by Tom Pedulla –
Irvington graduated four seniors last year who were such an essential part of the girls’ basketball program that they were known as the Core Four.
Its new starting lineup included Mia Mascone, a senior forward who needed to regain her footing after losing last season to a major knee injury, a junior point guard in Abby Conklin and a sophomore center, Grace Thybulle.
Perhaps no one outside of Irvington’s team harbored major expectations, especially after a nine-point loss to Section 1 Class B rival Briarcliff early in the schedule.
Coach Gina Maher and her players thought otherwise. Maher can recall seeing something special during an early-season scrimmage. “We’re going to be all right,” she told Barbara Constantine, her long-time assistant.
Irvington was much more than all right, defying naysayers and rolling to its sixth state championship with a 71-38 rout of Section 5 champion Midlakes at Hudson Valley Community College in Troy, N.Y.
“Our motto has always been to ‘Hold the Rope.’ But toward the end of the season we kept saying, ‘Find a way,’’’ said Maher. “They found a way.”
They found a way to a glistening 29-1 record. They found a way in a 51-48 thriller against South Jefferson in the state semifinals by holding their opponent to four fourth-quarter points. After reaching the state championship game each of the previous two seasons only to be turned away, they found a way to play a near-perfect game.
In the end, they produced memories to last a lifetime.
“It definitely will stay with me, not only the wins but the lessons we learned this season,” said senior Eva Gilbert. “We weren’t favored to win. It shows that with grit and determination and hard work and confidence in yourself and your teammates, you can really do whatever you set your mind to.”
Irvington’s sharpshooting from beyond the three-point arc was remarkable as it connected on 11 of 21 attempts in the finale. Conklin coolly sank five three-pointers in finishing with a game-high 20 points in addition to five steals and four assists. Gilbert also netted five three-pointers in closing with 15 points. Thybulle, whose performance did not reflect her relative inexperience, netted 16 points and was the tournament’s Most Valuable Player.
The team’s selflessness was reflected in one extraordinary statistic. Assists were recorded on 21 of the 26 field goals scored in the championship game.
In the end, Irvington thrived on proving doubters wrong.
“I love to hear that kind of stuff,” said senior Miranda Farman. “When the Core Four left after last year, people didn’t think we were going to amount to much. We totally proved them wrong and we amounted to more than in past years. Even if we had more skill in past years, we worked so hard this year.”
This season meant so much to Mascone, who severely injured her knee in the opening quarter of the opening game last season. She was determined to make the most of her last shot and accomplish what others thought impossible.
“I don’t think we ever lowered our expectations. Every year it’s a different team, a different process,” Mascone said. “It took a little adjusting to the tempo we play. We had a lot of young girls. I think our preseason was one of the best we ever had. Everyone really bought into what we were saying, the work ethic we talked about.”
After Maher earned her sixth state championship, she was asked if it ever gets old.
“It can’t possibly get old,” she replied.
The Bulldogs added icing to their state title cake by claiming the fifth Federation Cup championship in the school’s history with a 47-41 win over Brooklyn Law & Tech March 24 in Glen Falls.
Mascone was named the tournament’s MVP after posting 15 points and six rebounds in the title game. Thybulle was selected to the all-tournament team after scoring 12 points in the clincher and grabbing 35 rebounds in two games. Conklin was also named to the all-tournament team with 12 points versus Brooklyn Law & Tech.