Tournament season full of memorable moments
By TOM KING
The twists, turns, highs, lows and eventful emotion of the high school tourney trail in any season are always many.
But this winter, given the change in the wrestling format, the regionalization of all the tournaments (like the fall), resulted in some great performances and some memorable moments – some happy hellos and sad good-byes.
Here’s a look at one writer’s Tourney Journey that lasted close to a month, beginning in mid-February by the wrestling mats in Hudson and ending in mid-March at a basketball court in Kingston.
WEDNESDAY, FEB. 17
ALVIRNE HIGH SCHOOL
It’s the opening of a unique event – the NHIAA Division II state wrestling team tournament. Usually, the divisional championships are decided with a single-day event, championships by weight class, so the individual wins add up to a team title, with teams finishing second, third, etc.
However, this year, the decision was made due to the pandemic to not have a massive amount of wrestlers/teams in one building, so it was a team dual meet playoff instead, as in all the other sports.
That robbed some people of titles, not the least of which was Alvirne wrestler Kyle Gora, one of the state’s best. His Broncos fell to Souhegan in this prelim, but Gora didn’t even get to compete because of a forfeit. He was all suited up, full head gear, etc., but no one to wrestle against.
“It’s crazy, but (I’m) making the most of it,” Gora said. “It doesn’t feel real. This whole year has just been crazy, getting just a few matches. It just came quick, went by faster.”
Quick? This was the fastest high school event of the winter, taking just 40 minutes – if that. Starting at a little after 4 p.m., it was over by 4:40 p.m. The Sabers enjoyed the 42-24 win, but they would eventually fall to Hollis Brookline in the next round.
SATURDAY, FEB. 20
NASHUA NORTH HIGH SCHOOL
Breakfast at the Titans Medium Gym for more wrestling – or less wrestling? The possible flaw in the dual meet system was shown when North, which definitely has seen a wrestling resurgence under head coach Chad Zibolis, won despite recording only two actual competitive wins in its Division I quarterfinal 42-33 triumph over Windham.
Why? The Jaguars were missing a couple key wrestlers, and although they jumped out to an early lead, multiple forfeits gave the Titans the victory. The event took only an hour.
“Not fielding a lineup is tough,” said Zibolis, whose team got its biggest win in years. “It’s called win by forfeit sometimes, but sometimes that’s the way it works.”
It’s a good thing the Titans could enjoy it, as Timberlane was next, and the powerful Owls shut them out in the semis en route to a championship.
WEDNESDAY, FEB. 24
BISHOP GUERTIN HIGH SCHOOL
We made it to the Colligadome just in time for the start of the Division II wrestling semifinal between Guertin and Merrimack, arriving just after seeing the Cards’ girls hockey team’s big 7-4 regular-season comeback win over Hanover. Guertin allowed visiting fans for this one on a limited basis, so the Tomahawks had a small but loud crowd to cheer them on as underdogs. Some tough matches were held, but Gueritn emerged with a 42-30 win, much closer than the regular season.
“We were hoping to win, but nothing’s guaranteed,” Cards coach Paul Rousseau said, lamenting the fact his team was missing a couple of athletes due to school vacation week.
But he also had the best comment of the season when asked how he liked the dual meet team format.
“The kids are still wrestling, and we still have a state tournament,” he said. “It’s better than being home watching TV.”
However, the highlight of the night – a BG school official called yours truly over on the way out. “Want this?” he said. In his hand, a small container full of the best lasagna you ever tasted.
Winner, winner, lasagna dinner.
SATURDAY, FEB. 27
BISHOP GUERTIN HIGH SCHOOL
Another Saturday morning of wrestling, as the season was ending this day. Back to the Colligadome for the anticipated Division II wrestling finals between the Cavaliers and the Cardinals, and Guertin, trailing early, emerged with a 42-21 win as HB juggled its lineup, gambling on a forfeit here to get a win there in an atmosphere that was simply electric. As Cavs coach Brian Bumpus said, “Never count us out.”
However, Guertin took home its second-straight Division II title, and the key was an unexpected pin recorded by Matt Ha at 182 pounds, as he was up just 5-4 before getting a pin – and the points – with just 17 seconds left in the match. It put BG up 29-18.
“Today, there were a couple of matches that we lost that I had a thought we had a chance of winning that really scared me,” Rousseau said. “When Ha pins at 182, that was unbelievable.”
