In the closing seconds of the Lebanon boys’ basketball game last week at McCaskey, Red Tornado guard DeAndre Jones, author of a 31-point performance, was casually dribbling upcourt.

A little too casually, actually.

In an instant the ball was gone, having been swiped by the Cedars’ Darayan Rodriguez. Rodriguez laid it in with seven seconds left, the final points in yet another Lebanon loss, this one by a 75-64 count.

In other words, the play meant nothing, and it meant everything.

“We don’t give up,” junior guard Manny Suarez said. “We play our hardest.”

A low bar, perhaps – especially for a proud program that has won nine Lancaster-Lebanon League championships, the most recent coming in 2021. The Cedars’ title total is the second-greatest all-time to McCaskey’s 14.

But the McCaskey loss, coupled with a setback three days later against Cedar Crest, leaves Lebanon 0-15 this season, after an 0-22 finish in 2022-23. The latter was its first year under coach Kris Uffner, a 1997 graduate of the school who played point guard on two league-championship teams.

These Cedars are forced to revel in the smallest of victories – in making the right play, in putting their best feet forward, regardless of circumstances – because the bigger ones have been elusive.

“It’s like our own version of The Process, almost,” Uffner said, referring to the Philadelphia 76ers’ recent rebuild.

Uffner, who previously coached for a decade in the Lebanon youth program, harbored no illusions when he took the varsity job, saying that the Cedars were in “a down cycle.”

“It’s a different hand right now than what’s normally there,” he said. “We’ve just kind of got to work with what we have.”

No one on the team is taller than 6-foot-2, a formidable flaw when competing against Section One’s size. So Uffner has focused on building up the youth program, on changing hearts and minds, and – again – the small things.

Against McCaskey, for example, the Cedars turned the ball over 10 times in falling behind 28-6 late in the first quarter, but kept plugging. They narrowed the gap to nine in the second period, but could get no closer.

“We have spurts like that,” he said. “We just don’t have enough firepower to come all the way back.”

Their average margin of defeat is 21, with four of the losses coming by single digits – the closest a 54-52 verdict against Palmyra on Dec. 29.

“It gets to us,” Suarez admitted. “I guess at the end of the day, it really gets to us, but we always try our best to stay positive, play with our heads up.”

That becomes more challenging, given what awaits him and his teammates each day in school.

“It’s obviously not the best, walking around knowing you haven’t won a game,” he said. “But at the end of the day, we’re the ones that are playing. (Other students are) just watching us. They can say all they want, but at the end of the day, we’re the ones on the court, so they’re not helping us.”

Their struggles stand in stark contrast to the rousing success of the girls’ team, which won Section One while reaching districts and states last year, and is enjoying another big season this winter. Uffner, who holds girls’ coach Jaime Walborn in high regard, encourages his players to support their counterparts, and believes there is value in them seeing the enthusiasm surrounding the girls’ program.

“I think it’s good, especially for my younger kids, to see a gym full of fans, and see what it’s like in that environment,” he said, “and hopefully give them something to work toward.”

He knows well what that’s like, given that the ’95-96 team beat McCaskey for a league title, and the ’96-97 club defeated Hempfield in the L-L final. He remembers the packed gyms – gyms that were, in fact, jammed for the JV games, as fans wanted to assure themselves a seat for the varsity action. He remembers Lebanon’s followers lining up well before the tipoff of road games, waiting for other schools to open their doors. He remembers all of it.

“It was a crazy time,” he said.

It’s what made him want to coach at Lebanon, despite all the challenges. A big one, he believes, is posed by what he called “highlight culture” and “instant-gratification culture” – i.e., basketball’s YouTube-ification.

“You get one highlight that can get 500,000 views, and that’s what kids see,” he said. “And they translate that to that kid being a good basketball player, or being a skilled basketball player. … When I watch our kids play – and it’s almost at every level, and something we’re trying to fix – it looks like it’s all-star game movement.”

He is seeking purposeful movement – “you know, the fundamental things about basketball: cutting with purpose, screening, closing out on defense.” He is seeking guys who instead of looking ahead to their next touch are seeking to play collectively and dig in on defense.

And for the last two seasons he’s been seeking a victory. Just one.

“I think for their morale it would definitely help,” he said of his players. “I mean, it would help mine, too, but I can kind of keep perspective. I’m aware of where we’re at and where we need to get to. So it would help a lot – more for the kids.”

As Suarez said, “That would be great, just knowing the feeling to get that win. That would probably motivate us, and we’d probably start winning more.”

The longest journey starts with a single step, right? Even, perhaps, a single steal.

“The kids that are in our program right now,” Uffner said, “they’re going to be their own part of the Lebanon basketball story.”

And he can only hope it leads to some compelling chapters – that better things do in fact lie ahead. That the little things will add up, and eventually the Cedars will return to the heights they have often reached.

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Gordie Jones is a Lititz-based freelance sportswriter.


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