Can Senators silence favored Bulldogs’ growl?
Mahar's Troix Adams (12) gets off a successful shot inside as Senators teammate Austin Leary (23) looks on during a WMass quarterfinal win over Berkshire power Wahconah Friday. Both Senators will be back in action tonight at Curry Hicks Cage in Amherst, where they'll play top-seeded Sabis in the Division III semifinals.
Mahar guard Brandon Woodard (14) slices into the lane and takes the ball to the hole against Wahconah defender KevinBoino (4) Friday during a quarterfinal Senator win. Tonight, the Senators will have a tougher assignment at Curry Hicks Cage in Amherst, where they'll play top-seeded Sabis in the WMass Division III semifinals.
Sabis International Charter School makes its annual voyage to Curry Hicks Cage in Amherst for a WMass Division III Boys’ Basketball Tournament semifinal game tonight at 8:30 against Mahar Regional School.
The Bulldogs have made it to the Cage in 10 of the past 11 years, the best run by any boys’ basketball team in western Mass. The only year Sabis did not make it to Amherst over that span was in 2012, when they did not even qualify for the tournament. The last time Sabis qualified for the postseason and did not make it to at least the semifinals was in 2003 when it suffered a 60-53, first-round loss to Smith Academy.
Tonight’s game features the top-seeded Bulldogs (14-7) against the fourth-seeded Senators (15-5), teams that have a recent history of Cage collisions. They faced off in the 2011 semifinals, where Sabis knocked off Mahar, 54-44, en route to winning the WMass Division II title. Mahar then made it back to the Cage the next season, winning the WMass and state Division II crowns, but Mahar lost last year in the quarterfinals to Taconic and was denied a third-straight trip to the Cage. Sabis, meanwhile, made it back to the Cage last season but fell to eventual WMass champion South Hadley High School in the semifinals.
The game should be a competitive one, as neither team appears to be a clear-cut favorite. While Sabis is the higher seed, the Bulldogs have lost seven times this season and played in a Suburban League that was a little down this year. The Senators and Bulldogs do have common opponents, which should give hope to the lower-seeded Senators. Sabis lost by 15 points at home to Wahconah Regional High School early in the season, although the Bulldogs were without leading scorer Nelson Zayas in that game. The Bulldogs also lost to Smith Academy (51-46), a team Mahar split with this season — beating the Falcons once and losing to by a point in overtime.
If Mahar is going to beat Sabis, it will need to accomplish two goals. First, the Senators must limit the offensive damage done by Zayas, who provides Sabis with a large percentage of its points. Zayas has made 50 3-pointers this season and leads the team with 373 points. The next highest 3-point-shooting teammate totaled six this season, so Zayas is the only regular comfortable from behind the downtown arc.
“Without a doubt we have to try and stop him,” Mahar coach Chad Softic said. “He can step out 27 or 28 feet, and if no one is in front of him, he is not afraid to shoot.”
The other major issue for Mahar will be how it handles a challenging Sabis press. According to Softic, he is confident in his backcourt’s ability to handle the pressure, something he felt his team did very well in a loss to Renaissance Charter School earlier this season. That challenge will come down to the trio of Nick Slalttery, Brendin Woodard and Malik Adams.
Although Mahar did not play particularly well down the stretch at the end of the season, Softic believes that slump is behind his team.
“It was just focus and urgency,” he said. “This team, over the course of the year, has played well when they’ve had their backs against the wall. We’ve struggled against some teams we maybe should not have struggled with, but we seem to step our game up against some of the top teams we’ve played against.”
It also appears that leading scorer Slattery is back to near full health after suffering an injury late in the season that caused him to miss two games, then slowed him somewhat. Slattery, who averaged 12.9 points per game this season, scored 21 points in the Senators’ 51-49 quarterfinal win over Wahconah, and will be called on to lead the offense against Sabis.
“His strength is better than it has been all season,” Softic said. “He’s fine. He’s back to where he needs to be.”
Woodard is another player capable of filling up the bucket, although his scoring has been sub-par this season. After averaging 12.2 points per game last winter, Woodard has seen that number drop to 9.0 this season. He can be a dangerous outside shooter who complements Slattery well. Troix Adams is another player who averages over 8 points per game for Mahar. The Senators will have to continue to deal without starting center Joey Verheyen, who suffered a season-ending ankle injury in the regular-season finale against Athol High School. Jake Paul has taken over as the starter down low and is backed up by Austin Leary and Nick Zanga.
As for Sabis, the second-leading scorer on the team is Xavier Stamp, a wide-body down low who averaged 11.5 points per game. Amari Brown averaged 7 points per game and Dwayne Collins averaged 6.5.
The winner moves on to the WMass Division III title game on Saturday at Curry Hicks Cage to take on third seed Hoosac Valley Regional High School, which upset previously unbeaten Renaissance, 72-67, in Tuesday’s semifinal.