Thursday, May 9, 2013

Throwback Thursday: Class of '11 Hoops

By Zach Smart

This Thursday, we take a throwback look at the team that turned the corner for a program staggering on the fringe of mediocrity. We re-examine a memorable game which ended a dreadful drought, propelling a senior-laden program striving for Section-wide visibility to foreign territory.

 Mahopac Hoops was once the also-ran, wedged in the middle of the pack.

The Indians were once the irrelevant, the unknown.

The only time they smelled the old County Center floor was when they shelled out the $7 like everyone else.

This team didn’t contain a lethal scoring threat who was being actively pursued by UNC, Duke, Kentucky, or even a St. John's, a Fordham, or a Quinnipiac.  

They didn’t feature a 6-foot-9 center with electric, freakish athleticism.

 They also didn’t contain a cerebral 6-foot-9 forward/center who can adjust to the style of a guard, stretching out defenses with deep jumpers, 3-pointers, and peddling out assists. There was no real superstar, no surefire All-State first team guy recognized as the alpha dog of the offense.

Mahopac did, however, collectively share a similar distaste for losing.

Proving the philosophy about the whole being greater than the sum of the parts is no overused cliche, Mahopac's depth overwhelmed foes. The veteran senior class had a good feel for other’s games. They'd earned their chops playing together from the CYO level on.

They formed a basketball clique along the way, entrenched in street ball battles from as early back as they can remember. This core was always flooding the outdoor courts on sun-baked days, running everything from 3-on-3 battles to "winner stays on" 5-on-5s on the local courts.

The class of 2011 subscribed defense, providing scoring threats with little room to operate. Each player savored the role that best suited them.

There were a few pure shooters, a few guys who could handle the rock and orchestrate the offensive flow. There were a few muscle-bound cats serving as clean-up guys, tasked with eating up rebounds, providing stickbacks, and altering shots.

Yes, this was team ball. The commitment to making the extra pass was there. There was no reliance on any isolation style. The fluid ball movement, the inside-outside game rarely wilted.

And so we take you back…

 Ryan Wagner's shooting hand hung in the air a bit longer than usual. With 2:53 remaining in the third quarter, Mahopac’s senior guard was again playing possessed.

After pocketing a deep corner 3-pointer, capping a quick 8-2 spurt, Mahopac’s spread over Clarkstown South swelled to 49-26. Largest lead of the night.

 Wagner, who drained 4-of-5 three-pointers during the first half against Yorktown in the regular season finale, entered this shootout with a ratchet he may have purchased off Reggie Miller or Dell Curry (quick release for those old enough to remember) at a Pawn Shop.

Suddenly, for the first time in over a decade, an oh-so-familiar chant permeated the walls of Mahopac High School. The players were serenaded in this steady chorus.

It was almost too much too soon.

Yes it was early but boy, was it refreshing to the always-raucous Mahopac Maniacs—a home crowd that’s remained true through the rollercoaster of the program's recent history.

"County Center!"



The Indians are finally generating basketball buzz with a veteran-loaded core which has been the stepchild to football and lacrosse the past couple of seasons.

It was the Indians’ relentless defensive energy and arsenal of shooters who overwhelmed No.14 Clarkstown South, punching Mahopac’s ticket to the Westchester County Center for the first time since 2000.

During that last trip, before the 11-year layoff, they ran into a buzz saw known as Ben Gordon. Gordon, the famed professional, was a junior at Mount Vernon HS at the time.

The Indians will again meet perennially-tough Mount Vernon—the Goliath seeking an unprecedented sixth straight Section I championship--in the Section I/Class AA semifinals.

Mahopac dismantled South--the sleeper which upset Yale-bound center Matt Townsend and No.3 Horace Greeley--to the tune of a 73-57 washout.

"Words can't describe how amazing this feels right now," said Wagner, who poured in 19 points to guide the Indians' perimeter game.

"I mean, it's a speechless feeling. I can't even describe it. No words really. "

Mahopac is not big on post-game bravado or trash talk, but their actions on the court spoke louder than words Tuesday night.

