The Highland girls seeded sixth in Class B? My thoughts upon seeing the seeding last week were: Did the seeding committee see these girls play? Did they look at their schedule? Games against Double A Warwick, Cornwall, then unbeaten Millbrook, Double A Pine Bush, A schools like Valley Central, Poughkeepsie, FDR, against Class C champion Pine Plains? Did they know the history of this incredible program that had produced six titles in 12 years — the latest three years ago?
Guess not. But they certainly do now, as the Huskies knocked off defending Class B champion Marlboro 61-54 on Tuesday, number two seed Fallsburg 51-35 on Thursday and the coup de grace: a 49-31 win over number one seed Spackenkill this past Saturday to wear the Section 9 crown.
I figured that whomever won Tuesday’s game at Marlboro would take the crown. And in the first quarter of that game it certainly didn’t look to be Highland. The Dukes opened up a 16-5 lead before the Huskies closed it on a Bri Rozzi steal and breakaway just before the buzzer to make it 19-11. But worse for Highland: shot-blocker and top rebounder Sam Garcia had picked up her third foul at the 3:00 mark. It did not look promising for the Huskies.
But starting the second quarter the Huskies got an immense lift from an unexpected source: substitute guard Emily Peterson, who hit a traditional three-point play to open the quarter, then hit a jumper from the lane and finished off her spurt with a monster three-pointer from deep in the corner. It was 21-19 Marlboro, but that eight-point run effectively turned the game around. Big time. The game then became Rozzi and (Candace) McCutcheon time. The star sophomore point guard and her junior running mate scored the next eight points to close the half down just 29-27.
The third quarter was back-and-forth as Marlboro’s Lofaro Sisters (Erin and Elizabeth) kept Marlboro in the game as McCutcheon and yet another of the Highland surprise stars of the game: Mia Beck, each scored six points to open a 39-34 lead. Marlboro rallied to tie it at 39, but Rozzi nailed a couple free throws and Garcia a layup off a great Rozzi pass sent Highland into the final eight minutes up 43-42.
Marlboro retook the lead at 44-43, when Peterson reappeared and hit another booming three-pointer. Beck hit a baseline jumper moments later to make it 48-45. Elizabeth Lofaro hit a layup of a sweet feed from Taylor Felicello to make it 48-47 with just over 3:00 remaining in the game.
Here is where great players step it up. And here is where Bri Rozzi took control of the game. She hit a pair of free throws to make it 50-47. Then two more to make it 52-47 at 2:52. After two free throws from Felicello, Rozzi came down and nailed a jumper from the lane. It was 54-49 with 2:06 left. Felicello hit two more free throws at the 1:52 mark, but yet the third surprise star for Highland: Mollee Stafford, hit a huge layup off a perfect dish from the ever-present Rozzi. It was 56-51. McCutcheon then hit a free throw and then Rozzi, and it was 58-51 with just 0:32 on the clock. Felicello — playing her final game of a five-year career for Marlboro — buried a long three with 0:25 left, but Rozzi hit three-of-four to end the game and send Highland on their way to a Section title.
Rozzi finished with 23 points, 13 assists and five rebounds, shooting 14-18 from the free throw line, 9-12 in the final eight minutes. Peterson had a career-high 13 points, McCutcheon 12 and Beck a career-high eight. Felicello led the Dukes with 14.
To say that the semifinal with Fallsburg and the final against Spackenkill were anti-climatic would be to diminish Highland’s accomplishment…but they were. The Huskies led from start-to-finish in both games, as Rozzi hit for 17 and Garcia ten and McCutcheon neutralized Fallsburg star Diamond Weeks (eleven points) with a smothering defense. Then in the final it was Rozzi with 22 points, Peterson eight and Garcia six, with 14 rebounds, as the Highland defense bunched-in Spack’s star center, 6-1 Noelle Mancini, holding her to five points. Highland will play the winner of Sunday’s Section 1 final between Irvington and Briarcliff Manor in a State Regional semifinal on Tuesday, March 7, 3 p.m. at SUNY New Paltz.
In the end it was the team that won it all. It’s become a tradition at little Highland.