History in the making: South Hadley set for powerhouse Cathedral in search of first-ever girls basketball state title

The South Hadley girls basketball team will play for the program’s first ever state championship when it tangles with top-seeded Cathedral of Boston on Sunday in Lowell.

The South Hadley girls basketball team will play for the program’s first ever state championship when it tangles with top-seeded Cathedral of Boston on Sunday in Lowell. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

By GARRETT COTE

Staff Writer

Published: 03-15-2024 4:44 PM

Modified: 03-15-2024 4:59 PM


SOUTH HADLEY — They always say, if you want to be the best, you have to beat the best.

That old cliche couldn’t be more true to the No. 3 South Hadley girls basketball team’s situation. The Tigers have themselves in the MIAA Division 4 state championship game for the first time in program history, and they’ll be up against top-seeded Cathedral of Boston on Sunday afternoon (noon tip) at Tsongas Center in Lowell.

South Hadley defeated two top six teams in No. 6 Cohasset and No. 2 Tyngsborough to get to the title tilt. The top-seeded Panthers – which have won five of the last eight state championships, including last year’s – are a whole different beast.

Cathedral buried the Tigers 75-51 in the Round of 16 a season ago en route to hoisting the trophy. Despite the Panthers’ past dominance, South Hadley is more than prepared for the test, according to head coach Paul Dubuc – and a shot at revenge is just the cherry on top.

“We’re ready for the challenge,” Dubuc said. “We let our girls know that we are more than worthy to be here. They’ve earned the right to be here and we’ve competed all year. We’re not gonna back down. I’m not saying we can’t lose, but we’re not backing down from anybody. We’ve got a very competitive bunch.”

Heading into Sunday, South Hadley holds the second-longest winning streak of any girls team in the state at 19 in a row. The Tigers dropped their season opener – a game in which they led by as many as nine points before starting point guard CC Gurek exited due to injury – to Chicopee Comp (13-7, Division 2 team) by four points. They also lost to Hoosac Valley (No. 1 team in Division 5, beat them later in the year) by two possessions in a game Dubuc wasn’t at, and dropped a 44-37 bout at Northampton – which made it to the Final Four in Division 2 – after being ahead 13-6 at the end of one. No bad losses all season.

Since then, it’s been over three months of pure domination. South Hadley won the Suburban League title, a Class B Western Mass. title and is 32 minutes away from completing the trifecta.

“We talked about it [Thursday], I told them, ‘If you’re not ready to go, don’t come on Sunday, because we’re on a mission and we’ve been on a mission all year,’” Dubuc said. “We always wanted to win our league and win Western Mass., but those were just added bonuses. Our mission at the beginning of the year was to try to win state, and they’ve played like it since the start of this tournament.”

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But the task is as tall as ever for the Tigers. Cathedral is loaded once again and is full of smart players and fantastic athletes. Having played them a little over 365 days ago, South Hadley has a good idea of what to expect.

If they can take a few early punches but avoid the knockout, the Tigers like their chances.

“They knocked us out last year, so we know their speed and how they like to play,” Dubuc said. “This team is gonna want to get out and go, they’re gonna want to intimidate us from the start. If we can withstand the first 10 minutes or so, we’ll be fine.”

Throughout the state tournament, the full-court press has been a staple for Dubuc’s defense. With the length of Kate Phillips, Ava Asselin or one of the Dean sisters (Caitlin and Cara) at the top of the press and a ton of speed and quickness behind them, they’ve flustered teams early and often.

That may not be plausible with Cathedral given its combination of skill and experience, but Dubuc doesn’t want to steer away from what’s worked to get his team here.

“They have very good ball handlers, but we can’t change much now,” he said. “We might mix it up just a little bit, but we’re gonna stick to what we’ve been doing for the most part. Look what we’ve been doing, we’ve won 19 in a row, so we can’t change a whole lot because something’s working.”

The typical construction of a state champion roster is a ton of juniors and seniors – older players who have been challenged and have years of experience in big games.

That isn’t exactly the case for South Hadley. While the Tigers have one senior (Drew Alley) and a handful of juniors (Gurek, Asselin, Caitlin Dean, Maddie Soderbaum) who have played plenty of high-stakes games, three of their main rotational players (Phillips, Cara Dean, Taylor Bullough) are freshmen still in their first year of high school basketball.

But they’ve watched South Hadley make Final Four runs before (2022) and have played in 25 games this year. They aren’t freshmen anymore.

“The kids grow up quick,” Dubuc said. “We’re about to play our 26th game. After 15 games, you should have a pretty good idea of what’s going on. Our regular season was over on February 12th, so that’s a lot of practices and playoff games since then. We’ve made the playoffs every year, so all the young kids get to see how it’s done and know what to expect when it’s their turn.”

Even with Alley being the only one departing following the season, and even though Dubuc says there are several highly-talented eighth graders eager to take over next year, he doesn’t get the sense that anyone on the team is taking this opportunity for granted.

This South Hadley group – including a few who played on the girls soccer team that made it to the state title earlier this fall – is hungry for the moment knowing reaching a state final is never a guarantee.

“If somebody with a different color jersey comes to the gym we’re in, we’ll be ready to play them,” Dubuc said. “They won’t take this for granted. They know we’ve never been to a state final. Some of these girls played soccer and have been in state finals before, so they know how hard it is to get here. They’re not gonna take this opportunity for granted.”

During that soccer run, the Tigers encountered a scare in the semifinals. The game went to penalty kicks, where the outcome of the contest rested on the shoulders of Alley – South Hadley’s goalie. Rising up in the clutch, she stopped three PKs and then stepped up to bury home the game-winner.

The veteran of the Tigers’ hoop team has never been afraid of the big stage, and there’s no reason to expect that will be any different on Sunday.

“She’s the heart and soul. She’s our ignitor and gets us going just by the way she plays,” Dubuc said of Alley. “They all look up to her. She’s afraid of no one.”

South Hadley (22-3) has its eyes on the rare trio of league, Western Mass. and state championships all in one season. Getting to the final game is the hardest part. Now that the Tigers have their chance at their first-ever championship, anything can happen.

“That would be crazy, right? It’s unbelievable,” Dubuc said. “We’ve won league titles, but we had never won Western Mass., so we got that under our belt. Now, we’re the first female team to ever play for a state championship. It’s an amazing opportunity, and that’s all we’re asking for. We’re gonna be on a level playing field and we   can’t wait.”