Lezanic and Conestoga in 'win or go home' mode as regular season ends

01/30/2018, 1:30am EST
By Owen McCue
 Owen McCue (@Owen_McCue)

Zach Lezanic is very familiar with the recent tradition of the Conestoga basketball program.
He’s been following the Pioneers closely since seventh grade, when his brother M.J. was a sophomore shooting guard for the team.
Lezanic watched his brother go to the Central League playoffs twice before being part of two more playoff runs himself during the last two seasons, though he was kept out with a quad injury as a freshman.
Conestoga is once again in the playoff picture, currently tied for fourth place, but Lezanic, now a junior point guard, and the Pioneers will have to take care of business down the stretch to make it five years in a row in the league’s playoffs.
“I think it’s in the back of everybody’s heads,” Lezanic said. “We have to win. It’s win or go home…Take it one game at a time, but it’s win and move on.”
The ‘win or go home’ mentality is more of a mindset than reality. Even if it doesn’t make the league playoffs, Conestoga is in good shape to compete in the District 1 Class 6A playoffs. The Pioneers are ranked No. 14 in the district’s current rankings, and the top 24 teams make the district playoffs.
The past four Conestoga teams have been to districts four times and made three state tournament appearances. Lezanic’s urgency to finish the season strong stems from the team’s desire to win a Central League championship, something none of those teams did.
“It’s something huge,” Lezanic said. “That’s one of our goals. Our goal is to win the Central League title and then go on from there.”
The Pioneers came into Monday sitting a half game out of fourth place in the Central League standings. The top four teams make the postseason tournament. As the rest of the league had off on Monday night, Conestoga had a chance to pick up a half game on each of the four teams ahead of it with a win against Radnor.
Radnor came into the game winless in Central League play, but led by forward Bennett Mueller and guard Zahir Lee, who combined for 21 points, the Red Raiders tested Conestoga for three quarters.
Conestoga trailed by three after the first quarter, held a two-point lead at halftime and led by four after three quarters when Lezanic picked up a loose ball and finished off a fastbreak layup in the period’s final seconds.
Lezanic, who led Conestoga with 19 points, broke the game open with a stepback three one minute, 30 seconds into the fourth quarter to put the Pioneers up by nine. They outscored Radnor by 10 in the fourth to pick up a 57-43 win and move into a tie for fourth place.
“Zach’s a tremendous basketball player and he honestly probably doesn’t get the credit he deserves to get,” Conestoga coach MIke Troy said. “He just has a really high basketball IQ, makes the right decision at the right time and really gets a lot of people involved in the game, which helps us get the Ws.”
Conestoga is 12-6 overall and 8-4 in the Central League with four games left on its schedule. Lower Merion and Penncrest are both tied atop the league standings at 10-2. Following them are Garnet Valley at 9-3 and Upper Darby at 8-4.
The Pioneers picked up a 62-57 victory against Lower Merion on Dec.19, but they have losses to Penncrest, Garnet Valley and Upper Darby already this season. Luckily, they’ll see three of the four teams ahead of them in their last four games.
Conestoga starts its final stretch with a road game against Ridley on Tuesday before traveling to Lower Merion on Friday night. The Pioneers take on Upper Darby at home next Tuesday and finish their season with a home game against Garnet Valley a week from Thursday.
“I think if we come ready to play every game and do our things defensively, I think we’ll be alright,” Lezanic said.
“It’s still wide open, so whoever plays the best down the stretch is going to be in the playoffs,” Troy added.
What’s been most impressive about Conestoga’s recent run of success is the way the Pioneers have replaced senior class after senior class. Last year’s group went 14-2 in the league after replacing three starters.
Likewise, this year’s group has just two returning starters in Lezanic and junior Milton Robinson, who scored 15 points on Monday. Seniors Charlie SchappellMichael Erickson and Colin McFillin also returned from last year’s rotation.
Junior Shane Scott has pushed his way into the starting lineup this year while Evan MedleyWesley Brace and Scott Martin have played valuable minutes.
“I’ve been very fortunate to have a lot of very good young men and good basketball players, but last year’s last year,” Troy said. “We’re just focusing on finishing this year out the right way.