By Rick Wilson
State Championships ———–2014, 2015
Berkshire League Titles ———2010, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2021
State Finals Appearances ——2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017
Berkshire League Tournament Titles – 2010, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2021
Perfect Seasons ——————2021
20-plus win seasons – 2010, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017
Top 10 Ranking – 2014, 2015, 2021.
What’s in the water in Thomaston?
A popular question bathed in admiration and a touch of disbelief often raised during the Thomaston High girls unbelievable three-sport run from 2013-17. A magical journey that resulted in four state titles in three different sports, (basketball, field hockey and softball) over two years with so many of the same players. A 70-game Berkshire League win streak stretching over five seasons in three different sports. For more than a year the Bears didn’t lose in anything they played.
The numbers, the breath and diversity of the accomplishment is magnificent on any scale. But the almost mystifying element that baffled many was simply the idea that all this was produced by a public school with a female enrollment of between 105-125, all of whom that as basketball coach Bob McMahon always likes to say, “live within three and a half miles of the front door.”
Basketball was the center piece that included two Class S state titles, five straight final appearances, six straight Berkshire League and BL Tournament crowns. The only missing element was a perfect season. The Bears had never run the table. Until this year.
After two mediocre seasons and a good campaign in 2019-2020 (16-8), the Bears dominated the BL with double digit wins in every game and earned a No. 10 ranking in the state. Fueled by the idea they only lose one starter, Emma Kahn, the Bears should be a force for the foreseeable future. So, with perfection now part of the glittering resume the question kind of reappeared in different form, “How do they do it?”
The Bears are not unique in the sense of championship tradition. There are gloried programs around the state like NFA, Notre-Dame – Fairfield, Newington, Glastonbury and Hand that are always in the state’s Top 10 poll and playing for titles. In this area, Holy Cross rarely loses more than two or three games a season. But circumstances are different from size to the schools of choice advantage.
Part of Thomaston’s mystique is generated by size. High School sports, especially with small schools are supposed to cyclical. Thomaston is the fifth smallest public school in the state according to CIAC enrollment figures with 233 students followed by Turtellotte (221), Westbrook (221), Wheeler (204) and Parish Hill (117)
And yet, over the last 14 years since the 2007-08 season the Bears have rumbled to a 262-73 record with 18 assorted titles and a host of other gaudy accomplishments. What happened to the cycle? Or how do they keep doing it? Or what’s in the water?
The obvious ingredient for a program of sustained excellence is talent. There is no magic here, you need players and Thomaston has had players. Starting with the undefeated regular season team of 2009-2010 that included the BL’s best player in Sciarra Brandt, her sister Brittany Brandt and Morgan Doyle, talented players have kept coming.
Along the way there have been thousand-point scorers, Abby Hurlbert, Morgan Sanson, Maggie Eberhardt, THS girls all-time leading scorer Casey Carangelo along with jump-shooting stalwart Julia Quinn, defensive stalwart Gabrielle Hurlbert and most recently Emma Kahn and Sydnee Eggleton.
The Bears talent cupboard has never been low on supplies with the ingredients you need to make a winner.
But every good band needs a maestro, the conductor to bring it all together. Talent isn’t enough, it needs to be nurtured, blended. Sciarra Brandt has no doubt about how the Bears keep doing it – “Bobby Mac.’
“He just breathes basketball. He’s found a way to motivate kids that can barely walk into kids that eat, sleep and breathe Thomaston basketball until they thrown the brown and gold until graduation,” says Brandt.
McMahon, a fifth-grade teacher in the Thomaston school system, saw early on that a program needed to be built from the ground up not when kids walk into the gym during their middle school days. He helped start the Thomaston Trotters program which helped kids learn basic fundamentals and then performed routines at halftimes of varsity games. The Trotters had a steady gig at halftime of the Class S state championship games with the Bears, doing their thing at Mohegan Sun on a regular basis. Many of this year’s team including Kahn, Aurelia Barker, Emma Sanson were on those teams.
McMahon also got the right people involved at various levels with the program including John Hurlbert and Lisa Hurlbert, father of Abby and Gabrielle Hurlbert (John) and Morgan, Alexa and Emma Sanson (Lisa). Larry Decker, the father of freshman Nicole Decker has also been instrumental along with Bob Stack at the Middle School level. Hurlbert is a former star at the University of Hartford, Decker is a former BL scoring champ. They know the game and they know winning.
