Note: This article originally appeared in the Mirror on Sunday, March 15, 1998.
By Neil Rudel
INDIANA — Through its rich sports history, Altoona Area High School has produced numerous superior athletes and championship teams.
Saturday night, in IUP’s old Memorial Field House, where so many playoff Mountain and Lady Lion playoff memories have been etched, Altoona added another incredible performance that would make all of its former legends proud.
The Mountain Lions overcame a 14-point lead midway through the third quarter and a four-point deficit in the last minute to stun Pittsburgh Central Catholic, 71-69, on reserve junior guard Jeremy Little’s last-second 3-pointer from the left corner that will be frozen in time.
No one there will forget the jubilation — the Altoona players rushing the floor and the fans parading Little around on their shoulders — and anyone who had a chance to see this game but passed will regret it.
Because it epitomized the effort of one of the best couple of senior classes in the AAHS record book.
“These kids,’’ Altoona coach Art Taneyhill marveled afterward outside a screaming Mountain Lion locker room, “are just such great competitors.’’
Since the 1930s, Altoona has had four boys teams get to the PIAA western final — in 1958, 1981, 1985 and 1991 — and each team, except in ‘81, was led by at least one future professional athlete.
When the Mountain Lions line up in the western final Wednesday night for the center jump against New Castle, the state’s top-ranked team, they may be an underdog, but only in everybody else’s mind.
Not their own.
“These kids have always had success,’’ Taneyhill said. “Whether it’s baseball or football and it’s carried over to basketball.’’
It’s similar to the ‘81 team in that “we don’t have a 6-7 kid and we don’t have a sharpshooter,’’ said assistant coach Cory Gehret, the ‘81 team’s leader. “Except for Jeremy.’’
Gehret laughed in his reference to Little, whose poise with the season on the line in the last two playoff games has been amazing considering his inexperience.
And yet Taneyhill, once again, has pushed just the right button in finding a role — not to mention a starring role — for a heretofore anonymous underclassman.
While Little was Saturday’s star, he was successful because of a system that thrives on the team concept. He was in a position to hit the game-winning shot because Aaron Morris again shouldered the scoring load — 24 points against Central Catholic matched his average the last four playoff games — because Todd Johnson “is 6-2 but he’s playing like he’s 6-7,’’ Taneyhill said, because Mike Carney hasn’t made many buckets that haven’t been huge, because Matt Durbin is a tremendous distributor and leader.
And because Little, Vince Nedimyer, Eric Kessinger, Darren Galbraith and Ted Moran know their roles.
“All of my teams have never been built around one person,’’ Taneyhill said. “Morris could score 30 a night in other systems and in some respects, it’s hurt kids some in college exposure, but these kids have bought into it and they’re just so together.
“They’re just athletes.’’
They’re athletes that, with the plug on a wonderful playoff run about to be pulled, rung up a 24-point fourth quarter and limited Central Catholic to 12. They’re athletes that outscored Dan Marino’s alma mater 32-16 over the last nine minutes.
“We’re just determined,’’ Durbin said. “We’ll do whatever it takes to win.’’
Now they’ll get New Castle, which suddenly finds its path to Hershey blocked by a dangerous team brimming with confidence, a team that truly has the heart of a Lion.