Green Season: Inside the 2000 Greenfield basketball season, 20 years later — Part 1

  • Greenfield sophomore point guard Tim Burns drives to the basket against Minnechaug during action in the 1999-2000 season. Burns was a newcomer to the school and team that winter, coming over from Eaglebrook School to occupy the starting point guard role for the Green Wave. STAFF FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 6/19/2020 5:15:13 PM
Modified: 6/19/2020 5:15:02 PM

Scott Thayer stared at the eager faces surrounding him inside Carl H. Nichols Gymnasium.

After two years on the job as the Greenfield High School boys’ basketball coach, the 33-year-old Thayer knew he had a team that was talented enough to win a title. But after two straight exits in the Western Mass. Division 2 semifinals, people in the community wondered if this group of players indeed had what it took to climb the mountain.

“I remember Billy Thomas would always say, ‘We’re good, but we always lose,’” Thayer recalled.

Of course, the impending season was about to change all that. The 1999-2000 Greenfield squad is one of the best basketball teams in school history, in the conversation for the very best. It was senior-laden, built with athletic wings and imposing interior figures. It had the star power — the brash-talking leading scorer who shot the lights out. There were the unassuming leaders who did the dirty work, the players who didn’t mind one bit if they didn’t score any points. And the young head coach, looking to make a name for himself in Year 3 of his first varsity gig.

On paper, sure, the pieces were all there. But this group, this collection of players, had never even been to a sectional final, much less won one. And the shadows of success only grew larger on the walls of the “Ump Dump” entering the first day of practice in late November, 1999. The program, which appeared in four straight finals from 1992-95, winning back-to-back crowns in ’94 and ’95, was marred in its longest drought of success since the early 1980s.

“We won a lot of games but we couldn’t get out of the first couple of rounds, for whatever reason,” recalled forward Aaron Clark, a junior on the ’99-’00 roster. “But I think leading up to that season, people were focused on working hard. We played in the Franklin County Summer League, which was really competitive. We’d play at the Davis Street Courts, Indoor Action… we were playing a lot of basketball leading up to that year and I think everyone knew that this was our chance to make that run.”

This was the team of younger brothers, the next set of Greenfield basketball players looking to join the championship fraternity. Three of the starting five had older brothers on those championship teams in the ’90s. The pressure was there.

“There were expectations, but you know, we hadn’t done much going into the season,” Thayer offered. “We didn’t know how to win yet.”

Over the next four months however, Greenfield learned how to do just that.

December 1999

The start to the 1999-2000 season began in the shadows of two straight semifinal defeats. The previous year, Greenfield fell to Monument Mountain, 67-47, in the Division 2 semis, and in 1998, Thayer’s first year with the club, the Green Wave fell to Hoosac Valley.

“The lead up to that year was a couple years in the making with that group,” said Thayer, who is currently the head coach at Pioneer Valley Regional School. “When that group was younger, they had some tough losses and experiences so they were a little battle-tested, I think, by the time (2000) rolled around.”

Sportswriter Cam Ward’s preview in the Dec. 14, 1999, edition of the Recorder was focused around the expectations surrounding the upcoming season. But as he would do throughout the winter campaign, Thayer cautioned against crowning his team as champions, particularly in December.

“Scott Thayer says, “no expectations,” but no excuses may be more like it,” Ward wrote in his preview. “The Greenfield High School boys’ basketball coach doesn’t want his players expecting to win championships this year, but they just might be good enough for everyone else to expect it of them.”

Of course, there was plenty of reason for optimism. Senior guard Billy Thomas was a star in the making. Classmate Luke Martin, a 6-foot-7 center, was a steady presence inside. Fellow senior Deyvehn East was ready for more responsibility. Sophomore Tim Burns moved into the lineup at point guard after coming over from Eaglebrook School. Junior Aaron Clark was a glue guy along the front line. Add in seniors Tony Carme, a Pioneer transfer whose presence opened up a plethora of lineup combinations, Billy Finn, the team’s sixth man, as well as John Woznakewicz and Paul Hirst, and not only was there tremendous talent, there was also tremendous depth.

