Tom Kraft doesn’t say a word about last year or what that group accomplished in their high school careers, simply because there’s no going back. All that’s left are a residue memories, the triumphant and unbridled lumps.
The program’s all-time leading scorer, Thomas Lang, is no longer slipping on a Linganore jersey ever again. Three-year varsity starters, Carter Schmidt, Jack Staub and Keegan Lane, have all graduated. The unit that marched Linganore to their best two-year stretch in program history — 41 wins and a state tournament appearance (2014-15, 2015-16) — have moved on with their collective lives, like every student who goes through the high school-to-college cycle.
For the successors, that’s a lot to live up to.
In Kraft’s view, there’s only one way to go about it: Extinguish lofty comparisons to make way for a clean slate, an opportunity for a new legacy to be forged. That was task No. 1 well before the 2016-17 season even started.
“Honestly, we don’t talk about it,”the Linganore coach said. “We don’t bring up last year, we don’t bring up those players. I told [our returning] players very early, in the fall during shootouts, I forget who I was pointing to, but I said ‘I don’t want you to be Thomas. I don’t want you to be Jack. I just want you to play to your strengths.'”
Uncertainty clouded Lancer basketball this past summer, that if the Lane-Lang-Schmidt-Staub foursome can’t capture Linganore’s first ever boys basketball state title, then who will?
Kraft kept hammering home one simple line: “Just play to your strengths.”
After all, a miniscule piece of the 2014-15 Final Four team is still intact. Austin Lohneis, Harry Rasmussen and Michael Rajnik, who were sophomores at the time, are now seniors. Nicholas Lang, who traveled with the team as a freshman, now leads Linganore in scoring (14.6 points) as a junior.
After all the doubt, Linganore sits at a modest 15-7 heading into their 3A West Section II semifinal playoff matchup with Thomas Johnson on Tuesday night, and a glimmer of hope has escalated into something more.
“I think why we’ve been successful this year is because the guys are so good at recognizing their strengths,” Kraft said. “Yeah, we still try to do the same things offensively, we still try to do the same things defensively, but we never went into the season looking at trying to adjust with whatever or whomever. Our guys, Harry, Austin and Michael, who didn’t play a whole lot last year, they practiced against (Carter Schmidt, Jack Staub, Keegan Lane and Jack Staub) everyday. And they are good players in their own way.”
Kraft continued: “No disrespect at all to last year’s team, guys who were such good players for us for such a long time, but this is their team. This is their team. We want them to feel like they’re making a name for themselves.”
For the first time since 1997-2000, Linganore basketball has three straight seasons with a winning record. And despite an 0-4 record against MSA Top 25 foes, they remain a contender out of the 3A West, even after losing four starters. While the chances of remaining a Class 3A horse appeared dire in the waning months of fall, this was Kraft’s intent all along: Leverage the 2014-15 state tournament run to jolt the program over the next few years.
“On senior night, Harry, Michael and Austin, when they were asked about their special memories, they referenced being apart of that ride and that experience,” Kraft said. “My thought when they were sophomores was, how neat would it be for them when they’re seniors to be able to give themselves that experience and have a bigger role in that experience.”
Ever since Lohneis, Rajnik and Rasmussen were moved up to varsity in the final month of the 2014-15 season, the Lancers are 41-10. Winning on the hardwood isn’t just gravy for Linganore anymore, who only eclipsed two seasons with a winning record from 2004-14. It’s an expectation kick-started from Lang, Lane, Schmidt and Staub, who flipped a back-to-back 4-17 team into a state title contender.
“They taught us it’s our team, and we need to be ready to lead,” said Rasmussen, who is shooting over 60 percent from behind the arc this year. “We’ve been doing that really well, at least seem to be doing it well.”
Like Kraft stated, the returners are utilizing their collective strengths.
Though Rasmussen is only 6-foot-3 and starts at the five-spot, he brings outside scoring and a solid rebounding presence. Lohneis has proven to run the show effectively at the lead guard position, dishing about four assists per game in a facilitator role. He’s also a swift defender on the perimeter. Lang, who’s trying to evade the shadow of his older brother, brings an unrivaled basketball IQ with silky outside shooting (over 50 percent from deep). Rajnik is a hard-nosed, slashing guard who’s not afraid to beat and bang.
Then they harness defensive specialists like Brandon Champagne (6-foot-5), Jadyn Eakins (6-foot-4), Tyson Tregoning (6-foot-1) and Zach Willett (5-foot-11). Drew Twillman (6-foot) brings offensive pop off the bench and Joe Kolick (6-foot-1) is an athletic guard.
Despite seven losses, Linganore played their first 16 games at a high level. They were 13-3 heading into January 31, including eight double-digit wins and a victory over New Town, the defending Class 2A state champions. The three losses weren’t ugly by any means, either. Three-loss Tuscarora handed them their first defeat, 61-52, after the Lancers let a halftime lead slip away. The second loss came to Aberdeen at the buzzer in the Governor’s Challenge, 52-51, a team that employed a 6-foot-7 three-star small forward, college-bound point guard and 6-foot-9 center. And the third came to Oakdale, 56-44, a game Linganore led at the intermission.
They didn’t suffer their first real setback until the 68-43 thumping by Tuscarora on the road, their most lopsided loss in two years. It then snowballed into two more losses, to Oakdale (49-44 in overtime) and Thomas Johnson (56-54), and just like that, they endured their first three-game losing streak since 2013-14 when they went 4-17.
But really, when you break it down, they only played poorly in two games. It’s quite clear they were outworked in every aspect during the 25-point landslide to Tuscarora. The second, in my opinion, came to Frederick on Valentine’s Day, 59-50. Linganore only had 12 points at halftime, and never recovered.
When you do the math, Linganore contends 91 percent of the time (20 of 22), a telltale analytic for playoff fate.
“We just need to be smart and aggressive,” Lang said. “Box-out and rebound. We’re smaller than teams like Oakdale, but we took them to overtime. We know we can play with all those teams. We’re not scared of anyone.”
A large part to why Linganore has their third straight winning season for the first time in 16 years is defense. Kraft has implemented tricky zone sets, highlighted by the staple 1-3-1, that succumbs high-powered offenses. This year, they’re letting up 49.2 points per game whereas last year, they only yielded 47.4. The offensive output, however, is slightly down, but it’s expected with the departures of Lang and Staub especially. Last year, they averaged over 63 points a game. This year, it’s at 58.
Everything starts on the defensive end. If Linganore disjoints opposing offenses, rebounds and turns ill-advised shots into fast-break buckets while operating methodically in the half-court, then the points will come.
As soon as they start trying to be something that they’re not, then trouble is bound to happen.
Most of the cards are in Linganore’s favor if they want to make another state title push. First, they hold the No. 2 seed, and host Thomas Johnson. Second, Frederick is matched up with Tuscarora, Linganore’s biggest obstacle. The Cadets handed the Titans one of their three losses this year and only lost to them in the second meeting by one.
Ideally, they slip past Thomas Johnson and host Frederick on Thursday with a shot to get to the region title. But even if the Lancers have to play Tuscarora again, they’ll be ready.
“We are well prepared for the playoffs,” Kraft said. “Whatever happens, we are prepared. We’ve played Oakdale twice, Tuscarora twice, Frederick twice, [Thomas Johnson] twice. Our schedule has prepared us.”
An era, and state championship window, is coming to a close. In order for one last push, Linganore must stay true to who they are: “Play to your strengths,” as Kraft would say.
“If we play physical, play our game,” Rasmussen started. “I believe we can get out of the region, and then who knows.”