It’s been a bit of a different year for the State College boys’ basketball team.
First, there was a big, full league schedule from the school becoming a full member of the Mid-Penn Conference, and the Little Lions lost a schedule featuring teams from around the state.
Then they entered the District 6 tournament knowing there were no second chances, with only the winner advancing to the PIAA tournament next week.
Their opponent to win that district title is also different — State College (16-7) will face Central Mountain (16-6) in the Class AAAA finals at 8 p.m. Wednesday at St. Francis University’s DeGol Arena.
While State College has a dozen district crowns, including the last two and seven since 2002, Central Mountain has never won a title in its much shorter history, and its predecessor, Lock Haven, only won two — in 1998 and 1925.
Still, the Little Lions will be taking nothing for granted.
“We have to put all our effort out,” senior guard Kyle Kanaskie said. “We have to bring all our energy and do everything under our control, and hopefully everything plays out in our favor.”
Following a long life as either an independent program or a member of a small Mountain Athletic Conference, State College joined the Mid-Penn this school year, which included some tough competition against the likes of Harrisburg, Chambersburg and Cumberland Valley. The Little Lions finished second in the standings, behind only Harrisburg.
“The quality of competition was there night-in, night-out, and maybe that wasn’t there in the past,” coach Drew Frank said. “I think our guys are used to playing, have learned how to win against quality competition and that’s always a big step.”
In seasons past, the district had gotten two bids into the PIAA tournament in various forms, whether it was a spot in the 32-team bracket or at least a play-in game, there was always new life for the district runner-up. That isn’t the case this season, putting a little extra pressure on making sure the Little Lions get a win on Wednesday.
“In years past the semifinals, there was pressure to win that game,” Frank said. “If you won that you at least knew you were going forward. This year, not only is the district tournament still a seeding tournament for the state tournament, but now you’ve got to win to make that matter.”
The teams used to meet regularly when they were independent programs or in the MAC, but they are tangling for the first time this season, and their first meeting since State College won 66-24 in last season’s semifinals. In that game, Kanaskie and Bryan Sekunda combined to score more points (29) than the Wildcats, and they lead the team in scoring this season at 16.7 and 20.5 points per game, respectively.
Many of the faces have changed this time, giving little impact of that meeting on Wednesday’s contest, but one other big name is the same – Central Mountain standout Cole Renninger. The 6-foot-2 senior guard, who is approaching 2,000 career points, is averaging 27.4 points per game this season, and is arguably the best player in Central Pennsylvania. He is not a one-man team either, despite also averaging 8.3 rebounds, 4.4 assists and 4.9 steals per game. Tyler Everhart (9.9 points per game), Travis Turchetta (5.9) and Luke Wise (5.5) also provide threats that make defenses wary of concentrating too hard on Renninger.
“He’s one of the most complete offensive players that we have faced not only this year but in the last couple of seasons,” Frank said of Renninger. “You’re not going to stop him, I’m hoping we can contain him, and I hope we’re going to be able to prevent him from getting everybody else involved. That would be a huge step for us.”
Making the defensive effort more difficult will be the 94-foot-long floor at DeGol Arena, with the NCAA court longer than the standard court on which the Little Lions normally play. With Renninger’s dribble penetration, the gaps may be a little bigger and the Little Lions will have to make some adjustments.
But the Little Lions are looking forward to the challenge and another turn in a new and different season.
Said Frank: “We’re going to have them ready to play on Wednesday.”