MIAA boys basketball: Third-seeded Pioneer prepares to face 4-time state champion New Mission with spot in Division 5 finals on the line

Pioneer’s Josh Wood is defended by Duggan’s Caleb Murphy at Messer Gymnasium in Northfield earlier this season.

Pioneer’s Josh Wood is defended by Duggan’s Caleb Murphy at Messer Gymnasium in Northfield earlier this season. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL Franz

Pioneer’s Kurt Redeker defends a shot attempt against Smith Academy earlier this season.

Pioneer’s Kurt Redeker defends a shot attempt against Smith Academy earlier this season. sTAFF PHOTO/JEFF LAJOIE


Staff Writer

Published: 03-12-2024 5:31 PM

NORTHFIELD — The Pioneer boys basketball team was ahead of schedule last year, with its young team knocking on the door of the MIAA Division 5 semifinals before falling in the 2023 quarterfinals.

This year, the Panthers weren’t sneaking up on anybody. 

Pioneer opened the year by ripping off seven wins in a row, hit a lull midseason but finished its regular season on a five-game win streak. The Panthers fell to Duggan in a close game in the Western Mass. Class D semifinals, a loss that has fueled Pioneer through the Div. 5 state tournament. 

After wins over Fenway and Athol, the third-seeded Panthers took on longtime rival Drury in the quarterfinals on Saturday. The Blue Devils — which took both games against Hampshire League South rival Pioneer during the regular season — kept it tight throughout, but the Panthers pulled away late to reach the semifinals with a 54-44 victory at Messer Gymnasium. 

It’s the first Final Four for Pioneer since 2018, and it’ll meet No. 2 New Mission out of Boston. That game is set for 5 p.m. on Wednesday at Worcester State University. 

“It’s been a full circle season for us,” Panthers coach Scott Thayer said. “Coming off what we did last year, everything seemed to move seamlessly for us. The season started out great and I think that was a bit of fool’s gold. When the kids hit the adversity at the middle of the season… they’ve dealt with internal and external pressures, whether those are real or perceived because of expectations and what people thought we’d be doing. Sometimes it was hard for us to deal with that but they met that challenge head on, worked through that and started playing some real good basketball at the end of the year when we had to.

“Disappointing one against Duggan but we reset the meter and now are in the Final Four which is amazing,” Thayer added. “I’m proud of all the effort we put in. It’s probably been more of a mental challenge for us this year than anything. I’m proud of how they’ve attacked that.”

After coming so close to a semifinal spot a season ago, senior Josh Wood said he’s proud of the way Pioneer has come together to try to reach their preseason goal of bringing a state title to Northfield.

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“It really means a lot reaching the semis this year,” Wood said. “During the middle of the year we had a lot ups-and-downs. We didn’t know how the season would go later on. We’re glad to have gotten to this point and have a chance to compete for a state title. We’ve been playing together for a long time now. We just have to play for each other.”

Pioneer (18-5) has had a resurgence on the defensive end of the court. The Panthers gave up 37 points to Fenway and held Athol to just 32 points, while keeping the Blue Devils under 50 in the quarterfinal matchup. 

For Thayer, the state tournament success has been all about going back to making sure each player understands their role and executes that role to the highest level. 

“We got back to who we are,” Scott Thayer said. “We understand what we’re doing and how we do it. Everyone has a role and we needed everyone to play their role to an MVP level and let the chips fall where they may. We’ve always been a team that defends and rebounds. This year especially, sometimes our offense can be inconsistent. We’re hoping on Wednesday we can knock down some shots. We’re in a good place mentally. We’re about as healthy as we can be. We’re just excited to have the opportunity.”

Brayden Thayer, who reached the 1,000-point mark as a junior in the win over Fenway, leads the Panthers at 18 points per game. Wood is tossing in 13.2 ppg while Kurt Redeker is scoring 10.5 ppg, giving Pioneer three legit scoring options.

Alex McClelland does a bit of everything for the Panthers and often fills up the scoresheet and Hugh Cyhowski provides size and rebounding in the paint, and chipped in a double-double against Drury.

Motivated by the loss to Duggan, Brayden Thayer said Pioneer has refocused and come together to play their best ball down the stretch. 

“It feels great being here,” Brayden Thayer said. “This has been a goal of ours since we lost in the quarters last year. It’s good to keep playing with these guys. I always enjoy playing with them. We’re playing together and sharing the ball. We realized that if we don’t come with all we have, we could be out in an instant. You don’t want to look back in a year or two and realize we didn’t give it our all. We’ll give it our best and see what happens. We’re looking forward to [Wednesday]. We have to bring intensity and leave it all out on the floor.”

It’ll take the Panthers’ best effort to advance past New Mission (17-6) on Wednesday. 

The Titans enter on a seven-game winning streak and have lit up the scoreboard during that stretch, averaging 74 points per game. Expect New Mission to push the tempo and try to play in transition on Wednesday. 

“They’re athletic and want to play at a fast pace,” Scott Thayer said. “They’re going to be aggressive. They have a couple kids. [Solis Blue] is probably their best player. He’s a real good player off the dribble who can shoot it and handle it. Their big has great footwork and is a good passer. The other kids play complementary basketball for them. They defend, they get in passing lanes and get up and down the floor.”

Don’t know much about the Titans? That’s probably because they were a Division 3 program for the first two years of the new MIAA statewide format. New Mission was the No. 13 seed in Div. 3 last season and in 2021, reached the Div. 3 quarters as the No. 7 seed. They’ve won four state titles in program history, including three as a Division 2 program in 2011, 2014 and 2016 (the other came in Division 4 back in 2010).

The Titans opened the Div. 5 tournament with an 83-41 victory over No. 31 Hopkins, cruised to a 78-51 triumph over No. 15 Monson before beating 10th-seeded Douglas, 65-54, in the quarterfinals. 

With their aggressive style, taking care of the ball will be paramount if Pioneer hopes to reach the title game. 

“We’re going to have to value the basketball,” Scott Thayer said. “We talked about defend, rebound and value the ball. We can’t give them those live ball turnovers where it’s tipped and they’re out dunking it. Those are killers for us. We’ll have to be strong on the ball, use ball fakes and pump fakes to create passes for us. At the same token, we have to be aggressive. There’s a fine line there.” 

Playing with confidence, the Panthers understand the challenge ahead of them, but feel they can compete with whoever they step on the court with. 

“They’re a very good team,” Brayden Thayer said. “They’re very athletic. They play good basketball and play together. It’s going to take a lot to beat them but I think we have the ability to. It’s going to take all of us. It’s a collective effort and I think we’re up for the challenge.”