Grounded Eagles

WINDHAM – It appeared as if the entire community of Windham was anxious to see what its beloved Bombers would do away from their comfort zone Friday night.

In winning four straight Division IV district championships, the Bombers had basically owned the court at the neutral-site setting of Warren G. Harding High School. There’s no truth to the rumor that plans had been underway to name the floor at Harding Marty Hill court.

Playing on the real Marty Hill court, the Bombers showed that they could probably win a tournament game on an ice-covered playground. It didn’t come easy as Windham needed a late steal by guard Jared Taylor to hold off the determined John F. Kennedy Eagles, 67-66, in a Division IV sectional-final game before a packed gymnasium.

“It was a little different,” Taylor said of playing at home. “We came ready to play.”

So did the Eagles, who performed much better than their 9-14 record might indicate. It was a bitter end to a season that had the potential to go beyond the district level.

“I’m so proud of this locker room,” Eagles coach Shawn Pompelia said. “To come into this environment. Windham is a great basketball community. They have a lot to be proud of. We were excited to come here and play tonight. It was a phenomenal basketball environment. You couldn’t ask for anything better.”

Perhaps with the exception of one field goal in the last minute and a half of play. Windham’s Stephen Kacenski scored the game’s final points on a drive in which he was fouled with almost two minutes remaining to play. Kacenski missed the opportunity to complete a three-point play.

JFK’s James Burney then missed a 15-foot jumper from the right wing. The Bombers (18-5) grabbed the rebound, which set the stage for a strange finish.

Because the officials called a loose game, neither team had reached the bonus level, which meant the Eagles had multiple fouls to give to put the Bombers into a one-and-one situation. JFK received a break when an errant pass went out of bounds with 23.1 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter.

Kacenski then made the first of two outstanding defensive plays with a steal. He was fouled immediately, only to miss the front end of the one-and-one.

Pompelia quickly called a timeout, which meant the Eagles needed to go the length of the court and score with 10.1 seconds remaining. Junior guard Preston Caparanis sped up court and tried to penetrate into the lane. Taylor pulled the ball from Caparanis’ grasp and was fouled with 2.7 seconds remaining.

Taylor missed the front end of another one-and-one. JFK’s Luke Keck, who made four 3-point shots, was a bit late getting off a final shot from near the midcourt line.

“We made a lot of steals, but it would have been nice if we had made some foul shots,” said Bombers coach Marty Hill, who now has 599 career wins. “There was so much pressure on both teams. That was really an intense game.

“That’s a heck of a (JFK) team. They had a lot of size on us. We felt if we could get the ball out of Caparanis’ hands that we could get some steals. He’s a really good point guard. So many kids made big plays.”

The Eagles took a hit early when the 6-7 Zachary Usher was whistled for a second foul at the 5:03 mark of the first quarter. Usher sat the rest of the half, but JFK held up well and took a 33-32 halftime lead after leading 17-14 following the opening period.

Usher was more prominent in the second half in scoring 10 of his 12 points, including six in the fourth quarter. The big gun in the period for the Eagles was Keck, who swished three 3-pointers to finish with 12 points.

Caparanis and Isaac Carrino both scored 10 points for JFK. Parker Rickey, who nearly matched Keck’s outside shooting display with three 3s, and Kacenksi both scored 18 points. Jonah Konzen had 13 points and 10 rebounds (six offensive) off the bench for Windham.

“It’s been like that the last three years,” Rickey said of the close finish. “It’s always been down to the last couple of minutes. Whoever plays harder or works harder on defense wins.”

The third-seeded Bombers will face the second-seeded Maplewood Rockets Monday at 7 p.m. in a district semifinal at Grand Valley High School.