CHESHIRE -- The Hoosac Valley girls basketball team is back in the state tournament. It almost seemed a foregone conclusion the Hurricanes would still be playing at this point of the season when the year started.
Expectations like that can be heavy, hard to carry around for three months. Perhaps expecting just as much from themselves made that easier.
"We've worked harder this year to try to get further than Western Mass.," Jenn Gale said. "We were expecting Western Mass., trying to get there, but now we want to go further."
Although Hoosac has returned to the same level it topped out at last season, the run has been drastically different -- easier. The Hurricanes made it look simple, validating all the preseason expectations -- even their own.
Maybe that's why their celebration after the final buzzer in the Western Massachusetts Division III championship seemed more business-like. Sure, there was excitement, but it was clear the Hurricanes had their sights on something bigger and better.
"Our main goal was first get to the Western Mass. championship, and of then, of course, win it," Gale said. "Then do our business in states."
Hoosac's season starts now.
The Hurricanes face Central Mass. champion Bellingham at the MassMutual Center in Springfield today at 2:15 p.m. The game was originally scheduled for Wednesday, but was moved up due to weather concerns.
The way the Hurricanes arrived to this stage -- scoring twice as many points as their opponents -- is far from the only difference heading into this state semifinal, although it is where all others begin.
Those large margins of victory have helped grow their confidence. It's what allowed them to not be satisfied with a Western Mass. title and an appearance in the state semifinals.
"Our mindset is totally different than last year," Cassidy McMahon said. "We're not going in cocky; it's just we're confident in ourselves."
"I think we feel more confident this year than we did last year because last year, we didn't expect to be [in the state semis]," Emily Rosse said. "We didn't know what it was going to be like, and this year, we have a different feel for it."
The players are more confident in themselves, but coach Ron Wojcik also has more faith. The players say practices are different than a year ago, and that's added to their confidence.
"Now that it's tournament, practices have been going up a level," McKenzie Robinson said. "This has been our hardest competition, and [in] practice, [we're] just hitting each other. There's no refs to call fouls; there's no nothing. Coach doesn't let us take it easy. "
Wojcik has had to alter his message this postseason because of the increased expectations. Hoosac's not taking a we're-just-happy-to-be-here approach like it did last season.
"So now, it's don't be satisfied that we've gotten to the state semis," he said. "You get to this level, every game is difficult, in my opinion. You could have a big victory, but you certainly can't count on that."
Hoosac's one loss is the fewest of the four teams remaining in Division III. St. Mary's of Lynn has two and Bellingham has three. Archbishop Williams has 11.
It's easy to see most teams at this level aren't accustomed to losing, which is why the lesson Hoosac learned from its defeat early this season may be the most important it learned all season.
"Losing definitely helps to know that you're not unstoppable," Gale said. "It gives you the want to win and never feel that you lost. You don't want to feel that feeling."
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