Hoosac Valley Girls, Taconic Boys Play for State Title on Saturday
Two games into the season, the Taconic boys basketball team looked nothing like a potential state finalist — at least on paper.
Playing against an admittedly rugged opening schedule, Taconic got off to a disappointing 0-2 start.
But even after that second loss and during a stretch that eventually went to 1-3, coach Bill Heaphy wasn't down on his team or its prospects.
"I was hoping I knew [what the team was capable of]," Heaphy said after Wednesday's Division 2 state semi-final win. "With who we had coming back, that was the hope."
And December losses to D1 St. John's-Shrewsbury and eventual D1 Western Mass champion Putnam did not indicate Taconic was heading to a letdown after reaching the D2 final a year ago.
"The makeup of this team is not to quit," Heaphy said. "And Quentin [Gittens] is the leader of that. He really is.
"We scheduled early and hoped it would prepare us for moments like this, if we got here. And here we are."
Taconic's boys and Hoosac Valley's girls both are "here," among the last teams standing in the commonwealth heading into state championship Saturday in Worcester.
Berkshire County, with a little less than 2 percent of the state's population, has two of the 16 teams — 13 percent — in action Saturday at Worcester Polytechnic Institute and Holy Cross.
Both local squads land at WPI in back-to-back games starting at noon when the Hurricanes tip off against St. Mary's of Lynn in the Division 3 girls final. Taconic is set to play Tech Boston for the D2 boys title at about 2:15.
Each game is a rematch of sorts.
Hoosac Valley lost to St. Mary's in the title game at the end of the 2014 season, the first of four straight state finals appearances for the Hurricanes. Taconic has a more recent history with Tech Boston, falling to the Bears in last year's final in Springfield.
This time around, Tech Boston is led by junior Shamar Browder, who scored 30 points in this week's North-South state semi-final win over Belmont at TDGarden.
Taconic's Isaac Percy came up even bigger in his team's win over Central Mass champion Westborough. The junior forward scored 39 points in the state semi-final after pouring in 30 four days earlier in the Western Mass Championship Game.
In doing so, he upped his season scoring average to a team-best 17 points per game. Taconic has three players averaging in double figures with Gittens averaging 12.6 ppg and Quincy Davis 11.5. Mohammed Sanogo is averaging nearly double digits (9.6 ppg) and has developed into a solid rim protector, accounting for multiple blocks and many more altered shots each night.
Since that 1-3 start back in December, Taconic has won 19 straight games heading into Saturday's final.
Hoosac Valley (19-4) is led by thousand-point scorers Lexi Mercier and Alie Mendel, who average 18.7 and 17 ppg, respectively. Mercier averages more than four 3-pointers per game and had four en route to a game-high 22 points in Wednesday's state semi-final win over Millis.
St. Mary's Olivia Matela averages 38 percent from behind the 3-point arc and hit the game-winner late in a 62-59 win over Archbishop Williams in Wednesday's North-South game. Other players to watch on the Spartans include Pam Gonzalez and Gabby Torres, who scored 23 and 14, respectively, in the state semis.
Hoosac Valley's girls and Taconic's boys have been the dominant teams in their respective leagues in recent years. Taconic hasn't lost a game to a Berkshire County North foe since early February of 2018; Hoosac Valley has won or shared the North title seven straight years.
But the two state finalists also share this in common: Each is driven by a sense that it came up short in 2018.
After beating Westborough in the D2 semi-final, Percy's first thought was to last year's final against Tech Boston.
"We know what it's like to lose in states last year, and we don't want to deal with that again," he said in answer to a question posted about Wednesday's win.
Hoosac Valley's Mercier said she and Mendel are especially aware that Saturday is their last chance to give the Hurricanes the state title that has eluded them in four previous runs to the championship game — including at the ends of their freshman and sophomore seasons.
"From working together for the four years, we push each other to work harder every day," Mercier said. "We just want to make each other better to make the team better. And I think not being here last year really fueled me and her. We really want to get back to states."
Tickets to Saturday's games are available online for purchase through the MIAA's website and cost $12 for adults or $10 for students.