“I was just really happy about it,” Ha said, “It got the team on a roll.”
And helped win a title.
MONDAY, MARCH 1
BISHOP GUERTIN HIGH SCHOOL
The Colligadome again? Sure, but this time it was for the first round of the Division I boys basketball tourney, with the Cardinals matching up against Nashua South in a play-in game.
The fun of the regional setup (due to COVID) was evident with a rematch of two teams that played six days earlier. Guertin won both, but the more important 62-48 tourney game, they basically stayed in control the whole way. This time, South fans were allowed to attend, which helped the atmosphere.
“It was just great to have the excitement of the tournament,” said South coach Nate Mazerolle, who loves the BG-Purple rivalry. “I’m glad the kids got to experience it. … As strange and different as it was, it was still a tournament game. It wasn’t your packed house, it couldn’t be, but still great energy in here.”
TUESDAY, MARCH 2
CYCLONES ARENA, HUDSON
The first of several doubleheader days. The afternoon Division I girls hockey game between Bishop Guertin and Souhegan was pretty much a foregone conclusion, as the Sabers were rebuilding, and the Cards a powerhouse as their 12-0 win, running time third period, showed.
Guertin coach Scott Ciszek got the whole team involved, which was good. But, you could tell it was a tourney game, as through the first period there was more of a crowd.
NASHUA HIGH SCHOOL SOUTH
Time for Game 2, this time a girls basketball play-in between Nashua South and local rival Alvirne. The ironic thing was this was the teams’ third meeting in eight nights. South ends up winning them all, capped by a 38-24 tourney victory. This was big for the Panthers, whose season had started less then a month earlier thanks to a pandemic pause. It was several seniors’ final game at the Belanger Gym, but leading the way was arguably South’s best player all year long, Iruka Obinelo, with nine of her 11 points in the decisive second half after some early foul trouble. Of course, the Panthers reward was a quarterfinal date with Bishop Guertin, but it’s two straight season with playoff victories.
“We needed to keep our mindset, especially playing a team three times,” Obinelo said. “It’s difficult.”
WEDNESDAY, MARCH 3
CYCLONES ARENA, HUDSON
Back again for another doubleheader, but also another one-sided hockey game, this time another BG-South event, the boys Division I play-in between the Cards and the South-Pelham co-op teams.
It was a one-sided affair, to say the least; the Kings only had three games during the regular season due to multiple pandemic pauses, and the result was an 11-0 BG win.
But the highlight was a personal one: Exactly 35 years ago this day was yours truly’s first day at The Telegraph. There was some memory lane traveling with Mazerolle, who was at the game in his role as South athletics coordinator, but was, well, a middle school student back in 1986. We were recounting a fundraiser for the Nashua Holiday Festival Basketball Tournament that had as its guest of honor former NBA head coach Hubie Brown. “I was at that,” Mazerolle said with a grin.
CONWAY ARENA, NASHUA
The local boys hockey team to watch was Hollis Brookline-Derryfield, another local team that had a mini-season (four games) due to a pandemic pause. On this night, the Warriors would skate by Sanborn-Epping and its fine goalie, Josh Stevens, 3-1.
The nugget of the night, though, was watching the third period in the warmth of the lobby with a few school officials, including Sanborn AD Bob Dawson, who revealed the NHIAA had asked him to host the Division I girls basketball semis and finals, and he said, yes. Nice gym, about 15 years young, why not. A quick text to BG athletic director Ryan Brown, as trading information always is a good thing. “Where’d you hear that?” Brown said. Hey, breaking news on a milestone anniversary day.
THURSDAY, MARCH 4
NASHUA NORTH HS
This was the night the Bishop Guertin boys basketball team was waiting almost a week for, a rematch with the Nashua North Titans, who rallied from 10 points down in the fourth quarter to beat the Cards in OT, 53-51, on the final night of the regular season.
No such happening this time. The Cards were in control throughout, with a 70-44 win that was a bit closer than the final, but not nearly as close as the previous meeting. After the game, a cheer erupted from BG parents, fans and players as word came that Exeter – considered the title favorite – had been beaten by Winnacunnet. That was huge as Guertin went on to beat the Warriors in the Division I finals, its first title since 2011.
The night also was special as it marked the expected end of the Titan athletic career of standout Curtis Harris-Lopez, who will play football at Holy Cross next fall.
