Just another night for Bunel's Bears? Not quite
FALLS VILLAGE – On the surface it was just a night.
A mild Monday evening in late February in the Northwest corner. A dark and peaceful Falls Village sat bathed in woodsy silence while the Housatonic gym offered up an oasis of activity . A smattering of fans in a bright and ancient gym with two teams with a combined record of 8-29 providing the early week entertainment for the faithful as the calendar relentlessly tugged the season towards March and its conclusion.
No titles, no drama, no frenzy. .Not even a ticket-taker at the door. Another basketball game in a long season It was. just another night.
Then you scraped the surface and just a night became a big night and there was something more than an ending to be found. For Thomaston the half-hour bus trek back to the Bear cave became a joy ride, probably more contentment than jubilation but a smiling respite from a Jekyll and Hyde season
The Golden Bears handled a struggling one-win Housatonic team easily, 95-68. The win was nice, but the big number of the night didn’t come off the scoreboard. Win No. 8. That’s the magic number. Unlike for the girls state tournament where the CIAC decided to invite nearly the whole state this year, on the boys side you still need to win 40 percent of your games.
Thomaston’s victory in its final regular season game upped the record to 8-12. The Bears are going dancing. No big deal for many programs who win with regularity and treat tournament qualification as a given. A very big deal for some and Thomaston is one of the some.
This will be the Golden Bears’ first state tournament appearance in three years. You can count winning seasons on one hand over the last quarter of a century. The last Berkshire League championship came 29 years ago (1990-91, also a state championship year). You get the picture. Winning hasn’t come easy.
Take this season. There has been a schizophrenic element to the last four months. With a mixture of experience and respected firepower, The Bears thought they had at least 10-12 wins in them when December rolled around. It didn’t happen.
The Bears went 3-7 in the first half of the season and throughout the season there was a frustration of finding themselves on the short end of close games. Six games were lost by 10 points or less. Twice against Litchfield late leads late faded away. Terryville was two close games that went the other way.
Yet there were those nights with flashes of what could be with wins over Nonnewaug, Shepaug and Northwestern, a trio of teams from the BL’s upper echelon. Still, it didn’t seem to be enough. With five games left and a 6-9 record, the Bears seemed in position to get the two wins needed to hit the magic number of eight.
However, a trio of losses in winnable games had hope on life support at best. A 53-50 loss to Litchfield at home in which the Bears lost a lead late, a 64-59 loss to archrival Terryville and 92-83 loss to Shepaug put the Bears at 6-12.
Two games left; two wins needed. Northwestern Regional was the problem. The Bears have rarely defeated the Highlanders over the years including a 53-43 loss to coach Doug Sebach’s club earlier in the year. Once again it looked like the state tournament was for somebody else. Disappointment hung heavy in the Clocktown air.
A funny thing happened on the way to the end of the season, however. The Bears refused to see their dance card go unfulfilled this time around. Sparked by a brilliant second half performance from Chad Suckley who scored 22 of the team’s 30 second half points and 14 of the team’s 16 fourth quarter points, they ground out a 62-56 win, one of the team’s most satisfying wins in years.
Coach A.J. Bunel’s phone lit up like Rudoph’s nose does on his big night. Bunel is one of the good guys who has put his time in. He’s banged his head against the wall, gotten `Murph' the trainer to patch up the wounds and kept on plugging. Even Sebach, a good friend, while disappointed with his team’s play and the loss, could appreciate what the night meant to Bunel with some congratulatory words.
There was still some business to take care of and when you are used to watching others play in March there was no feeling of automatic against one-win Housatonic. Bunel was first prom date type nervous. Suckley (18 points), Keegan Daigle (18 points) and Ty Harkness (17 points) helped sooth the rapid pulse.
There was no ecstasy, no Gatorade drenching. But a lot of big smiles made it clear the Bears kind of liked being invited to the post-season party. The whole idea of checking rankings and possible opponents that becomes part of the journey a welcome part of the second season
The last regular season game between two teams with sub .500 records in front of small crowd in a small gym on a quiet street. Just another night.