Thomaston, Nonnewaug put on a worthy show
Thomaston, Nonnewaug put on a worthy show
THOMASTON – It was one of those special nights where if you were anywhere else but in the Thomaston High gym, you lost out. For the 800 or so fans that turned the place into a frenzied sauna Friday night, they rocked, they rolled and they will surely remember.
The scenario offered up something special – Thomaston and Nonnewaug, one game, winner take all for the Berkshire League girls basketball title. The ensuing drama made it something special. The kind of special that had you smacking your lips and wiping the sweat off your brow as you walked out and into the night. The kind of special that had you wishing you could put it all on pause to savor for a little while longer.
There was a little something here for everybody which when added up meant a lot for everybody. Big drama, big plays and big players namely Thomaston’s Maggie Eberhardt and Nonnewaug’s Katie Burke. And a lot of very big hearts.
Start with the crowd. They came out on both sides and they came early. The Thomaston and Housatonic boys teams played the opener and, no offense meant, on this night they were clearly the warm-up act.
By the time championship game time arrived, there was that crackle of electricity circulating through one of the Berkshire League’s best venues. The kind of under current that has the stomach doing some gymnastic flip-flops and produces and sucks up nervous energy.
The atmosphere suggested `big’. All far beyond a mid-season we’re only going to open half the bleachers scene so often the norm. As one fan said after three quarters of the boys game, “Let’s get this game over with and get on with it.”
If the game needed one final touch of irony and it didn’t, the other bench provided it. You couldn’t help notice the slender nattily attired Nonnewaug coach who looks like he hasn’t aged at all in 22 years.
Adam Brutting is in his first year coaching the Chiefs. But nobody on either side had played more games than Brutting in the Thomaston gym. Or been more successful. You see, Brutting carries some very big Golden Bear roots.
Thomaston won back-to-back Class S state titles in 1990 and 1991. Brutting was a major part of those teams, particularly the second time around when the Bears went a perfect 26-0, and he was the best defensive player.
Brutting still lives in Thomaston, although he has taught in Woodbury for 13 years. He came back home with a different team, sitting on a different bench in a gym he hadn’t lost a game in since 1988.
Just one more delicious side aspect to a game that didn’t need any extras to increase its magnitude.
Then the teams made it their night, producing championship game drama of the first rate. There was no artistic perfection here. Turnovers were hardly rare and the foul shooting, a combined 26-for-49, was painful at times.
But grit and guts were there in unlimited supply. Thomaston has learned how to win championships. Coach Bob McMahon has built a family that now stretches over time; his phone was filled with text messages of support from former champions like Sciarra Brandt, Hannah Martin and Kellie Burns, all stars from years past.
Part of the winning formula has come from the cerebral side. McMahon has built a mental jugernaut. The Bears don’t like to lose, figure out why they lost and then work on repairing what is broken. They don’t dwell of the negative. There is a fierce resentment against it.
It is part of why they win so many close games. It is why they are 79-11 with three titles in the last four years. It is why in four games against their closest competitors this year, Nonnewaug and Lewis Mills, three of the four games were decided by seven points or less and the Bears won them all.
It is no accident. McMahon talks about putting his team in tough scenarios in practice where the team has to deliver. “Sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t but they don’t come to practice on Saturday morning eating doughnuts.”
Are the Bears invincible here? Hardly, ask Northwestern Regional who twice rallied in the second half to hand the Bears their only two losses of the season. But you need the old medulla checked if you are betting against the Bears in a close game.
The Bears nearly saw this game get away, or be taken away by Burke mostly, in a manner which would have tormented them well into adulthood. They built up a 14-point lead at one point in the first half thanks in part to having Burke saddled on the bench with three fouls and playing just four minutes.
But, they didn’t put the game away, leading just 27-16, at halftime and they certainly didn’t put Burke away. Nobody in the area goes to the hoop harder and more successfully than Burke. She opens up the headers, gets the fuel injection fired up and she goes. You try to stop at your peril.
Within four minutes she almost single-handedly erased Thomaston’s 30-16 lead while scoring 15 of her 20 points in a brilliant third period.
But again, these are the Bears. Looking casket-ready, the Bears looked more done than a T-bone that had been on the grill overnight. Eberhardt’s shots were flat, turnovers were in high supply. Despite clinging to a 38-37 lead going into the fourth quarter, there was a growing silence in the Thomaston gym.
Ah, ye of little faith. Overlooked Sydney Keith put a stamp on her best game ever with a steadying influence as Hurlbert fouled out with five minutes to go. A big basket twice and handling the ball with a senior’s skill.
Freshman Morgan Sanson goes to the floor to save a bad pass and grabs five rebounds. Yet so much of this is about Eberhardt. She is flat out 5-feet-3 inches of tough. The team’s last nine points, 11 of the last 12 points and 13 of her 24 points in the quarter.
There is no better player in the area except maybe Pomperaug’s Gabby Holness. The ball was in Eberhardt’s hands seemingly for all of the last five minutes simply because that is where it should be. She knows what to do with it.
She was Maggie the Magnificent. In every big game the Bears played this season it was Eberhardt who was the difference. A total of 46 points in two games against the Chiefs. Against Mills, 53 in two games.
After watching Thomaston play you often walk out of the gym shaking your head. It is rarely pretty, smooth doesn’t exactly come to mind. It doesn’t have to be when you are winning titles and 88 percent of your games.
The Chiefs left the gym disappointed. But, Thomaston had no special claim on grit. Burke was awesome, despite spending so much time on the bench in foul trouble. Her team did not fold in the first half when the Bears threatened to put the game away early.
There was a monumental comeback. Only down the stretch did the Bears find a little more as they so often do. Nonnewaug and Burke left giving Thomaston its credit but deep down feeling that if Burke could have played the entire game maybe it would have been different.
Their grit allows them to feel that way. Thomaston’s championship allows it to feel its way.
Everybody in the gym should feel this way – what a terrific show put on by two teams. There was no better place to be.