Coronavirus Forces Hopedale Quintet To Settle For Co-champ Status

KEN HAMWEY Staff Sports Writer
photo by Steve Bassignani
Issue Date: 
April, 2020
Article Body: 

The only thing that prevented Hopedale High’s basketball team from competing for the State championship was a global virus.
Coach Tony Cordani and his Blue Raiders were eagerly preparing for their State title game against South champ Abington two days before their March 14 date in Worcester. But, a few minutes before the afternoon practice ended, Athletic Director Stephanie Ridolfi informed Cordani that the Mass. Interscholastic Athletic Association (MIAA) had canceled all State final games in basketball and hockey.
The action followed decisions by the NBA and the NHL to suspend their seasons and the NCAA to cancel its basketball tourney (March Madness). The spread of the coronavirus was affecting all athletes at all levels.
The end result for Hopedale and Abington? They’re State co-champs.
“When I broke the news to the players, they were sad, disappointed and visibly upset,’’ Cordani said. “There were even a few tears shed. All we wanted was the opportunity to play for a State title but it was taken away.’’
Cordani, however, wasn’t angry or bitter. He understood the enormity of the decision.
“The MIAA had to make a difficult decision,’’ he emphasized. “They did what they thought was in the best interest of student-athletes and their communities. It was a tough call but it’s one that we knew might come down, especially after the moves by the NBA and the NCAA. I understand the MIAA’s point of view. For us, it wasn’t a complete shock.’’
Hopedale’s co-title is its first State crown in the program’s history. And, as time passes, Cordani believes his players will recall the circumstances in a positive way. “They’ll be happiness and it’ll be remembered for a long time,’’ he said. “It’s something they’ll be proud of. We’re in the process of determining how we’ll honor the team. They deserve some form of recognition.’’
Cordani scouted Abington once and watched film of the South Sectional champs. He believes his squad had the talent and the ability to win a close battle. “I believe in our kids and I think we had the talent to win the final,’’ he offered. “We were peaking at the right time. It no doubt would have been a great game. I’m disappointed we couldn’t compete but my hope now is that the coronavirus situation passes quickly and that health can be restored everywhere.’’
After its three Sectional victories and the lone triumph in the State semifinals, the Blue Raiders ended their season at 20-5.
The Captains’ Opinions
SAM MORELLI: “I didn’t like the outcome. I felt we had a good chance to win the State title. If we played the final game and lost, it still would have been better than not playing at all. We had great team chemistry and talent but what we relied on heavily was hard work and dedication. What hurts the most is that we’ll never play as a team again. The one game we had left to compete together was taken away.’’
JAKE WILSON: “I’m obviously disappointed. I would have loved to play the last game but what happened won’t take away all the hard work, effort and bonds that were created.’’
DAN LIBERATORE: “I’m disappointed there was no game and it hurts. But, we’re State champs. It might not have been a perfect way to go down but we achieved our most important goal.’’
Strong Schedule Pays Dividends
Strength of schedule played a major role as the Blue Raiders rolled to playoff victories that produced the Division 4 Central Sectional championship and the State co-championship.
Hopedale defeated Blackstone Valley Tech for the Sectional title, and after eliminating Drury in the State semifinals, it shared the State championship with Abington when the MIAA canceled all State final games.
The journey to those riches was traveled by encountering some powerful foes along the way.
The Blue Raiders lost their opening game of the season to St. John’s Prep of Shrewsbury, which later won the Division 1 Central Sectional crown. Hopedale played Wayland in the Hutchinson Memorial Tournament in Bellingham and survived a tough battle. Wayland turned out to be the Division 2 Central Sectional champs. Three times Hopedale played Sutton and three times it lost to its Dual Valley Conference nemesis. Sutton later won the Division 3 Central Sectional.
The Blue Raiders lost in the Hutchinson Tournament final to Bellingham by one point and the Blackhawks eventually advanced to the Division 3 Central semifinals, losing by two points to Bartlett.
