I’m home sick from work today – I guess whatever bug is coming through New Mexico, attached itself to me. But my fingers still work, and I had some additional thoughts about Norwich girls’ basketball’s season.
First, man, I wish I was there to cover this team in person.
Second, I covered the first eight seasons of Josh Bennett’s coaching tenure. He had some super talented teams, but there was always a Seton Catholic, a Sus Valley, or an Oneonta standing in the way.
As good as Norwich was, the opposition was simply exceptional. By my count, there were three times where Norwich lost competitive playoff games to the eventual state champion.
The disappointment of those losses laid the groundwork for the breakthrough of Norwich’s last two seasons.
A year ago, Norwich was just dominant from the opening tip of the first game, to the eventual blowout win in the Section IV championship.
This year, adversity struck on and off the court.
The Hess sisters, MacKenzie and Jordan, lost their father about a week before the season opener. Everyone that has ever competed in team sports knows that your teammates become your extended family. So, when members of your family are hurting, you hurt just as well.
If playing with heavy hearts wasn’t enough, two games into the season, Norwich lost perhaps its most important component, Halea Eaton, to injury.
Shortly before the start of the basketball season, Eaton inked a college basketball scholarship to LeMoyne. With Eaton guiding the Norwich offense, the Purple Tornado were the presumptive favorite to repeat as Section IV Class B champion.
Eaton is a do-everything type of a player who created opportunities for her teammates on offense, but also served as the hard-nosed first line of defense in Norwich’s full-court press.
If Norwich wanted to play at a 100 mile-per-hour pace, Eaton set the tone playing at 110 miles per hour.
We’ve all seen teams rally when a key player is lost. Perhaps the most obvious example I can point to is Loyola Marymount’s basketball team in 1990.
Loyola Marymount lost its best player, Hank Gathers, on the eve of the NCAA Tournament to a tragic heart ailment. Gathers, a consensus all-American, was irreplaceable as one the nation’s leading scorers and rebounders.
But, as prohibitive underdogs, Loyola Marymount willed itself to the NCAA west regional final achieving above and beyond expectations.
When you’re working with high level athletes – at the college or professional level – you’re replacing a high-level athlete with another high-level athlete.
That’s not as easy to do for a medium- to small-sized public high school. When you lose arguably your best player, the talent gap between that person and the replacement is substantial.
But, Norwich and Coach Bennett figured it out.
During the season, Norwich lost to Elmira, the Section IV AA champion, lost a close game to Class A champion Maine-Endwell, and lost twice to Oneonta, which came into the sectional tournament as the top seed in Class B.
The other two losses came to teams outside Section IV in tournament games designed to test the limits of the team. Those were losses to Saratoga Springs and Rome Free Academy. The former, Saratoga Springs, a school three times the size of Norwich, just lost in the Section 2, Class AA final to Shenendehowa.
While Rome Free Academy had a strong Section III season – also a AA-sized school – that ended in the playoffs.
Every Norwich loss was to above average to superior team. Other than Elmira and Saratoga Springs, Norwich was in every game deep into the fourth quarter.
Norwich went 14-6 during the regular season, which is certainly a fine record, but not one that portends of an upcoming championship.
As fans of our particular team, the overall record is the first detail we notice. It’s where we initiate some sort of rationalization; a starting point to forecast that team’s chances in the playoffs.
Coach Bennett, probably earlier in his career, placed some emphasis on the team’s record. He was a young coach, and he needed to produce a winning program.
A few years into his tenure, you started to see regular non-league dates against much larger schools. The wins and losses weren’t nearly as important as testing his players, and developing the team’s growth.
Undoubtedly, those six losses were the best lessons Norwich learned this season.
More than any year in his coaching career, Bennett needed “this” team to test its limits. In his post-game comments following Sunday’s sectional championship win over Newark Valley, Bennett said (following Eaton’s injury) that they had to reinvent and remake their team.
It was a 3 ½-month reinvention, and the fruits of that development have Norwich in the same position it was a year ago against the same team it lost to in the state playoffs: South Jefferson.
The most illustrative comparison we have to these two teams is last year’s playoff game. South Jefferson rallied in the fourth quarter to hand Norwich a 66-59 defeat. Norwich led a good chunk of that game, and South Jeff struggled to adjust to Norwich’s frenetic style of play, but settled in just enough to pull out the win.
As for this year, the two teams have one common opponent: Saratoga Springs. While Norwich lost by 21 (much of that disadvantage established in the first half), South Jefferson lost to that same team by 38 points.
Playing the comparison game isn’t usually a reliable tool for analysis. Especially at this point of the season when every team is playing its best basketball. What I did infer from the comparative box scores is one significant difference.
Bennett’s teams are the embodiment of himself. I’ve known Josh since he was a young teenager, and one thing you could count on to this day is his effort. You see it now in his coaching; he’s gives 100 percent from tip-off to final horn.
South Jefferson and Norwich were in similar situations entering the fourth quarter against Saratoga Springs. South Jeff was down 26, and Norwich trailed by 22.
In games like these, the benches are seeing most of the minutes on the floor. South Jefferson was outscored 14-2 in that last quarter. The outcome was conceded, and Saratoga Springs’ reserves played much better.
Conversely, with the game’s outcome no longer in doubt, Norwich won the fourth quarter against Saratoga Springs.
Maybe that doesn’t really mean that much. But what it means, from the outside, is that Norwich will compete hard for every minute of every quarter of every game.
That’s why I like Norwich’s chances in this weekend’s state playoff game as much as last year.
Highlights from Norwich’s win over Newark Valley are available at the following site.
The Norwich game highlights start at the 1:47 mark: https://wbng.com/2020/03/08/class-a-and-b-crown-section-iv-champions/