No one can say this team doesn’t deserve this title -- the Highland girls basketball team’s second Section 9 Class B championship in a row -- defeating (in succession) a quality Onteora team, with 1000-point scorer Julia Hinchey, in the quarterfinals; State-ranked Ellenville in the semifinals; and always tough Burke Catholic of Orange County in Sunday’s championship game. And to sweeten the moment, remember, this is the Highland Section 9 team that graduated four starters -- including Player-of-the-Year Christie Morano -- and two top subs, lost another potential starter to a knee injury during the soccer season and another top sub to a knee injury early in the season, and returned just two players from last season’s championship team. This team is truly head coach Jim Delmar’s team.
Delmar teams have been blessed over his nine-year tenure with some remarkable players, a host of game changers and gifted athletes that have fit easily into his fast-paced offensive and crushing defensive style. There was Alyssa Morano, Ashley Hanhust and Allie Rozzi in the first few years, then Chris Porter and Erin Marx, followed by Christie Morano and Casey Brooks, and finally last season, just Morano -- who had one of the great seasons in Section 9 history -- and a plethora of top-flight role players. This season -- which started with a 34-21 loss to Wallkill and with the Huskies at one time just 2-4 overall -- would have been considered a rebuilding year. But not to Delmar. He returned starting sophomore center, 6’1” Monasia Bolduc and senior guard/forward (and defensive gadfly) 5’7” Jess Dutka -- that’s it -- and brought along a young point guard in junior Jen Porter, a young shooting forward in sophomore Alex Garcia and a young inside player in sophomore Kelly Murphy. Add in sophomore subs Stephanie Byrne and Victoria Pratts and juniors Steph Porter and Katie Sulpice, and -- VOILA! -- Delmar delivered his second straight Class B title.
But it wasn’t easy. It never is in a championship run.
In the quarterfinal last Monday at home, number one seed Highland ran off to a big 32-18 third-quarter lead over eight-seed Onteora, but saw that lead dwindle to four (36-32) before taking control again with 15-of-23 free throws in the fourth quarter to seal the 55-39 victory. Monasia Bolduc led the Huskies with 17 points and eight rebounds, with Jen Porter scoring 12 points, with nine steals and eight rebounds, and Jess Dutka also with 12 points. Hinchey scored 15 points (including four three pointers) to lead Onteora. Onteora -- the best number eight-seed in Section history -- finished 9-9 for the season.
Next up was number four seed Ellenville (15-3 and ranked number 19 in the State) on Thursday, again out in Pancake Hollow. A dangerous matchup, what with lightning-quick point guard Alyssa Ellis and three six-footers in Regina Steele and Darien and sister Mercedes Wilson. But the Huskies started fast as Dutka and Bolduc scored eight straight points to open the game. Ellenville, as expected, came back and it was 11-7 when Jen Porter buried a long three-pointer at the buzzer.
Bolduc (with four points) and Kelly Murphy (with six) scored all the Highland second period points, as the Blue Devils stayed even on three-pointers from Ellis, Zoraida Castillo and Katie Burns. It was 24-18 at the half.
The Huskies maintained that edge through the third quarter as Dutka had six points in the quarter and Bolduc five, the quarter ending 37-28 Highland. And when Dutka converted a Garcia steal into a breakaway basket and an 11-point Highland lead to open the final quarter, everything looked to be under control. But Ellenville wasn’t State-ranked for nothing and everyone knew they would make some kind of run. And some-kind-of-run they did make, running off 12 straight points to take a 40-39 lead with just 2:00 left in the game. It looked like the Highland season could be over: dethroned by Wallkill as the MHAL champ in the league semifinals and now dethroned as Class B champs in the Section semifinals. But the Huskies are anything but easily broken. They got a nice breakaway basket from Murphy off a perfect inbounds pass from Jen Porter. Then Porter and Victoria Pratts each hit one-of-two free throws and it was 43-40. A Stephanie Byrne steal and pass to Dutka on a breakaway, and the senior swingman’s one-of-two free throws made it 44-40 with 1:07 left in the game. From this point the game went into free-fall, as sloppy ballhandling under pressure (by both teams), poor foul shooting (Highland was 0-5 in the last minute, Ellenville 1-4)) and a couple huge missed opportunities gave the ball to Ellenville under its own basket with :03.7 to play and the score 44-41. The ball was inbounded to Ellis who raced upcourt and found Castillo open just to the left of the key in three-point territory. Her shot at the buzzer went in-and-out and Highland was in the Section final once again.
