They had a mighty queen and a no-nonsense coach. They had athletes, a sandy grit and were bound by a smooth chemistry. And what the 1995 Wamogo girls basketball team will always have is one of life’s special moments – a state championship punctuated by perfection.
The dream of the March 11 morning had given way to the reality of the Saturday afternoon and St. Thomas Aquinas High coach Jack Zenobi stood there a jumble of frustration and admiration, unable to escape neither the disappointment of losing a state title game nor the greatness that had produced the disappointment.
“She (expletive deleted) just kicked our a… Big-time players step up in a game like this but she took it to another level in the second half,” offered up Zenobi. About as direct assessment as you’ll ever get.
She was Wamogo High’s Tracy Stolle who just a short time before had done a demolition job on the Saints with a second half for the ages that produced the Warriors first and only state championship in program history, a knee-knocking, sweaty palm thriller, 49-47, in front of 1,385 fans at Central Connecticut State University’s Detrick Gymnasium.
Stolle’s MVP 33-point, seven rebound, four steal performance was the crowning jewel on a career that produced 1,924 points, second most in Berkshire League history boys or girls and would earn her a spot on the CIAC All-Century team.
And for Wamogo it was a day that will never grow old. A day that forever binds its participants. A day that will always be perfect in a perfect season. A culminating day in a season that time can’t touch.
“Winning the best prize ever, the one everyone in the state wants, that was the best feeling ever. It literally was a dream come true,” said starting guard Michaela Breakell with an emotion that a quarter of a century can’t dim.
“It was magical to win a state title and have a perfect season,” said Katie Matthews a freshman starter at the time. “We all cherish it and will remember it always.”
The season was not quite a Cinderella story although the championship victory was considered an upset in some quarters and perfection was not an expectation. The Warriors came into the season with a talented squad that coach Ken Gladding knew could go some places. His hopes were enhanced by an early season exhibition victory against Bristol Central.
“Our very first meeting I wrote on the blackboard – state champions,” said Gladding. “The team kind of looked at me like whatever. But we had five very good athletes. When we beat Bristol Central, I think some of the kids began to believe it.”
There was Stolle the blonde sharpshooter who would go on to average 26.4 points a game and played the game with a Larry Bird “okay, who is finishing second” attitude. You want some? Come get some. Most got much more than they could handle. A deadly combination of talent and attitude.
Breakell, a terrific field hockey player in the fall, was the jackrabbit guard. A senior, who didn’t much care for offense (“I was horrible at shooting”) but took special delight in irritating teams with her defense sometimes doing her own full-court press just to annoy the opposing point guard.
Senior Jackie Herkimer, who captained softball, basketball and volleyball, was a solid force up front while Lisa Masi, who did crew in the offseason, was another formidable presence up front and would contribute six points and 11 rebounds in the championship game.
Matthews was the precocious youngster, the youngest in a family of stars that included all-time Thomaston great Amy Matthews and brother John also a 1,000-point scorer at Thomaston. A shooter who would take some of the scoring pressure off Stolle, Katie would go on to score more than 1,300 points in an impressive career.
Junior Lynn Harmon and sophomore Brooke Wadhams provided punch off the bench.
It was a talented team with a shining star and potential but would that translate into something special? Not everyone was sure.
“We thought winning a state title would be awesome but I don’t remember thinking it was going to automatically be our year,” said Stolle. “We knew in our league we would be good but outside our league was different. We were just cow-pie Wamogo.”
“We had won the BL field hockey title that fall and were still excited about that, I didn’t know what basketball would bring,” added Matthews. “I think midway through the season we started thinking about it and nobody was thinking undefeated.”
The Warriors rolled through the BL, winning the title and the BL Tournament crown. Then came the state tournament and near disaster struck when Stolle came down with tonsillitis and a kidney infection. She saw limited action in the first two games, scoring a total of 27 points as Wamogo clawed its way past Old Lyme, 63-53 and then beat Cromwell, 46-32.
“To start the tournament with Tracy sick we were nervous,” said Gladding. “But after we won the two games with her hurting, we gained confidence,”
Stolle recovered from a 3-for-18 shooting performance against Cromwell to return to her usual form with a much-needed 28-point performance in a hard fought 52-46 win over Weston to earn a spot in the championship game.
