All season long, it just felt different than the last few years.
Then on Saturday night, the Bishop Hendricken basketball team proved that in fact it was different, on its way to its first state championship in four seasons.
And it proved that the Hawks are back.
These aren’t the Hawks of 10 years ago, who started a run of seven consecutive state titles. No, these Hawks were different right from the get go, but the end result was the same as their predecessors.
They weren’t the frontrunners and they weren’t underdogs either. The fifth-seeded Hawks were just good basketball players who knew that if they each did their jobs, they’d have a chance at getting their picture on the wall of fame, next to the 13 other Hendricken state championship teams.
“Midway through the season, we’re doing things in practice that my last few teams haven’t been able to do,” said Hendricken head coach Jamal Gomes. “That’s no disrespect to my previous teams, but I see things they were doing and how they were competing, and in the back of my head, I’m saying, ‘It’s going to happen. It’s going to click.’ And it happened for us at the right time.”
The star-studded Hendricken teams of that epic seven-year run were certainly more top heavy than the 2013-14 Hawks, but that was never a concern for this group.
Even without the best player in the state, or the best record in the state, even without a division title or a regular season crown, Hendricken’s players knew that this team had an opportunity to put the program back on the map. After a three-year hiatus, they did just that.
“That’s the big difference,” said senior Garfield Coustard, who broke onto the scene this year and became one of the team’s top players. “We became more of a family this year. We love each other and we do everything we have to do to win.”
That was the common theme amongst all the Hawks when the championship hats came out at the Ryan Center after Hendricken’s 50-35 win over Central – family.
When the championship was official, the team gathered in the middle of the court after celebrating and one final time cheered together, yelling that word – family – at the top of their lungs.
“We love each other,” said freshman Justin Mazzulla. “I would die for this team. I love this team. There’s no words to explain it. We would do anything for each other.”
Looking back at it now, it really was a perfect storm for these Hawks, both in talent and in makeup. The backcourt grew into a strength after being a point of weakness the last few years, with Mazzulla joining the fold as a standout freshman, sophomore Kyle Henseler taking a huge leap forward from last year and junior Matt Duffie morphing into one of the best slashing guards in the state.
The frontcourt combination of Coustard and Will Parmlee played tough defense and showed the ability to put up big numbers offensively too. Role players like Chris O’Brien, E.J. Nygren, Jason Rosario and Ira Lough gave key minutes off the bench.
It took more than the talent though, to earn state championship number 14. It took a toughness and a team-wide determination, something that really drives home the family concept.
“This team, right from the first game of the season, I knew they had some heart and they were a special group of guys because they love each other,” Gomes said.
The defining moment – other than the victory over Central – was in the semifinals, when Hendricken defeated top-seeded La Salle to advance to the title game. Just three weeks earlier, the Rams had destroyed the Hawks in the Division I semifinals.
That game looked like a total mismatch. Hendricken wasn’t as good as La Salle, and there really wasn’t much room for interpretation.
Well, unless you were in the Hendricken locker room, part of the family. For them, there was never a doubt that they would find redemption if they ended up on the court with La Salle again.
“We knew the whole time that we could win a state championship,” Henseler said. “And we knew that when we played La Salle that second time in divisionals, they came out strong and out-played and out-hustled us. We knew we could play better.”
They sure did. La Salle never even led in the state semifinals, as Hendricken avenged its loss in a way that would make the word resiliency jealous.
“We knew the lights were bright and it was time to play,” Duffie said. “We know what they did to us last time so we knew we had to come out strong.”
That was something the old championship Hawks never really had to do. All seven years they won the title, they had at least a share of the best record in Division I. There was no need for redemption, because they were always the hunted, not the hunter.
That’s what makes this year’s team different. It had to go out and do the hunting. It had to forget about five regular season losses and the loss to La Salle in divisionals. It had to believe that it was the best team in the state, even if there was evidence to suggest otherwise.
“We had it set from day one,” Mazzulla said. “At the beginning of practice, we had it set. We wrote down all our goals, our team goals. All of our team goals ended with a state championship. Our team wanted it. We got it.”
And as different as this team is from the ones of the past, it now has a common link with some of the state’s best-ever teams, a link that will never be broken.
Just like every team from 2003 to 2010, the Hawks are state champions.
“It’s time,” Duffie said. “We’re Hendricken and we have to win. So we came out here and did it.”
Kevin Pomeroy is the assistant sports editor at the Warwick Beacon. He can be reached at 732-3100 and firstname.lastname@example.org.