UNCASVILLE >> On Sunday afternoon the Valley Regional boys basketball team faced about as formidable an opponent as any Warriors club has ever gone up against.
Size, length, speed, quickness, brute force: that pretty much sums up newly crowned Class S champions Sacred Heart (Waterbury), who outlasted the gritty Warriors, 65-56, in front of 7,559 fans at Valley East, aka The Mohegan Sun Arena.
Hearts’ 6-6 sophomore point guard Mustapha Heron, one of the best players in the state, has orally committed to play at Pittsburgh. That’s the Pitt Panthers…not the Steelers. And 6-7 junior guard Malik Petteway would create matchup problems against Louisville.
“It looked like a high school team against a college team when they were warming up,” said Steve Woods, the former Valley coach whose son, Kevin, is the Warriors mentor now. “I was like …this is ridiculous.”
Yet Valley’s game the day before at their school’s small gymnasium in Deep River might have been more grueling.
Because Taylor Rioux, Jonathan Luster, Kyle Connor, Chris Connor, and Sean Cunningham were at Valley’s practice on Saturday and the former Warriors weren’t attired in street clothes. They were helping their old high school coach get his players ready for the game of their lives. It seems that game might have unfolded a day early.
“It was brutal,” said Kevin Woods. “I swear, maybe I worked them too hard because yesterday I think we had a tougher practice than a varsity game. But I have to thank my (alumni) guys. They gave us a look of a lifetime.”
Rioux, a former Shoreline Conference Player of the Year, and Kyle Connor were members of Valley’s first state championship team in 2011. Chris Connor, Sean Cunningham and Jonathan Luster, a two-time SLC Player of the Year, were part of two state championship teams, as well as a Shoreline title at Valley.
That’s a lot of championship bling in one gymnasium, especially for a team from the Shoreline Conference.
This is, indeed, a special time for the Valley Regional boys basketball program.
Woods, his players and his staff – Jeff Bernardi, Anthony Pagano and Scott Harger – were making their third trip to The Mohegan Sun in four years, an amazing accomplishment for a non-magnet, non-private Catholic, non-big inner city school. And Valley Regional’s quest for a third ring was unfolding pretty much like their first two ventures to the Sun.
There was junior guard David Bradbury raining in 3-pointers from the Billy Joel banner in the rafters. There was senior guard Jake Luster, Jonathan’s younger brother, draining a trey from the deep corner. There was senior forward Peter Barry and junior forward Hunter Linfesty making life miserable for Heron and Petteway on the defensive end. There was junior Chris Jean-Pierre doing what he does best, which is everything. And there was junior Brennan Joy and sophomore Nash Eppard, giving the Warriors terrific minutes off the bench.
“They had such an unbelievable game plan and those kids executed it,” said Steve Woods, who has guided the Old Saybrook girls basketball team to five straight state tourney appearances. “Kevin and his staff did such a great job. I was blown away. Kevin is a perfectionist and he takes everything to heart, but you can tell he knew his kids just gave it everything.”
Sacred Heart found out pretty quickly why the Sun is Valley’s home away from home. While the Warriors’ incomparable student section was rockin’ the House again decked in their “We Believe” T-shirts, Valley was building a 35-29 halftime lead.
“We have a great fan base and support in our community and that’s what makes it a program too,” said Kevin Woods. “Yeah, we have Valley across our chest but you look at the administration at our school and you look at the T-shirts and the support we get from those guys. We’re not big towns and you look at some of these bigger schools and what they’re bringing to the game. That’s what makes it a great program. It’s a family.”
It’s guys like Rioux, the Connor’s, Luster and Cunningham coming back in gym clothes the day before a title game.
“My dad told me, ‘I’m so jealous of you right now,’” Kevin Woods said. “I’m not jealous because of the Mohegan Sun. I’m jealous because you have that kind of commitment to your program and that kind of support and that kind of family. He said that’s so special, that you have no idea what you’ve got there.”
Valley simply ran out of gas during the final lap on Sunday. Petteway’s steal and dunk gave Sacred Heart the lead for good with two and half minutes left. And Heron had the final say with a steal and monster dunk with 22 seconds remaining.
“There were two champions punching back and forth and someone has to win,” said Kevin Woods. “I’m proud of my guys. We came about a minute and a half away from making a big play or two to giving us a chance to win the ballgame. We were just a couple of plays short.”
But for all the young kids dribbling basketballs in Deep River, Chester and Essex today, their dream of playing in Uncasville for a high school state basketball championship lives on.
“I was talking to Ryan Ford who works with Josten’s, which does all the rings,” added Steve Woods. “He was saying that Kevin and his people have built a culture in the Deep River, Tri-Town area. Kids are basketball crazy. It’s just going to keep replenishing.”