York Suburban's boys sat at 2-6 about a month into the season. With a new coach and almost an entirely new team around him, senior Evan Eberhardinger's hopes of another division title or much of a postseason seemed bleak.
"At the beginning we weren't playing as a team. We were just trying to play one-on-one with everybody," Eberhardinger said.
Few players knew their roles. How could they with such little varsity experience?
Those first eight games provided enough lessons that first-year coach Dustin Boeckel's young squad grew enough to win 11 of its next 14 games, repeat as YAIAA Division III champions -- sharing the title with the Eastern York team it beat on CJ Boxley's buzzer-beating 3 on Friday -- and qualify for the league tournament, which begins Saturday for the boys.
Boxley, a sophomore guard, also turned around his play. Boeckel, however, thought his change came later in the run.
"I think just in the past two weeks he's had a maturing process, understanding what we need from him to become a better team," Boeckel said. "Earlier this season he was looking at it more as a role of 'I need to defer, defer' and set other people up."
Boxley found the right time to take on a shooter's mentality, and he's not the only player who's gained momentum entering the YAIAA tournament. Here's a look at players who might have been unheralded when the season began but will be key in each of this year's first-round matchups:
--- Ramel Stephens and DaiQuest Casiano, William Penn vs. Bermudian Springs: OK, Stephens and Casiano are two, but they're the first two players off coach Troy Sowers' bench. With that comes the ability to maintain, and sometimes increase, the high-tempo defense that feeds the Bearcats' game.
--- Ethan Sutton, Dallastown vs. Delone Catholic: Sutton is one of many guards who can make significant contributions in the Wildcats' perimeter-oriented system. Sutton, though, recently had a 38-point performance that will surely draw the attention of Squires coach Jim Dooley.
--- Christian Buser, Eastern York vs. South Western: The 6-foot-5 Buser provides an intriguing matchup for 6-6 Mustangs standout Parker Bean. Buser, who's left-handed, runs the floor well and scored a season-high 19 points Friday against Suburban with double-digit rebounds.
--- Manny McDowell, York Suburban vs. Northeastern: One of multiple players Boeckel said is gaining confidence, McDowell's ability as a defender separates him -- especially his speed.
"Manny is just as fast as they come," Boeckel said after the Trojans' win Friday. "I'd put him up in a footrace against anybody. Sometimes the ball can't keep up with the speed he's traveling."
Unlike the Suburban boys, the season began with promise for West York's girls. The mood changed with Sarah Shearer's ruptured ACL, but winning did not.
The Bulldogs regrouped and won the Division I title, giving them the second seed for Divisions I and II. Here's four players on the girls' bracket who could make differences in their games:
--- Emily Wood, West York vs. Eastern York: Her career-high 36 points Tuesday at Red Lion are why the Bulldogs came away victorious. That guard play, with fellow sophomore Kari Lankford, could push them for the next three games.
And scoring isn't all the 5-4 Wood does.
"Believe it or not, the last few games she's been our leading rebounder," coach Jon Shultz said. "She really sees the ball coming off the glass, and she knows where to go up and get it."
--- Katelyn Trott, Kennard-Dale vs. Dover: UMBC-bound Sara Tarbert draws much of the attention for the Rams. Last season, she was the lone consistent scorer on a young team. This season Trott, one of those inexperienced players last year, has taken on the role of No. 2 scorer.
--- Morgan Kuehne, Red Lion vs. York Catholic: Sometimes Kuehne can be a gritty defender and rebounder when the Lions go to their smaller lineup. She also knocks down jumpers if given any room.
--- Amari Johnson, Dallastown vs. Delone Catholic: Johnson, a 6-1 sophomore, made her presence known early in the season and has given the opposition nothing but trouble with her interior defense. Johnson blocks shots, alters them and rebounds the misses. She also makes jumpers while facing the basket, a plus for players at her position.
Make-up dates: If girls' tournament games Friday night are postponed, they will be played Saturday at 1 and 2:30 p.m. at their respective sites, which are Dallastown and Dover.
Central York athletic director Marty Trimmer said the make-up times, if needed, will give fans a chance to still see the boys' games, which are scheduled for later Saturday night at Spring Grove and Red Lion.