The build-up to last Thursday’s Division III girls basketball semifinals was a roller coaster for everyone involved.
At first the Vermont Principals’ Association announced that the games would be still be played, only in front of a smaller crowd. Hours later, everything was postponed. The next day the remainder of the season was cancelled entirely due to the coronavirus.
The spectrum of emotions varied from team to team and from player to player. Some found solace Monday when the VPA honored all four D-III semifinalists as “quad” champions. It was a bittersweet conclusion to the winter season as schools prepared to close until at least April 6.
And it was especially tough for Thetford, which was poised to play at the Barre Aud for the ninth straight year.
Coach Eric Ward and his Panthers (20-3) advanced to the last six title games and were scheduled to face Windsor for a semifinal grudge match. The teams split early in the season, with the Yellow Jackets prevailing 53-50 before Thetford triumphed 43-41 two weeks later.
The Panthers were cruising in the playoffs and Ward said his team was playing at its highest level ever. Eleven players scored during a 51-29 playdown victory over Williamstown, led by Grace Davis with 13 points. Davis (18 points), Casey MacVeagh (14 points) and Emma Colby (10 points) fueled a 58-41 quarterfinal victory over Bellows Falls.
This was undoubtedly a team on the rise that accomplished its initial mission by securing a return trip to the Granite City. But Ward and his squad were so accustomed to reaching the finals that anything else was a shock to the system. The Panthers are conditioned to win, led by 12 players who helped the soccer program claim its third straight title last fall.
Thetford will raise a championship basketball banner for the third time in seven years, and Ward knows his players deserved this crown as much as the others. The Panthers didn’t get to win it on the court, but they kept their Aud run alive and secured a boys-girls basketball sweep for the second straight year. It’s only March and they already have their eyes on the prize for 2021.
Here are 10 questions for Ward as everyone takes a break for a few weeks:
TA: When did the girls find out the news (Monday) of being quad-champions?
Ward: “I notified them around noontime when I found out. I haven’t had a chance to really talk to them — I just sent a group-message because we’re not really having any contact with them right now. It was happy, but they really wanted to play the games. But I understand what happened. It’s for the VPA to know what to do. You’re canceling the season, and you’re so close to finishing the season. So how are they going to have finality to the season? So they did what was the best thing to do. Some people aren’t happy because teams didn’t really play the games. Especially in Division II and IV, you had two teams who were going to be playing for those two respective championships. And in Division I, CVU is probably just better than anybody else. The (VPA) had to make it a finale somehow — otherwise it was just an incomplete season, per se. I personally would have loved to play the games, but it didn’t work out that way. It was a little silver lining for the end of the season for the work we did. It wasn’t like we had a poor team and got lucky and made it to Barre at the very end. We were one of the teams that could have been there all year-long. We did what we wanted to do, we got there and unfortunately we just weren’t able to play the games.”
TA: For you guys, going to the Aud nine straight years, does this kind of thing hit home a little bit more for a program like yours’?
Ward: “I think so. With our girls to come through — we’ve been there for awhile — and each team doesn’t want to be the team that doesn’t make it there. I always tell the girls, ‘You guys could play to the best of your abilities. And if something comes up and we just don’t make it, I’m not going to be disappointed if you guys play your hardest and we do the best we can do.’ We’ve been very fortunate. We’ve had some good players, kids work hard for me and we’ve been able to get there for nine years in a row. Some year it’s going to end. You never want it to end, but we know it’s going to end at some point. We’ve got nine now, and maybe we can have that perfect decade of 10 years in a row at the Final Four? And after we found out what the end result was for this year, now we start back from square 1 for next year. And I give credit to the kids for the last nine years: Different kids every year rising to the occasion and making it back to the Auditorium. The kids step up, they know what they need to do and they make my job so much easier.”
TA: For your team, it’s normal to get to the Aud. So was this a lot harder for the seniors just not to finish out the way they wanted?
Ward: “Grace and Ellen (Veracka) are seniors, and they had been on three teams that had been to the championship game. And Casey MacVeagh, this is her third year. So some of the kids have been here for a couple years. Ten of the girls on the team this year had played in Barre before. Three girls, this is their first year. They made it to Barre, but we just didn’t have the opportunity to play there. So I think it was hard because for the last six years our last game has been the championship game. So we’ve always played up to the very end. And this year we went into the quarterfinal game never knowing that was going to be our last game.”
TA: Can you run through the few days after the Bellows Falls quarterfinal game? Was the writing on the wall?
Ward: “We had a little bit of illness the last few weeks of the season. We had some kids with the flu. And we had some kids with strep throat and bad colds and stuff. And we had a really good game against Bellows Falls. I was very happy and we took that weekend off and we had three great practices Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. We were like, ‘OK, we’re really ready to go. We’re right where were we want to be. We’re peaking at the right time.’ We were just feeling so confident. And then on Thursday morning I get the (notice) that only five people per player were going to be able to attend the game. So we were scrambling around trying to figure out who was going to be able to support each player on the team. And an hour-and-a-half later we got a thing saying the game was postponed. So we had these ebbs and flows.”
TA: And what happened Thursday afternoon?
