By MICHAEL LETENDRE
EAST WINDSOR – When you advance in a 32 state tournament bracket as the number 31 seed, you’re playing with house money.
That’s exactly the feeling the squad from St. Paul Catholic High School had in its second round game against No. 15 East Windsor on Wednesday, March 9 on the road in a Class S CIAC second round tilt.
And in fact, the pressure might have all been on the Panthers as St. Paul came out loose and in the end, it was a game throughout before the home team finally ran away with it, 64-50.
“They didn’t play with any degree of added pressure,” said St. Paul coach Steve Phelps of his squad after the game. “We tried to play that 31-seed card, [that] we aren’t supposed to be here. We tried to play off on that a little bit but our senior leadership is a pretty intense group. So, although I don’t feel in my mind, I don’t feel that they played with a degree of pressure, of feeling pressure, but they’re a very very competitive group of kids.”
“They weren’t [fooling around], they were holding each other accountable. So the intensity was there but I don’t think the pressure was there.”
In fact, right before the opening line-ups commenced, Phelps was telling his players “31…31” and the veteran coach was continuing to keep that pressure aspect at a minimum, playing on that underdog card.
But in the end, a 11-1 run by East Windsor extended a two possession lead into a sizeable advantage with just 90 seconds to go and the deficit was just too large to come back from.
However, Phelps knew the mettle of his players as the final seconds on the clock ticked off.
“As they came off the floor, they told me, ‘I gave you everything I got’ [and] I said you don’t have to tell me that. I know you did,” said Phelps.
How much more could the team from Bristol have done against that talented East Windsor team, a squad that actually went all the way to the semifinal round of the tournament and was just four short points away from making it to the finals?
Not a whole heck of a lot.
The turnovers were held in check by the visitors, the rebounding edge was minimal for East Windsor and in terms of hitting big shots, St. Paul Catholic sophomore Mike Palmieri (team best 21 points) went toe-to-toe against the best shooters from the Panthers.
Sure, a couple St. Paul players didn’t shoot the ball well from the field but as a team, St. Paul did just enough to keep it a six-point game with 4:35 left to play.
There can’t be too much regret being in that position in the game late with that number 31 seed firmly attached to their backs.
And that’s a credit to that senior core of ‘Big Chadd Richardson and the trio of captains – Jackson Hines, Mike Ranagan and Ben Mazzone.
“I said as we boarded the bus and as we prepared [Tuesday], the worst feeling in athletics is looking back and should’ve, could’ve, would’ve,” said Phelps. “So we challenged them to go with everything that they had and, when they leave, leave with no regrets. So the huddle [at the end of the East Windsor game], our senior guys handing the torch to the younger guys [and] the younger guys explaining to them the passion, which was shown by their senior classmates and the question was asked we asked ‘any regrets?’ in the huddle and, in unison, they said none.”
Of course, no one wants to lose— but in state tournament play, 31 of the 32 squads are, in fact, are going to get bounced out along the way.
It’s a fact of tournament play but it’s how you go down in such a setting, that’s how people are going to remember you in the end.
And boy, after defeating the number two seed in the tournament – Sport and Medical Sciences Academy – no one will soon forget that epic 50-46 overtime win.
Moving on two days later, the end result was a 14-point loss to a very good team. To those who were at the game, competing on the court, and making the Panthers sweat more than a little bit over the final period of play, the Falcons nearly shocked the world once again.
“It’s disappointing, certainly but I think we’re going to find quite a degree, quite a bit of gratification,” said Phelps. “I think that our senior kids will have memories to last a lifetime when they look back.”
The key ingredient to any team is experience and when you can return viable and competent components to your squad, you can expect big things.
The trio of captains, Mazzone, Ranagan, and Hines – and this point was obvious throughout the season – accepted the challenge, brought the younger kids along, and St. Paul was probably the toughest 10-10 squad in the CIAC tournament in 2016.
“We had some veteran type guys coming back,” said Phelps. “But a lot of these minutes are new, they’re new to [the players]. It’s them. It’s their resiliency, it’s their determination. I couldn’t put them in these situations last year.”
Maturity takes time but right on the cusp of state tournament play, it appeared the Falcons were looking to take the next big step during the 2016 playoffs.
And that step happened at the biggest level.
“It’s a group that’s matured, those seniors have matured and those other kids have played a lot,” said Phelps. “What does that say about us? We’ve learned and we’re improved.”
And it’s a credit that this senior group, like the groups before them, and made the state tournament and for four straight campaigns, it was mission accomplished.
There weren’t any egos, there wasn’t any kind of on the court tomfoolery that would break other teams but in the end, this group did what was best for the team whether it was taking a game-winning three-pointer or taking a seat on the bench – deferring to freshmen such as Bo Arndt and Donovan Symes in critical defensive assignments.
“This group of seniors are special kids, special kids,” said Phelps. “No egos. Whatever was needed for the team, for the benefit of the team [was done]. They deferred to the younger kids in defensive segments. They took on the responsibility if we needed shots. Every day in practice, they worked their tails off.”