MARTINSBURG, W. Va. – There can be no longer be any debate about which boys basketball team is the best in the Mason Dixon Christian Conference.
The Cumberland Valley Christian Blazers stifled any discussion Saturday evening with a couple of exclamation marks – one for their defense throughout the game and another for their offense in the second half.
The Blazers roared out of halftime by extending a 19-11 lead with 13 straight points and routed Heritage Academy 67-33 to win the MDCC title at the Berkeley 2000 Recreation Center.
“All these guys deserve this,” Blazers coach Austin Sanders said. “They work hard and absolutely brought it tonight. We wanted to make a statement and we did just that.”
The statement began with a suffocating defense that held Heritage to 11 first-half points. Heritage managed very few uncontested shots and possessions until late in the game, and by then, the contest had long been decided.
The statement got even louder in the second half, when the Blazers poured in 48 points, hitting eight 3-pointers for half of those points and scoring the rest on drives, free throws and shots from inside.
The well-worn cliché “total team effort” has seldom been more appropriate than it was for this game.
“There is so much I can say about this team,” Sanders said. “Their work ethic is great, and their desire to win is unmatched. But what truly sets them apart is how close they are as a family. This is a special group of young men who knew they couldn’t accomplish this by themselves. They needed each other, and I think this weekend is a perfect example of that.”
Junior Caleb Eckert celebrated his 17th birthday by earning tournament Most Valuable Player honors after his 21-point, 22-rebound, five-assist performance. Earlier in the week, the 6-foot-6 Eckert had been named as the MDCC Player of the Year for the regular season.
On Saturday, he also blocked three shots. He scored 11 of the Blazers’ 19 points in the first half.
“Caleb was obviously spectacular for us,” Sanders said. “He took it to another level that I haven’t seen from him until now. He was our leader and MVP at the most important time of the season.”
Junior Blaine Minnier, an MDCC first-team selection, scored 13 points, hauled down eight rebounds and handed out three assists. He also provided stellar inside defense and spent much of his evening directing his team on defense.
His second 3-pointer of the night gave the Blazers a 40-point bulge in the fourth quarter, a lead that few would have considered conceivable coming into the game.
Junior Isaac Kauffeldt earned all-tournament honors. Kauffeldt scored 12 points, but his biggest contribution was his lock-down defense on Heritage point guard Colby Reese, who could barely move without Kauffeldt all over him.
“I was really proud of how Isaac played,” Sanders said. “He earned all-tournament because of his effect on the game both offensively and defensively. He played well this weekend right when we needed him to.”
Freshman point guard Nollin Egolf, also a first-team MDCC selection, scored nine points and handed out six assists, directing the offense with skill and keeping Heritage off balance with his drives through the lane. He also collected seven rebounds.
Junior Ryan Winters drilled three 3-pointers in the second half and wound up with nine points. The emergence of Winters and Kauffeldt as late-season threats provided the Blazers with options outside of Eckert, Minnier and Egolf. Their contributions became even more important when backup guard Josh Rowe went down for the season with a broken wrist in late January.
Kenneth Hott, the only senior on the team, turned in his usual solid defensive performance, and he grabbed five rebounds and scored two points.
And sophomore Spencer Rathel, who added the Blazers’ final point of the night on a free throw, and freshman Aaron Minnier gained some valuable championship-game minutes that may help them in future years.
The championship was the Blazers first since they won back-to-back titles in 2006 and 2007, the latter of which was Sanders’ freshman year at CVCS.
They began this year with a loss at Carroll Christian, a team the Blazers wish they had another crack at, and their only other hiccup in their 23-2 season was a Homecoming loss to Heritage in early January. Sanders predicted that game would be a wakeup call for the Blazers, and he was right. Their winning streak now stands at 16, their semifinal and championship victories coming by an average of 32 points.
Sanders also told a Hagerstown reporter after the game that the Blazers have the best defensive team in the league.
Make that best team – exclamation mark.