New Blood Fuels Resurgence of Western Mass Finalist Taconic
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Taconic High School has not won a Western Massachusetts championship in girls basketball since 1993.
But the 2018-19 edition had no trouble setting its sights on ending that dry spell.
"This is exactly what we talked about at the beginning of the season," Taconic coach Matt Mickle said on Thursday. "We set our goals really high.
"I don't know if I put too much pressure on them, but this was the thought process. One goal was to win the [Berkshire County] North, which we didn't do, and then the other was to get to, and hopefully win, Western Mass."
On Saturday afternoon at Curry Hicks Cage on the campus of UMass-Amherst, the Taconic girls will be one of five Berkshire County teams contending for a sectional title and a berth in next week's state semi-finals.
That's one county team in five of the six Western Mass finals to be contested.
Tickets to the full day of action — three boys games, three girls games — are $10 for adults or $7 for students and are available online through the MIAA website.
Taconic's is not the longest drought among the county teams hitting the parquet on Saturday. Drury's boys' last sectional title was in 1990. Mount Everett's girls, the first team to tip off in the 10:45 a.m. Division 4 girls final, have never won it all.
But the Blue Devils and Eagles each have been regular contenders in their respective sectional tourneys in recent years.
And the other two local finalists on Saturday are Hoosac Valley's girls and Taconic's boys. The former won five straight titles from 2013-17 before losing in last year's sectional semi-final, but the Hurricanes are back this year. The latter is the defending sectional champion and a 2018 state finalist in D2 boys play.
The outlier is Mickle's team, which already has taken a step forward for girls sports at Taconic.
The school's softball team hasn't won a game in the Western Mass tournament since 2008. Taconic girls soccer has gone to the sectional tournament three times in the last 10 years with no post-season wins to show for it. And basketball? It's gone to the tournament just once in the last eight years, advancing to the quarter-finals in 2014.
Meanwhile, Taconic's boys sports arguably have been the story of Berkshire County the last three years. The school has a wrestling state championship, a baseball state championship (and another appearance in the state finals), a football Western Mass title and an appearance in the state basketball finals — all since 2016.
"I think it would be great for the school to have a girls banner," Mickle said. "It's been a little bit of a struggle on the girls side of the athletics in a few of the sports, especially for basketball. It's been a long time since we've been in a position like this.
"Hopefully, it can change the culture. I think all the people who coach these girls teams do a great job. It's just been a matter of getting over that hump."
Taconic's cagers broke through with an infusion of new talent this winter. In addition to freshman phenoms Ciany Conyers (12 points per game) and Ahliya Phillips (11 ppg), the Valentine Road school this year welcomed sophomore Kendra Buda (2.5 ppg), junior Taea Bramer (12 ppg) and senior Johnahyah Curry (9 ppg), who all transferred from Pittsfield High.
Mickle said it was easy to get all the newcomers and returners on the same page at the start of the season.
"There wasn't really much of a learning curve," He said. "Especially since Ahliya and Ciany are asked to do so much for their travel teams and youth house league teams. … They all play a high level of AAU ball. That prepared them for what we had to do this season.
"Defensively, they had a little to learn about playing help defense — doing the little things that maybe aren't emphasized at the youth level.
"It depends on the class, but they've all grown up playing together. I think almost all of them played at the Boys and Girls Club."
Taconic (18-4) hit the ground running this season, winning its first three games before taking a loss against Hoosac Valley. The Hurricanes and Wahconah were the only Berkshire County teams to earn wins over Taconic this winter.
The fourth Taconic loss was a 44-41 decision against Northampton (17-4), the team Taconic faces in the sectional final on Saturday.
Amanda Mieczkowski led the Blue Devils that night with 15. According to the Springfield Republican's website, Masslive.com, she averages about 16 points per game to lead her team. She had 19 in Hamp's win over Tantasqua in the D2 semi-finals.
"That was a battle," Mickle said of the Jan. 16 meeting with Northampton. "They get after it on defense. We watched them play Tantasqua, and that was a battle, too."
By any measure, Taconic is battle tested. It comes into Saturday's game having won five straight — including a third win this winter over city rival Pittsfield in the D2 quarter-finals and a regular season-ending victory at eventual D3 finalist Greenfield.
"I thought that gave us a lot of confidence," Mickle said of the win over the Green Wave. "The kids didn't know a lot about Greenfield. … I told them, Greenfield is a legit team. They were ranked No. 2 in Western Mass at the time by one of the papers [Masslive] that knows all the teams in the area.
"We obviously showed we could play with them. It was a nice springboard to the tournament. As much as I was dreading playing PHS as an opening round quarter-final game, we got by them and then playing Longmeadow [in the semi-finals], that's three good games in a row at a high level."
The Longmeadow game — as Taconic's boys semi-final against Northampton — was played Springfield's Western New England University. On Saturday, both Taconic squads will get to play at the Western Mass Mecca of basketball.
"There's no better atmosphere for a high school basketball game than at the Cage," Mickle said. "It's almost a perfect setup for these games. You can fill it up, and it feels like a good environment to play basketball."