By Ryan Croke
Heading into Tuesday night’s District I playoff game, the Jaguars’ boys basketball team was surrounded by question marks. After finishing their regular season with a 15-7 record and as the 8th-seeded team in the field, one would expect things to be looking up for the Garnet Valley squad, and rightfully so. Considering they had to fight for their lives at the end of last season to barely sneak into the playoffs as the lowest seed in the tournament, the Jags had certainly made massive strides. However, despite the regular season being a resounding success on the surface, when one digs deeper, it’s understandable why the mood was as tense as it was in the 2020 Center on Tuesday.
The Jags, finishing with the 8th seed, had earned a first-round bye, and would be able to head into Tuesday’s contest well-rested after the 9th-seeded Methacton Warriors took care of Conestoga in the opening round. However, the season had ended on quite a disappointing note for this Jaguar group, having lost their final two games of the regular season in heartbreaking fashion to Upper Darby and Haverford, which took them out of contention for a top-four seed and what likely would have been two home playoff games. Following those disappointments, a horrific offensive performance against Springfield on their home floor in which they were held to only 29 points and suffered an early exit from the Central League playoffs did not bode well for team morale. Losing three in a row is not the way any team hopes to enter a District Playoff run, but the Jags entered Tuesday night with one thing in mind, that being a win over the team that had knocked them out of the District playoffs the year before.
In that wire-to-wire thrill ride, the then 1st-seeded Warriors were taken to overtime by the 24th-seeded Jaguars in the midst of their cinderella run, but eventually came out on top thanks to dominant play from 2022 All-Mercury Area Player of the Year Cole Hargrove, a 6’8” forward now playing college ball at Drexel. Even though they had lost, the Jags had shown what they were made of that night in enemy territory, and going into Tuesday, that loss had to have been fresh in the minds of all the returning players from that 2021-22 squad.
Coming in with additional motivation to succeed was exactly what the Jaguars needed, and they jumped out to an early 13-0 lead in the first quarter. Things were going incredibly well for Garnet Valley until Methacton senior Matt Christian sunk an array of three-point shots, scoring all of Methacton’s first-quarter points. As the horn sounded Garnet Valley found their 13-point lead all but evaporated as Christian’s sharp shooting (including a buzzer-beating shot from the logo, only a forecast of things to come) had made the score 15-12.
The second quarter saw some more quality play from the Jaguar offense overpower Methacton’s poor shooting, and at the half, the Jags found themselves back up by 10, with the score 33-23. Ryan Faccenda and Max Koehler led the way for the Jaguars all night long, and in the second half, they had only amplified their stellar play from the first. Faccenda was simply too much for anyone on the Methacton squad to handle, and with Koehler’s jump shot being automatic from tip-off to the final horn, the two seniors combined for 35 points on the night, including a handful of beautiful combination plays with one another.
The success of Faccenda and Koehler propelled Garnet Valley to a 13-point advantage with under two and a half minutes left in the fourth quarter. However, thanks to the Jags missing 7 of 13 4th-quarter free throws and sloppy play on the defensive glass, when the Warriors were finally able to connect on shots they had been missing all night long, they found themselves back within striking distance. The Garnet Valley managed to trickle down to a singular point after Matt Christian, after being all but silent since his white-hot first quarter, hit yet another three-point shot from the logo to make the score 60-59 with 17.7 seconds to go. Ryan Faccenda hit two clutch shots at the line to put the Jags back up by three with 16.6 on the clock. If it weren’t for him hitting 9 of 11 free throws over the course of the game, the Jags’ fourth-quarter struggles likely would have gotten the best of them. Considering that he was playing the final minutes of the game with four fouls only adds to the allure of his incredible performance.
With the Jags up 62-59, and it being a one-score game with under 20 seconds to go, everyone in the 2020 Center knew exactly where the ball was going, including the players on the floor. As Methacton brought the ball past half court and let the clock all the way down to under five seconds, Sal Iemmello waited for his teammate to come screaming around the wing before he passed the ball. As Christian caught the pass, he was greeted by two Jaguar defenders looking to make his shot as difficult as possible. It didn’t matter. In a moment parallel to the end of the first quarter, Christian sunk a three from the logo as time expired to send the game to overtime. The Jaguar crowd could do nothing but watch in awe as a 13-point advantage had once again been evaporated by Matt Christian’s incredible shooting.
Overtime saw a 2020 Center that was as tense as it had ever been before. Four grueling minutes of agonizingly slow-paced, methodical offense ended with both teams failing to put any additional points on the board before the buzzer sounded once more. Jack Krautzel had gone to the line for two free throws and an opportunity to potentially ice the game but had come up short on both, much to the shock of the home crowd. The second overtime period saw the scoring return, despite Faccenda fouling out about halfway through the period to cap off an outstanding night for the Jaguar forward. As he joined fellow Jaguar big Logan McKee, who had fouled out back in the fourth quarter, on the bench, things looked grim for the Jags. Their leading scorer was out for the remainder of the contest, and without him or McKee (who also had a solid night), their size advantage was gone.
The Jags seemed to lose their step, and the Warriors managed to eke in front for the first time all game with a 68-67 advantage with less than a minute to go. However, thanks to sophomore star Jake Sniras finding his shot at the best possible time, the Jaguars regained the lead with just over 30 seconds on the clock. Sniras had help, though, and Jack Krautzel certainly redeemed himself in double overtime. After hitting a beautiful step-back three and going two-for-two at the stripe to put Garnet Valley up by three with 15.6 seconds left, his contributions were not going to be ignored. But when Cam Chilson went to the line for three free throws and a chance to tie the game once more with only 2.9 remaining, it seemed as if the game was heading for triple overtime, and Krautzel’s efforts would be for nothing.
After Chilson missed the first and sunk the second, however, everyone once more knew exactly what was coming from Methacton. Chilson intentionally missed the final free throw, and the ball was up in the air for what felt like days. Down by only two, all Methacton had to do was grab an offensive board and heave up another prayer at the buzzer to tie the game once again. Krautzel had other plans. He leaped into the air and came away with the board, holding it tightly in his hands as he was quickly fouled by the nearest Warrior. He went back to the line with 0.4 seconds on the clock, and although there seemed to be not nearly enough time for Methacton to pull off any miracles this time around when Krautzel sunk two more at the line to officially put it out of reach despite any more potential Matt Christian heroics, the gym erupted in applause as the grueling contest had finally come to an end. After two overtime periods, the Jags narrowly avoided defeat on their home floor with a gutsy 73-69 victory that will surely be talked about for years to come.
Now, they turn their attention to Friday night’s road game against the 20-1 Spring-Ford Rams, who happen to possess the 1st seed in this year’s District playoffs. Will the Jags be able to give the highest-seeded team in the tournament a scare once more? Will they come out on top this time around? We’ll have to wait and see. Until then, Tuesday’s victory over Methacton is a win well worth savoring.