Watching McMahon at practice you understand one thing very quickly. He is not a spring day. He is an end of the day guy. Players know it when they walk into the program. The Bears think of titles not finishing .500. Their goal is Mohegan and that fabled `Run to the Sun.’
He is honest, he is gruff. He wants it done right. If not, you will know about it. It is not about your name. It is about your game. The whistle blows, the comment can be cutting. It is understood. But there is also much concern in the crust and smiles and tears mingle for the end game and appreciation goes well beyond high school.
“As a coach he is so motivational,” Brandt said. “He tries to connect to each player in a way he knows they will respond. He pushes players to be better than they thought they could ever be. Players without crazy talent end up playing essential roles on the team because he convinces them to be the best defensive player or be the first player diving on the ball to give us another possession.”
McMahon has a healthy returning crop of former players who stay in contact, further evidence of his impact.
“Most of the players stay in contact, several come by to practice as well,” said McMahon. “While they were all warriors in their day, when players like the Brandts, Laura Miller, Maggie Eberhardt, Abby Hurlbert, Gabby Hurlbert, Morgan Sanson, Casey Carangelo, Julia Quinn, and Drew Gomes can come out of their college practices to mix it up with young-ins that sends a great message of pride, loyalty and legacy to a very unique program.”
The Bears program is memorialized in their locker room an incredible version of Monument Park that has to be seen to be believed. Each player and team has left something unique on the walls. It is eye-opening.
Thomaston is also one of a dwindling number of one-town schools where community and proximity plays a role. One town, one school has its advantages.
“I think what has helped our success is that most of the girls grew up playing with each other since we were little – camps, AAU, Trotters, etc., “said Gabrielle Hurlbert. “Coming from such a small school makes it easy to get to know one another and form friendships with teammates that larger schools might not be able to do so easy.”
Morgan Sanson echoes the importance of small-town closeness.
“The success of the program has so much to do with team chemistry through the years. Growing up we all played multiple sports together creating a close-knit bond spending so much time together through sports.”
There is a wonderful picture of Gabrielle Hurlbert, Sanson, Nicole Schaefer, Casey Carangelo and Charlie Eberhardt winning a title in fourth grade recreation basketball. Six years later they would duplicate the exact same picture on the floor of Mohegan Sun (more than once). They have been best friends and championship teammates in every sport they played. They are best friends for life on and off the court.
This season’s group has been together since the Trotter days. They are never far apart and exalt in each other’s success and the collective success. Through April 18, Emma Sanson, Aurelia Barker and Kaya Johnson had played 31 games this season in three different sports (field hockey, basketball, softball). Their record? 31-0. They win together and they hang together.
The past also pushes the present at this point. Kahn, Sanson, Barker, Kylie and Nicole Decker, Elyse Krasnowski and the rest spent their younger days watching the Bears win title after title after title. They saw the glory of Mohegan Sun. They played on the floor as Trotters at halftime. They watched replays of the games on CPTV. They remember the bus rides and the escorts in and out of Thomaston as champions.
They saw packed houses to watch the Bears wherever they played. Ask the good folks at East Windsor in 2017 who saw Thomaston bring a fan bus for a quarterfinal game, overwhelm the facility and dwarf the home crowd. They were in the steam of an overflow Kennedy High gym to watch Sacred Heart go down. They were there two years later in a full Wilby gym to watch the destruction of Sacred Heart again. They have remembered.
From Middle School on, they wanted their time. Covid has ruled the day on that one for now. But there is hope for next year. Mohegan is a powerful addictive.
What’s in the water? How do they keep doing it? How does the small school with big dreams keep getting big results?
Maybe because good isn’t good enough and hasn’t been for more than a decade now. Fuel the sentiment with a nice dose of talent, an unrelenting coach who pushes for the best, a community-based chemistry, a town that adores and a powerful legacy whose pride permeates the program and incites an excellence, and you have something special. Small school wonder.
A pretty golden story for the Golden Bears. A unique journey that needs to be appreciated. Small school, very big-time program.