Righting the ship: Taconic boys basketball team overcame 0-2 start to end as co-champion in D-II
PITTSFIELD — One game into the 2019-20 season, back-to-back state finalist Taconic looked about as far away from championship form as a team can get.
In the season opener, coach Bill Heaphy's crew was shut out in the second quarter of a 64-29 loss at Saint John's.
"We got absolutely throttled. Crushed, by like 35," Heaphy said this past week. "They took it to us, and on the ride home, I just remember thinking, with the schedule we have ahead of us, are we going to win any of those games?
"We're going to just try to win 10 games in the county."
The two-time defending Western Massachusetts Division II champion Braves took a two-hour bus ride back to Valentine Road and thought about how much had changed from the previous two runs to the state final. Taconic graduated three starters and the first two guys off the bench. Those losses were compounded by five more players Heaphy expected to have roles either transferring or opting not to come out for basketball.
Seniors Mohammed Sanogo and Isaac Percy were the lone returners with serious playing time. They were joined by a returning reserve in senior Eric Montgomery, and a pair of sophomore guards — Bo Bramer and Sean Harrigan — who made up Heaphy's starting backcourt.
Despite all of that, come March 2020, Taconic battled once more through the sectional bracket and again took down the best Central Mass. could offer. While the COVID-19 pandemic stole a chance to compete in one more game, the 2019-20 Braves will forever be known as the first state champion in program history.
"Who would've thought, you go from the Saint John's game and get to the very end?" said Heaphy. "We're declared the state champion because of the situation, but you can't take that away from those guys. [Sanogo and Percy], those guys won three-straight sectional titles. I don't know anyone who can say that."
It was a long way from the feeling of leaving a quiet locker room in Shrewsbury on Dec. 13. And the journey back to the top was just as long and winding.
At the Pittsfield Hoop Club Holiday Classic, the doubt was palpable.
A lot of questions were on the lips of those gathered at the Boys & Girls Club of the Berkshires to watch 0-2 Taconic take on the increasingly-fabled Green Tech program out of big, bad Albany, N.Y.
"That's exactly how it felt going into it," said Heaphy. "I don't think anybody expected... If we couldn't beat them last year with that team, and they had everybody back, there was no way we were going to beat this team."
Of course, on a frigid night in downtown Pittsfield, Taconic got 15 points from Percy and a statement showing by Montgomery, and beat Green Tech by three.
Taconic followed with a win against Lenox, then the Braves headed east at 2-2 for the Boston Amateur Basketball Club showcase, with two more D-I foes on the docket and the added pressure of being the first Berkshire County team ever invited to compete with the big boys at Leo Papile's BABC.
"We thought it was important to maintain some kind of platform for the MIAA kids. The thought process behind it was to get the Taconics of the world, who are really good Massachusetts teams that struggle sometimes to get quality matchups in conference," said Papile, who started the AAU organization and coaching the BABC team in 1977. "We try to get matchups of teams that are state-champion worthy, but wouldn't necessarily meet each other there."
Taconic was set to play the storied Cambridge Rindge and Latin — alma mater of Patrick Ewing — and defending D-I Central champion Acton-Boxborough. As Papile put it, teams don't accept an invite to the BABC looking to pad their schedule.
"We made it a point to just say, 'hey, listen guys, this is a great, great tournament and we're going to have a blast, we're staying overnight. We'll play hard, but we'll have a lot of fun,'" said Heaphy.
Of course, Taconic was merely going big-game hunting. The Braves handed Cambridge one of its four losses on the season, and knocked off A-B by 10 a night later.
"It was good having them, they really played well, played hard," said Papile. "It was a great way to get their feet wet. They'd been to two straight state finals against [Tech Boston] who was in the event and won the city title again. We gave them as good of competition as we could, and expected them to do well. Expected them to use that as a confidence-builder going into March, and sure enough, they were right there at the end."
Heaphy said the team was pumped to come out of Boston with those two wins.
"[Sanogo] answered the call," said Heaphy, about contending with Cambridge star Khai Smith. "He offset everything that kid did. Isaac was terrific, and we had moments where Bo and Sean were coming into their own a little bit. With each game, they were improving."
"We needed all five," Heaphy said of his starting unit. "No question about it."
Percy and Sanogo were a given. That front-court duo had been together for two years and gave the Braves more than 600 points as juniors. Beyond that, though, Montgomery's 11 points in 2018-19, while playing in roughly half the team's games were all Heaphy knew he could count on entering the year.
So he had a sit-down with his two stars to discuss college aspirations, but after 10 minutes of that, the conversation steered to the coming season.
"They were going to have to entrust the younger kids, bring them into the circle, and make them feel like an integral part of the team, help them through the mistakes they were going to make in December, and that was OK," said Heaphy. "You're going to need these guys to get back to where we want to go."
Montgomery became an X-factor rather quickly, bursting onto the scene in the Green Tech game and posted double digits in both of the rivalry wins over Pittsfield.
