PORTLAND >> Somers boys basketball coach John Hostetler knows how tough it is to win a road game in the Shoreline Conference.
Hostetler played high school basketball at Coginchaug and was a big part of two terrific teams in 1979 and 1980 under the tutelage of the legendary Wally Camp. Hostetler’s junior and senior seasons both ended with state tournament losses against Cromwell, including a 57-51 defeat in the 1980 Class S state championship game.
“I love Wally,” Hostetler said while reminiscing about his playing days in the Shoreline. “He was the best coach.”
Hostetler was breathing a sigh of relief Wednesday night at Portland after his Spartans relinquished a 14-point cushion late in the third quarter – Somers’ lead had shrunk to 49-47 with 1:29 left – before drawing away at the end for a 59-48 non-league victory.
“I give Portland a lot of credit,” said Hostetler. “It just seemed like we had control of the game and they just amped their defense up. We had a few costly turnovers and we were never able to get that momentum back.”
This was the Highlanders’ fourth game in six days and Portland coach Chris Serra was proud of the way his team responded.
“My kids haven’t given up all season,” said Serra. “And the work ethic that they put in in the first three weeks showed in the second half tonight. They executed what we were supposed to.”
This was a fast-paced matchup between similar teams. Portland and Somers, which plays in the North Central Connecticut Conference, are relatively young teams (the game featured three freshman) coming off sub .500 seasons a year ago and there were nine lead changes in the first half alone.
Highlanders sophomore guard Cole Ogorzalek went coast-to-coast for a layup to give Portland an 11-10 lead after one quarter.
After senior forward Hayden Manning drained a 3-pointer to give the Highlanders their biggest lead at 19-15 midway through the second quarter, Somers responded with an 11-0 spurt. The Spartans run was highlighted by a long trey from sophomore Garrett McCloskey and a pair of low post hoops from senior Adam Donovan that lifted Somers to a 26-19 halftime advantage.
Spartans junior guard Brian Hollister opened the second half by draining a 3-pointer from the left wing before Manning temporarily stopped the bleeding with a layup off a nice fed from senior Josh Scovill (four assists).
Somers did a nice job getting some open looks from behind the arc and senior Billy McCoskey’s trey gave the Spartans a 40-26 lead with 2:02 left in the third quarter.
“We were able to cause a lot of pressure on their guards and got quite a few turnovers,” Hostetler added. “Offensively, in the fourth quarter we kind of shut down. We looked like we were playing more one-on-one. But again, a lot of credit goes to Portland. They really amped it up at the end and didn’t give up.”
The Highlanders got a huge boost off the bench from freshman Austin White (nine points) and some renewed energy behind the play of junior Jose Rivera, who converted three fast break baskets during a key stretch of the fourth quarter, including a steal and layup with 2:50 remaining, and suddenly the Highlanders had made it a one possession game at 47-44.
Somers junior Kyle Trusch made a putback for a 49-45 lead but Ogorzalek answered with a pair of free throws. Somers then turned the ball over but Serra was whistled for a technical while arguing a non-foul call on what appeared to be a scramble for a loose ball with 1:10 remaining.
Junior guard Jack Hostetler, the coach’s son, made one of the two technical free throws and then made one more free throw on the ensuing possession, giving Somers a 51-47 lead with 1:02 left.
“When my players are going at it and it’s fine that I argue a call,” Serra explained. “But when my kids’ safety is at hand and he gets shoved in the back and it’s blatant, then I can’t sit well wth that. That’s disrespectful to my players, who are playing their tails off, and to the game of basketball itself. It was very blatant. He extended his arm and that’s when things got out of control.”
Ogorzalek’s free throw made it 51-48 with 57 seconds left. But Donovan sank two free throws and then snuck away for a fast break layup on a long pass from Hostetler. Donovan was intentionally on the play and Somers was on its way to sealing things with a 10-1 run in the final minute.
Donovan finished with a game-high 20 points and five rebounds. Hostetler had 13 points, while Hollister and sophomore Stephen Astone each had eight points for the Spartans (5-3), who were coming off a 54-51 win at East Granby the previous night.
“We won with 30 seconds to go so we had two tough ones in a row,” said Hostetler. “Considering we’re a young team, it’s a good win tonight. It’s not the way I drew it up though. We came into a tough place and got a W and did what we had too at the end.”
Manning led the Highlanders with 14 points and four rebounds. Rivera added nine points and two steals, while Ogorzalek had eight points for Portland, which suffered a loss at North Branford the night before.
Serra is in his first season at the helm after serving as the Highlanders junior varsity coach the past three seasons. He was the freshman basketball coach at Middletown High School before coming to Portland.
And despite falling to 2-6, including a 51-49 loss at home against undefeated Westbrook back on Jan. 6, Serra is optimistic.
“The kids are hungry,” Serra said. “Teams know that when they’re coming to Portland or when we’re coming to them, we’re going to bring it.”