Hockomock Wrestling Duo Earns New England Titles

Hockomock Wrestling
Mansfield’s Jayden Curley (left) and North Attleboro’s Mateusz Kudra, pictured here in matches earlier this season, won MIAA All-State and New England championships. (HockomockSports.com Photos)

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For the first time in eight years, the Hockomock League had a wrestler bring home an individual title at the New England Championships when Mansfield’s Jayden Curley took first at 170 pounds. The wait for the next New England champ was much shorter, as North Attleboro’s Matuesz Kudra followed about an hour later with a title of his own at 285.

Both wrestlers earned the first New England titles in their respective program’s history and both followed up wins from the week before at the All-State Meet at St. John’s Prep in Danvers. When Curley and Kudra were asked how it felt to close out their high school careers with New England championships, both used the same word: overwhelming.

“A lot of people from my school showed up, my principal, my past coach, my family was there, so I just turned to them and I smiled and I was just excited,” said Kudra. Curley added, “It just kind of felt surreal.”

While each of the wrestlers was focused on the moment and their individual matches, they acknowledged that they were aware of each other’s success and were rooting for their Hock competitor.

“That was definitely some added motivation because I didn’t want Mateusz to be alone out there,” Curley said.

Kudra noted, “I was really excited for him because, you know, Hock guys stick together and support each other. I was trying to get in the zone, but at the same time I was peeking in at his match.”

The win at New Englands capped a perfect 51-0 season for Kudra, who was also North’s first all-state champ and its first Div. I college recruit. The University of Virginia-commit finished third in states and sixth in New England last season, wrestling at 220 pounds, and it inspired him to push for even more this winter.

“After the season, I was kind of disappointed with myself,” Kudra explained. “I realized that there was no reason I can’t be that top-level guy.”

With a new off-season regimen, Kudra, who only started wrestling his freshman year of high school and didn’t wrestle varsity until he was a sophomore, had a string of solid results i tournaments against other DI recruits. That included a third-place finish at the prestigious Super 32 Challenge. He also moved up a weight class, but without losing the speed and athleticism that he had at 220 pounds and the techniques he learned starting out in middleweights.

“He breaks that mold of a heavyweight and he wrestles more like a 195- or a 182-pounder,” said North Attleboro coach Geoff Burgess. “He moves less like a heavyweight and more like a middleweight. Every time he went out, I said something to the effect of, don’t let this be a heavyweight match. Put points on the board and keep scoring until he gives up and that was kind of what he did.”

After dominating throughout the season, helping the Rocketeers retain the Davenport dual meet title in the process, Kudra came into the postseason on a mission. He didn’t allow a point in his four matches at Div. 2 states, reaching the final with three pins, and continued that at all-states, not allowing a point until the third period of the final.

At New Englands, Kudra won 4-0 to get things started and then 7-1 in the quarterfinal. He got a first round pin in the semifinal and then jumped out to a 5-1 lead in the final against David Gross of Bucksport (Maine), holding on for a 5-4 victory.

“Last year when I was going to New Englands, I couldn’t believe it. I felt like I was a small fish in a big pond,” Kudra said. “This year…I kind of felt like the top dog going into the tournament. I felt good, I felt dangerous, and I had a good tournament.”

Curley, who is considering several DI college programs, also had a dominant regular season, helping the Hornets claim the program’s first-ever league dual meet title. After losing to Springfield Central’s Dohnivin Harvey in the semifinals of Div. 1 states, Curley refocused on the technique ahead of all-states. That loss was a reminder of what he needed to do on the mat to reach his ultimate goal.

“It definitely woke me up,” he said. “I didn’t necessarily underestimate him, but I didn’t know what I needed to do to win a match like that and my coaches helped me figure that out.”

He won the first three matches at all-states by pin to set up a rematch with Harvey in the final. This time, the result was never in doubt. Curley jumped out to a 7-0 lead and responded to a Harvey takedown in the third period by rolling off five straight points for a major decision victory to become just the second Mansfield wrestler to win an all-state title (Jim Connors won at 285 in 2005).

“I don’t give people room to get their own attacks in because I’m always trying to attack,” Curley said. “I’ve learned over the years that you can’t get what you want on the mat by being nice, so sometimes you just have to be mean when you’re wrestling.”

That momentum carried over to New Englands. He won the first match 13-3 and pinned his next two opponents to reach the final. He wouldn’t get a rubber match against Harvey, who lost in the semifinal, but he jumped out to a 6-1 lead against Ben Dougherty of Chariho (R.I.) and took the title with a 7-5 decision.

