By Brian Youngerman
Mount Joy, PA
Now I know why they call it March Madness, and it has nothing to do with college basketball.
Its all in the high school game.
The Donegal (PA) high school boys basketball team did things that no Donegal team had ever done, nor should have done. They completed a perfect 22-0 regular season, and won the school's first ever Lancaster-Lebanon league section title. They won one game, then lost the next, in the league playoffs, losing to Lancaster McCaskey, a larger school with a larger and more highly rated team.
Donegal then went on to the Pennsylvania District 3 (a combination of several counties in PA) playoffs, where they won twice and got to the District Final Four, before losing to Berks Catholic, a larger school, with a more highly ranked team. In the 3rd place consolation game, Donegal defeated Susquehanna Township, a larger, more highly rated, team.
See the pattern here?
Having beaten a really good team, Donegal took on a confidence that I'd never seen in a high school program. In the next set of playoffs, the 32-team state playoffs, the Ryan Butt-coached Indians squad won a relatively easy 1st round game, then took on the #3 ranked team in the state, and won. They next had to face the #1 team in the state, a Catholic Neumann-Goretti squad from the Philadelphia basketball machine. Neumann-Goretti had won the past three state AAA class titles. But either no one told the Donegal team about those titles, or they didn't care.
Donegal, which is a AA-sized school playing in the larger AAA class, won anyway over the top-ranked team in the state in their AAA class. Even giving up a 16-0 run, and trailing by 10 at the half, did not matter to Donegal. It was just another memorable night in a string of memorable nights for the Donegal team and the fans that followed them all over the state.
Now in the state class AAA Final Four, it was time to face the new #1 team in the state, the Imhotep charter school which, like the Catholic schools, can attract players from around the city of Philadelphia. Imhotep had been winning titles in the AA class before moving up this season to AAA.
In one of the great comebacks I have ever seen at any level of basketball, Donegal nearly came all the way back from a 12-point 2nd half deficit. The gutsy Donegal players rained 3's in the historic Reading High (PA) Geigle Complex, to close the game to a 2-point deficit, with the ball in their hands and 10 seconds on the clock.
We won't go into the way the game ended, and the Donegal season that ended with it. Let's just say that you never want the officials to make the difference in a game.
These Donegal kids were Rudy, Hoosiers, and Rocky, all rolled into one. Except it wasn't fictionalized. It was real, and it was real incredible.
They say that basketball is supposed to teach young people all of those life lessons. But that wasn't the case with this Donegal team. No, these players turned that all around. It was they who taught us fans, parents, and students. They taught us what can happen when you believe in yourself, in each other, and never back down. No matter how far behind they got -- 10 points down to Neumann-Goretti? Down by 12 to Imhotep? -- they never gave up, never gave in, and never, ever, let down Donegal Nation.. When they went up against all those top-ranked teams with the the Division I-bound players, when they fell behind, we wanted to be out on the floor with the Donegal players, trying to do what we could to help. But then we realized that we could never do any better than what these teenagers were showing they could do together.
Even better than what they did on the court was what they did off the court. I've been following the Tweets of the players and the student section and coaches. Kids? Good kids. You wish your own children were this good.
When I was in 6th grade, my dad took me to games of the great Reading High School team of Stu Jackson (now an executive with the NBA). I was thrilled, even at that age, to be able to see greatness on the basketball court -- Reading would lose a controversial state championship game, in which the opponent went to the foul line and made shots with :00 on the clock (I'm not kidding).
No, you NEVER want the officials to make a difference in a game.
So I made certain that my own young son went to Donegal games with me this season. I knew it was a special season, and I didn't want either of us to miss it. Ryan might not remember this team when he's older and going to Donegal high school. But I will remind him that he was there, and that he was cheering when Donegal scored (okay, so he cheered when the opponents scored, too, but hey, he's only 2 years old). I will remind him how these young men of Donegal high played the game of basketball, and how they carried themselves off the court as well.
No, my son won't remember what the Donegal boys team did this year. But I will never let him forget. And all of us fans who were along for this ride this year will always remember the 2013 Donegal team that finished with a 29-3 record.
So to Jason, and Martin, and Matt and Dylan, and Michael, and Tommy, the kids on the bench, and coaches Ryan and Matt who molded them, thank you from those of us who had the privilege of learning life's lessons from these terrific teenagers.
And to the student section, you amazing student fans, I have never seen anything like that at the high school level. Great job, Colby. Great job, students. It wouldn't have been the same without you.
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