Milford’s landmark seasons come to an end

Milford’s Joe Atkinson scoops a shot under the arm of Putnam defender Ty Nichols in the MIAA state semifinals in Worcester.
Milford’s Joe Atkinson scoops a shot under the arm of Putnam defender Ty Nichols in the MIAA state semifinals in Worcester.
Betty Jenewin/Worcester Telegram

When it was all over, the Milford High players met their fans in the stands at the DCU Center in Worcester and embraced them. For the team’s eight seniors, Tuesday’s loss to Putnam in the Division 1 state semifinals, 52-39, was the unhappy end to a long and emotional journey that began when they first bounced a basketball.

“They were devastated,” said coach Steve Manguso . “It’s such an emotional time, but there’s only so many teams that are going to be smiling at the end of it. It’s emotional, it’s a life lesson, but the whole thing is not whether or not you win the whole thing. It’s a journey, and it was a great journey for those guys.”

For seniors David Mercier , Michael Titlebaum , Michael Soares , Michael Tracy , Aaron Annaballi , Joe Atkinson , Scott Van Buskirk, and Chris Traficante , it was the last time they would play together, wearing their school’s colors, with the friends and neighbors who had followed their careers watching in the stands.

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“We all looked forward to going to practice, to playing our games, and we enjoyed every second of it,” said Mercier, a captain. “And for our seniors it’s not like we have a chance to look forward to next year, either. It just came to a screeching halt and we’re all going to miss it.”

Emotions also ran high for Manguso, who knew this year’s class of seniors long before they became varsity players. He watched them play on their middle-school travel teams and he remembers them honing their skills at his camps. He has called them one of his favorite groups — high praise from Manguso, who took the job in 1983.

A dramatic come-from-behind win against Wachusett, 46-44, in the Division 1 Central semifinal symbolized for the coach what his senior class was all about.

“They have such a great work ethic,” Manguso said. “They were so coachable, so unselfish and they were very resilient. We were down 19 to Wachusett. I don’t know who comes back from that but these guys did.”

They are teammates whose close friendships helped them achieve a record of 20-4 and the team’s first sectional title since 1998.

“Chemistry is really, a lot of times, it’s chance,” Manguso said. “The way personalities meshed, their chemistry was really strong from the start. Coaches try to max all of those things for their team, but this group came in at a high level. It was really easy to take them a few more steps.”

Landmark year for Littleton

Hours before the Scarlet Hawks gave their fans a heartfelt thank you, the DCU played host to the final moments of the careers of Littleton’s senior boys, too.

Smith Academy’s 72-56 win in the Division 4 state semifinal put an end to the most successful season in Littleton history. The next day, in the Littleton High halls, the team’s seniors didn’t know how to react.

“It was kind of a weird day,” said senior captain Chris Murray .

“Especially seeing all the guys. Everybody took it pretty hard. We had nothing to talk about. We had nothing to look forward to. We had nothing to do after school. Everybody’s just trying to recover.”

Murray and his four senior teammates hold the distinction as the first senior class to help Littleton to a Clark Tournament championship. Their 24-2 record gave them more wins than any other in school history. And they won the first district title since 1987.

“They achieved so much,” said coach Mike Lombard . “Obviously we’re disappointed that we lost, but I think the guys are just more upset that it was over than we lost a basketball game. They really enjoyed playing together and the fact that it’s got to come to an end, I think that’s what upset them more than anything.”

That’s the case for Murray, who scored over 1,600 points in his career.

He and his senior teammates will remain friends long after they part ways for college, but there will be no more games, no more team dinners, no more postgame celebrations at the 99 Restaurant in Westford.

As they had done all season, the seniors will lean on one another to make their lives without basketball easier to take.

“We’ll always be there to support each other,” Murray said. “That’s pretty awesome. Even though the season’s over, we’re always together still. I think that helps everybody. Everybody came into school today and everybody got to see each other again.”

Underdog teams make good runs

It seems to happen every year. An underdog with an unimpressive record rolls through its bracket, sending higher-seeded opponents home for the rest of the season.

This year there were several, and the commonality found among each was that they believed they could make a lengthy tournament run, even if others didn’t.

Millis was the 14th and lowest seed in the Division 4 South girls bracket and made it all the way to the final before falling to No. 4 Greater New Bedford, 62-55.

Coach Dave Fallon’s team finished the regular season with a record of 9-11, but he knew, because of the team’s difficult Tri-Valley League schedule, that his girls could make some noise.

“I knew we were playing our best basketball at the end of the year,” said Fallon, whose star, sophomore guard Amy Assad, averaged 18 points per game in the playoffs. “I told the girls, ‘There’s no reason we shouldn’t make it to the South final.’ ”

Ashland girls’ coach Jon Kirby was similarly confident in his group, led by seniors Eliza Holman , Natalie Leone, and Gwyneth Ivory . The ninth-seeded Clockers, who placed second in the TVL during the regular season, beat top-seeded Abington in the Division 3 South quarterfinals and gave Archbishop Williams a good effort before falling in the South final, 59-42.

“We talked to the kids from a confident point of view,” Kirby said of his coaching staff. “They would look at us like, ‘These guys are nuts.’ But giving them the confidence to believe in themselves I think was the key.”

Some teams thrived off of the idea that they weren’t favored to win.

“I kind of like being the underdog,” said Wellesley boys coach Glen Magpiong, who coached his 14th-seeded Raiders to the Division 2 South semifinal before losing to Milton, 55-39. “I like flying under the radar and sneaking up on people.”

The Wellesley girls seemed to feel the same way as they made it all the way from being the No. 11 seed to the Division 1 South semifinal, where they fell to eventual champ Braintree, 57-33.

Newton South’s 17th seeded girls also turned heads when they knocked off top seed and city rival Newton North in the first round of the Division 1 South tourney and then beat eighth seed Durfee in the quarters. They lost to Franklin in the semifinal, 54-53, but they had made it to that point with the confidence that they could compete if they stuck to some simply-stated goals.

“We’re just trying to preach the little things: Do your job; trust your teammates,” said Lions coach Sam Doner early in the tournament. “Now that we’re in the playoffs, everybody’s 0-0.”

The Watertown girls proved anything could happen in the tournament, as they went from being one regular-season win away from missing the Division 3 North tournament, to making it all the way to the North finals. They eventually lost to Pentucket, 38-24, but they did it with no seniors in their starting lineup and they’re already thinking about next year.

Things will be different then. They’ll have targets on their backs. But coach Pat Ferdinand hopes that their experience as an under-the-radar surprise this March will help drive them.

“I said to the girls, ‘If you want to be here next year, if you want to be a team of this caliber, it’s about going to the weight room, getting stronger,’ ” Ferdinand said. “It’s about doing all those other things to be able to take themselves to the next step.”