Curley said, “I didn’t want to lose my last high school match ever, but when I’m warming up for the match I realize that none of that really matters and it’s not going to affect my wrestling. I just need to wrestle my best and that’s what I tried to do.”

“The way he wrestled at the All-State Tournament and at New Englands was one of the most dominant performances I’ve ever seen,” Burgess said of Curley. “The way he wrestled it didn’t look like any kid was going to have a chance to score any points on him.”

Both Curley and Kudra made history for their programs and both can now be considered among the best to ever take the mat at Mansfield and North Attleboro.

When Curley was asked about what it meant to him to be mentioned as one of the best, if not the best, wrestler that Mansfield has had, he replied, “I think that’s a good thing that I can set that goal for someone else to do better than I did. Four years ago, when I got here, I don’t know if they would have expected that from me. I just tried to work as hard as possible.”

“It’s hard for me to say he’s the best wrestler we’ve ever produced but he’s certainly got the potential to be the best,” said Burgess of Kudra, who finished with 112 career wins. “I think after four years in college, I’m pretty confident that he’ll be the best ever.”

Kudra remarked, “I fell in love with the sport, so if you love doing something then it doesn’t seem like a chore or doesn’t seem like it’s hard. I made wrestling my passion and I just wanted to be the best that I could be and I just wanted to make history.”

Canton Caps Historic Unbeaten Season with D2 Title

Canton boys hockey
Canton’s Ronan O’Mahony (23) jumps on the pile to celebrate the D2 State Championship. (Ryan Lanigan/HockomockSports.com)
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BOSTON, Mass. – Canton went into Sunday afternoon’s Div. 2 state championship game against Tewksbury looking to put a fitting exclamation point on a historic season. The Bulldogs were trying to be the first team since Hanover won the D3 title in 2001 to finish a season unbeaten, be just the fourth team to win 25 games in a single year, and to earn the program’s first title since 2010.

Despite all that pressure, the Bulldogs did what they have done all season long – they found a way to win.

Behind a hat trick from junior Johnny Hagan and a goal and four assists by senior Ryan Nolte, Canton dispatched Tewksbury 6-2, closing out its season at 25-0-1.

Click here for a photo gallery from this game.

“It’s one of those things that it was hard not to know that we’d be good with the guys that we had back,” said Canton coach Brian Shuman, “but you still think you’re going to have a couple of tough games. It just goes to show how driven these guys are. That was their goal, to win every single game, and they did it.”

Nolte said, “It’s unbelievable. We knew in the summer that this was a goal, but, yeah, I don’t think the undefeated part came with it. We worked hard all off-season, so I think we deserved it and we went out and showed the work that we put in.”

Entering the playoffs unbeaten put a giant target on Canton’s back, but it seemed only to motivate the Bulldogs, who outscored opponents 29-3 during their tournament run. Canton scored six against Norwood in the D2 South semifinal, eight against Westwood in the final, and then another six against the Redmen on Sunday.

“They were just relentless, they did not stop,” Shuman explained. “We always say that it’s a 0-0 hockey game no matter the score, but they always played like that.”

Skating on the big ice and bright lights of the Garden can take some getting used to and it seemed like the Bulldogs needed a couple shifts to find their legs. Once they found their footing in the first period, the Bulldogs took control of the game.

Shane Marshall had the first chance on a feed from behind the net by Tommy Ghostlaw, but Tewksbury goalie Patrick Letourneau kept his pads down to block a pair of shots. Canton grabbed the lead five minutes into the game. Seconds after Nolte was denied on a shot from the left wing circle, Owen Lehane’s shot from the point rebounded to Timmy Kelleher for a tap-in.

Just about 90 seconds later and the lead was doubled. Ronan O’Mahony swung the puck across the blue line to Jack Connolly, who patiently crept towards the face-off circle before firing a low wrister just inside the post. Nolte added a third goal with a shot from the slot just 16 seconds later.

Three goals in less than two minutes had the Bulldogs thinking the title was as good as won.

Shuman said, “It seems like the story of the playoffs. We’ve played with a lot of pressure on us this entire postseason, but it’s amazing when you have a crew like these guys how quickly they can strike. It just goes to show the quality of players we have on that team.”

“It’s huge,” said Nolte about the early goals. “No matter what, Mike [Staffiere] will play his best every game, so if we get a few goals early that just makes us more confident. The earlier we score the better we feel because with Mike back there we know there won’t be too many pucks going in.”

