It seems like every year is a little better.
When Joe Zeglinski took over the Archbishop Ryan High School basketball team, he replaced Bernie Rogers, who led the Raiders to some very good times during his coaching stint. But his last year wasn’t one of his better years, Ryan finished 4-9.
Zeglinski took over a young, but talented team, and in his first season, he surprised everyone and got the team to the Catholic League semifinals.
The next year, the Raiders again made the semifinals and this time made a deep run in the state tournament.
They lost a lot to graduation, and were very young after that, but two years later, they again made the semifinals, and this time got to the state semifinals, before COVID shut everything down.
Last year it was another trip to the Catholic League semifinals and then a trip to the state championship game.
This year, for the first time in Zeglinski’s tenure, the first time since 2008, and just the fourth time in school history, Ryan advanced to the Catholic League championship, and played a seesaw game with Sts. Neumann-Goretti before falling 61-57 at the Palestra.
Truth be told, it was a winnable game for the Raiders, who held the lead six times in the second half, and in the last 30 seconds, down three, had three shots fall just short.
But this Ryan team had come as close as any team in school history to winning a championship, and after the game, there was no satisfaction in that.
They wanted a title.
“We had our chances, we could have won,” said point guard Jalen Snead, the defensive leader of the team who scored 10 points against the Saints. “We could have won, we just missed some makeable shots. They’re a good team, but I think we could have won this. That hurts. We wanted to win the championship.”
This year’s team has a lot of talent, and much of it is younger guys, including sophomore center Thomas Sorber, who might be the best young big man in the area. But this year’s team belonged to the seniors.
Snead, sniper Luke Boyd (15 points on all three-pointers), heady guard David Wise and reserve forward JT Arpino run the team, and they wanted nothing more than to be the first team in school history to hang a banner.
But that’s probably why the Raiders have improved just about every season under Zeglinski.
He turns the team over to his elder players and lets them show the younger guys how to play Archbishop Ryan basketball.
After the game, the guys were dejected, but after a few minutes of gathering themselves, they quickly looked back on a great run that included wins over defending champ Archbishop Wood in the first round and a Palestra triumph over West Catholic, the No. 2 seed, to get to the championship.
It might have taken a few seconds to realize, but this was already a very special season.
“I’m so proud of this team,” Wise said. “I’ve been proud of this team all year. When the season started, we had really high expectations, and we were doing great at the beginning of the (Catholic League) season, but then we hit a tough stretch. Everyone really worked hard. We knew we were better than that.
“I’m proud of the young guys, too. I know it’s hard to play against the best teams in the Catholic League, but they played really tough. We had a great season.”
A great Catholic League season, anyway.
There’s still a chance to make it an even better one.
Ryan starts its quest to get back to the state championship game on Thursday when it plays Public League champion Imhotep Charter, which defeated Abraham Lincoln 55-47 on Saturday at Temple University, in a District 12 championship game at La Salle High School.
After that, the Raiders will see what they need to do to get back to Hershey.
“I really believe we have a chance to play for like a month, and I think we can do it,” Snead said. “We have great players on this team. I’ve tried to do my part. Everyone does their part. It’s definitely good that we still have games. It’s hard to lose, but we still have a lot of games left.”
“I’m really proud that we got this far and I think we can still have a great year,” Wise said. “It helps that we have (played in the state playoffs before). Last year was great. We have to start to focus on that. We wanted this, but that’s over. Now we have to get ready for Imhotep.”
And the Panthers need to worry about a very good Ryan team.
The Raiders finished in sixth place during the regular season, and nobody predicted they would play at the Palestra. They certainly didn’t think they’d play twice at the court at the University of Pennsylvania.
Snead’s performance during the semis was a big reason for their win last Wednesday, and he stayed hot against the Saints.
“I think everyone on this team knew what I can do, and that’s all I really worry about,” Snead said. “People think I’m a good defensive player, but I’ve worked hard on offense and I’m playing better. We have a lot of guys who can score. We all worked really hard from the end of last season to get better at everything.”
And that’s probably the biggest reason why Zeglinski’s teams are always getting better.
They always put in the work.