At the time, it looked like they were just taking a shot at preparing for the future.
Two years ago, when Joe Zeglinski inserted two sophomores into his starting lineup late in the year when the Archbishop Ryan High School basketball team was preparing for some late-season Catholic League games and a brief run in the state tournament, he did it because those 10th-graders had earned a shot.
It turned out that he was laying quite a foundation.
Those 10th-graders, now seniors, point guard Dom Vazquez and wing guard Aaron Lemon-Warren, became clutch players as juniors and among the best players in the area as seniors. And now, they’re showing the entire state what the Raiders can do.
Ryan clinched a berth in the state championship game on Monday night when it went to Chester and laid the smackdown on a good Clippers team. The Raiders won 85-63 and the heroes were plentiful.
Lemon-Warren shot 15-for-17 en route to 36 points. Vazquez ran the offense to perfection, dishing out 13 assists, some highlight worthy, and fellow senior Christian Tomasco added 26 points, and missed just one shot from the field.
It was an all-around effort, and it puts Ryan at Hershey on Friday night for a showdown with Cathedral Prep, based out of Erie, a team that will be playing in its first state championship game in 25 years.
New blood will be winning the state championship, but Ryan is hoping it’s a first-time team that brings home the gold.
“The way we played tonight, we need to have that carry over,” Vazquez said. “Tonight was great, you had Aaron and Christian, they were hitting shots. I was just getting them the ball and they did everything. I was able to get the ball down and make the passes and they were both hot.”
“Dom always does that, we just work so well together and we’ve been playing really well lately,” said Lemon-Warren, who has been red hot for the Raiders in recent games. “It’s not about just us, it’s everyone, but we play pretty well together.”
Ryan had a very busy stretch.
On March 15, two days after falling to Archbishop Wood in the Catholic League semifinals, the Raiders beat a stubborn Bonner-Prendergast team for the right to represent the PCL in the Class 5A tournament.
Then they had to beat Palumbo on Wednesday in a city championship game. That was followed up with a matchup with Bangor, which the Raiders handled 68-50. That only gave them a trip south to Chester, a traditional power especially tough on its home floor.
“It was fun to come down here because you walk in the gym and you see all the championships and you know they’re going to play hard,” Vazquez said. “They pressure you a lot, but that leads to open looks and we were able to get that. They made it tough, but when you broke (the press), you could have guys open and they didn’t miss.”
At least Lemon-Warren didn’t. Not very often at least.
“We’ve been better, we weren’t playing our best, we wanted to win the Catholic League championship, but after that was done, we really wanted to win a state championship,” said Lemon-Warren, who scored 30 points against Bangor, 25 against Palumbo and 19 against Bonner-Prendergast. “We’ve been playing well. The whole team. This is where we wanted to be, and we’re playing our best basketball.”
According to Vazquez, a lot of that goes to Zeglinski.
Ryan missed the first two weeks of the regular season, so it had to cram a bunch of games into a short period of time during the regular season.
The Raiders weren’t the only team that had to do that and they’re not making excuses, but Vazquez said it hurt Ryan because Zeglinski likes to game plan for opponents and then work on things in practice.
Bad news for Cathedral Prep, the Raiders have three days off between the semifinals and the championship.
And Ryan has waited a lot longer than that to make this championship appearance.
Last year when everything shut down because of the coronavirus, the Raiders were in the middle of a state run. They had made the quarterfinals before things were postponed, and eventually canceled, so the Raiders are going on a two-year run of perfection in state tournament play.
Vazquez and Lemon-Warren, who missed the end of last season with a broken foot, have been playing together for years, hoping this opportunity would be there. And now they’re one game away from bringing home a banner.
“We played high school and AAU together, so we know each other really well,” Lemon-Warren said. ‘It’s fun to play with him. He’s a great guard, he always gets me the ball. We feed off each other.”
“We’ve been friends since freshman year and we’re friends away from basketball, too,” Vazquez said. “It’s a lot easier to have players like him out there when you’re playing (point guard). I know where he wants it and he knows I’ll get it to him. We play well together.”
So when Zeglinski made the move to those sophomores two years ago, did everyone expect this? Did everyone expect to lead the Raiders to their first state championship before their career was done?
“Honestly, I didn’t know, I wanted to, but it’s hard,” Lemon-Warren said. “I knew we could be good and I knew we’d have to put in a lot of work, but you never know. Coming into this year? I thought we would. But sophomore year? I didn’t, honestly.”
He’s the only one who didn’t.
“Honestly, yes, I expected this,” Vazquez said. “I knew we had something special. Not from us, but I knew playing for Ryan was really special. I knew we had a chance to be really good. I knew if we did what we were told and kept getting better, yeah. It was hard as a sophomore, but the more we play together, the better we’ve done.”
“I expected them to be very good,” Zeglinski said. “It’s everyone, but the seniors are the leaders. The underclassmen are so important, but I knew Dom was going to be a great point guard to run the offense, and (Lemon-Warren), you could tell he was going to be one of the best players in the Catholic League. I expected them to be very good.
“Christian, too, he’s been very important, and (Dylan Maloney) has played big for us, too. Against Palumbo, we didn’t have things going, we put him in and he gave us a spark. These seniors have been very good for us.”
Now they just have to be very good for one more night to bring Ryan its first state championship.
“It would be great,” Lemon-Warren said. “Ryan is important to me, I really want to get this. Last year, even when I wasn’t playing, I wanted them to win so bad. I just want to win for the school. And now we have a chance.”