Boys basketball: After winning first league title in 22 years, Athol still has a lot left to play for this season

Athol’s Ben Kearney (10) puts up a shot against Frontier earlier this season at Goodnow Gymnasium in South Deerfield.

Athol’s Ben Kearney (10) puts up a shot against Frontier earlier this season at Goodnow Gymnasium in South Deerfield. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

Athol’s Ray Castine (22), right, tries to block a shot from Frontier’s Owen Babb (14) earlier this season at Goodnow Gymnasium in South Deerfield.

Athol’s Ray Castine (22), right, tries to block a shot from Frontier’s Owen Babb (14) earlier this season at Goodnow Gymnasium in South Deerfield. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

By THOMAS JOHNSTON

Staff Writer

Published: 02-08-2024 4:46 PM

For 22 years, Athol boys basketball players have had to look up at the banners on the wall at Mallet Gymnasium and see that the last league title the Bears won came in 2002. 

Head coach Brian Patria, a former Athol basketball player himself who won league titles in 1991 and 1992 while playing for Chris Sullivan, took the job in 2021-22 with the goal of bringing the program back to those days of winning. 

So far, so good. 

The Bears made the state tournament his first two years at the helm, and won 12 games a season ago while contending with Mt. Greylock for the Hampshire League North title. Athol went into this season hoping to take another step forward by winning the league title, and they accomplished that goal earlier this week. 

The Bears won their first 10 games in the HL North and held a two-game lead over Smith Academy for first place. With two league games remaining, Athol needed a win over either Mt. Greylock or the Falcons to seal the league title. 

The Bears got it done against the Mounties on Tuesday, pulling away for a 52-35 win to seal their first league title in over two decades. They can close out a perfect league mark with a win over Smith Academy on Friday.

“This is a big accomplishment for our team, our coaching staff and our school,” Patria said. “It’s been a goal of mine to win the division ever since I was named head coach. I want to bring Athol basketball some prominence and notoriety. We’re making that noise and it’s special.

“Before the season I told them to look up at the banners,” he added. “I told them that we could add our year. Nobody can ever take that away from you. You can come back years from now and know you were a member of one of those teams. We earned this.”

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Patria credited the character of his players, saying it’s a big reason why the Bears have had so much success this winter. 

“This is a group of kids who aren’t only talented basketball players, but they’re also really good kids,” Patria said. “They’re fantastic young men. It’s the hardest working group I’ve had. They’ve put in the work and I couldn’t ask for better people to coach.” 

Athol didn’t just win the league this year — it did so in emphatic fashion. The Bears have won their 11 HL North games by an average of 19.7 points. Just three of those wins were decided by 10 points or less. 

Since taking over the program, Patria has stressed three things to his team. So far, it’s worked out. 

“I told them to do what’s right, do the very best you can and show each other you care,” Patria said. “If we do that we can be successful.”

With most success at the high school level, it starts with the veterans. 

Athol has three seniors — Angel Castillo, Colby Goodwin and Ray Castine — who all serve as captains. Castillo is the engine that gets the Bears going, as he serves as Athol’s point guard while also leading the team with 15.5 points per game. 

Goodwin might not light up the stat sheet but he does all the little things needed to win, and Patria said he would be in the running for Defensive Player of the Year if the league had such a thing for his effort and tenacity on that end of the court. 

Castine is a player who has stepped up as a senior to provide the Bears with strong play in the paint, scoring 7.3 points per game. 

Junior Ben Kearney is a big time scorer for Athol, scoring 15 PPG. Ethan Bacigalupo is another player who has had a big role in the success, doing a bit of everything for the Bears. 

“These kids are coachable,” Patria said. “They devoted themselves in the offseason. We have great senior leadership. I couldn’t ask for any better captains than Angel, Colby and Ray. They’re great basketball players and great people.” 

It takes experience to win league titles, and Athol learned a lot from last season.

The Bears fell in a close game to Mount Greylock to open the 2023 Western Mass. tournament, and Patria said the team let that game impact them when the state tournament began. That ultimately led to a loss to Hull in the opening round. 

Instead of letting those losses hurt them this year, the Bears learned from them, grew and used those results to become a better team. 

“We just had to be in some of those situations,” Patria said. “We saw how tough Greylock was to play down there last year. We left our hearts on the floor in that Western Mass. tournament game last year and weren’t able to recover. All our emotion was drained in the Hull game and we couldn’t compete against them. We learned from that and came back stronger this year.” 

If there were any doubts about the Hampshire League North this year, Patria hopes to put those to bed. 

“One thing I want to make clear is our guys earned this,” Patria said. “Nobody can take it away from them. People say our league is weak but there’s great coaches in our league, great players in our league, great schools in our league and great kids who are committed to basketball. To say anything of that sort is just wrong.” 

With the league title already in hand, it would be easy for Athol to take its foot off the gas when it hosts the Falcons on Friday. 

That won’t be the case. 

Patria has stressed how important it is to close the season strong. With Friday being Senior Night, it’s also about giving those three seniors a great final regular season game at Mallet Gymnasium. 

“We still have stuff to play for,” Patria said. “We want to celebrate and honor our seniors on Friday. Tuesday was a big night for us. We hope to celebrate it on Friday once we close things out.” 

The season is far from over there. The Bears are hoping to make runs in the Western Mass. and state tournaments, though they’re taking things one game at a time. 

“We have a long way to go,” Patria said. “We’re excited to compete in Western Mass. and we’re hoping to get our first win in the state tournament. We’re excited to compete.”