On night Liberty’s successful season ends prematurely, Lincoln joins Mountaineers in honoring Ryan Lantz

CLARKSBURG, W.Va. — A season unlike any other in the history of Liberty Harrison’s boys basketball program came to an end Tuesday night when the Mountaineers suffered a 54-48 loss to Lincoln in a Class AAA Region II, Section 2 semifinal.

Thirty minutes before the longtime Harrison County rivals faced off, nearly every seat inside the Liberty gymnasium was occupied while a lengthy line waited to be let in.

“The crowd hasn’t been like that for 20-plus years around here,” Liberty head coach Zak Bart said.

They had come not only to offer their support to the Mountaineers or Cougars, but to pay respect to Ryan Lantz, a teacher and coach at Liberty who lost his life at the age of 52 during a tragic accident at the school parking lot February 20.

Prior to Bart assuming his current role of head coach, the title belonged to Lantz, who held it for four seasons up until 2021. At the time of his passing, Lantz was a journalism teacher and assistant football coach at Liberty as well as the head basketball coach of the freshman basketball team at nearby Robert C. Byrd.

A Lincoln player dons a red, white and blue ribbon in honor of Ryan Lantz during warmups. Photo by Greg Carey

On Tuesday, Liberty jerseys featured the initials ‘RL’ in the upper lefthand corner. Lincoln players donned white, red and blue ribbons in warmups and the Cougars’ coaching staff had them on throughout the game. A moment of silence was observed before the start of the contest.

So as Lincoln, the No. 4 seed in a four-team sectional, scored an impressive road win over the top seed to prolong its season and end Liberty’s, there was more on the minds of everybody associated with the contest than the outcome of a win-or-go-home game.

“Huge emotions. I knew coach Lantz. He was the head coach [at Liberty], and he and I had a good relationship,” veteran Lincoln head coach Jordan Toth said. “So glad I got to see him when we played Byrd at our place and went over and gave him a hug. A super human being and a great man of faith.”

For Liberty, which finished 16-6 for its first winning campaign in 28 years, there was even more emotion.

What proved to be the Mountaineers’ final game this season was their first since Lantz passed away. Liberty had last played February 19 when it secured a resounding victory over Notre Dame approximately 11 hours before Lantz’s death.

“He’s coaching at a rival school and we’d go get a big win and one of the first people to text me was coach Lantz that night. It just shows what kind of person he was,” Bart said. “Ten years ago, I coached against him, but finally getting to know him recently these last couple of years while working at Liberty, he was the real deal.”

The Mountaineers upped their win total from six to nine in Bart’s first two seasons, before getting to 16 in his third year.

Bart credited Lantz for maintaining strong relationships with the Mountaineers’ current coaching staff and roster, some of whom Lantz was familiar with from when their days as freshman while Lantz still manned the sidelines on the hardwood at Liberty.

Liberty assistant principal and athletic director David Mazza honors Ryan Lantz with a shirt. Photo by Greg Carey

“In today’s society, we have a lot of jealous people,” Bart said. “Coach Lantz was the coach here before I was hired and things didn’t go as successful from a wins and losses standpoint, but I cannot explain how supportive he was of our team and players.”

While Liberty would have liked nothing more than to move on to play in Thursday’s sectional game against a Robert C. Byrd team it defeated twice in the regular season, the Mountaineers will one day look back at what they accomplished and remember it in a positive manner. 

For a school facing an uncertain future and a strong likelihood of merging its students to RCB in the near future, for at least this season, the boys basketball team helped provide the Liberty community with an abundance of hope and no shortage of excitement.

Despite taking it in from afar, Lantz enjoyed it as much as anyone.

“Everything that people say is true,” Bart said. “We lost a good one.”

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