Parkland High School’s boys basketball team began the 2022-23 season with a scrimmage against state power Roman Catholic of Philadelphia.
Wouldn’t you know it, the Trojans are going to cross paths with Roman Catholic again – this time in the PIAA Class 6A Elite Eight on Saturday at a time and site to be determined.
Andy Stephens’ District 11 championship squad made that return engagement possible by eliminating Garnet Valley 74-58 in the second round Wednesday night in the first game of a 6A doubleheader at Reading’s Geigle Complex.
Roman Catholic, the District 12 champion, outlasted District 1 third-place Lower Merion 60-56 in overtime at another venue.
“It’s nice to keep the season going and playing with these guys,” Parkland senior guard Joey Gerbasio said.
Junior Nick Coval and senior Matt Ray led the Trojans with 23 and 20 points, respectively, but the Trojans wouldn’t be where they are as a two-time district champions and state quarterfinalists if not for their football players transforming into “basketball players.”
Junior Luke Spang, the starting quarterback, contributed six points while forcing Garnet Valley’s 6-foot-4 talented sophomore Jake Sniras to earn his team-high 21 points despite giving away four inches in height.
Linebacker Robbie Ruisch is coming off the bench to become a sharp-shooting 3-point specialist. He scored eight points and was 2-for-5 from beyond the arc. He also scored 12 points with three 3s in the 56-39 state-opening win over West Chester Henderson.
Connor Johns also plays valuable minutes – often spelling starter Zaire Smaltz – rebounding and setting screens to get his teammates open.
“I think I was fully in basketball shape once the playoffs started,” Spang said. “I feel like a whole different player.”
All these subtle contributions from Parkland’s rank-and-file players create space offensively for Coval and Ray to operate, whether it was shooting jumpers or driving to the basket.
“Our offense is pretty good when we’re all sharing the ball,” Spang said. “We also played tough defense, and that led to more points.”
The game didn’t start out like it would be a 16-point win. Garnet Valley, the seventh-place team from District 1, shot out to a 7-0 lead. Parkland went ahead 11-9 on Ray’s 3-pointer, but Jack Krautzel’s three-point play pushed the Jaguars to a 17-14 lead entering the second quarter.
Consecutive 3s from Krautzel and Sniras along with a sweet alley-oop from Ryan Faccenda to Logan McKee extended the advantage to 25-16 with 6:18 left until halftime.
“We tried some zone (defense), and it didn’t look so good, so we went back to man,” Stephens said.
Ray, the smallest player on the floor at 5-foot-9, decided to take charge offensively. He began probing the middle of Garnet Valley’s zone, which was shaded toward stopping the 3-pointer.
Ray fed Johns for a layup, Ruisch hit a 3 from the corner and Coval swished a 3. Ray deposited two more shots in the lane, Ruisch drilled another 3 and Gerbasio splashed a 3 for a 34-31 lead with 25 seconds remaining.
Parkland got the ball back again and played for the last shot as Garnet Valley fouled three times in the final 10 seconds but didn’t put the Trojans to the free throw line.
They didn’t have to. Coval drove and threw up an off-balanced layup. As everyone seemed to be walking off the court toward the locker rooms, Coval quickly tapped his shot back in the basket for the most fundamental two points you’ll ever see.
“Nick getting that basket just before halftime was big because instead of being up three, we went in leading by five,” Stephens said.
Garnet Valley cut the lead to 38-37 in the third quarter only to allow Ray to again get inside for consecutive short jumpers before Ruisch added a jumper off a feed from Coval.
“Matt’s our glue guy,” Spang said. “He’s always making those tough shots in practice.”
You get the sense watching Ray play he’s never lost a driveway pick-up game.
“In terms of confidence level, Matt plays to it or above his level,” Stephens said. “He’s like a coach on the floor. He has high expectations for himself and his teammates. Sometimes, he can be hard on his teammates but not in a bad way because he expects that from himself.”
The Jaguars (18-10) made one last run at the Trojans, trailing 59-56 with 2:30 remaining. Ray halted the momentum with a pair of free throws, Coval went coast-to-coast for a layup against the press and Spang scored inside.
“Coach tells us if we get good shots take them; that way we can keep the lead,” said Gerbasio who scored his team’s final field goal for a 70-58 lead with a minute to go. Ray went 4-for-4 from the line to seal it.
“They’re a very good team,” Garnet Valley coach Mike Brown said. “We expected their No. 2 (Coval) to be that good, but his teammates are good, too. They took turns making 3s.”
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Corky Blake can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.