Thomas, who quickly established himself as the team’s leading scorer and go-to player, held back no punches in the Recorder’s season preview.

“(This year) we should win Western Mass.,” he began. “We should go to states. But I’m not going to expect it out of us. We expected it last year.”

Thayer said the additions of Carme and Burns, in particular, made him optimistic about Greenfield taking a step forward. Both players impacted the lineup immediately in their debut seasons with the Wave.

“When I first got to Greenfield, we had some good pieces but they all didn’t seem to fit,” Thayer said. “I remember my first couple years, we lacked a point guard-type of person so we used different people there. Billy’s sophomore year, I put him at the point and used him there. But his natural position is off the ball. When Timmy Burns and Tony Carme came in, there was a seismic shift that pushed everyone to their natural spot. That seemed to click, but what that did was it gave those older guys experience playing in someone else’s spot. People understand how to play different spots because they had to do it out of necessity in years past.”

Burns, who now lives in New York City, said there was indeed pressure on the team entering that season. His older brother Ross played on the Greenfield teams of the ’90s, as did East’s brother, Alphah, and Thomas’ brother, Angelo. Their ’93-’94 team rivals just about any other in school history.

“There was a feeling like, I saw it happen with my brother, saw how much winning meant to the people in the community and thinking we had a chance to do it ourselves,” recalled Burns. “For the three of us, watching our older brothers do it in the stands, I think we had that same confidence that we could go out and do it.”

Martin, who now teaches history at his alma mater, said the success of Greenfield teams prior only added to the collective chips on their shoulders.

“Part of that feeling we could’ve gone further was we were comparing ourselves to those teams in the ’90s,” Martin began. “Most of our team had brothers playing on those teams. When I was in sixth grade, I remember every Friday night you’d go watch those guys play. There was that expectation of success. In the years after that, when we got to the high school, it was like, ‘Why aren’t we getting as far as them?’”

As Thayer tinkered with combinations and lineups during preseason camp, one thing that stuck out to him quickly was how fit his team looked. Most high school teams need preseason to get into shape for the 20-game slate ahead. That wasn’t the case with Greenfield.

“This was probably one of our best teams as far as being in shape. They were ready to go,” Thayer said.

GAME 1 (Dec. 14, 1999): Greenfield 76, Pioneer 47

In an interesting twist of fate, Thayer’s hopes for a championship season began against his former club.

Pioneer, where he served as an assistant coach under Perry Messer before taking the Greenfield job in 1997, came to Nichols Gymnasium for the season opener, an independent game.

Messer was the one who got Thayer into coaching, showing up at his parents’ house after Thayer graduated from college and asking him to join the junior high staff in Northfield.

“I had never coached a day in my life,” Thayer recalled. “But here we went. He’s one of my best friends to this day. We became really close.”

Friends or not, Thayer and Greenfield didn’t take it easy on the Panthers. Behind a game-high 27 points from Thomas, the host Wave rolled to a 76-47 victory with all 11 players scoring.

“This is my last year, and I really want to come out and play the best I can,” said Thomas afterward, before entering the locker room to a rousing applause from his teammates.

The Recorder headline read “Green Wave thumps Pioneer,” and Thayer admitted in the game recap that facing his old mentor was not easy.

“This was a hard game for me,” Thayer said in 1999. “I respect Perry, he brought me into coaching and (Pioneer) will have a good year. I hate to see either team lose this game, and I hope they go 19-0 the rest of the season.”

Pioneer wouldn’t go 19-0 the rest of the season, but it would go far. Riding the play of Kevin Harrington, the Panthers beat Granby to win the WMass Division 3 title that season, the program’s fourth sectional title in five years.

Coincidentally, it would be Pioneer’s last WMass title for 18 years, when Thayer returned to town, now as the head coach, and led the Panthers to the 2018 Div. 4 championship.

Check back next week for Part 2 of this series.

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