Girls basketball: Student, fan support helped propel South Hadley to first-ever state championship game appearance

South Hadley girls basketball fans cheer in the third quarter against Pittsfield during the Western Mass. Class B championship last month at Holyoke Community College.

South Hadley girls basketball fans cheer in the third quarter against Pittsfield during the Western Mass. Class B championship last month at Holyoke Community College. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

By GARRETT COTE

Staff Writer

Published: 03-18-2024 6:05 PM

SOUTH HADLEY — Any opposing team that walked into South Hadley’s gym this winter knew they were in for a long night. For more reasons than one.

Sure, the Tigers being as good as they were was intimidating enough – their aggressive full-court pressure and high-flying offense often overwhelming their enemies out of the gate. But on top of that, the South Hadley crowds inside the school’s tight gymnasium only made it worse for visitors.

Suffocating is the best way to describe it.

When the Tigers went on one of their patented runs stemming from their headache-inducing defense, the fans packed shoulder-to-shoulder belched deafening screams – which echoed off the walls and created an environment unlike any other in Hampshire County. Each game they added to their winning streak that eventually blossomed to 19 (13 at home), the earlier and earlier people would show up for the next one.

And in the first half of games, the opposition would have to score on the far basket, right into the depths of a crazed student section. Whether it was sports jerseys, formal attire, St. Patrick’s Day or even mimicking head coach Paul Dubuc’s big, white beard, the South Hadley students always came ready – just like their beloved girls basketball team.

Throughout the year, the Tigers took on the personality of their fans. Rugged, relentless and a heck of a lot of fun.

It propelled them to the MIAA Division 4 state final, their first time ever playing in a state championship game. And although No. 3 South Hadley couldn’t get past perennial power Cathedral, losing 69-49 to the No. 1 seed on Sunday, the Tigers still had the most triumphant season in the history of South Hadley girls basketball.

South Hadley earned a Suburban League title, a Class B Western Mass. title and fell shy of a first state title. In that championship bout against Cathedral at Tsongas Center on the campus of UMass Lowell, the Tigers faithful nearly packed an entire side of the arena, which holds 6,500 people.

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“This is the most successful season our program has ever had for the girls,” Drew Alley, the team’s lone senior, said. “It was definitely fun, especially with the community we have in town and how many people came two hours from home to watch – I appreciate it a lot.”

The 22-win season brought the entire community together. And just as much as the community rallied around the team, the team rallied around them.

Throughout the year, several South Hadley players told the Daily Hampshire Gazette that playing in front of their home crowds turned their intensity up a different notch. The Tigers didn’t want to lose in front of family, friends and local supporters. They took it personal. That’s precisely why Dubuc was so thrilled when the Division 4 bracket was released.

They got to host all the way through the Final Four.

“We get to play here again, and we’re good here. We’re real good here,” Tigers head coach Paul Dubuc said early in South Hadley’s postseason run. “We like playing in our gym, our crowds are fantastic, we get great support. We get a lot of people here and [the kids feed into it].”

Relying on its offense in the Western Mass. quarterfinal and semifinal rounds, South Hadley scored 60-plus en route to the title tilt. The Tigers then flipped the switch, and locked down on the other end to sneak by top-seeded Pittsfield, 48-40, and win their first-ever Western Mass. crown.

The momentum carried into the state tournament, as two more lopsided home wins over Saint Bernard’s and Hamilton-Wenham propelled them into the quarterfinals against No. 6 Cohasset – where South Hadley’s closest game of the season ensued. The Skippers took the hosts to overtime with a spot in the Final Four on the line.

The legend of the Tigers’ freshmen soon began.

South Hadley had leaned on its youngsters all year, but it was still a question how they would perform in pressure moments. Cara Dean netted five huge fourth-quarter points to help get the game to overtime, and Kate Phillips added five clutch points in the extra session to seal the deal.

Those freshmen? They were more than ready.

“They bring a lot to the table,” junior captain CC Gurek said of the underclassmen. “They’re held to really high standards, and they always meet those expectations every nigh. It’s really nice to be able to count on people who can come in the game and make a play.”

In the semifinals, the Tigers erased No. 2 Tyngsborough’s halftime lead behind 10 points apiece from Cara Dean, Catilin Dean and Ava Asselin.

While a runner-up finish isn’t exactly what South Hadley had hoped for, there’s no doubt that the team brought those who came to watch them for the duration of the year plenty of enjoyment. For the players? Yes, it’s going to sting short-term. But when they look back, there is nothing to hang their heads on.

“It’s the most games any girls team has ever won at South Hadley,” Dubuc said. “We’re happy with it.”

Alley will part ways with her high school career come graduation in June, but the rest of the bunch are eager to run it back. Now that the Tigers got a taste of what it’s like to play for a state championship, they won’t settle for anything less than putting themselves right back in that position next March.

“Obviously we didn’t win, but it’s still a great experience for the younger kids who still have two, three years left in the program,” Alley said. “Now they know what it’s like and they know that this is where they wanna be again next year.”