Twelve months ago, the members of the Lee girls basketball team and the coaching staff were feeling pretty empty.
After all, it was coming up on Western Massachusetts basketball championship Saturday, and the Wildcats could sleep in for the first time in 11 years.
"It was really weird" not to be up early in March, Lee's Stephanie Young said. "This year, I think we're ready for it. We definitely have a better mind set this year. We're prepared. We're confident."
A 10-year run of playing for a Western Mass. Division III championship ended on the floor of the Curry Hicks Cage last March. The Wildcats dropped a 44-40 decision to Berkshire County rival Lenox in a semifinal game, ending that 10-year run of trips to the finals.
"It was devastating. Everyone was just thinking ‘I should have done this in the game. I could have done that,' " Lee senior guard Eileen Dooley said. "Coming into this [year], we want to leave it all out there. We don't want to leave with regrets."
In fact, Lee has not played on Saturday only four times since 1987 and only twice since the start of the 21st Century.
The Wildcats are back on center court for breakfast at the Cage at 10:45 this morning, as the second-seeded Wildcats face top-seed and defending Division III champion Sabis in the first of six Western Mass. title games on the UMass-Amherst campus.
Both Young and Dooley, who have played key roles in the Wildcat successes of their four years in high school, said that the semifinal loss has helped push this year's team. Dooley was quick to add that they try not to think about the loss that much.
"It definitely made us want this more. But we were kind of like, that season is over. Now we have nothing to live up to," said Dooley. "We have nothing on our backs. It's a new start for us."
Expectations of reaching the Saturday morning final have become so ingrained in Lee basketball that current coach Gary Wellington continued the practice of former coach Tom Cinella to practice on Saturday mornings during the regular season.
"Last year, I was just standing in the middle of the floor crying," said Young. "I was heartbroken. This year, it's totally different. We're excited for what's to come."
Saturday's game is a rematch of a Jan. 4 regular-season contest won by the Bulldogs. Sabis' 55-33 win sent some shockwaves through Division III
In that game, the Wildcats trailed 10-9 after one quarter, but Sabis took command of the contest with a 19-6 second quarter and the Wildcats never recovered.
Jazmine Collins, who scored her 1,000th career point in the 2011 title game loss to Lee, led the Bulldogs with 26 points. Shyanne Wellington, who was key to Wednesday night's semifinal win over Lenox, added 14.
On that January night, the Wildcats were led by Eileen Dooley's 17 points, while Stephanie Young had only 10.
"We were lucky last year in a way. We won the Western Mass. championship without having to go through Lee," said Sabis coach Tom Campagna. "Come Saturday, if we're going to do this again, we've got to go right through them.
"They're the program everybody tries to measure themselves by."
These two Division III powers have only played each other one time for the Western Mass. title. That came in 2011 and Lee came out victorious 71-61. In that game, Stephanie Young had 29 points and Eileen Dooley had 13. Both were sophomores at the time.
The previous tournament matchup between these teams came in 2009, when Lee beat Sabis 65-40 in a semifinal. The next year, Smith Academy beat Sabis 45-43, while Lee routed Ware 72-45. Lee went on to beat Smith Academy 60-56 in overtime to claim the Division III title.
Then, there was last year when Sabis needed overtime to beat Ware while Lenox stunned Lee. Then the Bulldogs scored a 39-36 win over the Millionaires.
"In order to get to the championship game, you've got to really be an accomplished team," said Campagna. "We tell the kids all year, we try to tell them who we're going to play and you're going to play them -- or somebody who beats them."
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