ALLENTOWN: Redbirds finish special season

By Justin Feil, The Packet Group
   The Allentown High School girls basketball team’s Central Jersey Group III semifinal loss to Neptune on Monday was tough for Alissa and Christa Lebers.
   The Redbirds twin sisters are not accustomed to losing, and the seniors had hoped to go out with a state crown. Neptune ended that hope with a 70-43 win to finish the Allentown season at 23-4.
   ”We’ve been on teams that have pulled off 20 wins before, but this team was special this year,” Christa said. “It was special for our senior year. Playing with these girls and getting 23 wins was absolutely incredible.”
   After spending their first two years at Moore Catholic in Staten Island where they played for the New York power that remained unbeaten in archdiocese play and captured the league title for the fourth and fifth consecutive seasons, the Lebers girls came to Allentown where the longtime Millstone residents were eligible for their first season last year.
   ”This year, it was totally different perspective for me,” Alissa said. “Last year, I was a role player. When two starting players would get a couple fouls, I would come in. This year, I was a starter and it was a totally different role. I was a captain and starter. I had to be in a leadership role that I never had before.”
   The Lebers helped to contribute to a record-setting season that saw the Redbirds reach the semifinals of the Mercer County Tournament and then the CJ III state tournament.
   ”We were looking to win states, so we came pretty close in that,” Alissa said. “Overall, as a team, we just did awesome. We gelled. We always had each other’s backs. That’s what we were aiming for from the beginning of the season.
   ”I’m so proud of our team,” she added. “Apparently this is the best we’ve done in 10 years record wise. I’m so happy I got to be a part of a team that did that well and got to go that far and compete against good teams too.”
   The Allentown boys basketball team saw its season end last Wednesday. The eighth-seeded Redbirs lost their CJ III opener to ninth-seeded Nottingham, 54-47, despite 16 points from Hal Shaw and eight points from Dan Bascara. Tristan Millett chipped in with seven points for the Redbird boys, who finished the season 16-10 overall.
   The Redbird girls team had worried a bit about their lack of age coming into the season. They had only three seniors this year, and the Lebers had only been in the program for two years. Lamesha Burgess is a four-year member of the program and provided a lift off the bench.
   ”In the beginning, we were a little shaky, figuring out who plays what role,” Christa said. “Once we all meshed together and figured out ‘this is your role,’ ‘this is your role,’ we played really well together. We complemented each other’s strengths.”
   For the Lebers, their strength begins at the defensive end. Defense is a part of the game that they have always prided themselves on doing well.
   ”Our first year with our coaches at Moore, we were mainly defensive minded there,” Christa said. “That’s where it started, I think. Defense is a big, big deal there.”
   They brought that attitude with them to Allentown, where Alissa was frequently matched up with the opposing team’s top offensive player and Christa focused her energy on shutting down whoever she covered when she entered games.
   ”Guarding their best offensive player, that was fun,” Alissa said. “I love defending. Offense isn’t my strong point. Defense, I like it a lot.”
   Said Chrisa: “It was a new role for me this year. I moved from a guard at the beginning of the season to a forward. That was a huge transition. I wanted to bring in a spark every single game, come off the bench and bring some fire to the game, or change it up defensively.”
   Defense keyed the Redbirds’ first two state tournament wins. Allentown opened the CJ III run with a 48-40 win over Red Bank Catholic. They pulled away with a decisive 21-5 advantage in the fourth quarter. Ryan Weise scored 21 points and Kali Hartshorn had 17 points to lead the offensive efforts. Bianca Santos had five points, Christa Lebers had two points and Hadley Borkowski added two points.
   Allentown won its sectional quarterfinal game, 53-35, over Ocean Township. Santos led the Redbirds with 16 points, Weise had 14 points and Hope Narozniak scored 12 points. Both Narozniak and Weise hit four 3-pointers apiece. Hartshorn had eight points, seven rebounds and five assists.
   ”We had the lead the whole game,” said Alissa, who split six rebounds with Christa in the win. “We just knew everything we had to do. We knew we had to defend the one girl they had. We knew we had to defend her well. We knew we had to take care of business. We knew we could beat them. We just had to play together.
   ”We lost in the first round last year. Coming this far was awesome for us. It was so exciting.”
   The third-seeded Redbirds got off to a promising start at second-seeded Neptune. AHS trailed just, 15-14, at the end of the first quarter, but Neptune turned up the defense in the second quarter to pull out to a 29-17 halftime lead.
   ”In the beginning, we had it,” Christa said. “We were playing the way we should have been playing to win. The atmosphere, the pressure, once we made one mistake it went from one to two to three. We got it back, but it slipped away again.
   ”We’ve seen a lot of teams with great defense, but nothing like that in an atmosphere like that,” she said. “That’s definitely the toughest defense we saw. We weren’t moving the ball well.”
   The Redbirds trimmed their deficit to eight points early in the third quarter, but Neptune widened its lead to ride to victory by capitalizing on every chance they had. Hartshorn finished with 14 points and Sarina Campanella had eight points for Allentown.
   ”With a turnover here or there or a missed shot, and they just fast break off a rebound,” said Redbirds head coach Linda Weise. “They did a pretty good of trapping out of their zone and taking away the next pass. Then (the deficit) is 16-20, and you’re going under water really fast. You have to give them credit. They have multiple players that are pretty talented. We gave it our best shot. We couldn’t knock down some shots that were open in the second quarter and we had some forced turnovers.
   ”When you play some of these Shore Conference teams, so many of them are so talented. They’re playing each other all the time. A lot of them are ranked within the state. A lot of them are more tested than we are. TCA, Notre Dame, Monroe, those games helped us prepare. Just getting to the semifinals is not an easy task.”
   Weise is hopeful that her team will work hard over the offseason to improve so they can take another step next year. They will be doing so without their three graduating seniors.
   ”They were all three great leaders on and off the court,” Weise said. “Lamesha Burgess was a spark on the defensive end and had a couple big games down the stretch. Alissa played tough defense, a lot of times she played the other team’s best player. Christa was first off the bench and she always gave us good minutes. We relied on them.
   ”I do hope to get back with this group we have next year. I’d like to make our schedule tougher, play some Shore Conference teams and see where we go. Our focus all year has been to share the basketball and play team basketball, which I think we’ve done. We like to defend and run and score in transition with we’ll continue to do, and continue to build off those fundamentals that we continue to preach.”
   The Lebers sisters expect to go their separate ways. Christa is heading to Florida Southern College while Alissa would like to stay closer to home. For all their lives, they have been together, and a lot of that time has been spent together on the basketball court.
   ”It is awesome,” Alissa said. “To have a twin on the team, we have each other’s back. We help each other with our shots. We improve each other’s game 24-7. It’s unlike any relationship you can have on a team. They’re going to be honest with you. They’ll tell you what you’re doing wrong. Having a twin has helped me so much my entire basketball career.”
   Added Christa: “She’s my rock. When I had a temper, when I lost it, she’s there. She’d tell me to ‘Shut up, Chris, deal with it.’ She’s my happy medium. She knew what to say to make me calm down. I always had her back no matter what.”
   And for their high school careers, Alissa and Christa Lebers have experienced a lot of winning, something they enjoyed in New York and back home the last two years for the Allentown girls team.
   ”The last two years, to have gone and won 20 games, and this year, I think it’s the most games we’ve won in school history,” Weise said. “That’s a huge accomplishment for these kids. That tells you they’re a pretty special group. I think we’ll be that team where we have that big ‘S’ on our jersey. You’ll get every team’s best. We’ll have to deal with that all next year.”