"He's a very passionate player, brings a lot of energy, the guy that could hype us up at times," said Heaphy. "Defensively, he caused all kinds of problems, and allowed us to press a little bit, which was something we couldn't do because we didn't have the depth we did last year. He was essential with that, shooting gaps and bothering other teams."
Montgomery was a blur in transition and his highlight-reel dunks helped make the Braves appointment viewing at home.
Then there was the elephant in the backcourt, where graduates Quentin Gittens and Quincy Davis had left a gaping hole.
Enter sophomores Bramer and Harrigan, who both showed up on Day 1 ready to work.
"Sean played a lot of AAU, he's a gym rat, a true basketball player. He's quick, needed some game experience, but very coachable and just solid," said Heaphy. "Bo was a very high IQ player. I was really surprised at his length and athleticism and how much stronger he got over the summer."
Heaphy envisioned former players if those two could reach their potential. Harrigan had the speed and touch of Javy Osorio, while Bramer's size and sturdy, developing handle reminded him of Gittens.
Both became much more vocal over the course of the season, and were responsible for hitting the biggest shots of the state semifinal win over Wayland. When Percy and Sanogo needed them, they were there.
"I was just seeing things from the younger guys throughout the year, as time went on, just doing things that showed how much more confident they were," said Heaphy.
It is easy to look at Taconic today, with three-straight Western Mass. trophies on the shelf, and forget what it took to get the program to that point.
Heaphy has been on the green and gold sidelines for two decades, and knows his share of frustration. Arguably the best Braves team of this stretch lost a heart-breaker in the 2017 sectional final, at which point fans had to wonder, would Taconic ever get over that hump?
Of course, the other half of that argument is that THS could be sitting here today with a string of four titles in a row and opposing fans wondering if the Braves were ever going to give someone else a turn on the pedestal.
But it's that experience and those repetitions that have given way to the recent success.
"Maybe it comes with experience. I've kind of developed my own philosophy," said Heaphy. "You start carving out over time your style, and it's not the same as being a player, but I want to instill how I felt as a player into my players. If you don't have that confidence at the start, it's tough."
That's why in situations like with Chicopee on a 14-0 run in the Western Mass. final, he didn't feel pressured to call a timeout. Or how, down five with five minutes to go in the state semis, he somehow knew his guys would respond with a 6-0 run and take care of business down the stretch.
"I just trust my gut feeling, listen to my assistants," said Heaphy, who is aided on the staff by Jason Conuel, Howard Baker, Jarmal Sistrunk, Brian Uliasz and Trevor Johnson. "Those guys were really into it and communicating. I'm real appreciative of those guys."
That staff has shown an ability to adapt wildly, given how different each of these last four iterations of the Braves have been.
For example, Taconic hit 181, 3-pointers in 2018-19. This year's team totaled 88 makes.
"That's something we had to talk about. How are we going to manufacture points, where are they going to come from?" questioned Heaphy. "We had to make concerted efforts to take advantage of Isaac getting the ball and taking it to the hole or posting up. Going into Junior, and then those two guys trusting their teammates to send it back out
"By January, they were starting to get it, the coaches too. We were figuring stuff out on the fly. The 3-point shot was not going to be a weapon for us."
THE GAME THAT WASN'T
Taconic managed to nullify the perimeter advantage against Wayland (7 makes to 2), which may have bode well if COVID-19 hadn't wiped out MIAA championship Saturday.
Whitman-Hanson made 9 of 10 triples in the first half of their state semifinal rout to earn their own spot in the D-II title match.
"We were a pretty balanced team, four guys averaging double-figures," said Whitman coach Bob Rogers, like Heaphy a 20-year veteran. "We started the season with a loss to our arch-rivals, and then lost the day after Christmas at a tournament in Florida. And then we never lost again."
Like Taconic, the Panthers were battle-tested by a slate full of D-I foes and showcase games, and had won three recent sectional titles.
"We were disappointed we couldn't play the game. We won 25 games, beat Beverly at the Garden and the kids were just playing so unselfish and so well. Going into the state tournament I thought that we had a really good chance," said Rogers. "We sent somebody out to scout the Wayland game, we had film on Taconic from four or five of their games, had a pretty good feel for who they were. They had a terrific season."
While the clash won't happen in 2020, Rogers said he was looking forward to the new state-wide tournament set up, noting that program's like Taconic will get more opportunity for recognition by teams like his in the Boston area.
Heaphy got word of the cancellation while driving home from practice that Thursday evening, and had to alert his players over the phone. That didn't sit well with him, so he called them back for a final practice to set the record straight on Friday.
"They're champions. It wasn't anything they did. They played and won all the games they put in front of them," he said. "We did one little drill that we usually end practice with, make 10 in a row, they got a kick out of that."
"Then I got the ladder out and the guys went up and cut down the net. I said, 'you're champions.'"
Mike Walsh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @CLNS_Walsh on Twitter and 413-496-6240.
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