Hoosac Valley girls look to add to Hurricanes lore with a state title against St. Mary's
"Alie wants to practice another week and a half," coach Ron Wojcik said after the Hurricanes defeated Wahconah in the Western Mass. semifinals on March 6. "She wants to play next Saturday in the state final."
The Hurricanes missed out on things last year after falling to the Wahconah early in the sectional tournament, but are returning to the Division III state championship game for the fifth time in six years for a matchup with St. Mary's of Lynn. Tip off for the state title game is 12 p.m. today at Worcester Polytechnic Institute.
"I felt I played my role as a captain," Mendel said before a practice on Thursday. "Making sure everyone was on their A-game and pushing it to their full potential to make it as far as possible."
The St. Mary's Spartans were the Northern Mass. champions, but more importantly knocked off Archbishop Williams, the team that had won the last two state titles, in the semifinals earlier this week.
"In order to beat Archbishop you have to do something special," Wojcik said. "St. Mary's is a great team that can shoot the 3-ball well. We'll need to limit that shooting on Saturday."
Gabriella Torres and Olvia Metala knocked down four, 3-pointers each for the Spartans while Pamela Gonzalez scored 23 points in the semifinals, showcasing St. Mary's versatile offensive attack. It's no question that the Hurricanes will have their hands full with the dynamic Spartans offensive, however, the Hurricanes have been preparing all year for this opportunity.
"This year we have much more confidence," senior Lexi Mercier said. "Playing in the games like Wahconah [in Western Mass.] last year and reaching the state championship really helped us grow."
The Hurricanes are also loaded with talent, rostering two 1,000-point scorers in Mendel and Mercier, but also with players like Shaleigh Levesque and Riley Robinson who provide strong defense, rebounding, and can help the offense find its rhythm.
In order to reach a state championship, let alone win one, talent isn't always enough. Mental toughness, along with plenty of 3-pointers, is a driving force to Hoosac's success.
"It isn't skill as a much as it is attitude," Levesque said. "Really looking into it, going into this playoff of run, it could've been our last game at any point, but we never looked at it that way. There wasn't a doubt in our mind. Last year we doubted ourselves and thought [facing Wahconah] would just be a good game. This year it is all about playing Hoosac basketball"
Of course, having a dead-eye like Mercier on your team doesn't hurt. The sharp-shooter currently sits at 94 made 3-pointers this season and will need to help the Hurricanes trade punches with a Spartans team loaded with deep threats.
"I've never been a driver," Mercier said. "My coaches and parents just always taught me to keep shooting. Even if they don't drop, you have to look to the next shot and never lose that confidence."
To prepare for the competition of the state tournament, the Hurricanes wrapped their regular season at a tournament in Foxborough, which included a handful of D-II teams. They came up just short, falling to Foxborough in the finals, but knew the tournament was about more than winning.
"It was great to help us prepare for the postseason," Mendel said. "It helps us to figure out how to guard talented players down low and stop some of the fastest guards we've ever played against. We played in the tournament to get a game plan for the teams we will play [in the state tournament]."
"Rebounding the basketball will be important," Wojcik added. "Our main thing is to get some transition points and just be sharp on offense. If we can do that we'll be in the game."
The Hurricanes wrapped up their final practice on Thursday and headed to coach Wojcik's house for some pizza (either cheese or Hawaiian) before packing their bags and heading to Worcester. For Wojcik, enjoying the journey is just as important as being ready to play today at WPI.
"Through the course of the season we have pushed them really hard and after last year's loss we wanted to make another run," Wojcik said. "We are excited because it's an awesome ride. You have to enjoy the journey because you never know when it is going to end. People get accustomed to it if you do it a couple times but it really isn't easy. You have to win a lot of tough games and beat a lot of good teams."
Outside of the gym at Hoosac Valley High School, paintings and pictures cover the walls with all the shining moments and players in Hurricane history. As Mendel and Mercier's time walking those halls is limited, their idea of a storybook ending includes some updates to the walls.
"To help coach win his first state title is the goal," Mercier said. "I can't think of a better way to end my high school basketball career."
"It feels great to be doing this in my senior year and to get as far as possible," Mendel added. "Having a shot in the final game is perfect. Our team hasn't won a state championship ever so it would be great to be the team that changes that."
Jake Mendel can be reached at email@example.com, at @JMendel94 on Twitter and 413-496-6252.
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