Notre Dame East Stroudsburg lost both times it faced Tri-Valley in boys basketball this season.
The Spartans are hoping the third time is the charm.
No. 3 Notre Dame ES faces No. 2 Tri-Valley in the District 11 Class 1A semifinal round Wednesday at Blue Mountain High School at 6 p.m. The winner will face either No. 1 Nativity BVM or No. 5 Lincoln Leadership Academy in the district title game on Saturday.
The Spartans (10-12) lost each of their final two games of the regular season, including a 68-65 loss at home to Tri-Valley on Feb. 8. On Jan. 11, Notre Dame also fell 55-52 to the Bulldogs.
Notre Dame head coach Bob Mullen said the Spartans’ most critical error in both games against Tri-Valley was falling well behind early and not capitalizing on late opportunities.
“In both games this year, we were down by 15 or 16 (points) in the first half,” Mullen said Tuesday.
Both major deficits were made up and the Spartans rallied to tie each contest, but they weren’t able to hit shots when they needed to most.
“We just need to play very well and get off to a good start and just hold them defensively,” Mullen said.
Notre Dame East Stroudsburg, which won last year’s district championship and three of the last five, is led this year by juniors, Aaron Bailey, who is averaging nearly 22 points per game, and Shawn Seay. Mullen’s other three starters are sophomores Gary Natalie, Trevor Hardy and Chase Medina.
And while each have been imperative to the team’s season, the Spartans’ success has resulted in seven different players ending up in double-digit scoring.
Despite the program’s youth, sitting on the doorstep of another district title comes as no surprise to Mullen.
“We’re looking forward to this as an opportunity,” he said. “Some people said, ’Well, you’re a year away [from contending].’ And I said no, I think we’re here right now. We’re going to be very difficult to handle in the playoffs.”
The postseason is usually when Notre Dame sparks to life. To do so this year, eyes remain on Bailey and Seay.
“They’ve been phenomenal all year,” Mullen said. “They’re tremendous in practice as leaders. They lead by example. They set the whole tone for our practices and games by example. They play so hard and are really good with younger guys. They try to help them out.
“Gary is getting better all the time and Trevor, I think, might be the best sophomore in the area.”
The offensive barrage Bailey provides has offered stability to the Spartans despite a record that appears middling as they play a schedule mostly against Class 4A, 5A and 6A teams. His production will be key again Wednesday.
“He’s been in the day since day one after the season ended,” Mullen said of Bailey. “He shot thousands of jump shots. He’s gotten bigger and stronger. He’s very smart, and other teams now are putting two or three guys on him to keep him out of the lane, which opens things up for the others guys.
“We have to take advantage of that and just knock down open jump shots.”