Despite strong start, Deer Lakes comes up short to West Catholic in PIAA Class 3A final

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Saturday, March 25, 2023 | 3:53 PM


HERSHEY — “Let’s go Lancers.”

With the fourth-quarter clock running out, the Deer Lakes student section ignored the lopsided situation on the Giant Center scoreboard and chanted one last time. The Lancers were down 30 points and headed for an 83-55 loss to Philadelphia’s West Catholic in the PIAA Class 3A finals, but coach Albie Fletcher and his players were met with appreciative cheers.

“I get goose bumps now just thinking about when they did it,” said Fletcher, 1993 graduate and first-year coach who led his alma mater to the state finals for the first time. “They know what these kids are all about. They saw the effort on the court. They knew those guys weren’t giving up. But to get that back from your student body and your community means everything to me and means everything to these kids.”

The outcome was already decided far earlier.

A dominant second quarter by West Catholic dashed Deer Lakes’ state title hopes. The WPIAL champion Lancers had a one-point lead after the first quarter but were outscored by 20 points in the second as West Catholic ran away with the win. The Lancers trailed 38-19 at half.

“I can’t ask for any more from our community,” said Bryce Robson, one of Deer Lakes’ four senior starters. “They’re with us every step of the way, through every win and every loss.”

Junior Billy Schaeffer scored a team-high 21 points, and Robson had 20 for Deer Lakes (21-9), which won its first WPIAL title earlier this month. Fletcher complimented their PIAA opponents as “what a collection of players,” a subtle nod to the public vs. private debate that surrounds the state championships each winter.

The Philadelphia Catholic League team was led by a pair of high-scoring seniors, both with Division I offers. Adam “Budd” Clark scored 32 points, and 6-foot-5 Temple commit Zion Stanford had 30 as the Burrs shot 61% from the field.

Combined, the two scorers went 27 for 34 shooting.

The state title was the first for West Catholic (20-10), which like Deer Lakes, was making its first appearance in the WPIAL finals.

“If you think for one minute I’d rather be in that other locker room with gold medals around my neck, shame on you,” Fletcher said, “because you don’t understand what we just accomplished this year. … This team and this community is what this should be all about.”

Deer Lakes was trying to match the success the school’s girls basketball team found in 1985. That team staged a second-half rally to win a PIAA title.

Fletcher shared that history lesson at half.

“I was here in 1985 when my sister played,” he said. “They were down to Palmyra by 17 at half and came back and won. I said, ‘Look, it’s never over. We’ve got to battle.’ ”

West Catholic’s size and quickness was too much.

Deer Lakes struggled with the defensive pressure put on its guards. Philadelphia teams in the state finals traditionally play a physical brand of on-ball defense, and West Catholic was no different. The Burrs forced 18 turnovers, including seven in the decisive second quarter.

“That’s how kids go play at the park in Philadelphia,” West Catholic coach Miguel Bocachica said.

The pressure disrupted Deer Lakes’ offense.

Clark led West Catholic with four steals. The 5-11 guard was headed to Coppin State before reopening his recruitment.

“We had to get into our stuff very early,” Fletcher said. “We actually had to get into a set to weather the initial run-and-jump they were doing to then try and get into a set.”

Deer Lakes scored the game’s first five points and led 8-1 after three minutes. Schaeffer boosted the early offense with three 3s in the first quarter. But the Lancers’ lead was down to 15-14 when West Catholic hit a last-second 3-pointer.

That momentum carried over to the second quarter, where West Catholic opened with six consecutive points and outscored Deer Lakes, 24-4, in those eight minutes.

“We are a defensive basketball team,” said Bocachica, noting that Deer Lakes was the first PIAA opponent to reach 50 points. “I knew at some point we would dig in defensively. That second quarter was amazing.”

Deer Lakes took only six shots in the second quarter and made just two. Clark and Stanford punctuated the quarter with a last-second alley-oop to lead 38-19 at half.

The Lancers’ deficit reached 27 points after three.

“The lateral quickness on those guys is unbelievable,” Robson said. “That’s what you get from (Philadelphia teams). They’re really battle tested and come from a very tough conference. We knew we were going to have our hands full.

“Unfortunately, it showed, but I still love my guys.”

Chris Harlan is a TribLive reporter covering sports. He joined the Trib in 2009 after seven years as a reporter at the Beaver County Times. He can be reached at charlan@triblive.com.

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