Parise said. “They literally take one day at a time. Our only expectation is to work as hard as we possibly can and win our first game. After that, it’s time for the second game. I don’t like to think big picture because it can get you caught up in a trap. We’re going to hit adversity at some point during the year, and if you start to stray from those expectations, you might panic a bit. This group just goes out and plays. They’re confident, but they’re not cocky. They’re tough, but they play with class. They’re not scared of anybody. That’s the key to having a successful team.”