In a Cinderella season which few would have predicted, the Saugerties High School girls’ varsity basketball team got to just one win away from the New York State Public High School Athletic Association Final Four. Falling 71-43 to Seton Catholic in the Class A regional final may sting a little, but the Sawyers will be back next year, perhaps even better for the experience.
“People don’t believe me now, but I really didn’t think we were going to be .500,” said Saugerties head coach Mike Melville. “The early schedule was Minisink Valley and Warwick, and then we went out to Binghamton to play Susquehanna Valley; they’re probably going to win the Class Bs this year. And then we went up to Amsterdam to play Guilderland and a team out of Utica, and I was scratching my head thinking, ‘What did I do to myself?’”
The Sawyers were just two seasons shy of their last Section IX, Class A title when they won it again this season. But Melville’s 2015-16 squad was very different to this year’s model.
“Two years ago it was [seniors] Kellyann [Averill] and Tanisha ([Edge], the 1000-point scorers. We had some great role players, but they were doing the heavy lifting,” Melville said. “This year it was kind if a 180, nothing like that at all. We had balanced scoring. We had leaders in the locker room and off the court — they’d lead by example. But as far as the stat sheets go, it was really spread out. And I think my style is better suited for that balance.”
That balance turned the Sawyers into a surprising force, a team in the truest sense of the word, with different players leading the balanced scoring on any given night. That got them past Red Hook in the sectional championship on Monday, March 5. But in the regionals on the SUNY New Paltz court four nights later, against a Seton Catholic team which had already dispatched top-seeded Rye, it just didn’t measure up.
Saugerties was used to playing tough opponents. As Melville noted, he’d stacked the early schedule with non-league games against perennial powerhouses in an effort to give his youthful team a sense of what they’d have to aspire to if they wanted to keep playing deep into March.
“We went to New Rochelle to scrimmage and up to Albany High to scrimmage, and Lansingburgh,” Melville said. “We scrimmage Kingston every year. The exposure that the girls got early in the year was the best basketball in New York State. We took our lumps and we took our losses, but I think it prepared us for that run in the second half of the year. We saw what we needed to work on and saw what we needed to do, and the girls kind of got on a roll there. It was fun to watch.”
It was fun to watch, right up until Friday’s regional final.
Unlike their opponents in that last game, the Sawyers didn’t seem to be having much fun. “They [the players] were tight,” said Melville. “It was a huge stage, one game away from the Final Four. We were tighter than I expected us to be going in. In the games before that we came out guns blazing, loose, shooting the ball and having fun. I think it was the bright lights.”
Seton Catholic, which moved up to Class A after winning the state tournament as a Class B program a year ago, may hit Class AA soon. It looked to Melville that the Sawyers’ opponents were ready to play. “For them it was just another game,” he said. “They were loose in warmups, relaxed. And I looked at my girls they were tight and quiet. And from the minute they stepped on the court I just didn’t get a good vibe from it.”
The game was a tale of two halves, and if there’s any good news to be taken from a tough season-ending loss it’s that the second half went much better than the first. The Sawyers found themselves in a 22-4 hole going into the second quarter, and their situation didn’t improve over the next eight minutes. At the half, the Saints were up 39-10, an insurmountable lead built on the kind of team play that was the hallmark of Saugerties’ own season up until that game. Four Seton Catholic players scored in double figures, led by Ava McCann’s 20 points. Marina Maerkl (16 points, 13 rebounds), Julia Hauer (15 points, nine rebounds) and Hanna Strawn (eleven points, six rebounds, five assists) also pitched in.
For the Sawyers, meanwhile, the trio of Grace VanRoy (ten points), Anna VanRoy (eight points) and Hilary Mulford (seven points) led the way.
It wasn’t all dismal for Saugerties in the first half; the team tightened up its defense in the second quarter, preventing Seton Catholic from scoring for four straight minutes, including six turnovers on nine possessions. But while the Sawyers only carved out a 5-0 run during that period, the Saints closed out the half with a 15-1 run of their own.
In the second half, the Sawyers outscored the Saints 33-32. The game was all but over and it was mostly playing for pride. But those 16 minutes also saw the Sawyers play like the Sawyers. And that’s good news for the 2018-19 season, when the entire team, including its starting lineup of the VanRoy sisters, Jaclyn Murphy, Skylar France and Erin Dudzic, will be back. And when they return, they’ll likely remember how this season ended and figure out how to make it last a little longer.
“It’s a learning experience,” Melville said. “In the second half we played them even and we could play with them, but you just can’t make the mistakes we made early and survive against a team like that.”
The Sawyers finished the season 16-6, a far more impressive record than they were supposed to have. Next year they’ll have targets on their backs. Next year they’ll be ready.