The Redmen tried to cut into the lead early in the second period when Kyle Morris got free on a shorthanded breakaway but Mike Staffiere came through with a clutch glove save. Two minutes later, Canton got its own shorthanded odd-man rush that Tewksbury struggled to clear, the puck falling right to Hagan in the slot and he calmly put it away.

Tewksbury was down four goals but was playing much better in the second period. Staffiere again had to come up big to stop a pair of chances from the edge of the crease. The Redmen finally found a breakthrough after Morris stole the puck behind the Canton goal and played it out in front to Aaron Scott.

Chris Lavoie and Marshall nearly had instant responses for the Bulldogs but it remained 4-1 after two periods. The lead got smaller early in the third. Kyle Lombardo got a piece of a Campbell Pierce shot from the point, redirecting it past Staffiere to make it 4-2.

With 7:19 remaining, Canton added a big insurance goal on a power play. Nolte skated off the half-boards and picked out Hagan cutting to the goal. The junior took a touch to control and then buried his shot over the shoulder of Letourneau for a 5-2 lead.

“They carried us today,” said Shuman about his top line. “We kind of joked with Johnny, ‘where is your hat trick?’ and he had it today. He really stepped up. That line of Ryan, Johnny, and Timmy, what can you say about them? They played great.”

Tewksbury had a goal disallowed for an offsides call and with three minutes left decided to pull its goalie. Hagan sealed the title for the Bulldogs when he beat a defender to a loose puck and scored on the empty net.

“It definitely feels good and I’ll definitely remember this forever,” said Hagan about his hat trick. “I think we really tried to play within ourselves and not really get into the hype around us. We just played our game.”

Click here for a photo gallery from this game.

One of the storylines throughout the playoff run was Canton bouncing back after being snubbed by the Super 8. Shuman, who played on the unbeaten 1998 Catholic Memorial team that won the Super 8, dismissed the idea that the Bulldogs were motivated by not being selected.

“That’s so far in the rearview mirror,” he said. “These guys, when we shared with them about the Super 8, they were just like, ‘okay, on to D2.’ This was their goal from day one and I can’t believe the maturity they showed when that happened. It didn’t motivate us, we just focused on taking care of business in D2.”

The Bulldogs took care of business and made history in the process. “I really don’t even think it’s set in yet,” said Hagan. “It will probably set in with the police escort, riding through the center of town. It’s unreal.”

Podcast: Previewing Boys Hockey D2 State Final

Canton boys hockey
Canton boys hockey celebrates with its D2 South championship trophy. (Ryan Lanigan/HockomockSports.com)

HockomockSports.com’s Josh Perry hosts a special state championship podcast focusing on the Boys Hockey D2 State Final between Canton and Tewksbury. Perry is joined by Canton head coach Brian Shuman, Canton senior goalie Mike Staffiere, Oliver Ames coach Sean Bertoni, and 2010 Canton state champion and current New Jersey Devil Kevin Rooney.

Franklin’s Vail Looking to Get Pride On Track This Spring

Jack Vail
Former Franklin standout and HockomockSports.com Player of the Year Jack Vail (14) is looking to follow up an all-NEWMAC season with a strong senior campaign at Springfield College. (Springfield College Athletics)

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Things haven’t started exactly as planned for the Springfield College men’s lacrosse team through the opening four games of the new season. The Pride are 1-3 after four games, but senior attacker Jack Vail is confident that the team, which received votes in national preseason polls, is capable of challenging for the NEWMAC title.

“Our main focus is just to work really hard on ourselves and competing against each every single day,” Vail explained in a conversation ahead of last weekend’s trip to Union College (N.Y.). “We’ve been definitely working hard to improve and just keep getting better every day.”

Through four games, Vail is fourth on the team with four goals and seven points, but his role as a senior and as a captain is bigger than just scoring. A former Hockomock League MVP and two-time HockomockSports.com Player of the Year at Franklin, Vail is also the leader of the attacking unit and he takes that responsibility seriously.

“I’m able to be a more vocal presence and mold the team into what we want it to be as a senior class,” he said. When asked how it felt to be selected as the captain by his teammates, Vail replied, “It was a great feeling. I’ve always aspired to be in those leadership roles, so being voted captain was a satisfying feeling.”

The leadership role is one that Vail has developed in his four years in Springfield. He only played three games as a freshman, which was a big adjustment for someone who was an automatic selection every game in high school.