Bolduc led Highland with 15 points and 11 rebounds, with Dutka adding 13 points, with four steals and three assists. Murphy hit for 10 points and grabbed six rebounds, and Jen Porter four points, five steals and four assists. Castillo led Ellenville with 13 points.
Highland met number two seed Burke in Sunday’s final, after Burke had slipped by Spackenkill 36-30 in Thursday’s other semifinal. It seemed a sort of break for Highland, as Spackenkill had routed the Huskies in a post-MHAL cross-over game last week and it seemed on the surface of it that the Spartans matched up well with them, whereas smaller Burke had no one that could matchup with Bolduc inside. The problem would be: Could Highland get the ball into their big center against Burke’s tough man-to-man defense? And if not, could Dutka or one of the young players step it up once again?
And throughout the first-half Burke’s claustrophobic defense kept the ball out of Bolduc’s hands (she scored five points) and held Dutka scoreless. Two Jen Porter three’s and one from sister Steph kept Highland in it offensively, and Burke -- mainly a perimeter shooting team -- was equally as underwhelming, but a MariFaith Rickard bomb at the buzzer gave the Eagles a 17-16 halftime lead. Highland, to win, was going to have to get it into Bolduc, and Dutka was going to have to get into the game offensively. If not, it was hope for the best from the young players or end of the season against senior-laden Burke.
And as it was, it was a combination of all those elements as Garcia’s three-pointer started the Huskies on a 9-0 run that turned the game to Highland. Bolduc followed with one-of-two free throws, then a huge three off the backboard from the top of the key, then fed Murphy underneath for an easy layup. A Stephanie Naru three stopped the bleeding, but the Huskies were in a groove as Bolduc followed Jen Porter’s miss with a putback basket, then Dutka with her first points of the game on a putback of a Porter miss on a breakaway after her steal, then two Garcia free throws, then one-of-two Garcia free throws, then one-of-two Jen Porter free throws, before Bolduc provided the emotional coup de grace with a block on Naru under the basket at the quarter buzzer. It was 33-22 and Highland was just eight minutes from its second straight title.
Garcia opened the fourth quarter with a jumper from the lane, but Naru answered with a three from the key. Dutka hit a runner across the lane and Burke answered with a pair of Amanda Lynch free throws and another big three from Naru. It was 37-30 and Burke looked to make it tough down the stretch. But Bolduc hit a layup off Dutka’s pass breaking the Burke press, then hit four-of-four free throws, with Dutka following on the next possession with a screwball twisting jumper from the side and it was a 15-point Highland lead. Porter was fouled, and missed her two free throws, but Garcia -- playing the best game of her young career -- grabbed the rebound, was fouled, and sank one-of-two to give the Huskies an insurmountable 46-30 lead with just 3:00 to go. Dutka hit five-of-six free throws down the stretch and Bolduc a layup off a nice Dutka feed. A Steph Porter free throw ended it at 53-35. Highland had won their second straight Section 9 Class B title. And I wouldn’t be surprised if this one wasn’t just a bit sweeter for all concerned. No superstar this time around. Just a hard-working team with a lot of heart and one great coach.
Bolduc led Highland with 19 points, with Garcia and Dutka scoring 11 apiece, Jen Porter with seven. Naru led Burke with 16 points.
Highland (15-6) faces Section 1 Irvington (Westchester) this Tuesday, March 9 at Vassar College at 5:30 p.m (unfortunately too late for this edition of the New Paltz Times).