Four minutes and 18 seconds. That's all it took for the Whittier Regional High basketball team's dream season to disappear.
The Wildcat boys allowed Saugus to score 21 consecutive points in that span. It proved to be difference in the team's Division 3 North quarterfinal matchup.
"I'm proud that we were able to be the one seed in the tournament," Whittier head coach Tom Sipsey said after the Sunday night game. "I would have liked to see a different result, but I'm proud of the way our kids worked all year."
The eighth-seed Sachems won the game 67-53 and will move on to the semifinals to face Arlington Catholic, a team which Whittier had beaten this year.
The Saugus zone defense seemed to suffocate the Wildcats, as they could not get any momentum offensively. Too often, Whittier would have to settle for wild, contested jump shots only to see Saugus capitalize on the other end. The Sachems hit eight three-point shots in the game, including six by sophomore Curtis Casella. Whittier hit only 15 field goals in the entire game.
"They took away the spots we wanted to get to," Sipsey said. "(Justin) Reyes couldn't get going. We settled for way too many jumpers. I don't care what seed you are or where you're playing, you're not going to win if you hit 15 field goals in a state tournament.''
For Sipsey and the Wildcats, the sting of the unexpected early exit will linger. Instead of a possible Division 3 state title, they are left to reminisce about a successful regular season (19-1) and a state vocational championship.
"Outside of (Sunday) where we didn't play well, I'm very proud of the way we played all season," Sipsey said. "This team did everything I asked them to do from day one. They made me very proud and never embarrassed me."
The coach was quick to laud his seniors for their effort in changing the culture of the program. Marck Galva, Dany Belanger, Alex Grullon and Gio Gomez will all graduate this year. The team was without Gomez on Sunday, due to an off-the-court violation.
Despite the loss of the seniors, the majority of the team's nucleus is expected to return next year. Juniors Reyes and Ryan Grant were the team's go-to players and Andrew Wells and Nate Frongillo saw significant minutes as well. With those players coming back, the Whittier team is in line for a chance to make another tournament run next season.
"My message to them was that we were all going to be back in the same situation as today," Sipsey said. "At the end of this game next year, I expect that we will have a different conversation afterwards."
Sipsey said Frongillo stuck out as a player he will look to lean on more next year. Frongillo started the season playing very sparingly off the bench, but as the season continued he received more and more playing time and even started in Gomez's absence on Sunday.
"I wish that we could have played six guys at a time," Sipsey said. "He should have gotten more minutes during the regular season. He's one of the toughest kids on the team. He's a great teammate and a great kid."
Reyes also emerged as one of the most athletic players in the region. After averaging only 3.6 points per game last year, he burst onto the scene this season with 353 points in 22 games (16 points per game). He received high praise from Saugus coach Paul Moran.
"He lived up to everything we heard about him coming into the game," Moran said. "The kid can jump through the roof."
Whittier has bowed out in the quarterfinals of the Division 3 North Tournament in each of the three years which Sipsey has been coaching. The Wildcats lost to Watertown last season and Bedford in 2010.
• • •
To comment on stories and see what others are saying, log on to hgazette.com.