He admitted, “ I definitely thought, at times, that I could be out there and making an impact but just being a part of a college-level team you get a much deeper bond than you would on your average high school team, so I was able to understand my role and be really working on the scout team and getting better every day.”

Looking back now, he recognizes that his freshman year was a positive learning experience to help him get acclimated to the speed and physicality of the college game. Vail jumped in as a sophomore and made a big impact, scoring 32 goals and recording 16 assists. Last spring, he scored 26 goals and had 30 assists to earn first team all-conference honors.

If Vail puts together similar numbers this spring, it will see him jump into the top 20 all-time in career goals, points, and assists. Not that he is too worried about that right now.

“I’ve never really been a big listener to all-conference awards and hype and stuff like that,” he said. “I’ve just been focused on my team and getting better and winning games. Just making sure I can be the best player for my team and helping everyone around me get better.”

That attitude was put into place early on, as Vail was part of the early stages of the Franklin youth lacrosse programs, which now regularly produces college-level talent and has helped the Panthers dominate the Hockomock in recent years. In high school, Vail was a dynamic scorer, with 55 goals and 38 assists his senior season, and his six goals against Xaverian (five in the second half) helped Franklin get past the Hawks and into the Div. 1 South semifinal for the first time in program history.

“There’s definitely a lot of great memories associated with those years,” he said. “Being able to have that bond with those guys all these years later and also being able to look at the program now and all those kids who were just coming up and are now big contributors and senior leaders.”

There has been a Franklin pipeline to Springfield College in recent years. Vail was introduced to head coach Keith Bugbee and learned more about the program thanks to family friend and Springfield alum Jake Versprille. Now, Vail is connecting other Panthers to the program, including current Springfield sophomore Packie Watson and freshman Kyle McEniry (North Attleboro grad Thomas Lindstrom is also a freshman at Springfield).

“It being a great fit for Jake, I knew it would be a great fit for me,” Vail said. “Going back to Franklin and seeing kids who I think would be a good fit here, like Packie and Kyle, just really kids who would buy into the program and be hard workers and then get the opportunity to meet with Coach Bugbee and eventually come here has been great, keeping that pipeline alive.”

The Pride have reached the NCAA tournament for 11 straight seasons and, despite a tough start, Vail believes that the team can get things in order to be playing its best lacrosse when NEWMAC play kicks off at the end of March.

“I just want our team to be as close as we can be and have the most fun we can,” he said. “By doing that, the wins will sort of take care of themselves. If you can continue to get better every day then play your best lacrosse in the late season then hopefully you can make a deep playoff run and that’s all we want.”

As a senior closing out his lacrosse career, it is no surprise that Vail emphasizes fun as well as results. He is trying to enjoy his last few months on the lacrosse field.

“You’ve definitely got to take a step back and think about how far you’ve come in these four years,” he explained. “They have sort of flown by and I have so many great memories associated with them. Being an in-season college athlete, it’s a really fast-paced schedule, so you need to find time to take it all in before it all ends.”

Springfield College will be back in action on Saturday with a trip to Endicott College.

Top Seed Duxbury Puts End to Franklin Tourney Run

Franklin boys hockey
Franklin junior goalie Ray Ivers makes a save against Duxbury in the third period of the D1 South Final. (Ryan Lanigan/HockomockSports.com)
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BUZZARDS BAY, Mass. – In the last game of the league campaign, Franklin had a chance to clinch the Kelley-Rex division title with a win against North Attleboro, but the Rocketeers pulled out the victory leaving the Panthers worried that not only would the league title be lost, but also its playoff hopes.

A few hours later, thanks to results at other rinks, Franklin had its title in hand and a place in the state tournament.

Fast forward a little more than a month and the Panthers, who entered the playoffs as the lowest seed in Div. 1 South and with a below .500 record, took on top seed Duxbury in Sunday evening’s sectional final with a chance to return to the TD Garden.

Click here for a photo gallery from this game.

Unfortunately for Franklin (12-10-4), its improbable tournament run ended at Gallo Arena with a 3-0 loss to the Dragons.

“We left the rink saying we’re not going and then an hour later alright we have second place and then an hour and 15 minutes later we have first place,” said Franklin coach Chris Spillane about the turnaround that the Panthers experienced that night against North. “It was crazy. We made the most of it.”

