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Shining Moments on the Local Hardwoods

As it has done for years, Hershey’s Giant Center ushered in spring’s arrival, rolling out the red carpet and hosting the annual Pennsylvania private & charter school invitational, formally known as the PIAA State High School basketball finals.

Twenty-four teams, 12 boys and 12 girls squared off in the six PIAA classifications, aiming to take home first-place gold medals and the giant Hershey bar presented to the victors. Although the playing surface at the Giant Center is perfectly flat, the road to ‘the sweetest place on earth’ is strewn with obstacles for public school teams as the eligibility rules by which they must abide differ from the talented private/charter school teams in their path.

While many of the familiar private/charter school faces were center court once again, that is a story for another time and one that the PIAA doesn’t seem too concerned about addressing. The accomplishments of local District IV basketball teams at the state tournament often pale in comparison with other areas. Williamsport has won a couple of state crowns, as did Loyalsock a few years ago, but teams drawing District IV opponents often do so with a great deal of confidence.

Prior to the start of this year’s state playoffs, I had a conversation with a District 3 coach who was commenting on upcoming games. His premise was that Octorara, who lost in the district’s AAAA semifinals, received a better draw than the team winning that semifinal because they were to play Danville, while the victorious team was to play a team from the Philadelphia Catholic League. The inference was that District IV teams were not as competitive. Both District 3 teams suffered the same first-round fate, with Danville beating Octorara by 13 points.

It is quite possible other District IV teams also were overlooked by their opponents entering state competition, but this year local teams caught the attention of hoop fans. ‘Wake up the echoes’ is a phrase present in the Notre Dame Victory March. It is meant to encourage someone to remember or receive past memories or glories. Future members of basketball teams at Loyalsock, Hughesville, Muncy, and St. John Neumann may someday themselves be encouraged to wake up the echoes of the accomplishments of their schools during the 2024 playoffs.

The Muncy boys’ and girls’ teams won District IV championships, as did the Hughesville and St. John Neumann girls and the Loyalsock boys. The schools’ three girls’ teams reached the state’s Elite Eight, as did the Lancer boys. The Township’s Lady Lancers did them all one step better before falling to perennial power Lancaster Catholic 53-43 in the AAA semifinal.

The truism in sports playoff competition is that unless you win the championship, you will lose the last game you play. All the above-mentioned teams suffered that fate. But there will be plenty of ‘echoes’ to relate to in the years to come.

With only one returning starter, the Muncy boys performed above expectations, capturing a District IV title and reaching the state tournament. Along the way, they secured local bragging rights, defeating rivals St. John Neumann and South Williamsport each three times. The Lady Indians concluded the deepest run in school history, reaching the state’s Elite Eight for the first time after winning their first District title since 2001.

As they did to Loyalsock, Lancaster Catholic ended the Hughesville ladies’ dreams of a state title in the AAA quarterfinals, but in doing so, they captured the hearts of their community and provided their ‘big, bad balcony’ student section with plenty to cheer about and remember. 

St. John Neumann’s Lady Golden Knight also saw their season end with a 42-30 defeat at the hands of Mountain View. But the sting of that defeat cannot erase the most memorable season in school history. A team that didn’t have a head coach (Jaiden Cioffi) until just days before practice started in November produced its’ first league, conference, and district championship.

At Loyalsock, winning is expected, but Coach Curtis Jacobson pushed his Lady Lancers to the best girls’ record in school history. An unexpected loss to Hughesville in the district championship game momentarily delivered a blow, but the team responded with impressive wins over Lake Lehman and Holy Redeemer before running into the Lancaster Catholic juggernaut in the state’s final four.

While post-game tears flowed in the ladies’ locker rooms after those final losses, the most emotional moment of the playoff season overflowed following the Loyalsock boys 62-54 overtime loss to Math, Civic and Sciences in the Elite Eight. 

Lancer coach Ron Insinger is known statewide for his teams’ accomplishments. He has won more games than any basketball coach in Pennsylvania history, and while 20-win seasons and district titles are goals of most coaches ‘CI’ rolls them off in assembly line-like precision. 

But this basketball season was much more than winning games for Insinger and his Lancers. His opponent was not just the next team he was facing. In his 50th year on the sidelines, the veteran coach was diagnosed with cancer last October but battled through never missing a practice or game. The wins were great, but the support and understanding he received from his players gave him the strength to carry on.

In a post-game interview with the Sun-Gazette’s Chris Masse, Insinger’s emotions rose to the surface.

“It’s eye-opening. I didn’t know if I was going to make it to Christmas. These kids: Their courage and their fight, rubbed off on me every single night. Their caring and asking about me just uplifted me to no end. All the strength just came from every one of them. They put me on their shoulders and carried me.

“It’s better than any championship. They made me optimistic, and I’m going to win this battle. It’s because of the power that they’ve given me, the strength that they’ve given me every single night.”

The 2023-24 high school basketball season produced so many memorable moments for players, coaches, and fans. Likely, more honors will come as several players may hear their names called on various all-state teams. But for Ron Insinger, what this year’s team has meant to him is greater than all the accolades he has received over the years.

Truly, the lessons sports provide go far beyond the playing of games.