What an enjoyable week last week was! Not only was I blessed with back-to-back trips to the Final Four at the Auditorium in Barre, but I was able to sit back and enjoy two splendid efforts that fell short. Don’t get me wrong, I wanted our area teams to win, but once upon a time, having been a coach whose mission was to go to the Aud and accept nothing short of a win, this type of trip for me was much more relaxing.
In fact, I was fully able to appreciate the play of two remarkable teams who rode their wave of talent and emotion as far as they could go. I could sit back at the end and know this play or that play could have turned the tide, but it is what it is.
I am sure there are coaches and players both from Springfield and Green Mountain who have gone over several plays and said, If only I had…” That’s how it always is; however, things don’t always work out that way.
From where I sat above the home team bench, I could see that both teams played magnificently, representing their school and community well. They overcame the obstacle of never having been there before and battled a foe that had been there all the way to the final buzzer. Neither showed any stage fright, and they both overcame the experience factor. There is a difference of having been there or not, but both of them quickly kicked the tires and jumped in for the ride. To an innocent bystander, it was a wonderfully memorable ride.
Rarely are teams this ready when they see the inside of the building for the first time. One thing which could have played a factor for both teams to show up ready is the tough tight competition that took place this winter in the games these two teams competed in against each other and against Windsor and Bellows Falls. Large crowds and tight games frequented those meetings.
Green Mountain Coach Terry Farrell tells another story about his team, which is actually over the top. Five years ago, Green Mountain chose not to field a varsity team. They were low on numbers and most of the numbers they did have were very young. The school decided in the end to field a junior varsity team. An older player or two competed at another school and the Lady Chieftains played only a JV schedule. They even included a number of eighth graders to have enough players to practice with.
Although I agreed with the decision at the time, I also believed such a drastic move could handicap the program for a long time. Obviously I was wrong. It was the perfect move and maybe more than anything else, led to the school’s second Final Four appearance in history.
Farrell did one other little thing that could have played a part in the players’ comfort zone. Back when they weren’t even a varsity team and this year’s seniors were already part of the program, he took the group to the Barre Auditorium to see the Division III Tournament. It was a tease. See what you get if you work hard. Well, they worked hard and here they were.
Final Fours have not been a common place for any of our area teams. Of the 12 teams covered in our reporting area, only the Fall Mountain girls’ team has frequently been a part of the Final Four tradition. It’s too bad because it can be so much fun.
Interestingly, this is the second straight year that the Thetford girls have defeated an area foe in the semi-finals. A year ago, it was Leland & Gray (14-6) who they beat 43-37. This year, Green Mountain had their turn and fell short 40-33. If the Lady Chieftains had any doubts when they took the floor, they were quickly erased by the hot shooting of Annie Lamson. She had six early points and gave the Panthers fits in the opening stanza. Lamson would finish with a team high 12 points. Farrell would correctly say later, “We didn’t play like we were afraid to be there.”
One dream Farrell envisioned when he entered the Auditorium was a healthy player in the middle of his attack – Hannah Buffum. The senior had missed the quarterfinal game with an ankle injury, but she was taped and ready to go at the Aud. On Thetford’s first possession, a Panther drove the baseline and didn’t stop when the imposing Buffum was found in the way. Thus, 16 seconds into the game, there was slight contact. Buffum went down and the game was delayed and she would not return again. Farrell said, “Even if she wasn’t able to score a point, she would have helped us rebounding and defending the rim. Alyssa Ripley played well in her place, but she doesn’t have the same size.”
The game was tied 18-18 at the half and the Panthers did establish a 7-point lead in the fourth quarter, but it was a 2-point game with 48 seconds left. The Lady Chieftains had two opportunities with the ball after that. It was anyone’s game. For the school that had seen only one previous appearance at the Aud in history, this was a strong showing. Maddie Wilson and Rachel Guerra both added 6 points to the cause. By the way, if having Buffum injured wasn’t enough, Guerra lost playing time throughout with breathing problems, which appeared to have flu-like symptoms.
Springfield had so many lives in this tournament season and despite showing guts personified all along the way, the clock eventually struck midnight. In the opening round against Bellows Falls, they were pronounced dead only to come alive and bounce back outscoring their rivals 27-2 down the stretch, with another hero every minute on the way to warming up the bus to travel to Enosburg.
There, Joe Costello’s team chose to present the opposite approach racing away to a 49-33 advantage after three periods before the gas tank signaled empty, and the Cosmos held on for a 60-59 victory in a game that actually saw Enosburg outscore Springfield for a stretch 22-6 to tie the score at 55 before Springfield prevailed.
Which streaky Cosmos team would show up at the Barre Auditorium? It would be one that would play well from start to finish, but also one which found itself trailing 33-29 with 1:09 to play after Fair Haven star Ryleigh Coloutti, who Springfield kept in check for most of the game, hit a mammoth three-pointer to all but put this game away. However, this only put this game bunch of Lady Cosmos in a position to produce yet another comeback to tie the score and move onto overtime.
Fair Haven would win the overtime and the game, but everyone believed in Springfield until the final horn sounded and the scoreboard read Fair Haven 39, Springfield 35. To me, Springfield didn’t lose the game; the clock just ran out too quickly. Hannah Crosby tied the score at the end of regulation with a steal and a lay-up and paced the Cosmos with 11 points. Both Hailey Perham and Gabby Wardwell had steady numbers in the contest. Perham had 9 points and 10 rebounds, while Wardwell added 8 points and 15 rebounds.
Moments after the game, Coach Joe Costello was partially in a daze, but made all kinds of sense when he said, “Someone had to win, someone had to lose. There were a few close plays. Tim in rim out, we kept playing hard and in the end it falls the other way. That’s the game of basketball. In my opinion, we had the best two teams in Vermont playing tonight. This game should have been on Saturday. I can’t be more proud of my girls. They left it on the court on a big stage that they are not accustomed to, that everyone else is, and they didn’t back down from the moment. We fought like we have done all year. We came right back and had a chance to win the game. To be in that spot in this moment, that’s what we were working for. We got the opportunity, the shot just didn’t fall.”
This was the tale of two communities whose teams excelled to a level that was exciting and beyond the norm. Neither team happened to win their semi-final game, but from here I say it was much better to have played than to not. Both communities should be proud of what their teams accomplished this winter.