The top seed got off to a great start, scoring within the opening two minutes and setting the tone with its speed and physicality. Todd Jones put the Panthers on the back foot right away when he split a pair of defensemen and then flicked a shot over the shoulder of Franklin goalie Ray Ivers.

Spillane said, “They were good. They came out fast, they were physical, we just couldn’t match their energy. We had six kids who couldn’t practice the last five days with the bug. It’s part of hockey and you have to fight through it, but it was obvious tonight that we didn’t have our legs to keep up with a team like that.”

Ivers was forced to make a couple of stops from close-range just a couple minutes after the opening goal, while the Panthers tried to get a foothold in the game. Franklin’s first good scoring chance came with seven minutes left in the first after Joey Lizotte stole an outlet pass and set up Shane McCaffrey in the slot but his shot was saved by Steve Pisani.

Brendan Sicchio followed up a rebound off a shot from outside the blue line and nearly stuffed it past Pisani. Sicchio then set up C.J. Spillane for a backhand chance in front that was stopped. Colin Hedvig nearly got the Panthers on the board at the end of the first when he dangled past a defender and forced a save.

Franklin carried that momentum into the second period and had a good start with three quick shots, but then Duxbury struck again. Ben Cheney fired an inch-perfect stretch pass to Tanner Smith and he sniped the top corner to make it 2-0.

“That’s a credit to that team because every time they had an opportunity to score, they scored,” Spillane remarked. “We were outshooting them…but they’ve got some snipers.”

Hedvig gloved an attempted clearance and forced a blocker save and Cam Cassella forced a kick save from the left-wing circle after he stole a pass at the blue line. Tom Tasker had a shot from the point redirected in front by Dan Magazu, but it went off Pisani’s mask and stayed out.

In the final minute of the period, Kyle Hedvig got a good look right in front but Pisani was able to smother. The Panthers turned over the puck off the rebound and almost instantly Duxbury was back on the attack. James Lawlor got loose on the quick break out and he beat Ivers (21 saves) to make it 3-0. It was a deflating goal for the Panthers to give up.

“When you playing at not-100 percent, the safe play is to chip it out and that’s what we were doing,” said Spillane. “We didn’t carry the puck, we didn’t make plays or passes, it was all chip, chip, chip, chip and we just didn’t have it.”

Franklin came out of the locker room for the third period with the intent of putting together a comeback, but the lack of healthy bodies took its toll and the Panthers never got going. Kyle Hedvig had a decent chance with a tip in front but Pisani got his blocker to it. Ivers made a good stop after Zack Stewart weaved through the defense.

Click here for a photo gallery from this game.

The Dragons neutralized the Panthers in the third, limiting them to only six shots, and closed out the game to book its place in next weekend’s state championship.

“I thought we were going to get one early in the third and it might change the energy on the bench, give them something to fight for, but it just didn’t happen,” said Spillane.

He added, “It was a good ride. They showed a lot of heart and character. We knew what we had in the locker room. Our record may not have been indicative of that, but we knew we played some good hockey teams and we competed and we knew that we could run with anyone.”

Bulldogs Seal South Title With Dominant Performance

Canton boys hockey
Canton boys hockey celebrates with its D2 South championship trophy. (Ryan Lanigan/HockomockSports.com)
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BUZZARDS BAY, Mass. – Canton is no stranger to playing important games at Gallo Arena. Coming into this year’s playoffs, the Bulldogs had played nine times in Bourne since winning the state title in 2010, reaching at least the sectional semifinal every year but one, but had only won twice at Gallo in that span.

After a convincing win against Norwood in the semifinal, Canton had the opportunity to end nearly a decade’s wait for a return to the TD Garden and set aside recent history in this venue. The Bulldogs did that in style, dominating second-seed Westwood from start to finish in the Div. 2 South final and putting an 8-0 exclamation point on their run to the final.

“It feels amazing,” said Canton senior goalie Mike Staffiere. “I pictured this in my mind when I was a little kid. In 2010, when they won it at the Garden, my Mite ‘A’ team was here to watch the state championship team win this game and it was one of the most special moments of my life.”

Click here for a photo gallery from this game.

When asked about what made this year’s team different than previous Canton squads, including two South finalists, Canton coach Brian Shuman said, “The word that’s used most often to describe them is relentless. They just don’t stop. They work hard, they love each other, they play for each other, and I couldn’t be prouder of them. I love it that on the ice all of them are saying one more, one more and that’s how they’ve been all year.”

