As the Hoosac Valley boys basketball team prepares for its second straight trip to the Western Massachusetts Division III finals, it's becoming eerie how this year's team simultaneously mirrors, and differs, from last year's team.
Last season, J.P. Levesque's 3-pointer with 50 seconds left in the D-III semifinals lifted the Hurricanes over Drury, sending them to the championship game against Wahconah. This year, Levesque played about 30 seconds in the semifinal game against Sabis, but he still managed to leave his mark on the game.
The junior guard is recovering from a knee injury suffered during football season and is working his way back to full strength. He entered the game against the Bulldogs to shoot two technical foul shots with less than a minute remaining in the fourth quarter and his team leading by 12 points. He missed both free throws, but the Hurricanes kept the ball after the technical foul.
Out of the inbounds play, it looked as if Levesque would sneak behind the defense for an easy layup, but the pass never reached him and Hoosac turned the ball over in Sabis' end. A scramble ensued and Levesque, months removed from a serious knee injury, dived on the ground for the loose ball — much to the chagrin of his parents.
His teammates would not have held it against him if he didn't dive for the ball, but his competitive instincts took over. Plays like that go a long way in endearing yourself to your teammates. It makes players with two healthy legs want to lay it all on the line.
"In sports you never know how you're going to react until you take that first hit," Hoosac Valley coach Bill Robinson said. "He had to do that. It was in the flow of the game — he had no choice. The ball was there and he's conditioned to get down on the ball."
Levesque may not be hitting clutch 3-pointers this season, but his presence provides a spark to the team.
"It's just the extra effort," he said. "The game wasn't over yet, so I just wanted to make sure we had the ball so they couldn't have a chance to come back.
"Coach says, 'the kid's got one leg and he's putting in more effort then you guys.' It really fires them up and it proves from the first guy on the team to the last, we're all working hard trying to win."
Levesque's role in the 'Canes backcourt has shrunk this season, but Matt Koperniak, Dahndray Sistrunk and crew have played well in his absence.
Heading into its D-III title matchup with No. 2 Easthampton, guard play will be key for fifth-seeded Hoosac. The Eagles plays with four guards a majority of the time, led by Raphael Coleman and Shaheim Torres. All of their guards use their quickness to their advantage, attacking the basket, running the floor in transition and playing tight full-court defense.
"These guys are fast," Robinson said. "They're like scat backs in NFL. It's hard to stay in front of them. They have good basketball moves to get around you."
Hoosac's ballhandlers must navigate the defensive pressure and prevent turnovers.
"The game can turn in their direction very quick," Koperniak said. "They've got a very explosive team. They can put up eight, 10 points in a matter of minutes. We've got to contain that and play our pace."
"Everybody's got to be working to get open," added Sistrunk. "We have to get a quality possession on every one. If we get a quality possession on every play, we should be looking pretty good."
To prevent the pace from getting out of hand, the 'Canes will look to forward Jameson Coughlan inside for high percentage shots. Koperniak also presents a challenge for the opposition, as he's got a height advantage over their backcourt. Forward Zach Crisafulli could matchup with Koperniak, but that leaves Coughlan with a stronger matchup down low.
Robinson said an ideal pace would keep Easthampton in the 40-50 point range as a team. The Eagles scored 68 points in their semifinal win over Mount Greylock.
The 'Canes will need to scrape and fight to defeat the Eagles, but the example set by Levesque should inspire his teammates to dig deep when they need an extra boost of energy.
Because, even on one leg, the Hurricanes know Levesque would fight, too.
Contact Akeem Glaspie at 413-496-6252