Ward: “At that point we knew there was going to a conference call on Friday morning. So I decided to have a practice on Thursday because I just didn’t want the kids to go home and say, ‘Well, there’s no games.’ And it was one of our best practices on Thursday — the kids were just feeling so good. I let the kids run their practice that day. We said, ‘This is their practice. We don’t need to teach them anything. Let them do what they want to do.’ And we got through and Jeff (Vaughan), my fellow coach, was saying, ‘Look at these kids and some of the things they’re doing on the floor.’ We were ready to really play the game. And I had no question we were going to do very well that weekend. We were just waiting, and on Friday morning it came out that everything had been cancelled. We were just hoping and hoping, and we knew it didn’t look good. But I was at the Barre Auditorium on Wednesday watching Division II and Division IV play. And less than 12 hours later, our game was postponed. So what happened in that meantime? That was what you had to wrap your head around. I understand what’s going on in the world, but it was hard.”
TA: What are your thoughts on the VPA naming co-champs and quad-champs?
Ward: “I think they had to do something. It may not sit well for a lot of people saying, ‘Well, you didn’t earn the championship.’ But I think all 12 teams — we may not all have been perfect, we may not all have been the best team — but these 12 teams all won their last game to get to the Auditorium or get to the championship game. And for all of us, it wasn’t like we lost our last two games and they named us quad-champs. We won our last game. And I’ve always been told, ‘You know you’ve had a good season when you win your last game.’ Because when you win your last game, most of the time you’re a champion. And all 12 teams won their last game. It may not be the perfect scenario. But I think they had to do something in the sense that you can’t penalize the kids for a game being cancelled. That’s something outside of their control. You can’t say, ‘’Well, we’re not going to name champs this year because the virus is going around.’ You have to do something to have some closure.”
TA: I know some Harwood players wrote letters and petitioned for co-champs. Were your players or other coaches involved in the decision-making process?
Ward: “We weren’t. We’ve been there and we were just going to take it whatever way it came — we were going to accept it. I feel for Harwood and Mid-Vermont Christian because they were getting their opportunity to win their first championship. Harwood hadn’t been there for 40 years and I know (coach) Tom Young would have loved to have won the game on the court. They had a great season — and you can’t take that season away from them. It wasn’t like they came up to the Barre Auditorium as a 10-10 team and they happened to win their first two games of playoffs to make it to Barre.They were one of the best teams in Division II all year-long. And us and Lake Region and Windsor, we were the three best teams in Division III all year-long. And everybody knew it was basically going to come down to those three in Division III. And honestly, I really felt that whoever won Thursday night between Windsor and ourselves would beat Lake Region on Saturday night. I just felt so good about us. And I said, ‘If Windsor can beat us, they’ll beat Lake Region.’ But we’ll never know now.”
TA: Was there talk about playing at a neutral site instead of the Aud, or to play in the spring?
Ward: “I don’t know what they talked about before Friday, when the governor spoke and said it has to be a function with 250 people or less. So we could have played our games with just the players and essential personnel. And that would have been 30 people per team — about 60 people. And at the time schools were still in session. That was the hardest part: We couldn’t play the games, but schools were still in session. I was driving over to Fairlee on Friday afternoon. Our game was cancelled, and I’m driving by and their school is in session. If there’s no school, there’s no way we can have a game. But when the schools are still in session and we couldn’t play the game, that’s what made it more difficult for me. If school had been cancelled already, that makes it so much easier for the games to be cancelled. But I think when the UVM (decision) came down, the VPA was just trying to react as well: If they can’t play games, we probably shouldn’t be playing games either. And I understand they were put in a tough spot.”
TA: And you guys had the extra pressure of trying to cap a boys and girls sweep for the second straight year.
Ward: “That Saturday night, after we played Bellows Falls and the boys won it, we knew in five more days we’re going to be back up here. And we’re going to have a chance to defend our title. It may have happened, it may not have not happened. But everything was looking good at Thetford Academy. I’m happy for the kids, but they know they didn’t win it on the floor and so they’re going to have that. Especially the girls who have won it on the floor before, it was not quite the same for them. Some of the boys players actually told me, ‘I wish this year you guys could have been first because you would have played your games.’ Because they know we’ve had that nice long stretch of success. The boys have done well the last two or three years. And I think they realized we’ve been kind of the team at the school. And this year our season ended incomplete for a little while.”
TA: In the last three days you really can’t be surprised by anything. But do you think the girls’ feelings have changed, if they were upset at first?
Ward: “They were so ready to play the game. I don’t think they were going in last weekend hoping to win. I think they knew they could win. Not that we were going to win, but they were confident in themselves. At Thursday’s practice, some of the stuff they were doing on that floor was like, ‘Man, these girls are ready to play.’ They were doing things they haven’t done all year. And I felt so confident last week. Of course, I know you’re at the Auditorium and you never know. You can have a game and you don’t make a basket — those things happen. But I was feeling as confident Thursday as I’ve ever been going to the Auditorium with a team. I felt that strongly about this team.”
Stowe 70-28 win Rivendell 55-21 win Windsor 53-50 loss Blue Mountain 59-36 win White River 51-20 win Windsor 43-41 win Williamstown 62-38 win Springfield 51-44 win Lyndon 49-29 win Montpelier 71-20 win Oxbow 48-28 win Randolph 57-15 win Harwood 61-40 loss Williamstown 59-30 win Lamoille 59-42 win Randolph 77-18 win Montpelier 79-39 win Oxbow 55-29 win Lake Region 50-41 loss U-32 61-54 win Williamstown 51-29 win Bellows Falls 58-41 win