But this season? Who knew?
The one person who did was the most important in Highland’s decade-long transcendence: long-time head coach Jim Delmar, who sized up his team early on and realized that they would have a difficult time scoring points, so it had to be done -- if the Huskies were to make another run at the title -- almost completely on the defensive end. He -- and they -- made good on that realization, and it was done with great heart. Looking around the league (admittedly a “down year” throughout the MHAL) one would be hard-pressed to look at the Highland roster and see a Section 9 champion.
But here they are. For the third year in a row the Highland girls basketball team is the Section 9 Class B champ.
The Huskies nearly didn’t get as far as the final, as coming off three straight end-of-the-year losses (to eventual MHAL and Section 9 Class A champ Wallkill, to MHAL runner-up and State-ranked number one -- in Class D -- Coleman in the MHAL semifinals, and to Section 9 Class A runner-up Red Hook) and looking tired and out-of-sorts, almost lost an opening round game to eighth-seed Rhinebeck, battling down to the wire to win 46-43.
With Samantha Cassata (who had her own personal 8-0 run midway in the second period) and Candice Benitt supplying some surprising offensive prowess, the Hawks led 17-14 at the half, with only an Alex Garcia three-pointer just before halftime making it that close. Rhinebeck lengthened the lead to 24-18 and then 28-21, before Garcia cut the lead to four (28-24) with three-of-four from the free throw line. Garcia kept it up, hitting four-straight from the line to keep Highland within three at 31-28. A Jen Porter jumper from the side cut it to one, and then freshman wunderkind Shannon Ward hit the biggest shot of her fledgling career -- a jumper from the line, with Garcia following with a pair of free throws. Highland was up 34-31 and seemed to be in control, but Cassata and Benitt snuck behind the pressure defense for back-to-back layups and then Cassata hit a jumper from the line and shockingly, the Hawks were not only refusing to die out there, but were three points up with just 3:00 to go. Kelly Murphy hit a layup off a nice feed from Garcia and Garcia hit one-of-two from the line to tie it, but Benitt came back and hit a jumper from the line to keep Rhinebeck up by two at 39-37. Murphy retied it with another layup off another sweet feed from Garcia, but Benitt hit one-of-two free throws and the Hawks clung to the lead 40-39. Murphy hit another layup to give Highland back the lead with just 1:00 remaining, and then stole the inbounds pass and was fouled. She hit her first free throw, but missed the second, and Ward made the second biggest play of her young career by grabbing the missed free throw and putting it back in. It was 44-40 Highland with 0:30 to go in the game. Rhinebeck cut it to three (Cassata and Benitt again), but Garcia nailed a pair of free throws with 0:03 to go to give the Huskies the win.
Garcia led Highland with 20 points, with Jen Porter adding nine, Ward eight and Murphy seven. Cassata and Benitt led Rhinebeck with 14 and 13 points, respectively.
The Huskies took on Division 3 foe Spackenkill in the semifinal round, a team they had beaten twice already on the season. The philosophy against the Spartans was to surround career 1000-point scorer Cat Thompson every time she touched the ball and don’t worry too much about the others. For, as Cat goes, so goes Spackenkill. And essentially that strategy worked, as Highland went out to a 10-3 first-quarter and a 16-8 halftime lead. Thompson had five of Spack’s points (a long three and a pair of free throws). Kelly Murphy scored eight of Highland’s points.
Consecutive three’s by Anna Thompson and Sienna Tully opened the second-half and cut Highland’s lead to 16-14, but Jen Porter hit a three, sister Steph a breakaway and Murphy one-of-two free throws to reestablish an eight-point lead. Tully hit another three, but Steph Porter and a Murphy layup sandwiched a Dominique Douglas layup and Ward -- again playing big -- hit a three-point bomb at the quarter-buzzer to give the Huskies a 29-19 lead. The fourth quarter was more wide open as Spackenkill moved Thompson out of the high post and onto the perimeter and Garcia -- who had foul trouble and was held scoreless through the first three quarters -- got more involved in the offense. In fact Garcia -- the Huskies’ leading scorer on the season with a 15 points-per-game average -- got so involved that the junior swingman hit 10-of-12 free throws in the final eight minutes. Thompson also showed off her scoring bonafides with eight points in the quarter, including a long three-pointer at the buzzer. But Highland prevailed (again) over Spackenkill 44-36, sending the Huskies into Thursday’s final with Burke.
Murphy led Highland with 11 points, Garcia adding 10 and Jen Porter eight. Thompson finished her career with 13 points.
Facing Burke for the title for the second year in a row was something I think the Huskies figured they could handle. Facing a team similar to themselves -- small, relentless defensively and with difficulty scoring -- a 16-15 halftime score was more than expected. But the way that score materialized was the difference in the game, as Burke -- using three-pointers from Amanda Lynch, Tara Sullivan and Megan Gallivan -- burst out to an 11-4 lead, before Ward -- once again hitting a big basket -- buried a side-jumper just before the buzzer. It was 11-6 at the quarter.
Lynch hit on a breakaway to open the second quarter, but Highland switched from a 3-2 zone to a man-to-man defense to challenge the three-point shooters and the Huskies ran off nine straight points (Jen Porter one-of-two free throws, Victoria Pratts one-of-two free throws, Pratts a drive along the baseline, Ward a jumper from the side, and Pratts supplying the coup de grace with a three-pointer from deep) to lead 15-13. Jessica Ayala hit Burke’s last three of the game from the top of the key as the halftime buzzer sounded.
A Lynch drive and three-of-four free throws from Alison Hefner surrounded a Murphy layup off a nice Garcia feed, and it was 21-17 Burke. Ward then hit on a drive along the baseline and Garcia hit her first points of the game, also along the baseline on a perfect assist from Pratts. Then it was “Ward-Time” again, as the freshman forward nailed a huge three from the corner to give Highland the lead at 24-21. KellyAnn Gough hit an outside jumper, but Pratts -- playing the best game of her career -- putback a rebound of her own missed outside jumper and it was 26-23 at the end of the third quarter.
The final eight minutes was one of attrition, with Lynch -- scoring six points in her final game -- facing off against season-leading scorers Garcia and Murphy. Lynch hit first on a drive (it was 26-25), then it was Garcia (outside jumper) and Murphy (breakaway, assist to Jen Porter), before Lynch hit again on a putback of a Gough miss (30-27 Highland). Then it was Garcia and Murphy hitting the front end of one-and-one’s, before Lynch ended the scoring with 1:00 left on a rebound of her own miss.
Highland had beaten Burke again, this time 32-29, with Ward and Murphy leading the way with nine points and six rebounds apiece, Pratts adding eight and Garcia five. Lynch scored 13 for Burke.
For Highland, now 15-6 overall, it all came down to the “Killer D’s” of Delmar and defense, and heart. It was Garcia becoming the go-to player as the season wore on, Murphy in the post steady as the proverbial rock, the Porter Sisters relentless on the defensive perimeter, Ward making some huge plays inside and out, Pratts giving man-coverage on the opposition’s top player, Courtney Pinero providing some scoring punch, and Holly Cordero and Alexa Decatur giving the Huskies a little more size underneath. But it was Delmar that led them through this “rebuilding” season to yet another Section 9 title. If he isn’t the Section’s top coach (all Classes) I’d love to see who is.
The Huskies have the difficult task of facing defending State Champion and State-ranked number one in Class B, Irvington, in a Regional Semifinal this Wednesday, March 9 at 4 p.m. at Mount St. Mary’s in Newburgh.