Today’s Class S girls basketball championship between No. 1 St. Paul Catholic (22-4) and No. 3 Thomaston (22-4) is a neighborhood battle for residents of the Northwest Corner, despite its 3 p.m. spotlight at the glittering Mohegan Sun Arena.
Its the NVL vs. the Berkshire League, nearby town vs. nearby town and, best of all, it’s an even match between similar teams with heart and courage at their core.
“We both play aggressive man defense. We’re scrappy, tight teams that attack their opponents,” said Coach Joe Mone, in his 19th year at St. Paul, with five tournament finals and championships in 2010 and 2001 in his pocket.
“It’s gritty, down-dirty defensive teams trying to take away each other’s strengths.”
Each team has a pair of stars at the top, strong supporting players not far below.
Each team has a strong senior leader with over-achieving underclassmen pushing along in their wake.
Each team feels lucky to be at the Mohegan Sun today.
First, the stars.
Abby Hurlbert is a 5-foot-10 senior forward/center/point guard with more willpower than an army general.
Leading her team in points and rebounds, she offered her penultimate example last year in the Class S finals against Capital Prep, now taking it to Class L opponents. Against a team that crushed tournament teams by 50 and 70 points, Hurlbert scored 28 points with 10 rebounds.
Sophomore forward Morgan Sanson is also a proud veteran of that game — 11 points as a freshman.
“I don’t know if you take them away,” said Mone. “We’ll try to limit what they do and make it extra hard for them, hoping to wear them down by the fourth quarter so their shots fall a little short.”
St. Paul’s counterparts are 6-foot-1 senior center Theresa Swanke, the Falcons’ leading scorer and rebounder and junior Kelly McMahon, an All-NVL guard who set the St. Paul season record for threes in the tournament’s second round (56), then added five more in the quarters and semis.
More neighborhood shading?
McMahon is Thomaston coach Bob McMahon’s niece and a Torrington resident. McMahon himself lives in Bristol.
Both player and coach have no trouble focusing on the game until it’s over.
“The McMahons will always have this day to look back on, but Saturday is about the teams,” said Coach McMahon.
Each team almost came up short.
“We got our butts whooped last year (84-55),” said McMahon. “We’re just happy to be back with another chance.”
Hurlbert’s resolve began immediately after that game.
“We knew they were good,” she said then. “I wouldn’t trade my teammates for any of them. We’ll be back next year.”
The Golden Bears lost two key players, Hurlbert took the reins, Thomaston churned through early losses, then finished in a three-way tie for their third BL championship in four years, tucking away the league tournament as a final touch.
“I’m amazed at how far we’ve come,” said Coach McMahon, in his eighth year. “It’s one of our program’s finest moments.”
St. Paul, the NVL’s Brass Division champion and runner-up in the NVL Tournament, had a huge character-builder Tuesday with a one-point semifinal win (40-39) over No. 4 Bolton.
The Bulldogs clawed back from a big deficit to tie in the game’s final minute. Falcon sophomore Lizzy Cretella sank a free-throw with 30 seconds left. A Bolton shot rolled off the rim at the buzzer.
“It was the longest 30 seconds I’ve ever coached,” laughs Mone. “I told them, ‘It’s not an easy road to get there. Sometimes you have to play through a bad game; sometimes you have to get a little lucky.”
The Bears had a semifinal tester, too, despite a 43-32 final over No. 2 Sacred Heart, another NVL neighbor.
The Hearts led 21-12 at the half. Thomaston opened the second half on a 10-2 run. A Hurlburt rebound and pass to Sanson took the lead for good.
Five-foot-11 freshman Casey Carangelo scored six of her eight game points in the fourth quarter to help seal the win.
“We tend to build a lead and kind of relax,” said Mone about his team’s near-miss against Bolton.
“That’s not the first time we’ve had to bear down,” said McMahon about his team’s comeback against Sacred Heart. “We’re fine with playing from behind. Everyone made the little plays; when you add them up, that’s what wins games.”
If there’s a big lead in today’s game, don’t leave; if there’s a big deficit, don’t leave.
More likely, it’s tooth-and-nail to the final buzzer.
“You don’t want to go this far, scrap this much, to lose,” said Coach Mone.