“I’m a huge fan,” Guertin coach John Fiser said. “I’ve known him since he was little. I’ve admired him his entire life. I feel for him, I really do. He’s done our city right.”
FRIDAY, MARCH 5
BISHOP GUERTIN HIGH SCHOOL
Back to the Colligadome, and the vaunted BG girls basketball team’s first tourney game, a ho-hum 66-33 win over Nashua South in the Division I prelims, nowhere near the struggle that a game 10 days earlier had been for the Cards.
While it was business as usual for Guertin, it was a tough night for the Panthers, as head coach John Bourgeois had to say farewell to a senior nucleus that helped steer things through the pandemic’s twists and turns. It also was the last basketball game ever for Obinelo, who said she has no plans to play in college in order to focus on academics. Too bad, for her development this past winter was obvious.
Sophomores, though, beat seniors.
“It’s BG,” Bourgeois said. “But I give credit to my seniors. They had quite the four years of basketball with different coaches, and on the fourth year they got a global pandemic.”
SATURDAY, MARCH 6
CYCLONES ARENA, HUDSON
Twinbill on ice. Hockey again, this time the BG boys in the Division I quarterfinals vs. a very tough Nashua North-Souhegan co-op team. It was a 2-1 game early in the third period before the Cards pulled away for a 5-1 win.
Tough to see the last game for a good Saber-Titan player like Mike Dodge, who had the team’s lone goal. But clearly, Cards coach Gary Bishop breathed a sigh of relief.
“They ran out of gas,” Bishop said. “They had a great game plan.”
Hopefully, N-S coach Bill Kotsifas, who had to miss four games for a comment to an official, will be back, as the program needs its first back-to-back coach since John Coughlin. “I had fun, that’s the plan,” Kotsifas said.
JFK COLISEUM, MANCHESTER
Ahhhh, yours truly’s first return to JFK since that fateful night of March 11, 2020, when the Division I semifinals ended and word came back to the press box of the shutdown of the NBA as the pandemic was exploding in front of us.
Nothing dramatic like that this time, but a great Division II quarterfinal win for the Merrimack hockey team in upsetting previously unbeaten Manchester Memorial, whose assistant was former North coach Matt Osgood. The Tomahawks, though, took control early with a 2-0 lead and were never really threatened. Dom Carozza and Eliot Medlock had two goals apiece.
“I’m comfortable with our goaltending. I’m comfortable with our defense, and I’m certainly comfortable with our ability to put some goals in,” ‘Hawks coach Dan Belliveau said.
Nothing like a Saturday night at JFK. Just don’t park on the side of the lot with the locked entrance.
SUNDAY, MARCH 7
CAMPBELL HIGH SCHOOL, LITCHFIELD
Our first look at the Cougar girls basketball team, who had played a Division II schedule for much of the regular season and appeared tourney tough in a 40-35 win over Prospect Mountain in a 2 p.m. Division III quarterfinal, keyed by senior Karleigh Schultz’s 15 points.
After the game, during a post-game interview with Prospect Mountain coach Rick Burley, yours truly’s cell phone was blowing up with texts. A former colleague and current correspondent who was slated to cover a tourney game that night was ordered to quarantine by the Massachusetts school he worked for, as a student-athlete in the same gymnasium he was at while coaching had tested positive. Thankfully, a negative test, quarantine lifted, good health and more tournament games. Whew.
Yes, another doubleheader day, as the Cardinals girls basketball team was taking on Nashua North, this time in the Division I quarterfinals. The Titans’ 6-7 center Victoria Conrad looked like she would be a threat as it was just 15-12 Guertin after the first quarter. She finished with 11 points, but a second-quarter blitzkrieg to the tune of 28-2 by the Cards was incredible. North coach Curt Dutilley had the team practice with a walk through earlier in the day, but tough to stop the Cards, especially when a player like Liv Murray shoots from the outside.
One more week to go, but we finally bid the Colligadome farewell for another winter.
TUESDAY, MARCH 9
EVERETT ARENA, CONCORD
Tourney Week 2 began with the best game of the entire postseason: The Bishop Guertin girls hockey team’s 5-4 overtime win over Hanover.
It seemed like the Marauders might take this one after the puck banged off a Hanover skate and into the net with 30.6 seconds left in regulation to tie things at 4.
