Conant boys add to program’s legacy
As the final seconds ticked away in Saturday’s Division III championship game, it was hard for the Conant players to hide their emotions.
And who could blame them?
This moment was four years in the making. This was why they had worked so hard in practice every day. This was why they pushed so hard in the off-season. And this was why they always strived to be the best.
Winning a state championship was the only thing that mattered. And as the starters were taken out to a standing ovation from the loyal Conant fans crammed into one half of the Southern New Hampshire Fieldhouse in the closing minutes of the No. 2 Orioles’ 66-46 victory over fifth seeded Campbell, they finally had one to call their own. It was — as the players and coach Eric Saucier would put it — the ‘ultimate goal.’
On the walls of Pratt Auditorium, there already hangs nine boys state championship banners, a record for Division III. Soon there will be one more to cement this team’s place in the Conant history books. Individual teams are not measured by winning records, high seeds in the tournament or making it to the final four.
No, a Conant boys basketball team is defined by one thing — did they win a state title. It’s not fair to this group that prior to their arrival to either the varsity team or high school basketball in general, winning championships was a yearly occurrence.
For the four seniors, their freshman year coincided with the last of five straight Class M/Division III titles and only Devin Springfield got the call-up for the tournament. The following year, the Orioles lost in overtime to Somersworth, the eventual champions, in the quarterfinals. Twelve months ago, Conant was upset in the semis by Prospect Mountain.
But this year was different. This group had that look. One that I have seen before many times covering Conant. There was a sense of confidence and determination. And it almost felt like every other team in Division III was playing for second.
Right out of the gate, this team was in mid-season form. They passed an early test at Hopkinton, won the Red Division at the Keene State Holiday Tournament and stood at 7-0 entering the first of what would be three meetings with Campbell.
Conant held a double-digit lead late in the third quarter, even without senior guard Jake Carlson, but couldn’t hang on to it and lost on a last second three.
And what I saw that night was a group of players who did not intend to lose another game. That was the only wake-up call they needed. They went on to win the next eight games, all in convincing fashion, before the trip to Campbell in mid-February. This time, there would be no last second shot, as Conant cruised by 33.
With 10 straight wins, a 17-1 record and each one coming by double digits, the No. 2 Orioles entered the tournament playing better than anyone else. They made quick work of Monadnock and Somersworth in the first two rounds at home and then ended No. 3 Newport’s season in the semis by 23.
And there was Campbell in the finals. What better way to prove you are the best team than to beat the only team to put a blemish on your record.
It looked to be over early before Campbell made a comeback in the third. But even when the Orioles’ lead dwindled to six, I can honestly say there was not a part of me that believed Conant would lose that game.
That’s because I saw that same look that I witnessed back on Jan. 14 in the basement of Pratt Auditorium. This team was not going to denied from what it had worked so hard for.
And after building the lead to 21 late in the fourth, the Orioles could finally be welcomed into the Conant club of champions.
This team fit the mold of the championship squads of yesteryear. They loved to play defense, run the floor and share the ball. The fact that every one of the seven-man rotation could score made them a nightmare for opposing coaches.
All 21 wins came by double digits. They held teams to 39.7 points per game during the regular season and 43.2 in the playoffs. Conant averaged 72 points a game during the year and 69 in their four tournament wins — all of which came by at least 20.
That’s domination if I do say so.
Winning state titles used to be a yearly expectation at Conant. But after falling short in each of the last two years, it was about time to see another banner hung on the walls of the Pratt. This group earned it. And while it may look easy, it isn’t.
At the beginning of the year, the Orioles intended on being the best team in Division III. Saturday afternoon, they proved it.