by Tom Pedulla –
Irvington girls’ basketball coach Gina Maher held an emotional team meeting that had little to do with the game itself immediately after a 55-52 loss to Susquehanna Valley in the Class B state final.
Maher wanted her players to see beyond a hard-fought contest that left four seniors who had played together since second grade wondering what more they could have done to create a storybook finish.
No, this was not the way Mary Brereton, Kelly Degnan, Heather Hall and Olivia Valdes envisioned walking off with the rest of their young lives. But Maher wanted the Core Four – and all of her players – to acknowledge what their time together really meant.
“It’s a game and it’s called a game for a reason,” Maher said. “But the lessons you learn from it are way, way more important.”
Players learned to push themselves to the limit, to blend disparate personalities for one cause.
“We’re definitely a family, always have been,” said Degnan. “I think this season was a little bit more of a tight-knit group. I can’t imagine another team as close as this.”
Tears flowed as players left the court. There were more tears in the locker room as they grasped the finality of it all. The Core Four had led Irvington to a 95-8 record, four Section 1 Class B titles and reached the state championship game each of the last two years only to fall just short of making their dreams come true.
When Hall was asked if she is left with an empty feeling, she replied, “I can try to say that it doesn’t, but it does. It would have been amazing to end it with a state championship but, I mean, you take what you get.”
Although there was nothing left to play for, Brereton felt compelled to study film of the championship game, searching for answers. “Honestly, I don’t have any regret,” she said. “We played our hearts out.”
Valdes scored a team-high 19 points and was joined on the All-Tournament team by Brereton, who netted 15. The state final was played at Hudson Valley Community College in Troy, N.Y.
Irvington looked almost unbeatable when it routed Carle Place 60-37 at Pace University in the regional final. Incredibly, the Bulldogs recorded assists on 22 of their 25 field goals. Defensively, Carle Place was unable to get off a shot until the opening quarter was halfway gone.
And yet, in the end, even Maher struggled with her emotions after she fell so agonizingly short of her 699th career victory.
“The fact that we lost and lost by so few points and were right there makes it a little bit hard,” she said. “But it will get better.”
Valdes and her fellow seniors worked to step back and appreciate the larger experience.
“I’ve never seen a team work so hard for something and it definitely did pay off,” Valdes said. “We did make it to the state finals. It’s just great to see how far we went.”
Of the Core Four, only Degnan is certain to continue playing basketball, at Plattsburgh College. Valdes is committed to playing lacrosse at Merrimack College but said she will likely attempt to make the basketball team as a walk-on.
Whatever their paths, Maher wants each member of the Core Four to walk with pride.
“I think they accomplished amazing things and they have grown incredibly,” she said. “They have long, long lives to lead and they are going to keep finishing what they started.”