Penncrest doesn’t consider itself an underdog

MIDDLETOWN — Saturday afternoon, Penncrest’s boys basketball team will endure a long bus ride for a playoff game. It will play in front of a partisan crowd as marked underdogs.

For a team that feels it has been written off since before this season began, Saturday’s trip to Dallastown High to take on District Three champion William Penn York in the opening round of the PIAA Class AAAA Tournament has long since lost the feeling of novelty.

This is the sixth straight game the Lions (16-11) will play away from home this postseason. It’s the sixth straight time they will be underdogs, starting as the No. 28 seed in the District One tournament to finish as its 10th and final representative in states.

That unlikely journey entitles the Lions to a certain sense of accomplishment.

“We’re just trying to enjoy it,’ senior guard Mike Doyle said at practice Wednesday. “Our whole team is trying to enjoy the moment because it’s crazy that we’re here. Our wildest dreams wouldn’t have put us here. It’s an unbelievable feeling.’

The underdog mentality comes with a caveat. Penncrest certainly didn’t enter the postseason feeling like a 28 seed, thinking its 10-3 start was more indicative of its ability than a 3-6 finish. Traveling to inhospitable gyms like Penn Wood, Lower Merion and Academy Park became a proving ground for that assertion.

“We don’t really feel like underdogs because I feel like we all know that if we didn’t have the collapse at the end of the season, we would’ve been a higher seed,’ center Chandler Henry said. “We feel like we can beat all these teams.’

The underdog current runs deeper for the Lions, though. After coach Mike Doyle piloted them to a sixth straight district appearances last spring, the future was undeniably bright. They’d have to replace leading scorer Rahmi Halaby, but with second-leading scorer Ben Casanova returning and the backcourt of Doyle, Drew Hanna and Nolan Carroll intact for their senior seasons, they’d be in fine shape.

Then came news that the younger Doyle dreaded: Casanova and his family would be moving to Ohio, taking away a vital cog in a cohesive senior class that had lofty aspirations.

“He told me two days after our season ended that it was a possibility,’ Doyle said. “And then he started telling Nolan and Drew and a couple of the guys, our friend group. And it hit us once we started playing spring league games and summer league games.

“It was a ton of adversity. On the basketball court it was difficult, and off it was even harder.’

Faced with compensating for the 13.5 points per game Casanova averaged last year, Doyle felt as though some people automatically wrote Penncrest off, even before summer scrimmages commenced. But without Casanova through the spring and summer, other contributors were forced to emerge.

There was AJ Taylor, the junior who rose to the varsity ranks after a strong sophomore season on JV. There was Henry, the 6-8 center who was injured all of last season, thus not regarded by those looking from the outside of the program as an option. And there was the rest of the senior class, which numbered seven strong and carried that chip of perceived disrespect on their shoulders.

“We weren’t driving to Penn Wood like, ‘˜oh we lost Ben,” Doyle said. “But the fact that we had that adversity, we were OK that we were playing at Penn Wood, at Lower Merion, at Springfield, at Academy Park.’

Against William Penn (25-4), they’ll again face adversity in abundance against a team that can score in bunches. Eleven times, the Bearcats have scored more than 80 points in a game. They’ve gotten over the 90-point plateau seven times, including a mind-boggling 124 in one game. Much of the team that banished last year’s Central League states Cinderella story, Haverford (also at Dallastown), returns, including explosive forwards Jahaire Wilson and Brandon Smallwood and guard Montrel Morgan.

One thing that won’t be slowing the Lions is any inkling of pressure. They’ll battle and play hard, sure, but their season could’ve ended weeks ago. Anything from here on out is a bonus.

“We’re always playing pressure-free because we’ve always been the lower seed in every game,’ Doyle said. “It’s pressure off for us. We’re the 28 seed in the district. We’re not supposed to be here, so it’s pressure on the other teams to beat us.’

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