A Martha's Vineyard season to remember
File photo by Robin Davies
The season is over for all four winter athletic teams at the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School, but the memories will last a lifetime – not only for the players and coaches but for the parents and fans who were part of an exciting and historic competitive run.
A season to remember
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The season started with meager expectations for three of the four winter sports teams. The girls basketball team was a relatively young squad, with only two seniors. It hadn't qualified for the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association tournament since 2003.
The boys hockey team, usually a powerhouse, was coming off a disappointing five-win season and had missed the state tournament the last two years. The girls hockey team had never reached the post-season in its 14-year history.
The only team to qualify for the tournament last year was the boys basketball squad, which came into the season with the best prospects for a strong season. The team ended last season with a heartbreaking double-overtime loss in the semifinals of the South Sectionals.
That was then.
This year, by the time the winter sports season ended earlier this month, all four teams had surpassed all hopes and expectations and played a series of exciting tournament games filled with thrills, triumphs – and tears.
The boys hockey team qualified for the state tournament early in the regular season, and advanced to the sectional semifinals. The boys basketball team went 20-2 in the regular season and went to the championship game of the Division 3 South Sectionals for the first time in 20 years.
The girls basketball team punched their ticket to the state tournament with a win in their final game of the season. They made the most of it, winning two games in the tournament and advancing to the sectional semi-finals.
And the girls hockey team – whose predecessors had played for years in front of sparse crowds during losing seasons – finally qualified for the state tournament. They played their first-ever postseason game at the M.V. Arena, which they won in front of their biggest crowd ever.
The boys hockey team, under coach Matt Mincone, is accustomed to winning seasons, so it was unusual for the Vineyarders to miss the state tournament the last two years. And, it was difficult to predict what the season would bring for this team, featuring a mix of seniors and underclassmen.
"I always believed in them," the coach said. "We had this core group of seven seniors who had a tremendous work ethic that set the tone for the whole team."
The team jumped out to a 10-2 record, and was one of the first Division 3 hockey teams in the state to qualify for the tournament. They finished with a 12-7-2 record, and made it into the sectional quarter-finals where they lost 3-1 to Oliver Ames.
"They put us back on the map after two years; they brought back excitement to the hockey program," Coach Mincone said. He added that the seniors on the team led by example.
"They were lunch-pail guys, hard-nosed players who played the game right. I used the motto 'blood, sweat and tears' when describing this group, especially the seniors, and when the season ended I walked off the ice knowing this team gave everything they could," he said.
The boys basketball team did not exactly fit the underdog mold, but they still exceeded all expectations, tying the all-time record of 21 wins during the regular season, winning the Eastern Athletic Conference regular season title, and making it to the championship game of the Division 3 South Sectionals.
Perhaps that championship game against Wareham, when they fell behind 21-3 early, best demonstrated the team's poise and courage. They could have given up, but they clawed their way back to within two points in the second half before losing 70-65. They outscored the top-seeded Vikings 62-49 after falling behind early.
"A lot of teams could have folded it up after getting behind like that early, but we showed resiliency all season long and did it again. We had a great second half and we put ourselves in a position to win the game," Coach Mike Joyce said.
"When the team lost, they were broken up. But I reminded them how many kids came to the game and how many people traveled off the Island to watch the game and how much they all enjoyed this run. That's a memory I hope those players keep as they move on in life.
"We are a community that likes to have lively debates about things, whether it is a roundabout or a dredge project. So it's always good to come back to a good story like this — all four teams playing in the tournament. It is the type of story we can all get behind and appreciate."
In the middle of February things were looking bleak for the girls basketball team. With an 8-9 record, they needed to win the last two games to qualify for the state tournament.
Coach Lisa Stewart said it was around this time that things started to click for the Vineyarders, largely because they started to play better defense, which in turn improved the offense. They beat their final two opponents — Chatham and Nantucket — easily to qualify for the post-season.
They were seeded 11th, but still went on the road and beat fourth-seeded Ashland, 49-45. The win earned them a home game in the tournament against East Bridgewater, which they easily won by 20 points.
They lost 55-41 to Fairhaven in the semifinals, but that did little to dampen the feeling of accomplishment
"The real thrill was watching this team come together, and seeing their whole outlook change, to the point where they believed in themselves and believe they belonged in the tournament," Coach Stewart said. "It's not all fun playing sports — there is lots of practice, lots of traveling, lots of hard work.... This team worked hard this year and they deserved everything they accomplished. And to have that home game was an incredible blessing. The girls were so proud to play in front of their home crowd — it was really a blessing."
Of the four winter teams, the girls hockey squad may have had the most improbable and inspiring season. Before this season they had never finished with a winning record or made it to the MIAA tournament. They did both for the first time this year.
This was a team that embodied all the best qualities of high school sports. They worked hard, displayed great teamwork, and improved every game. They also played the game with great joy and exuberance, and seemed to enjoy one another's company on the ice and off.
They ate team meals together and held a team sleepover following their 5-0 win over Dennis-Yarmouth at the M.V. Arena in the first round of the state tournament. After the win, the girls could hardly contain their excitement: their center-ice hugs collapsed into one big pig-pile.
They lost 4-3 to higher-seeded Norwood in the second round of the tournament, but they came back to tie the game on three different occasions against the heavily favored Mustangs.
"I think we showed we can skate with the better teams," Coach Fiorito said. "We played so great today against a very good team. This has been an amazing season, and I couldn't be prouder of these girls."