Girls basketball: After winning a first-ever WMass title, South Hadley quickly re-focusing with state tourney on the horizon

CONNOR PIGNATELLO

Staff Writer

Published: 02-28-2024 1:01 PM

SOUTH HADLEY – Paul Dubuc’s beard is long.

It’s white and full. And it’s been seven years since the South Hadley girls basketball coach has given it a proper trim.

Midway through this season, his players asked him if he would shave it if they won the school’s first-ever Western Mass. title.

He said yes.

On Saturday afternoon, the Tigers did just that, defeating No. 1 seed Pittsfield 48-40 to claim the Western Mass. Class B crown. Dubuc is going to need a reintroduction to the barber shop. 

He’s waiting until after the MIAA Division 4 state tournament to shave it, possibly as part of a fundraiser at the team’s annual year-end banquet. It may be a shave seven years in the making, but it’s a Western Mass. championship that’s been in the works for 14 years. 

“The (alum players) practiced hard, they practiced like these guys,” Dubuc said. “Any of the old players who contacted me, I told them they all own a part of this.”

Dubuc’s coaching staff includes Dan Dubuc, his nephew and godson, Mark Maiolo, also his nephew and godson, and Jess Nelson, a South Hadley basketball alum and honorary member of the family who calls Dubuc’s wife, Tracy, “mom.” They’ve been with Dubuc the whole way.

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While Dubuc may be savoring his final days with facial hair, South Hadley is working toward another first for the school – a state championship. On Monday afternoon in the South Hadley gymnasium, two days after their Western Mass. win, the No. 3 seed in Division 4 was back at work ahead of its Round of 32 matchup against No. 30 Saint Bernard's of Fitchburg on Thursday at 6 p.m.

While his team was stretching, Dubuc relayed some of the messages he’s received from past Tiger players.

“It sucks going to work on Monday,” one alum texted him. “But not as much when you’re a Western Mass. champion.”

After they finished stretching, Dubuc asked the team how many days they had until their first state tournament game. Three, they responded. So they ran three laps around the court. And the running did not stop there.

For the next hour and 15 minutes, the Tigers were in constant motion. They ran up the court, down the baseline and diagonally across it. They ran transition drill after transition drill, creating 2-on-1s and 3-on-2s over and over again. It’s how they like to play, and they know most teams can’t keep up.

“Some drills, we’re running up and down and it might not seem like we’re not doing anything,” junior captain C.C. Gurek said. “But it pays off in the games.”

All the while, with music blaring, their coaches implored them to communicate with each other. They talked while dribbling down the floor. They talked while passing it down the court. And when they donned pinnies and did a quick scrimmage drill, they talked.

“I feel like it’s obvious when we’re not talking – something’s not right,” Gurek said. “Talking always helps us and we play the best when we are.”

South Hadley doesn’t run many plays in practice. Their coaches want them to run in transition, communicate and figure it out for themselves. 

It’s a style that’s brought them 15 straight wins. After starting 3-3 and losing Gurek for all three of those losses, they haven’t lost a game since a Dec. 29 date against Northampton, which plays two divisions above them and competed in this year’s Western Mass. Class A championship game.

Those 15 consecutive wins will force the Tigers to do some rearranging in their gym to fit a new Western Mass. championship banner. Nobody’s sure which wall they’re going to hang it on yet. But after the next couple weeks, they’d like to do some more rearranging – this time with a state championship banner.