Capital Prep and Thomaston from the pen of John Pettit
Capital Prep and Thomaston from the pen of John Pettit
The following column ran in the March 19th edition of the Meriden
There is a memorable scene in the movie “Hoosiers” where coach Norman
Dale and his wide-eyed Hickory players walk into cavernous Butler
Fieldhouse prior to the state championship game.
The building is empty. Dale takes out a tape measure and asks his
players to gauge the distance from foul line to basket and floor to
rim. “I think you will find this has the exact same measurements as back in
Hickory,” Dale says.
I thought a lot about the film as the Thomaston girls basketball team
prepared to take on mighty Capital Prep in the CIAC Class S state
championship game March 16 at Mohegan Sun Arena. I even sent Golden
Bears’ coach Bob McMahon motivational clips from the movie.
Here’s the disclaimer: I grew up in Thomaston, a Litchfield County
town with a population of about 7,500. It’s the type of place where
everyone knows everyone. There were 63 kids in my graduating class.
Bob McMahon was one of them. Our friendship dates back to Little
League, when we were teammates on a squad sponsored by Anthony’s
Supermarket. We were high school teammates, UConn roommates and best
men at eachothers’ weddings. Through the good (we both have three
children, including twins) and bad (my dad and his mom died within 13
days of each other) we’ve remained best friends.
McMahon became a teacher and baseball and girls basketball coach. I
got into the newspaper business. Sports are the common dominator in
our chosen professions. Because of our conflicting schedules, I’ve
only been to a handful of his games over the years. One of them was
Thomaston baseball’s win over St. Bernard in the 2008 state
There is no way I was missing the March 16 game. The first time I
heard McMahon mention the juggernaut that is Capital Prep was at a
Super Bowl party. He told me how good the Trailblazers were, how the
only teams to beat them were from out-of-state and, oh yeah, they are
He had a good feeling about his own team. After all, the Bears had
been to three straight quarterfinals, losing to Portland each time,
and had all the pieces to make a run to the Sun. At that point,
Capital Prep was a worry for another day.
That day was March 16. Capital entered the state tournament with two losses. The Trailblazers
rolled through the weak Constitution State Conference, but coach Tammy
Millsaps beefed up the schedule with games against New York Catholic
powerhouses Archbishop Molloy, Bishop Ford, Bishop Laughlin and St.
John the Baptist and a game against New Jersey’s Immaculate
Only Archbishop Molloy (55-50) and Bishop Ford (66-64) came away
winners against the Trailblazers. (Bishop Ford later beat Archbishop
Molloy and defeated Bishop Laughlin in the finals to win the Catholic
High School Athletic Association’s Class AA state championship). Thomaston plays in the Berkshire League.
Top-seeded Capital Prep had a chip on its shoulder this postseason
after losing to Coginchaug in last year’s Class S final. Millsaps’
team earned a first-round bye and drubbed Old Saybrook (79-21), Valley
Regional (110-27) and Morgan (94-36). Several media outlets, as well as the Connecticut Interscholastic
Athletic Conference, reported the score against Old Saybrook to be
79-15, although it’s since been changed on the CIAC website.
After Capital’s semifinal romp veteran Morgan coach Joe Grippo griped to the
New Haven Register, “It’s a shame that (Capital Prep) left their
starters in up 60. I can’t shut up. It’s just inexcusable for another
coach to do that to another team and we’ll just leave it there.”
Thomaston, which had plenty of tourney experience, was no slouch.
McMahon had two spitfire guards in Maggie Eberhardt and Sydney Keith —
his only seniors — a solid junior named Bryttnie Thomas and a trio of
McMahon referred to the gritty Eberhardt as “Superwoman,” while the
Hurlberts are The First Family of Thomaston Athletics. Abby and Gabby
Hurlbert’s father, John, played hoops at the University of Hartford.
In 1986, his free throws with 25 seconds remaining led the Hawks to a
49-48 win over UConn in the Connecticut Mutual Classic. I know because
I was at the Civic Center, sitting next to McMahon. Connecticut High
School and Collegiate Softball Hall of Famer Lisa (Hurlbert) Sanson’s
daughter, Morgan is a Bears’ freshman and starter.
Thomaston moved on to the state final by beating Lyman Memorial
(64-41), Hyde (58-54) and East Windsor (46-34). McMahon and his players knew beating Capital Prep would take a Herculean effort. Others thought that a Thomaston (23-3) win would be
the greatest upset in CIAC tournament history.
“I know everyone thinks it’s a waste of gas to come on Saturday,”
McMahon told the Torrington Register a few days before the big game.
“But they all will be proved wrong.” What else was he supposed to say?
Thomaston had a chance. Then the game started. Capital Prep led 23-5
after the first quarter and 43-16 at halftime. Prep was even better
than expected. Kiah Gillespie (26 points, 14 rebounds) was unstoppable
in the paint and point guard Shaquana Edwards played as if she had the
ball on a string. McMahon’s message at halftime was simple.
“We can’t win the game,” he said, “but we can win the third quarter
and we can win the fourth quarter.”
Millsaps kept her starters in for most of the contest. She had no
choice. Thomaston, led by Abby Hurlbert’s 28 points and 10 rebounds
and 11 apiece from Sanson and Eberhardt, did what previous teams
failed to do against Capital Prep in the state tournament. They
refused to quit. For 16 minutes, the Golden Bears were just as tough,
if not tougher, than their opponent.
Capital Prep outscored Thomaston 41-39 after halftime. The
Trailblazers simply were bigger, faster, stronger and better. I know
what you’re thinking: Capital Prep had the game in hand and was
playing to the scoreboard in the second half, but I defy you to watch
the replay on CPTV Sports on Thursday and tell me Capital Prep put it
on cruise control. That’s just not Millsaps’ style.
Most of the town turned out to cheer on the Bears. “The Cave” student
section chanted “I believe we will win” before the game. Deep in the
second half, they serenaded the Trailblazers with “Keep recruiting.”
They were just saying what everyone wearing brown and gold was
Thomaston and Capital Prep are two of 53 teams in the state
with a female enrollment of “up to 350,” according to the CIAC.
Capital Prep is a Hartford public magnet school known for its perfect
graduation rate and outstanding academics. According to the city’s
website, the school admits students based on “Lottery : * Neighborhood
* Sibling * Staff * Zone 2 (Hartford residents only, PK 3 – Grade 5).”
I’m not positive what that means, but I’m pretty sure Zone 2 is bigger
than Thomaston. Capital Prep finished 25-2 overall and No. 1 in the
state poll. I’m willing to bet that no other Class S team — boys or
girls — has ever accomplished the later.
Coach Millsaps is obviously a fantastic coach with a hell of a team. I
would have loved to see Capital Prep play against Mercy or Laurelton
Hall, not against Thomaston.
The de facto Class S state championship game was No. 3 Thomaston’s
46-34 win over No. 10 East Windsor in the semis.
Capital Prep beat the Bears 84-55. Only Thomaston, Career Magnet,
Bishop Ford and Bishop Laughlin scored more than 37 points against the
Trailblazers all season. It is time for the CIAC to form a division
for the Preps, Catholics, Magnets and Academies, because the current
format is not working.
Eberhardt and Keith exited the Mohegan Sun court on their teammates’
shoulders. It was like something out of a movie, but you didn’t need a
tape measure to realize the playing field was uneven.