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Smith Academy boys cruise past New Leadership, reach Division 3 semifinals

HATFIELD — Smith Academy’s Mat Sulda displayed his full repertoire in Thursday’s Western Massachusetts Division 3 Tournament quarterfinal showdown with fifth-seeded New Leadership.

He scored, rebounded, executed dazzling assists, picked the pockets of the Wildcats’ guards and most importantly led the fourth-seeded Falcons to a 67-46 victory.

“He’s an all-around player,” said Smith Academy coach Matt Zerneri. “He does a lot of things that go unnoticed; you can see it with the stat line.”

Sulda scored a game-high 22 points, and added five assists, four rebounds and six steals.

“I love to play fast, and that requires doing a little bit of everything,” said Sulda.

Smith Academy (19-3) will face No. 1 Renaissance (19-2) in the semifinals at Curry Hicks Cage next week. Renaissance beat No. 8 Monson 60-42 Thursday.

“The Cage is going through my head right now,” said Sulda. “We’re back, and we’re back for vengeance too.”

Sulda received plenty of help, most notably from forward Seaver Rickert. The senior outworked and outmuscled New Leadership (9-13) freshman center David Pacheco.

“Seaver’s a man-child,” said Zerneri. “He’s a tough guy, I don’t think anyone works as hard as he does.”

Rickert finished with 15 points and a game-high 15 rebounds.

“He’s a kid who you hate to play against, but you love to play with,” said Sulda. “He gives 100 percent effort every practice and in games — he really is incredible.”

Sulda and Rickert came out in the first half imposing their will. By halftime, with the Falcons leading 30-20, Sulda already had 13 points, two assists, and four steals, while Rickert had four points and seven rebounds. Smith employed its 2-3 zone and suffocated New Leadership. The Wildcats turned the ball over 14 times in the first half.

“I think it’s just getting hands up in the passing lanes, deflecting passes and making them work for everything they get,” said Zerneri.

In the third quarter, the turnovers continued, as did the dominant play from Rickert, who posted seven points and six rebounds. The lead never dipped below 10 points, and after three quarters the Falcons held a comfortable 47-33 lead.

They kept their foot on the pedal and started the fourth quarter on a 6-2 run to open up a 20-point lead. At the 5-minute, 36-second mark, sophomore David Longstreeth (nine points) made a 3-pointer that completely deflated New Leadership and sent Smith to its 13th win by 20 or more points this season.

“We knew that if we played well, played hard defensively, and stopped their fast break, we’d have a really good shot at winning the game,” said Zerneri. “I have to give the kids credit, they did it.”

Junior point guard Derek McMahon navigated the Wildcats’ full-court pressure with ease and tossed in 10 points, five assists and four steals.

“He creates, he handles the ball well, he stays focused in games and he’s big for us,” said Sulda.

Smith Academy junior Keith Natale added eight points and six rebounds.

Joe Crapps led New Leadership with 16 points, while Levi Huddleston chipped in 11.

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