October 23, 2014
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State hoops tourney is a slam dunk
Kevin Pomeroy
STATE SCENE: Hendricken players raise the trophy after winning the state basketball tournament. The event has had three fifth-seeds win in its four years of existence.

The clock that strikes midnight on Cinderella basketball stories does not usually apply to Bishop Hendricken. It doesn’t even tick on the Hawks.

But if the slipper fits . . .

It got pretty close this year. Hendricken was the fifth seed in the state basketball tournament, not quite a Cinderella but certainly not a favorite. The Hawks surged to four straight wins and captured the title in stunning fashion.

It was a ride to remember for the Hawks.

For the rest of us, it was another reminder that we’ve got a pretty good thing going with the open state basketball tournament. When the Rhode Island Interscholastic League introduced it four years ago, it was billed as a perfect fit for a small state, where hoops levels are an easy mid-range jumper away from each other.

It was spot-on.

The tournament opens the floor for everybody. You’ve got a great team in Division III? Welcome. You can win it. It’s a tournament that has seen teams from every division make the Final Four, that has had only one No. 1 seed claim its championship, that has had a major upset or three every year. A tournament that can make Bishop Hendricken an almost-Cinderella.

Sign me up for more.

High school sports seem to be running shorter and shorter on tradition. Gyms don’t fill up quite so easily, championships don’t captivate whole towns. If you’re watching sports, they’re probably beaming through your television screen.

This tournament is tradition in the making. It’s still young, but you can envision it finding a nice little spot in the fabric of Rhode Island sports.

These first four years have met important benchmarks – they’ve been good, exciting, unpredictable, full of storylines. St. Raphael won the first championship as a fifth seed, with a star on the rise in Charles Correa. Central, another No. 5, won in 2012 after the top seed was bounced in a regional final. It was the first state title for a Providence public school team in 10 years. Classical was the only favorite that won, but its team was more like an upstart, with three sweet-shooting guards carrying a heavy load. Classical and North Kingstown treated us to the best of the tournament’s championship games.

Hendricken added its chapter this year, beating a top-seeded La Salle team that it didn’t have any business beating, based on two previous meetings. The Hawks finished off their run with a championship victory over Central.

Along the way, we’ve had signature moments. Division II Tiverton – with its last title coming in the 1980s – knocked out Hendricken, then a seven-time defending D-I champ, in the first year of the tournament. North Providence woke up the echoes of Ernie DiGregorio when it shocked top-seed Cranston West that same year.

Fourteenth-seeded Hope was in the Final Four the next year. Division III North Smithfield made it last year – and brought half the town to the Ryan Center.

This year, it was four Division I teams in the semifinals, but that was about all that followed the script. Hendricken upset the Rams. Tenth-seeded Central completed a remarkable turnaround from a two-win season in 2013 to play in the championship game.

All these moments and wild rides happened on the new stage, and they were made special by it, too. The upsets that are part of a sports fan’s DNA are always in play. The chance to be the unquestioned, no-debate champion is on the table. The ingredients for great basketball elevated to an even higher level are there.

The state tournament may never match the best high school traditions – basketball in Indiana and Kentucky, wrestling in Iowa, football in Texas. The Final Four may never fill the Ryan Center.

But it can be special. Rhode Island has hit on something here.

The slipper fits.

William Geoghegan is the sports editor at the Warwick Beacon. He can be reached at williamg@rhodybeat.com.


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