Column: Despite ending, Ryan season one for the books

Christian Isopi brought strength and toughness to Ryan. MARK ZIMMARO / Times photo

Everyone in red and black was nervous.

Well, almost everyone.

It was the quarterfinals of the Catholic League playoffs and the Archbishop Ryan High School basketball team was clinging to a one-point lead when a Bishop McDevitt player fouled one of Ryan’s better free throw shooters.

The first shot failed.

The Raiders fans were quiet, but the coach wasn’t.

The player nervously looked over at Raiders coach Joe Zeglinski, who, unlike every fan, was calm. He nodded at his guy, reassuring him, then called a defense. The player then accepted the ball from the referee and shot the final free throw.

Nothing but cotton.

On paper, that’s the night the Raiders’ season should have ended.

Minus their top scorer, Ryan, which had to win a first-round playoff game, was playing at second-place McDevitt, which was fresh off its first-round bye. That game was on Valentine’s Day, and since that night, the Raiders have played at the Palestra, won a district qualifying game and won two games in the state playoffs.

Zeglinski’s motion, and more importantly, the confidence he showed in his players, might not be the reason Ryan went on this run. But it’s a perfect example of why the Raiders went on this run, because the coach and his players had complete faith in each other and while there was plenty of talent on this team, the whole was stronger than the sum of its parts.

And now they’ll never know how it might have ended.

On Thursday, Gov. Tom Wolf pulled the plug on the school year due to the coronavirus. It was the right call considering the entire world shut down when the state made the call on March 12 due to the highly contagious virus.

It’s the first thing this team couldn’t overcome.

Even at full strength, Ryan wouldn’t have been favored to make the final four of the Catholic League playoffs.

The Raiders were led by Aaron Lemon-Warren, who was one of the best scorers in the league, and they had a great No. 2 in Gediminas Mokseckas, but they were going up against teams that had two, three, sometimes four Division I players in the lineup.

Then, in late January, Lemon-Warren broke his foot. Many expected that to be the end of the year for Ryan.

But not the players.

Not the coach.

They expected more. Even after losing four of five heading into the Catholic League playoffs. Even after they fell to seventh place in the league, which meant they had to play a first-round playoff game and then go on the road against a two seed in the quarterfinals.

And after the Catholic League was over, the Raiders had turned their attention to the Class 5A state championship. They weren’t the favorite to win, but it would be hard to bet against them, especially after the way they had been playing.

Sure, they missed Lemon-Warren. Although he was still at every game, making noise and giving advice, they could have used his points.

But they had other players. And the good news is, almost all of them are back.

Other than Lemon-Warren, a junior, Ryan returns four guys were were clutch this year.

Reserve sophomore David Wise was the energy guy. He would come off the bench and play whatever role was needed. Wherever he was needed.

Sophomore guard Jalen Snead was the stopper. He could score, but his job was to shut down opponents, and he did it very well. Even when defending Division I stars, he made his opponent’s life miserable. His best game was in states when he had 11 rebounds and seven blocks against Penn Wood.

Fellow sophomore guard Luke Boyd went from reserve to scoring sensation once Lemon-Warren went down. He never saw a shot he couldn’t knock down and he wasn’t shy about bombing away, even in big moments. He proved to be a prime time player when he went off for 18, including five treys, against McDevitt.

Dom Vazquez was the brains of the operation. On top of being a capable shooter, he ran the show at both ends of the floor. He brought the brains and the hustle to the floor, and as a returning starter, he also knew exactly what Zeglinski wanted on the floor.

Having those five back is a great thing for the Raiders and it’s what makes them confident heading into the 20-21 season.

But they will be without two guys who were the engine this year. Two guys who paved the way for all of the success.

Senior forward Christian Isopi provided Ryan with toughness. He took his spot underneath the rim very seriously on both sides of the floor. On offense, he always seemed to come up with a bucket when needed most and he did it by outworking his foe. He also quarterbacked the defense and provided all the muscle the team needed to go against the giants in the Catholic League.

Then there was Mokseckas.

A transplant from Lithuania, the big swingman did so many things for Ryan.

Offense, he could play anywhere.

Defense, he did it all.

He was the leader. He was the most complete player. He was a fan favorite. And he was clutch.

There were games where he willed Ryan to wins. And he also wasn’t afraid to let others take over when the situation called for it.

It’s a shame Isopi and Mokseckas won’t have a chance to leave the floor one last time so the Ryan fans can give them the ovation they deserve, but it’s also pretty cool that they went out winners of three straight.

This was a special season for everyone involved with the program, and while it’s sad they won’t get a chance to finish what they started, they still should be nothing but happy.

The coronavirus ruined a lot of things, but they shouldn’t let it ruin the season.

Even if it didn’t end the way it was supposed to, it was still one to remember.