Senators stun Raiders

ATHOL — Mahar Regional School is heading back to the cage.

The sixth-seeded Senators overcame a five-point, fourth-quarter deficit to stun rival and third-seeded Athol High School, 46-38, in a Western Massachusetts Division II girls’ basketball quarterfinal before 513 rabid fans at Mallet Gymnasium Friday night.

The Franklin County League rivals had already faced each other twice during the regular season and the Red Raiders came out on top both times, walloping the Senators 51-34 in the first meeting on Dec. 20, and then surviving to take a narrow 60-57 victory in Mahar on Jan. 29. The third meeting of the season was for a trip to Curry Hicks Cage in Amherst for the WMass Division II semifinals, and the North Quabbin fans came out en masse. The gymnasium was filled to near capacity an hour before the game began, and the teams treated both sides to a game for the ages.

And many of those in attendance were on the edge of their seats for much of the fourth quarter, which opened with the Red Raiders holding a 31-26 lead. That came after the Red Raiders outscored the Senators, 14-4, in the third quarter to take their first substantial lead of the game. And while the Athol fans could sense blood in the water, Mahar senior guard Jill Valley made sure to quickly hush any thoughts the home fans had of a blowout. Valley sprinted the length of the court on Mahar’s first possession of the second half and pulled up at the top of the 3-point line where she casually buried a trifecta to cut the deficit to two.

It was a coming-out of sorts for Valley, who was frustrated for much of the night by a stifling defensive effort by the Red Raiders, who held her to just seven points through the first three quarters, continuously causing her to throw up off-balance shots as she tried in vain to drive to the hoop. Valley did manage six points in the fourth quarter to finish the game with 13.

Unlike many of the games she has played in this season, Valley — who averaged 18.4 points per game during the regular season — was not the high-scorer on her team. That honor went to the youngest player on the Senators; starting center and eighth-grader, Cassie Verheyen. Athol was holding a 33-30 lead with six minutes to go in the game when Mahar coach Larry Fisher put Verheyen back in the game after giving her a quick break on the bench. That sparked the Mahar student section, which continuously chanted “She’s an eighth-grader” throughout the game, and the fan-favorite made her way back on the court, the student section erupted in cheers. She immediately gave them something more to cheer for when she fought for a rebound underneath the Athol basket and went back up with a layin that cut the Athol lead to one. The basket sparked a 6-0 run by the Senators that suddenly had them leading 36-33, and it was a lead they never relinquished. Verheyen (5.1 points per game in the regular season) would go on to score two more baskets in the frame — one a short-range floater, the other on a hook shot — and led to her finishing with a career-high 14 points. She also led the team with 10 rebounds, and looked anything like an eighth-grader in the win.

“I’m always nervous before a big game, especially against Athol,” Verheyen admitted. “It was amazing tonight. When a big crowd cheers you on, it gives you, I don’t know, more energy. And my brother was in the crowd saying ‘Go Cassie’ and that just helped.”

It wasn’t the fans that took notice of the center, either. After the game she received praise from her coach and team captain.

“She’s a fan favorite,” Mahar coach Larry Fisher said. “She’s a good ballplayer and this was by far the best game she has ever played for us and she has a lot more ahead of her.”

“She’s a really good player to depend on and she’s supportive of the team,” Valley added. “She brings a lot of positive energy and she’s a good teammate.”

Another major contributor in the win was the second-youngest player on the court for Mahar in Allyson Parker, who helped the Senators break a tough Athol press and, when the Red Raiders were bottling up Valley, continually took the ball to the hoop, despite taking some licks on her way. Parker did not hit a field goal, but made 10 free throws on the night, including six in the fourth quarter to help the Senators put the game away.

Athol, meanwhile, struggled for three quarters of the game in all offensive aspects. In the fourth quarter the Red Raiders only managed to score seven points, and were limited to just two field goals. That came after an abysmal start that saw the hosts held without a field goal until Alexa Whitney hit a layup with 1 minute, 23 seconds left in the first quarter. Athol also turned the ball over eight times in the opening frame, as both teams struggled against the other’s defensive pressure. Mahar led 8-5 after one, and things did not get any easier for either team in the second quarter. The squads traded hard-earned hoops for much of the frame, leading to five lead changes and two ties. Mahar used a 7-2 run in the final minute to take a 22-17 lead in the break. Things turned completely in the third quarter, as Athol got off on a 12-0 run and held Mahar pointless until Kianna Whitmore drained a 15-footer with 1:32 to go. After outscoring the Senators 14-4 in the frame, the Red Raiders turned the tables on the visitors and took a five-point lead into the fourth. Athol coach Dan Bevis said he was pleased with things to that point, but that his club ran out of energy down the stretch.

“We played a pretty bad first half and to be down by only five, we were alright with it,” Athol coach Dan Bevis said. “We just needed to execute and we came out in the third quarter and hit some baskets and got some energy, but we just ran out of energy in the fourth quarter. And when you’re not a deep team to begin with, you’ve got to give credit to them.”

The loss also marks the second straight for the Red Raiders, who started the season 19-0 before dropping the season finale to Hopkins Academy and then falling by the wayside in their first tournament game.

“They took us out of everything we wanted to do offensively,” Bevis said. “And when we did have chances, we didn’t have makes. At times, we played like we’ve never played before. And I thought I had a veteran team, a team that was battle-tested. But we missed a lot of shots, a lot of shots inside the paint. And to beat a good team, you’ve got to make shots in the paint.”

The Mahar perimeter defense wound up being a major factor in the outcome. Athol entered the night with five players averaging 7 points or more per game this season. It was hard to tell against the Senators, who bottled up everything and limited Athol’s four main outside shooters to just 13 points. Caitlin Muzzy (9.4 points per game) finished with 5 points, Shelby Bronnes (9.3 points) finished with 5 points, Tanner Favreau (7.5 points) was held scoreless, and Molly Cleveland (7.0 points) was held to 3.

“I thought we did a great job defensively, especially on their guards,” Fisher said. “Whitney got her points, she’s a good ballplayer, but we did a good job on their perimeter players.”

Whitney finished with 21 points and 13 rebounds in her final game.

Mahar will face seventh-seeded Hoosac Valley Regional High School in the semifinals on Thursday at 6 at the Cage after the Hurricanes pulled off an upset of their own with a 65-61 double-overtime win over second-seeded Hampshire Regional High School on Friday. Mahar will play for a chance to make its second straight WMass Division II championship game.

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