Staffiere added, “I think we’re just more of a family this year. We’re so close on and off the ice and we’re always together, we’re all brothers, and I think that’s the difference.”

If there was any nervousness in the Canton locker room, the players certainly didn’t show it on the ice. The Bulldogs recorded the fist nine shots of the game, held an 18-5 advantage in shots after the first period, and needed only 43 seconds to get ahead. Johnny Hagan had a wraparound shot saved by Westwood goalie Ben Goodrich and the rebound skipped out to Owen Lehane at the blue line. His wrister snuck inside the post for the early lead.

“We just wanted a good start, we wanted to come out flying, and to come out hard,” said Shuman. “To get a goal in the first period is always a good way to start the game.”

Canton never looked back. Chris Lavoie nearly doubled the lead with a shot from the slot, but Goodrich made a big stop with his shoulder. Staffiere (19 saves) didn’t have much to do in the first but he was forced into a blocker save on a snap shot by Colin Fahey. The Bulldogs made their pressure pay with 3:19 left in the first, Ryan Nolte took his time in the left circle and fired a low shot that squeezed inside the near post.

After dominating play and grabbing a 2-0 lead in the first, Canton put the game away in the second.

Just a minute after the break, Timmy Kelleher blocked a puck at the blue line and then raced into the offensive zone to collect it. He dropped a pass off to Hagan in the slot and the junior took a look up and sniped the top corner on the stick side. Only 23 seconds later, Ryan Colby added a fourth.

The top line of Hagan, Nolte, and Kelleher was controlling the game and Westwood had no answer. With 12:10 left in the second, that trio combined for the fifth of the afternoon. Hagan had the initial shot and the rebound was pushed on goal by Nolte with Kelleher on hand to force it over the line.

Shuman said, “Timmy Kelleher I think played his best game of the season. He’s just a bruising right-wing. He made a great block that led to that goal.”

There was no letting up from the Bulldogs. Lavoie was the lone forechecker but he managed to swipe the puck from the Westwood defender on the right side of the net. The junior center brought it back to the other side and threw a puck in front looking for Tommy Ghostlaw in the crease, but it deflected off a Westwood player and looped into the goal.

Three minutes into the third period, Kelleher again showed the benefit of going to the net, as he followed up a chance by Nolte and knocked in the rebound to make it 7-0. Seven minutes later, Tommy Vaughan got in on the action. Eamon Kelly’s shot was going wide of the net, but it glanced off Vaughan’s skate and snuck in.

Westwood created some chances down the stretch, but Staffiere stood tall to preserve his shutout in the final. “I wanted it so bad,” he said about the shutout. “They had a couple of odd-man rushes but my ‘D’ played well and they helped me out to get that shutout.”

Click here for a photo gallery from this game.

This is Staffiere’s first season in goal, after three years as a backup to Quinn Gibbs, and that has made the title even sweeter. He explained, “I did my time as a backup. I still worked hard every day and it really paid off. It’s amazing, my dreams are coming true.”

Canton (24-0-1) heads to the TD Garden next Sunday and will face either Boston Latin or Tewksbury in the state championship game. It has been an impressive run through the sectional for the Bulldogs, which didn’t allow the disappointment of not being chosen for the Super 8 deter them.

“That’s so far in our rearview mirror,” said Shuman of the Super 8 snub. “Those guys put that past them right away and all they wanted to do is move on and have a moment like this. The best part is that they’re not satisfied and they’re looking forward to that next game and whoever the North sends out.”

O’Connell Beats Buzzer and Lifts Franklin to First Title

Franklin girls basketball
Franklin girls basketball celebrates on the court after beating Wachusett at Worcester State to earn the program’s first-ever sectional title. (Josh Perry/HockomockSports.com)

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WORCESTER, Mass. – Franklin got the look it wanted to try and win the game.

Down by one with less than 10 seconds remaining, Erin Quaile swung the ball around the perimeter to her backcourt partner Shannon Gray, who looped the ball into Ali Brigham on the left block. The 6-foot-3 junior center, who had 28 points to that point, turned into her smaller defender, took a dribble, and got a look at the rim.

Click here for a photo gallery from this game.

Unlike so many other chances that Brigham converted in Friday night’s Div. 1 Central final at Worcester State University, this one didn’t find the bottom of the net. Instead, it kicked off to the far side, but her classmate Megan O’Connell was there and pulled down the offensive rebound between three Wachusett defenders.

