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Apr. 25—POTTSVILLE — The goal was clear from the opening moments of the 2020-21 boys’ basketball season.

Nativity’s boys were going to finish what they had started.

“I think there’s definitely that feeling for some,” Nativity head coach Mike Walborn said in early January, when the idea of a full basketball season was uncertain because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

The Hilltoppers had made it to their fourth straight PIAA Tournament in 2020, only to see the effort halted when all high school sports stopped before the quarterfinal round.

That also meant the Hilltoppers’ 6-foot-6 tandem of Kegan Hertz and Marquis Ratcliff had to wait another year for their dream of PIAA gold to reach fruition.

It took 28 more games — and yet another statewide shutdown lasting nearly a month because of a spike in coronavirus cases — but Nativity posted a 24-4 mark and reached the Giant Center in Hershey to win its first-ever state title.

Just as in 2020, the Hilltoppers turned to their returning Class A All-State honorees, Hertz and Ratcliff, to get them on the road there. Posting similar numbers over the course of the season, the two swapped scoring leadership roles on the court for many games.

Therefore, it’s impossible to separate them now as the two have been named the Republican Herald’s All-Area Co-Players of the Year.

They are joined on the first team by junior teammate Cody Miller, Pottsville juniors Jazce Carabello-Snowell and Darren Yost, Blue Mountain junior Kade Henninger and Weatherly senior Scotty Zoscin.

Nativity’s Hertz and Ratcliff are joined with top honors by All-Area Coach of the Year Walborn. He led the Hilltoppers not only to their first state title, but also to their initial Schuylkill League championship and a second straight District 11 Class A crown.

While Panther Valley was unable to duplicate its District 11 Class 3A championship from the preceding season, the Panthers did unveil freshman Stephen Hood on its 2020-21 team. Hood became one of the area’s top scorers and has been named the All-Area Rookie of the Year.

Driven to succeed

Of the two, only Hertz was playing basketball at the finish of the PIAA Class A championship, but that was only because Ratcliff paid a physical price for Nativity’s collective determination to outlast District 5 champion Berlin Brothersvalley 51-47 in overtime in the title game.

Contending for a loose ball, Ratcliff and a Berlin Brothersvalley player tangled, sending Ratcliff to the floor with an injured right ankle, and he required help to leave the court.

It wasn’t the first time that just one of the 6-6 2019-20 All-State standouts was on the court during a game, as Walborn often left one in competition while the other rested. Using both to start a game only added to opponents’ matchup concerns.

“Having two players of their caliber on one team poses a great challenge for anyone who played them,” said Denny Kasper, head coach of District 11 Class AA champion Williams Valley. “Usually at a small school, you have just one player like them to prepare for. They are very talented, focused and driven to be great basketball players.”

While both surpassed 1,000 career points during the season, Hertz and Ratcliff combined for 903 points, 52% of the team’s 1,735. Hertz’s total included 21 3-pointers and several rim-rattling dunks, while Ratcliff, showing a knack for taking over the offense when the team needed him most, was the leading rebounder.

Separated by just 13 points at season’s end, Hertz and Ratcliff posted similar single-game bests. Averaging 16.3 points per game, Hertz had 26 points against Lourdes on Jan. 18. Ratcliff, scoring 15.8 per game, posted 25 in Nativity’s 72-70 victory over District 4 champion St. John Neumann in the PIAA quarterfinals.

Kasper said, “They both took a leadership role on their team and set an example for the rest of their teammates by the way they competed.”

Walborn said, “The younger players now have the highest bar set, as was always the goal, to get to play and compete for a state championship at Hershey.”

Witness to history

When Nativity’s run toward a possible PIAA championship ended last March because of the coronavirus pandemic, Walborn knew his team was capable of claiming the 2020 PIAA Class A crown. Instead, it was merely a setup for this season’s memorable run.

“We’ve been fortunate enough to be getting better every year I’ve been here,” Walborn said at the time as Nativity finished at 20-7. “Keep positive, look forward to next year and maybe go a little further.”

The Hilltoppers not only went a lot further, but they did it in heart-stopping fashion. Entering the PIAA fray, Nativity was plagued in each of its three state tournament games by a lackluster quarter that threw each game into doubt. Each time, Walborn inspired Nativity to recover, and the Hilltoppers won their final two games in overtime.

“Winning the state championship has shown me a new level of joy and appreciation for both the game, and the players on this team,” Walborn said, “The seniors have demonstrated a certain type of toughness that was critical. They will go on to college to pursue their dreams and goals and keep setting the standard and holding the current players accountable.”

The state title, which Walborn stated repeatedly is the ultimate goal, came after he also led the Hilltoppers to an unprecedented Schuylkill League championship. Reaching its first league final since 1982, Nativity defeated Pottsville 57-49 at Martz Hall, ending the Crimson Tide’s three-year reign atop the league.

That alone would be enough to punch Walborn’s ticket to Coach of the Year.

Immediate impact

With a 5-17 record, Panther Valley struggled defensively, allowing 65.7 points per game, for most of the season, but Hood became a consistent offensive force for head coach Patrick Crampsie’s Panthers.

Averaging 16 points and 10 rebounds per game, the 6-5 forward led his team with 128 field goals and 336 points, launching him well on his way toward a 1,000-point career. His season included a 30-point performance against Roberto Clemente Charter on Jan. 23.

“Looking at his overall production, I’d have to stay Stephen had the best freshman season of any boy in the history of Panther Valley basketball,” Crampsie said. “”From day one, he was the focal point of opposing defenses, yet he was extremely consistent with his play. We expected a lot out of him, and he was never overwhelmed or intimidated.”

The first team

Jazce Carabello-Snowell, jr., Pottsville — The 6-2 junior helped the Crimson Tide to the Schuylkill League title game by scoring 14.6 points per game and providing a consistent rebounding threat inside. He posted a 21-point game against District 4 power Williamsport on Feb. 17 and led the Tide in scoring in three of the team’s four postseason games.

Kade Henninger, jr., Blue Mountain — Henninger’s value to the Eagles became apparent when he missed two weeks because of COVID-19 tracing and Pottsville beat Blue Mountain twice to take command of the Division I race. Averaging 15.5 points per game, Henninger scored 33 points against Southern Lehigh in the District 11 Class 5A tournament.

Cody Miller, jr., Nativity — State championship teams often display more than two scoring options, and Miller fit the bill for the Hilltoppers. While averaging 9.4 points per game, he was one of the area’s 3-point marksmen with 49 on the season. Just as important was his 80.6% accuracy from the foul line.

Darren Yost, jr., Pottsville — On a team allowing a stingy 41 points per game, Yost was arguably the Crimson Tide’s biggest defensive threat despite his 5-foot-7 stature. His ability to steal the basketball was proven against Nativity in the Schuylkill League final when he had seven thefts. He also showed an ability to score on the big stage with 17 points against Division I archrival Blue Mountain and 15 against Pocono Mountain East in the District 11 Class 5A playoffs.

Scotty Zoscin, sr., Weatherly — Zoscin was a big reason the Wreckers improved from 10-13 in 2019-20 to 15-8 this season. With 1,530 career points, Zoscin tallied 442 this season, including 61 3-pointers and 101 points from the foul line while averaging 19.2 points per game.

Contact the writer: [email protected]; 570-628-6019; @ChuckCurley on Twitter