Ask any of the Lancaster boys basketball players who is the heart and soul of their team, and they respond, without hesitation, coach John Otto.
They love him. He’ll do anything for his players and vice-versa.
With a chance to win one for the veteran leader and the former Legends who have come through the program without capturing the big one, they didn’t disappoint.
Lancaster is a Section VI champion in boys basketball for the first time since 1959.
The Legends snapped the drought by grinding out a 49-40 victory over longtime ECIC rival Orchard Park in the Class AA championship game Saturday at SUNY Buffalo State Sports Arena.
Those familiar names who have contributed to Lancaster’s run of four consecutive Section VI titles in football rose to the occasion on the hardwood before a crowd of more than 1,500.
Legends quarterback Gianluca Fulciniti led the winners with 18 points.
Fellow QB Jason Mansell added eight points and had a huge assist on back-breaking 3-pointer by Trevor Reformat late in the fourth quarter. Conor Mahony had just two points, but he played tough interior defense on Quakers big man Bradley Fowler and provided the positive energy that surged through the entire team.
“This is amazing to get another one but the first time in basketball,” Fulciniti said. “This one is for coach Otto. That guy would do anything for this team.”
“This is special. This is a very special team,” Mansell said. “We’re enjoying this, but just to get it — I mean, I think it’s like 61 years.”
Otto has been coaching with a heavy heart since the death of his brother Chris, a Lancaster fan who lived in Arizona, in January. The team’s student assistant lost his house in a fire back in December, Otto said.
Of course, factor in a late start because of another long playoff run because of football … and it's been an eventful season.
“We’ve had a lot of adversity this year, but we always stay together,” said Otto, who has been with the program for 14 years, nine as head coach. “A lot of things were tough on us this year, but we love each other. We’re a family and that’s what families do.”
“We play every single second for Otto,” Mahony said. “I wouldn’t want to play for anyone else but him.”
On several occasions, the Legends trailed Orchard Park by six points. Perhaps things would have been different had Orchard Park been able to extend its lead further. Lancaster refused to let the Quakers pull too far away. Orchard Park led after one quarter (15-9) and at halftime (27-25).
The Quakers led, 33-27, in the third quarter on a basket by Ethan Swiatek. Roughly two minutes later, Lancaster tied things on Mahony’s only basket – a nice up-and-under move in the post. Orchard Park went ahead on a three by Tino Mancabelli, but Fulciniti tied it with a trey with 36 seconds left in the quarter. The teams went into the final eight minutes tied, 36-36.
The fourth quarter featured two ties and three lead changes (all in favor of Lancaster). The Legends took the lead for good on a short jumper in the lane by Mansell with 2:16 left.
Then Reformat nailed Orchard Park with the unofficial knockout shot. During a possession that featured some nice ball movement, Fulciniti drove baseline and dished to the corner to Mansell. Instead of forcing a three, he found Reformat rotating to the top of the arc, where he found nothing but net with his dagger 3-pointer. Reformat finished with five points.
“He was struggling a little bit trying to score, but we moved the ball around so well, so fast that possession that as soon as he got it, he had all the confidence in the world,” Otto said. “He was ready to shoot it.
“There was no way he was missing on that one.”
Mancabelli led Orchard Park (16-7) with 15 points, while Fowler added 10.
Lancaster (18-5) returns to action next Saturday in the Far West Regional to face the Section V champion.
The Legends likely will be underdogs. But that winning experience in football can’t be discounted.
“We’ve played in big games, so I don’t think the moment will ever be too big for us,” Mansell said. “That experience definitely helps us.”
“Right from Day One when I helped out coach (Conrad) Walters, that was our thought process, winning a sectional title,” Otto said.
And finally, Lancaster did it.