Richard Helbing, Nico Berrios and Josh Rzucidlo have been working toward this season for a while now.
With a combination of talent, size and determination, the Lackawanna Trail trio has the program sitting atop the Lackawanna Division IV standings, a half-game better than second-place Mountain View with an eye on ending an eight-year championship drought.
“We have been playing together since fifth grade and it has gotten better every year,” Rzucidlo said. “It’s come naturally to us. We have gotten bigger and stronger and the chemistry we have is really good.”
Several years ago, when they were just learning the fundamentals of basketball, Helbing, better known by his friends as Junior, Berrios and Rzucidlo had a feeling they had a chance to be a special group. They played in the Lackawanna Trail elementary program, but didn’t join forces on the same team until junior high school.
“We won like 33 games in junior high,” Rzucidlo said. “So, we kind of knew we could have a good team if we worked hard.”
Their freshman year, Rzucidlo broke into the starting lineup at point guard. Helbing and Berrios played mostly junior varsity.
That season, Lackawanna Trail fought through a 5-18 record and went 3-9 in the division. Rzucidlo, a shifty facilitator with a quick step to the basket and a steady outside shot, scored 38 points and had two 3-pointers.
He learned a lot about the speed of the game and the importance of execution against older, more physical players.
“My first experience was sketchy,” said Rzucidlo, who suffered a broken collar bone late in the season. “I struggled a lot with my confidence. But after I got hurt and got back at it, I was good. I became really comfortable at the guard position.”
By the next season, Rzucidlo, Helbing and Berrios were ready to make an impact. The sophomores learned, however, that there was still a long way to go.
Helbing started to grow into the team’s starting center. Berrios showed flashes of his sharp-shooting with 13 3-pointers, and Rzucidlo scored 147 points. But the Lions could only manage a 4-19 record.
Things started to improve last season. Helbing cemented himself as one of the top players in Division IV, finishing fourth in scoring at 11.7 points per game and helped the Lions threaten Susquehanna for division honors.
Rzucidlo scored 6.7 points per game and had 22 3-pointers. Berrios averaged 6.2 points and 1.2 3-pointers.
Lackawanna Trail surged into the District 2 Class 2A playoffs where it upset Mountain View, 56-50, in the quarterfinals before losing to Holy Cross, 55-28, in the semifinals.
It set the stage for their senior year.
“We learned that we have to work really hard if we want to get to being a winning team,” Helbing, 17, said. “We are all focused during practices. During game time, it’s time to play hard.”
Berrios got an early start on that, starting at quarterback and in the secondary while leading Lackawanna Trail’s football team to a second straight District 2 Class 1A championship and a trip to the PIAA Class 1A semifinals.
The run only helped the basketball team.
“With football and being a leader at quarterback, I knew that I had to bring that same leadership to the basketball court,” Berrios, 17, said. “There are some young guys on the team and Junior, Josh and I knew we had to assert ourselves as captains of this team.”
The Lions were the coaches’ preseason favorite in Division IV. However, a challenging early schedule left them with a 4-4 record, including losses to Riverside and Lakeland — teams ranked in The Times-Tribune Top 10.
Once into the division slate, the Lions stormed to seven straight wins by an average of 9.9 points per game.
A loss to Mountain View re-focused the group and Lackawanna Trail defeated Forest City and Mountain View by a combined 37 points before a 59-52
upset loss to Blue Ridge on Saturday.
“We have always played well together,” Helbing said. “We just knew what we had to do. We started to gain some confidence and we started to think we could really have a good season.”
Helbing leads Division IV in scoring at 17.2 points per game and free-throw percentage at .752, while Berrios (12.1) and Rzucidlo (11.7) are also in the top 10 in scoring. Berrios and Rzucidlo have combined for 57 3-pointers.
“We have practiced really hard,” Berrios said. “The biggest thing for us is
to go game-by-game and keep working well as a team.”
Lackawanna Trail finishes the regular season with this group’s final home game against Susquehanna on Tuesday night. Then, it’s back to the District 2 Class 2A playoffs.
“We have come a long way,” Rzucidlo, 18, said. “But need to keep working. This has been a lot of fun and this season has been the best yet.
“We are hoping we can keep it going. ”