O’Connell instantly went back up with an off-balance shot. It bounced on the right side of the rim, took a touch on the backboard, and dropped through to put Franklin ahead 61-60 just as the final horn sounded on the program’s first-ever sectional title.

“I was thinking, ‘oh my god, it’s not going to go in,’ and then it somehow did,” said O’Connell after the game. “I was thrilled, this is all we’ve been working for. I’m just happy it all worked out.”

Gray added, “It’s amazing. I can’t believe that we’re the first team in Franklin girls basketball history to ever get a sectional and that’s just so amazing…I can’t believe it’s real.”

When the ball dropped through the basket, O’Connell seemed to hesitate for a second before the celebrations kicked in, as though she wasn’t sure if she had really just done that. That she had just won the game. “I was in shock. I didn’t really process that it went in,” she explained.

“It was like every bad Disney movie at the end where you’re just waiting and waiting,” Franklin coach John Leighton joked. “We drew up a play to get Ali the ball but we talked about at the end of the game, whoever has the ball just shoot it, not to make the extra pass. [Megan] got it, she didn’t blink, she didn’t think twice, and she shot it right away.”

There were points in the second half when it looked like Franklin may run away from the Mountaineers and cruise to the title. But, Wachusett came in undefeated for a reason and stormed back in the fourth. A 4-0 run to close the third was followed by four more to start the final quarter with junior Belle Lanpher (21 points) getting a steal and then a transition basket to cut the lead to 47-45.

Brigham answered back with a basket plus the foul and senior Bea Bondhus (10 points) knocked down a pull-up jumper from the right to push the lead back to seven. A jumper by Rachel Vinton (14 points) was matched by a Brigham layup, off a feed from O’Connell, to keep the Panthers up 54-47.

That was when things started to get very interesting.

Lanpher drilled a straightaway three to cut the lead to four points and Vinton halved that with a pair at the line. Again, Franklin turned to Brigham, who added 14 rebounds and seven blocks to her game-high point total, and she responded with a basket from a Gray assist. A layup for Jill Post made it a two-point game and then Courtney Lanpher (14 points) buried a three to put the Mountaineers up 57-56. It was their first lead of the second half.

Bondhus got fouled in the backcourt and, despite the cacophony of noise from the Wachusett student section, buried two clutch free throws with 1:19 left to give the Panthers back the lead. Courtney Lanpher was fouled and knocked down a pair at the line to make it 59-58 with 1:06 left. After another foul, Gray (seven points) hit 1-of-2 to tie it with 1:01 remaining.

“The whole time we were just like let’s do it,” said Gray. “We’ve got it and let’s just finish.”

The score stayed the same until Lanpher was fouled going to the basket with 15.1 on the clock. She missed the first and Leighton took a timeout. The senior guard made the second and instantly Wachusett went into its press. Quaile got free to get the inbound and pushed the ball up court, where the Panthers got the ball into Brigham’s hands and then O’Connell provided the heroics.

“A quarter-inch difference and Wachusett wins the game and we’re going home,” said Leighton, adding, “If that bounced the other way, I’d be just as proud of the kids because what they did tonight was give everything they had against a great team. This was as complete a game as they could play and if that ball bounced out I don’t think I would feel differently.”

O’Connell said, “We worked so hard and we had a good run in the first half and we thought we were going to win and it turned around and we had to stay put and keep playing defense and we pulled it out.”

Wachusett came out firing and took an early 10-4 lead in the first. The Mountaineers scored 19 points in the opening quarter, mostly using a high pick-and-roll in the center of the court. Franklin was aggressively jumping out to the shooters and the Mountaineers were able to turn the corner time and again and get to the rim, where Brigham was nowhere to be found because she was forced to extend out.

The Panthers changed things up defensively in the second and held Wachusett to just 10 points in the quarter.

“They shoot the lights out…so we came out trying to limit their three-point shots,” said Leighton. “We adjusted and we tried to switch a lot more and put a person in that gap so it wasn’t a straight shot to the rim. That got Ali a lot of those blocks because she had time to get back.”

Brigham was on fire early in the game, as the Panthers got the ball inside early and often. O’Connell (10 points and nine rebounds), fresh off a 19-point game in the semifinal, was also getting free and taking the ball to the rim. Gray nailed a three in the final seconds to tie the game at 19-19 after one.

In the second, Franklin’s outside shooting started to find the range. Bondhus and Quaile each hit threes and Brigham added another six points as Franklin pushed the lead to as many as 10, 35-25. A quick 4-0 run at the end of the half got the top seed back within single digits at the break.

