CHESTER, Vt. – There are a select few teams who are considered among the elite of Vermont Division III boys basketball. In the past 20 years, Williamstown has dominated the pack more than anyone else with six titles. Thetford and Hazen have both pitched in with four. South Royalton has two and Windsor, Winooski, Lake Region, and Arlington have one each. Those teams with one have also captured titles in other divisions. This great eight is definitely a select group.
When each hoop season begins, most coaches with talent try to put their team in position to advance to the Final Four. Playing in Barre means you are among that season’s elite.
Brian Rapanotti became Green Mountain’s head coach 10 years ago. The Chieftains program wasn’t even good enough to be a tournament participant his first few years. For the next seven years, the team fell into a pattern of earning between a 7-12 seed and thus was a one-and-done participant in the post-season. As time moved forward, Rapanotti’s teams were getting better and there were some close games. However, even when they were quite competitive, they didn’t have what it takes to move on – except in 2019 when they passed the first hurdle by winning a tourney game with Oxbow 59-56. Unfortunately, number one Williamstown was waiting to host the lads from Chester in the next round, and they showed the Chieftains what the quarterfinals looked like with a 62-27 blasting.
Last winter, the program took a step back again and was not able to advance past the first round; but the team that eliminated them was no slouch at all with eventual champion Thetford getting the best of the Chieftains 63-47. Shortly following that game, the world shutdown for the pandemic and routines like summer basketball disappeared. Opponents wondered how Green Mountain would be this winter. They lost senior James Anderson to graduation and Dylan McCarthy transferred to Vermont Academy – this was the second year in succession the program lost a player to VA as Rex Hill had gone the year before.
Anderson had started for the Chester-based school for all four of his high school years. Rapanotti wondered about replacing his leadership. The coach told me that last winter. “Anderson was the best leader I have ever had in the program.”
In addition, McCarthy was the lone Chieftain to be voted onto the Marble Valley League all-division team for the 2019-2020 season.
One advantage Green Mountain might have for the 2021 season is that there would be a long preseason this time around because no one knew when games would actually begin. State government allowed teams to begin practicing the day after Christmas, but there was no announcement regarding when games would actually be played. Rapanotti had plenty of time to find a leader or two and to run his team through their paces to find how the parts best fit together.
When I asked the Chieftain coach if this long lead up to the eventual opener helped, his thoughts really never went there. Most of his players had played a year ago. When the state gave them the thumbs up to practice in scrimmages, the coach said, “We looked beyond awful. It looked like we had not touched a ball for a year. We really had to spend a lot of time just getting up and down getting the rust off.”
Coach wondered if this year’s team would be different than any of his others. He liked how his players had grown individually in recent years, but the loss of leadership and their lone all-star left all kinds of questions to be answered.
Rapanotti felt he was prepared to inject life into the Chieftain program when he arrived. He was well aware building a foundation didn’t happen overnight, but he expected the days of the 7-12 seeds to be over by now. He had expected this year to have the step forward he had been waiting for. But the opener was growing closer, and they had plenty of work to do and several roles to figure out.
Rapanotti had coached with Pete Peck at Springfield High School a few years following his playing career. He felt the former Cosmo player turned coach had built a foundation for the Green and White that he could simulate into the Chieftain way. “I was lucky to come back and coach with Pete. I consider him my mentor. I saw the defensive style he ultimately put in place, which led them to win the title.”
Basketball was played in Chester long before the doors of Green Mountain High School ever opened. In fact, the Chester High School Sentinels won a state title in boys’ basketball in 1954. They used a blueprint many title winners have followed over the years. They advanced to the Division I State Finals in 1953 bowing to St. Michaels of Montpelier 50-33. They rode that experience to a return trip to the title game one year later and channeled their experience to the winners’ circle to face St. Michaels again, this time prevailing 51-48.
No team from Chester has played in a state title game since. It’s been 67 years. Chester played in the Class I semis in 1962 and 1966 and Green Mountain, which opened its doors in 1971, sent representatives to the semifinals in ’71, ’72, ’83, ’84, ’87, ’03 and ’04. The Chieftains tournament record since the 2004 appearance was a frail 2-13. No one would confuse Green Mountain with any of the Division III bluebloods mentioned previously. Taking things a step further, no one outside of Chester saw this team advancing to the Final Four until they actually arrived.
I have covered area sports since the late ’60s. I remember Bob Freeman, Jim Collins, Jim Ball, Eric Matte, and Stretch Gilliam coaching teams that were exciting to watch – and teams around the state respected in the Chieftains uniform – but the school was never thought of a basketball power.
When I was a youngster, the first time I saw a Chester basketball game was in 1962. The Sentinels had a playdown game to qualify for the Southern I tournament in the Bellows Falls gym. I remembered the game, and I remembered the play of Bill Westine, a standout that evening when Chester defeated Waterbury 54-31. Wondering what the players of that age thought of Chester basketball, I chased down Westine, who I found enjoying a day in the Florida sun where he spends winters relaxing.
“I remember playing Waterbury,” he said. “Fred Peck was our coach back then and I thought we were a good team. Unfortunately, we ran into Black River next, and they had a very strong team. They sent us home beating us in the Southern Vermont Final. We were just one step away from playing in a title game.”
Believe it or not, Westine had a brother, Jim, who had Freeman as a coach. Unfortunately, that was in an era when schools were reclassified and the new building at Green Mountain attracted enough students to push the enrollment up to force the school to compete in Division II for a few years. This meant Jim’s Chieftain teams had a much tougher road to hoe to find postseason success. Those teams, although likely near as talented as the first Green Mountain teams, were never able to win a tournament game.
Jim Westine said, “I felt we had good competitive teams, and I was confident at that time that the program would continue that way.”
Despite the fact Green Mountain’s time in Division II was short, they hardly recaptured the excitement of those initial two Final Four teams in the school’s opening years. In fact, they would only reach the Final Four three times in the next 31 years and five times in the next 49 until 2021.
These Green Mountain Chieftains survived the longest preseason fundamental drills period in Vermont state history and, despite no scrimmages, were able to jump off to a quick start 8-0 in a nine-game season and prepare themselves for a tournament run.
“I knew after the second game that we were clicking well together,” Rapanotti said. “I had wondered how the roles would develop. Dylan [McCarthy] was such a big part of our offense last year so everyone needed to find a new way to fit and with Rivendell a strong team with many of their players back was a good test. Offensively, things just came together and the defense was just nasty. I knew if we continued to play like that, teams were going to have a hard time against us. We played very well and looked good doing it.”
If the Rivendell game wasn’t convincing, another veteran team was next on the schedule in White River Valley, and Green Mountain prevailed 35-30 in a tight defensive encounter.
Rapanotti reflected, “This was a game in which we trailed 22-17 heading into the fourth quarter, and it was a situation that in the past we wouldn’t have won. This was a gutsy win against a strong team. Our defense was the key, and it was the difference of winning the Twin Valley game too.”
The team held opponents to 33.5 points a game in the regular season.
This story was continued in the April 14, 2021 edition.