The victory was somewhat tempered by an uneven performance that saw the Warriors struggle at both the beginning and ending of the game. The Warriors did not score their first basket of the game until there was 1:13 to go in the first period after scoring one point, missing 12 shots and turning the ball over three times on their first 16 possessions.
After regrouping and taking control of the game to the tune of a 44-29 lead with just over six minutes left in the game, Weston managed to cut the deficit to six points with a minute to go forcing the Warriors to hang on.
All of which left Gladding feeling one part euphoric and one part uneasy.
“It was great getting to the finals but I didn’t like the way we started and finished and knew we would have to play better in the finals,” he said.
No. 2 Aquinas awaited the Warriors at Central Connecticut. The Saints had been there before with three state titles and came in with a 25-1 record and a couple of top-notch players and 1,000-point scorers in Linda Zapor and Nisha Farrell. Gladding knew his team had its hands full.
“I had scouted them twice and knew it would be a real fight and they were extremely confident they were going to beat us,” Gladding remembered.’
Maybe too confident? At least their fans. When the Warriors pulled into Central Connecticut, they noticed the St. Thomas bus had plastered “State Champions” all over it.
“We were a little shocked by it but we came to play, we showed up,” said Matthews.
“They thought they were going to win, it was predetermined,” said Stolle. “We were just little Wamogo.”
For a half it looked like Aquinas knew what it was talking about. The Saints kept Stolle under control (11 points) and took advantage of a deer-in-the-headlights Wamogo team for a 27-19 lead.
“Nerves were clearly a factory, we were out of our comfort zone,” said Matthews.
“This was a Hoosiers-thing for all of us, it was a lot of nerves,” agreed Stolle.
For all that was said at halftime, maybe the best advice came outside of the locker room and not from Gladding to the team. A couple of friends and fellow BL coaches, Paul Ebbs of Thomaston and Tom Morgan of Nonnewaug caught Gladding’s ear.
“I was talking to (Ebbs) about our press. I hadn’t used it because I thought they were too quick. He said, “Go ahead, why not.” Then Morgan came up to me and said, “Quit trying to run stuff and just give the ball to Tracy.”
And so, a state championship was won.
The defense rattled Aquinas and Stolle did the rest. There seems to be a defining moment in every star’s career and this was Stolle’s. One last raging testament to her greatness. She went crazy.
Stolle went left, right, wherever she wanted. She got to the foul line. Wamogo blitzed the Saints, 21-6 in the quarter with Stolle exploding for 15 points. By quarter’s end, Wamogo had taken control, 40-33.
“I wanted to play in front this crowd, I eat that stuff up,” said Stolle. “I was calmer and I went to the basket. I had that you are not better than me, this is my game attitude. Once I realized they couldn’t guard me I just kept going.”
“Tracy was Tracy, she carried our team for the entire season,’ said Breakell.
Aquinas had no answers but they had no quit either. With Zapor scoring eight points, the Saints closed to, 45-43, with two minutes left and then tied it on Marta O’Leary’s jumper.
But Stolle’s show included a finish. What’s an award-winning performance without a fantastic finale? She hit two driving baskets for a 49-46 lead. Farrell would cut the lead to a basket with a free throw with 19 seconds left and after a missed Matthews’ foul shot and Wamogo turnover the Saints would have one final chance.
Zapor’s desperation shot at the buzzer was off the mark and Wamogo had its lifetime moment. The Warriors had only four scorers in the game – Stolle, who scored 22 of the team’s 30 second-half-points, Matthews, Masi and Herkimer. That was enough.
“I ran around yelling, “we won, we won, and I jumped in the arms of the first person I saw,” said Breakell. “
“It was great, we still talk about it,” said Stolle. “It was my best sports moment. It was the same year UConn went undefeated and won the national title. We used to say who is the best in Connecticut? UConn and Wamogo.”
A perfect state title. In 1995 and always. It never grows old; it will never go away. One forever shining moment.
Tracy Stolle started her teaching career in New Britain in 2002. The Dean of Students walked up to her the first day and asked, “Do you remember me? She said no. He replied, “I’m Jack Zenobi, You were my worst nightmare, no matter who I put on you, nobody could guard you. You broke my heart.” Stolle just smiled. You want some, come and get some.