Smith Academy focused, ready for Quaboag in WMass Division 4 final

Last modified: Wednesday, March 12, 2014
It didn’t take long for the Smith Academy boys basketball team to get over its thrilling buzzer-beating win over Granby.

Tuesday’s Western Massachusetts Division 4 Tournament semifinal game was the talk at school on Wednesday. When practice arrived, it was back to work for the Falcons.

“That game was crazy,” said senior Keith Natale, who hit the game-winning 3-pointer at the buzzer. “We celebrated that night but the next day we were back at it in practice, getting ready for Saturday.”

Second seed Smith Academy (19-3) will face No. 1 Quaboag (22-2) for the championship at 12:30 p.m. in the Curry Hicks Cage at the University of Massachusetts.

The Falcons are looking for their second straight sectional title. Last year, they won the Division 3 crown to snap a 20-year drought.

“We’re an experienced team,” Natale said. “We’ve been in the Cage for the past three years now so we know what the atmosphere feels like. We’re excited to be back where we were last year.”

The Cougars are looking for their first-ever championship. Quaboag, which is based in Warren, played in the Central Massachusetts tournament prior to this season. It lost in the sectional finals in 1978, 2006 and 2011.

“We have to be ready to play,” Smith coach Matt Zerneri said. “We have to limit them to one shot.”

Natale led the Falcons with 18.9 points per game during the regular season. He has averaged 30.5 points in two tournament games. Point guard Derek McMahon averaged 14.5 points during the season and 21.5 in the postseason. But for the Falcons to succeed, their 2-3 zone needs to be effective and that’s where the unheralded play of junior Austin Rogers comes into focus.

“He knows a lot about the game,” Natale said. “He might not be the quickest kid who steps out and puts up a shot, but he works hard at both ends, gets rebounds, plays defense and helps us any way he can.”

Despite being the smallest Falcon on the court at 5-foot-11, Rogers plays the center of a zone that held teams to 52.9 points per game during the regular season.

“I try to be as vocal as I can,” Rogers said. “I try to help people out with what they can’t see on the court. I like to think of myself as a leader in that aspect.”

Rogers came off the bench in a reserve role last season, but he battled with then-senior Seaver Rickert every day during practice. Zerneri said he entered the season knowing he could replace Mat Sulda’s scoring, but he was not sure how he would replace Rickert inside. Rogers filled the bill.

“I commend him on that very much,” Zerneri said.

Zerneri said Rogers does the little things well. He reads where rebounds are going and gets in position to box out. He also isn’t afraid to step in, take a charge and fire the team up.

“He’s emotional and wears his heart on his sleeve,” Zerneri said. “He does a lot of good things out there. He plays hard and everyone feeds off that.”

The Falcons will have their hands full with Quaboag, which went 16-0 to win the West Division of the Southern Worcester County League. The Cougars have a win over Division 2 West finalist Shepherd Hill, Division 3 Central finalist Auburn and Division 4 Central champ Hopedale.

Quaboag’s Jake Wisniewski finished third in central Massachusetts with a 21.6 scoring average.

Zerneri said his team is focused.

“They’re a very mentally tough group,” he said. “They can be down and they won’t quit. They will fight and come back. To beat us you have to play a full 32 minutes and execute because we will compete.”

OTHER FINALS — In Division 1, No. 1 Putnam beat No. 2 West Springfield, 77-58, Friday at the Cage.

In Division 3, No. 1 Sabis (15-7) will play No. 3 Hoosac Valley (16-6) at 4 p.m. Saturday at the Cage.

In Division 2, No. 1 Longmeadow (19-2) will face No. 7 Shepherd Hill (14-7) at 7:45 p.m. Saturday at the Cage.

Mike Moran can be reached at mmoran@gazettenet.com.