By Rick WILSON
It seems like just yesterday and at the same time eons ago. It just depends on what kind of reflective mood you’re in. Now that the end is here, you revel in the journey and this moment and think back to the beginning at the same time. Either way so much it all began at Mohegan Sun. So in a poetic justice sort of way It is only fitting that it ends at Mohegan Sun.
Thomaston’s lone seniors Emma Sanson and Aurelia Barker finish off their careers Saturday as the top-ranked Golden Bears take on No. 3 Coventry for the Class S state championship at the Sun. it is not a unique dream among high school players but for the two gritty leaders of coach Bob McMahon’s purpose-driven posse it is the fulfillment of a quest that was nurtured long ago.
For so many who chase the mountain top it is a hope, a wouldn’t it be great fantasy. For Barker and Sanson it has always been a want based in reality. They grew up in the reality of Mohegan Sun and state titles. They didn’t just read about the glory they were there. They saw the glory, they walked with the glory, they celebrated with the glory and cried the same tears, they lived with the glory. They saw the parades and the town adulation.
As nine- and 10-year-olds and the picture is still mighty clear they were part of the Thomaston Trotters, a recreational group of young future Golden Bears who performed at halftime at Mohegan Sun during several of Thomaston’s five straight class S title game appearances from 2013-2017. Seven members of this year’s team were Trotters.
Clad in pink they exhibited some early ball skills wowing the crowd and getting their first taste of the Mohegan Sun floor and the big arena. And they soaked in the atmosphere even at the young age. Yeah a lot of it was about being a big deal and a big place but it wasn’t lost there. They never forgot why they were there.
They were there because their Golden Bears were there. Their heroes in the big house. Sanson saw her whole family make a living at Mohegan Sun year after year. Her older sister Morgan finished every year of her high school career at Mohegan Sun. Sister Alexa finished three years at Mohegan Sun. Cousin Abby Hurlbert play two years there and sank three of the biggest foul shots ever in state tournament play to help Thomaston beat St. Paul in double overtime in 2014. Cousin Gabrielle Hurlbert stole the ball at the end of the game in 2015 to preserve a state title win over Canton and also finished all four years on the hollowed floor.
Sanson never just cherished the footsteps, she followed the footsteps and now walks with the legacy.
“We looked up to those teams, we all looked up to them,” says Sanson with an undeniable glow. “And it’s crazy that we can be those kids younger kids look up to.”
Asked after the team’s victory over Bolton in the semifinals if this was what she had been looking forward to all season Sanson yelled back in an ecstatic voice, “All my life.”
Barker soaked it all up with equal passion. Unlike Sanson the players weren’t her sisters or cousins, but they were creating a championship culture she so much wanted to be a part of. She saw the Sansons, Hurlberts, Maggie Eberhardt, Casey Carangelo, Julia Quinn Nic Schaefer and all the other players who made magic at Mohegan. She saw dream to reality materialize.
“A couple of days ago Laura (assistant coach Miller) sent pictures of me and Emma at Mohegan, reminding us,” said Barker. “It’s so exciting. I had a dream that we won.”
Even when Thomaston was not in the finals if you look closely you would have found Sanson and Barker along with a group of friends sitting at Mohegan Sun because that’s where they yearned to be.
“It is crazy that we are seniors of that bunch (of Trotters), it speaks volumes” said Barker. “It set expectations for Thomaston basketball. We just wanted to get to Mohegan so bad. Those players were idols. I remember writing Abby Hurlbert’s initials on my cheek before each game.”
The insatiable hunger needed to be fed, however. There was the progression from wanting it to happen to making it happen. Work had to be done.
“Aurelia struggled with speed trying to play as a freshman and sophomore, “ remembers McMahon. “She dedicated herself to doing what she had to do.”
“I did extra conditioning, boxed and weight-lifted, I practiced with Julia Quinn, said Barker, ” I pushed in practice every day.”
The result? Second-team BL all-star honors and a look you in the eye, lockdown defender and a dangerous off-the-shoulder three-point shooter on the offensive end. This season she hurt Northwestern Regional with clutch long-range shots in two victories. . She put on a show against Wamogo in the Berkshire League Tournament with seven three pointers and 27 points. She nailed five from downtown against Terryville and her trio of baskets from the outside were key in the Bears semifinal win over Bolton.
A first-team BL all-star, Sanson’s growth has been as much mental as physical. Rolling thunder left-handed drives to the hoop are the trademark and she has become an integral part of Thomaston’s trapping defense. There were four steals that opened up the game in Thomaston’s second round win against Gilbert. A 21-point performance helped hold off Northwestern. A clutch rebound late in the game helped preserve the win against Bolton.
“I did the best I could,” said Sanson. “We all saw our talents and how we could fit in. We’re still trying. The older girls come to practice and we still get advice from them.”
‘Plenty of highlight’s but McMahon saw something else that was more important several years ago.
“She may have been our leading scorer as a freshman,” said McMahon. “But her game evolved. She understands it more. She’d rather win than score. I think she is the epitome of Thomaston basketball – a winner.”
It started a while back, two young girls with big dream dribbles wowing the crowd on high school’s biggest stage that is MOHEGAN SUN. Now young ladies who turned those big dribbles into big games, they are back one final time to play for a state championship.
They saw the dream, chased the dream, made the reality. It started at the Sun and it ends there. So very, very fitting. And timeless.