A Belle Lanpher three cut the Panthers advantage to 40-37 in the third, but then Franklin went on a 7-0 run to again push the lead to 10. Brigham got an offensive board and put-back and Bondhus drilled a three in the run. But again, Wachusett was able to score four straight to get back within six at 47-41 and set up an exciting finish to this rematch of the 2015 Central final.

Franklin (20-4) now advances to the state semifinal for the first time and will face West champion Springfield Central.

Click here for a photo gallery from this game.

Warriors Reign in D2 South Ends Against Pembroke

Foxboro girls basketball
Foxboro senior Chelsea Gibbons (31) scored half of her team’s points in a semifinal loss to No. 4 seed Pembroke. (Josh Perry/HockomockSports.com)

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BRIDGEWATER, Mass. – After two years as the top team in Div. 2 South, defending state champion Foxboro saw its quest for a three-peat come to a very abrupt end on Wednesday night against Pembroke at Bridgewater-Raynham High.

The Titans held the Warriors, who led the Hockomock League in scoring at more than 60 points per game, to single digits and no more than three made field goals in each quarter. Pembroke pulled away in the second quarter and left the Warriors in the rearview mirror, pulling out a 50-24 victory that sends the Titans to the South final.

It was obvious from the start that Foxboro had the target on its backs and Pembroke wanted to be the team that ended its run.

“It definitely doesn’t help, but we didn’t come out ready,” said Foxboro coach Lisa Downs about facing every team’s best effort. “I don’t know if it was that we were scared because they didn’t seem that way when they warmed up, so I think it was a matter of they maybe thought we were better than we were and taking that team more for granted than we should have.”

Chelsea Gibbons, who scored half of her team’s points, opened the game with a three that barely even made the net ripple as it dropped through. Foxboro didn’t score again for more than six minutes. Pembroke went on a 13-0 run to take control.

The Warriors did climb back into the game before the end of the quarter. Jordyn Collins drove baseline for a layup and Yara Fawaz got one at the line after a rare offensive rebound. Gibbons (12 points) swished another three and suddenly it was a four-point game (13-9).

It felt like Foxboro was on the verge of righting the ship and preparing to go on a run to get back in front. That wasn’t how it played out.

The Titans came out firing in the second, knocking down each of the first five threes that they took. Gibbons hit a third from beyond the arc to cut the lead to 19-12, but then three more triples for Pembroke pushed the lead to 14. Lizzy Davis got her only points on a putback but the Titans went into the break leading 30-14.

Downs explained, “We tried to do a matchup 2-3 zone at one point and then we went to a half-court 1-3-1 trapping zone. We forced a turnover and then we dribbled out of bounds, things that we don’t do. So many things that were very atypical for us.”

Jayne Howe hit three from the outside in the second quarter and scored 15 of her 17 points in the opening half, outscoring the Warriors by herself. Pembroke used a 17-5 quarter to pull away.

“They’re a very good team,” Downs said. “All of our game plans that we put together to keep the ball out of the hands of [Howe] and [Katie Galligan], we just didn’t execute and it didn’t help that we had no rebounding whatsoever. It was just a perfect storm for us that we couldn’t do anything right.”

Katelyn Mollica knocked down her only jumper of the night to bring Foxboro back within 18 at 35-17 and then Gibbons answered a Pembroke basket with another three. It was as close as Foxboro would get. In fact the Warriors only managed four more points for the rest of the night.

“She couldn’t get into a rhythm at all and then she’s trying to force shots because she knew that she had to score,” said Downs about Mollica, who led the team ins coring as a sophomore, averaging more than 18 points per game. “She was a little bit tight and she wasn’t following through because she was trying to get a shot off quickly.”

Abby Hassman and Collins each scored in the fourth quarter but that was all that the Warriors managed as Pembroke was running down the shot clock on every possession and typically getting multiple looks thanks to its control of the glass.

Coming into the season, following the graduation of influential players like Ashley Sampson, Lily Sykes, Grace Tamulionis, and Shannon Smally, no one saw the Warriors as the potential No. 1 seed in the South. Despite the new faces in the lineup, Foxboro (20-3) still won a third straight league title and reached a third straight South semifinal.

“Each game that we played, each practice, I would see something a little more that I hadn’t expected,” Downs said. “We’re still a young team. They’ve had some good experience the last two years that hopefully they can build on and learn from and hopefully set some goals that after tonight’s game you never want to feel this crappy.”