Notre Dame East Stroudsburg’s boys basketball team has taken its knocks this season.
More importantly, the Spartans have learned and applied the knowledge well. That’s what has them at the doorstep of their fourth district championship in a six-year window.
No. 3 Notre Dame ES will face No. 1 Nativity BVM in the District 11 Class 1A boys basketball title game at Martz Hall in Pottsville on Saturday at 4 p.m. in a rematch of last year’s championship match.
The Spartans (12-12) enter this weekend’s contest with a .500 record but have historically played their best once playoffs hit.
Taking on Nativity with a chance at a second consecutive title, Notre Dame coach Bob Mullen is excited for his young roster, about which he often heard was one year away from truly contending.
“It’s just great for this group of players because we’ve come so far,” Mullen said Friday. “And even though they’re so young, they work really hard every day. And a lot of guys, even guys who haven’t had a chance to play as much as they would’ve liked this year so far, they practice incredibly hard.
“One of our goals at the beginning of the year was to make the playoffs. Then after that, our goal was to win the district championship. So hey, we’ve given ourselves an opportunity to achieve that goal.”
Mullen, who has already won six district championships with Notre Dame in two different spans as head coach, was proud of the defense effort he saw from his program in Wednesday’s semifinal 67-50 victory over Tri-Valley, ending the game on a 10-1 run over the final four minutes.
“We’ve always talked about taking good shots, patience and poise, and improving defensively,” Mullen said. “When they (Tri-Valley) made a run at us in the fourth quarter, we were up a little bit and they cut (the lead) to six and almost cut it to four. We called timeout and talked about how we just had to dig in defensively. And we did.”
He expects that and other traits to seep into Saturday’s game plan against the Hilltoppers of Nativity BVM.
Junior Aaron Bailey, who is averaging 22 points, seven rebounds and eight assists per game, got most of Tri-Valley’s defensive attention on Wednesday. The opened the lane for Shawn Seay, who exploded for a career-high 29 points. The outburst from Seay, who is averaging 15 points and nine rebounds per game, came as no surprise to Mullen.
“I think Shawn created so many opportunities for himself because he was just pounding the backboard,” Mullen said. “What also gets lost a little bit is that he played (Tri-Valley’s) best offensive player (Chase Deeter). Last time, he had 29 and last game he only had 12. So Shawn was exceptional defensively and he was exceptional offensively. He just played a great game.”
Bailey, who scored 14 points as did teammate Trevor Hardy, is happy to dish the ball to his teammates.
“Aaron has so much attention put on him, it does open it up for the other guys,” Mullen said. “He’s so unselfish, he just kicks it out and let’s other guys make shots.”
Against Nativity, Notre Dame will have to find a way to match the Hilltoppers’ speed while maintaining its ability to rebound.
“They look to push the ball down the floor,” Mullen said. “And they’re strong on the backboard and they’re talented. So we’ve got to make sure we put a body on them at all times or we have to get back defensively. Just have to try to play our game as best we can.”
The winner of Saturday’s contest will face the District 1 runner-up Christian Academy on March 6 in the first round of the PIAA Class 1A state tournament.
The program that falls on Saturday afternoon will face Sullivan County, the third seed out of District 4, in the first round of states.