Then, Hanover’s Lily Seelig fired a puck that slid sideways off the stick of goalie Sarah King’s stick and looked like it would ricochet off the post into the net. Luckily for the Cards, it bounced out, and five minutes later Kate Simpson scored the game-winner for BG. John Dodds, who said he had his hands in the air on Selig’s shot, showed some class in coming over to Cards coach Scott Ciszek on his way out to congratulate him.
Meanwhile, to see Valley News sports editor Greg Fennell, who is along with yours truly one of the longest-tenured sports scribes in the state, was great. Sad, though, in a way to hear the news from Fennell that former Silver Knights media man extrordinaire Pete Nakos had just left the VN to take a job covering Ohio State athletics with LettermenRow.com. How could he leave us? Nakos has a bright future in the business, for certain.
WEDNESDAY, MARCH 10
DOVER ICE ARENA
Bishop Guertin AD Ryan Brown, the former St. Thomas AD, is on the ice hockey committee and secured Dover Ice for some tourney events, so in the car we go to begin Doubleheader Day Five with Merrimack facing Somersworth-Coe Brown in a 4:30 affair.
Not a bad rink, with plenty of spots to watch the game from and take photos. Our first journey to Dover since the early 2000s, but the Tomahawks have made the trip several times over the years. But this was their last one in a tough 5-3 loss after closing to 4-3 in the final few minutes on a Carozza shorthanded goal.
Tough for the ‘Hawks, losers now of three straight semifinals.
“We’ve got some things to work out,” Belliveau said.
Farewell to Carozza and five other seniors, including a super goalie in Ben Hardy.
Off to Manchester.
More semifinal blues. Bishop Guertin hasn’t won a Division I boys semifinal since 2016, with Concord or Bedford usually the culprit. This time, it was Concord, who dominated 4-1, driven by wanting to get back to a title game it couldn’t play in last year after a COVID cancellation.
But echoing through JFK was The Voice: The golden pipes of broadcaster Ken Cail, who calls the games on Facebook Live for the Tide. It was great to catch up with him, as he’s the best in the broadcast business, bar none.
THURSDAY, MARCH 11
SANBORN REGIONAL HIGH SCHOOL,
A straight shot out Route 111 East as the Dawson’s skills as a host are put on great display, a fine job. The Guertin girls hoop team really wasn’t threatened by Londonderry in the Division I semis, to the tune of 66-28. But something wasn’t right in BG’s half-court game, which relied on the shooting of Liv Murray.
“It was one of those grinding games,” Cards coach Brad Kreick said. “It just felt like it was hard. But it’s supposed to be hard, it’s a state semifinal.”
Keep that thought.
SATURDAY, MARCH 13
DOVER ICE ARENA
Back to Brown’s favorite hockey rink for the coronation of his now-favorite girls hockey team, the Cardinals finishing a historic, unbeaten season with their first Division I state championship. It came in the form of a 6-1 finals win over St. Thomas-Winnacunnet-Dover.
You saw how much this meant to the Cards after the game, as longtime Cardinal Lindsay Hult, a senior captain, called it a “dream come true.” It harkens thoughts back to the night in March of 2018 when a freshman Hult tried unsuccessfully to beat a Portsmouth-Oyster River team in the quarters at Skate 3 single-handedly in the quarters after a few key teammates were unavailable during the end of school vacation. This time, this Cardinal team was unified, and Hult had plenty of help, including Player of the Year Jenna Lynch.
A valiant try by the HBD Warriors in the Division III hockey finals, but they couldn’t match the speed of Berlin-Gorham, which skated away with a 5-1 win.
Anyone been to Everett? Then, you know how cold it is inside. But a videographer for the B-G internet/TV broadcast wore a short sleeve golf shirt until later in the third period when he reached for his jacket. “About time,” yours truly said.
Bye to cold rinks until December 2021.
SUNDAY, MARCH 14
The Final Day, and a girls basketball final for Bedford, not Bishop Guertin, to remember, as the Cardinals in-state streak of well over 50 wins came to an end in a 64-46 loss dominated by Bulldog Isabella King’s 23 points.
Kudos to Kreick for waiting patiently for the media while we talked with the winning coach (Kevin Gibbs) and players (King).
Guertin started out 3 for 19 from the floor.
“You really know how to hurt a guy,” Kreick chuckled when told of the stat.
The Cards no doubt will try to turn pain into gain down the road.
A tourney journey that ended in Kingston, of all places.