Anthony Annunziata, a grizzled four-year veteran (who came close to earning a first-ever berth in the County Center before crumbling under 6-foot-8 forward Keith Thomas and red-hot Yorktown two years ago), spoke all week about seizing the moment. The longest-tenured player on the roster, Annunziata spoke of making up for lost time. This was it. Senior year. Win or let February break begin. Simple equation.

One of the Indians' nine seniors, Annunziata bagged timely three-pointers and dropped 19 points.

He was a playing with a purpose. He didn't want to miss the dance. He didn't want to miss every varsity basketball player's dream of performing before a jam-packed crowd on the biggest stage. Annunziata owed it to the alumni. He owed it to the high-decibel, loyal, and ebullient fan base whose support never waned.

"I couldn't be happier for the kid (Annunziata)," said Indians coach Kevin Downes. Two Years ago, we were a couple minutes away from getting to the County Center. He knows what it's like. He's one of the hardest working kids we've had here. As the kids like to say, he's the heart and soul of this team."

The Indians played with the heart and hustle of a team hungry for a berth in the Section I Final Four. They got offensive rebounds. They took charges. They played suffocating defense even while nursing a 12-point lead. They refused to take their foot off the gas.

After gaining a 34-22 halftime lead, the Indians opened up the second half on a 7-2 surge. An Annunziata 3-pointer pumped the lead up to 41-24. Robbie Catalino followed with a baseline drive.

Annunziata got open on the left corner and drained another trey. Clarkstown’s interior game put a scare into the Indians in the first half, but tailed off in the second. They no longer pounded the ball inside and the defensive pressure forced them into off-balanced shots. It was not the same team that dismantled Townsend and 6-foot-5 forward Harrison Brown at Greeley.

Handles-happy guard Mark Vaccaro scored 10 points.
It was Vaccaro and senior T.J. Foley, who converted rebounds and into outlet passes to trigger the running game, facilitated the offense. Zach Ankier had some key buckets, including a key putback that quelled a 6-0 Clarkstown run in the first half.

Downes said he would like to enjoy the victory for the night, albeit the immediate path ahead appears rough.

"Mount Vernon is a great program, we can only aspire to do what they've been able to do over the years," said Downes.

"We know we're going to have our hands full. I mean, we have to start thinking about that first thing tomorrow. For tonight, we will enjoy the win... We were definitely comfortable in our gym tonight. When you add playing solid defense to how well the kids shot the ball, absolutely, it's a colossal win. We're happy to get to where we're going, we are going to make the most of this opportunity."

Wagner will embrace the moment.

"It's just a great opportunity," said Wagner, hyped to play against arguably the best high school player in New York State in West Virginia-bound guard Jabarie Hinds.

"Just because we know how good he (Hinds) is, we know he's headed to West Virginia on a full ride. It's going to be great to play against a player like that."

While the pinnacle of their coaching careers remains to be seen, both Mount Vernon coach Bob Cimmino and Mahopac coach Kevin Downes have had memorable seasons.

Cimmino has been chosen to coach the East squad at the McDonald's All-American game this year, a national honor.

Downes was recently named Section I Coach of the Year, recognized for his role in turning around a team that went 6-12 last season.

Downes is a coach who bleeds emotion. He's groomed a torrent of talented seniors that have ascended the scale together, savoring their roles and keeping within confines of the system.

Cimmino has likened Hinds (who was rendered unguardable against Section I opponents this season) to Gordon multiple times the past two seasons.

When Hinds averaged 37 PPG during an AAU tournament in North Carolina, the summer leading into his junior season, Cimmino first made the comparison.

Have his words proven prophetic?

It remains to be seen.

Last season, Hinds and Mount Vernon torched New Rochelle--avenging two regular season losses--en route to topping Poughkeepsie in the title game. Hinds, who engineered a personal 7-0 run in the second half, dropped 26 points as the Knights earned their fifth consecutive Gold Ball.

Mount Vernon will be a tall order, bigger and stronger and more athletic than any team they’ve seen this season. They can’t simulate their guard play, with the jet-quick Hinds and his penchant for stepback jumpers and one-on-one slashes.

Mahopac is cognizant, however, that the pressure is on other side.

 They are playing with house money, so they might as well embrace the moment. Embrace the lime lit atmosphere, with the sea of onlookers hoping to get their $7 worth. Embrace Section I's biggest stage.