Wethersfield senior Dante Burgos drives baseline on Rocky Hill's Matt Sevigny during the Eagles 52-41 victory. Photo credit- Michelle Elliott
Not all regular season games are created equal and last Thursday night’s regular-season finale between Wethersfield and Rocky Hill boys’ basketball was proof of that.
Both teams entered with identical 7-12 records and the winner would earn a spot in the state tourney, while the loser’s season would be over.
Behind an efficient fourth quarter, the home Eagles walked away with a 52-41 victory over the conference and neighboring rivals, sending Wethersfield to the Division II state tournament and eliminating Rocky Hill from the postseason.
“We basically had three playoff games in a row and unfortunately we lost to Tolland on Friday, but somewhere along the line we decided that we needed to get going,” said Wethersfield head coach Brian Fanelli, whose team needed to win their last two games against Newington and Rocky Hill to qualify for the tourney, “I think they understood the gravity of the game and they stepped up in three of the four quarters tonight.”
Fanelli’s team caught fire late, scoring 25 point over the final eight minutes after being held to 27 over the first three quarter, including two total points during a brutal third quarter.
Seniors Derek Tenney and Dante Burgos combined to score 19 in the fourth, helping the Eagles regain the lead early in the final frame before pulling away down the stretch.
“We went to a 1-2-2 half court trap right off the jump in the fourth quarter. We got two turnovers and two easy baskets in a row, and it seemed like the nerves got out and we got going a little bit. Then they started to trap, and we knew if we made the right pass and hit the middle that we could get a couple of easy baskets,” recalled Fanelli.
Tenney finished with a game-high 20 points and Burgos added 14 in the duo’s final game at WHS.
“We’ve been friends for a really long time and it’s nice to have chemistry with someone like that, who always has your back,” Tenney said of his bond with Burgos, “When I’m down he picks me up and the same thing with when he’s down I’m picking him up. It’s a really good relationship to have.”
Early on it was an offensive struggle for both squads as Tenney scored the game’s only point, a free throw, over the first three minutes of action.
The Terriers rattled off seven in a row and led 11-8 after the first quarter behind junior Alex Boutin, who exploded off the bench with a team-high 13 points, including four points and a handful of big defensive plays in the first quarter.
Tenney ignited a 6-0 run in the second quarter by tipping in a miss from the baseline as the Eagles outscored the Terriers 17-9 in the quarter.
During the second quarter, freshman Robert Ruiz added six points for the Eagles, who took a 25-20 lead into the break.
Rocky Hill scored the first six points of the third, four coming from junior Justin Fraleigh, who scored all eight of his points in the second half.
The Terriers nearly shutout the Eagles in the quarter, but two late free throws from Jack Romagnoli gave the home team a one-point edge headed to the final quarter.
That’s when Fanelli’s players carried out his pregame message.
“I kept harping that there were close games that we lost this year because of mental errors and we knew they might come back to bite us. I told them today, don’t let those games come back to bite you, be the team that goes out there and is resilient. You did it against Newington, now go out there and do it tonight.”
Tenney had to exit the game in the third quarter after taking a spill following a collision but returned minutes later and was ready for crunch time.
“I knew that even if I was hurt, I wasn’t coming out,” recalled Tenney “This is my last game here and it wouldn’t have been fair to my teammates.”
Fanelli said that Tenney has been the steady presence all season, “It’s too bad that he’s going to go play baseball in college because he’s a special basketball player too. There’s not a situation that is too big for him. If you notice his demeanor never really changes and he’s calm the whole time. I think that his ability to stay at that level, no matter the situation, makes him special.”
Rocky Hill briefly regained the lead to start the fourth on a turnaround jumper from Fraleigh, but Tenney and Burgos began to take over, scoring the Eagles next 13 points.
The home team cemented the game at the line, hitting eight of their final ten foul shots.
It was a different story on the other side of the court as the Terriers struggled all night from the charity stripe, connecting on only 1 of 10 foul shots.
“We couldn’t hit a free thrown, we couldn’t hit a layup, and you’re not going to win a game against a quality team when you’re doing that. We’ve just struggled putting the ball in the hole all season,” said Rocky Hill head coach Josh Dinerman, who saw his offense pick it up late but his defense struggle down the stretch, “We were kind of out of position defensively and they hurt us a couple times. Some of their starters stepped up besides Tenney. We had to key on him because he’s an all-star caliber player and some other guys just made plays.”
The loss marked the end of the road for a handful of seniors at Rocky Hill, including captain Riley Donovan, who was held to nine in the finale but had scored 34 in a win over Windham, which help put the team within a win of the tournament back on Feb 14.
Donovan was the only returning starter from last season’s championship run and was the unquestioned on-court leader for the Terriers.
“Donovan had a great season. He did step up in that leadership role and I’m proud of him because it wasn’t always easy this year,” said Dinerman, who hopes that the returning players will use Thursday night as motivation for the offseason, “Some of these young guys have had some growing pains. They learned tonight that you can’t make those mistakes against a quality team.”
As for Wethersfield, they again live to see another day.
Following the loss to Tolland they needed to sweep their two biggest rivals in order to make the postseason. They we down by as many as 20 points against Newington but still found a way to earn win #7, and eventually win #8 on their home court.
“We knew we had no room for error. We had really put ourselves in a hole, but we battled and stuck it out as a team,” stated Tenney.
“After the first half against Newington they decided that they were going to play the best third quarter of their lives. They didn’t let those things that happened earlier in the year bite us and now we’ve got a whole new season,” added Fanelli.
The Starting Five: Area Athletes of the Week
Nick Wright- Cromwell (Basketball): Wright scored 25 points, hitting 11 of his 14 shots from the field, and grabbed eight rebounds to help the Panthers finish the regular season 20-0 with a 50-48 victory over Old Lyme last Monday night. The senior captain was also a terror on the defensive end, racking up five steals, and will now look to guide the perfect Panthers in their quest for back-to-back state titles.
Andrew Fogarty- Newington co-op (Hockey): Fogarty stopped all 11 shots he faced as the Indians shutout EEGS, 4-0, last Saturday to finish the regular season 15-5. It was the third time that the sophomore goalie has blanked an opponent this season and the eighth time that he has been credited with a win.
Elijah Cyr- Middletown (Wrestling): Cyr won both the Class L and State Open in the 113 LBS division. The senior defeated Bristol Central’s Jake Aldi in the class final and then took down Trumbull’s Travis Longo to win the State Open last Saturday at the Floyd Little Athletic Center. Teammate Nygell Smikle won the 285 LBS division at the class finals.
Nathan Gerace-Hicks- Rocky Hill (Swimming): Gerace, who was named a team captain this year because of his leadership qualities, qualified for both 200 Freestyle and 500 Freestyle at states. The senior, who has been swimming all four seasons, is also a member of two relays going to states and has brings experience after competing last winter in the 500 Freestyle as a junior. Outside of swimming, Gerace-Hicks is a member of the track team, a four-year band member, and a four-year volunteer for Sea Cubs, a swimming program for students with special needs.
Madison Bradbury & Erin Nargi- Wethersfield (Gymnastics)- Bradbury and Nargi scored high enough at the Class M meet to earn All-State accolades. Bradbury was named to the first-team All-State for her all-around performances, while Erin earned second-team All-State for bars and beam. The two seniors helped lead Wethersfield to a fifth-place overall showing at the Class M finals at Jonathan Law High School last Saturday.
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Sports Editor for the Rare Reminder, Glastonbury Citizen, and Rivereast News Bulletin