“There’s no doubt that those losses helped us,’’ said Cordani. “We knew we were facing strong teams and we wanted to see how we’d fare. It’s beneficial to schedule non-league opponents who provide a challenge. We played all the teams that won Central championships.’’
Division 4 State Semifinal
Hopedale eliminated Western Mass. champ Drury, an aggressive, physical team from North Adams. The Blue Raiders won, 74-65, but they had their hands full at Western New England College in Springfield. They led by three at halftime before taking charge in the third stanza by outscoring the Blue Devils, 20-12 for a 59-48 advantage entering the fourth quarter.
Morelli and Liberatore led the offensive attack with 25 and 23 points, respectively. Wilson led in rebounds with 10. Drury’s Scott Maguire, a 6-foot-2 guard, led all scorers with 32 points.
“We gave up points but our offense was the key,’’ Cordani said. “Our attack was in gear, led by Liberatore’s three three-point hoops in the third quarter. Dan and Sam played exceptionally well. Drury’s a good defensive team that rebounds well.’’
Division 4 Central Sectional
The second-seeded Blue Raiders had a first-round bye before opening the Sectional against Worcester Tech. Hopedale rolled to a 73-44 victory after leading at halftime by a 40-21 margin. Morelli and John McDonough led the offense with 17 points apiece. “We pressed most of the game and played strong man-to-man defense,’’ Cordani noted.
Millis, a Tri Valley League team that competes mostly against Division 2 and 3 schools in its conference, was Hopedale’s next opponent. The Blue Raiders led at intermission, 35-17, but the Mohawks cut their deficit to 13 in the third quarter. When the contest ended, Hopedale had a 58-43 win and a ticket to the Sectional final.
Morelli led the attack with 16 points and a trio of McDonough (12), Liberatore (11) and Alex Luccini (10) all reached double figures. “Millis had a 4-16 record in the regular season but they always post some upsets in the tourney,’’ Cordani said. “We never consider their record when we play them because most of their opponents are Division 2 and 3 schools.’’
Hopedale finished the tourney by demolishing Blackstone Valley Tech, 86-47. The Colonial Athletic League squad couldn’t match the offensive attack the Blue Raiders displayed. Liberatore connected for 26 points, Morelli had 17, Luccini scored 14 to go with his 11 rebounds, and McDonough finished with 12 points and 11 rebounds.
“We peaked at the right time,’’ Cordani said. “Our kids stepped up and played with a sense of urgency. Liberatore, Morelli, Wilson and Chris Casey are seniors who gave us quality leadership, and Luccini and McDonough are juniors who played great defense.’’
Notes and Quotes
Before taking the coaching reins at Hopedale, Cordani was the head coach for seven years at Tri County Vocational and for one year at Hopkinton. Now in his 21st year with the Blue Raiders, he’s guided three squads to Sectional titles, one in 2000, another in 2014, and the third this year. Prior to this year’s Sectional title, Hopedale defeated Sutton on the other two occasions for those championships.
This year’s contingent represents the first team in Hopedale’s basketball history to claim a State championship. The 2000 team lost in the State final to Newburyport and the 2014 squad bowed to Quaboag in the State semifinals.
Two coaches Cordani credits for the program’s success are Tom D’Urso (jayvee coach/varsity assistant) and volunteer coach Tom Hammann.
“(Tom) D’Urso has been with me for 21 years,’’ Cordani noted. “He’s a great jayvee coach who teaches the game the right way. He’s been my right-hand man and I lean on him for advice often. (Tom) Hammann is a great guy who’s developed excellent relationships with the players. He’s helped us so often and his strong knowledge of the game is a huge asset.’’
The basketball team’s State title is Hopedale’s seventh overall. The school’s other six were won in baseball, field hockey, girls soccer and three in cross-country.
Abington lost in the State final last year to Worcester Tech, the same school that Hopedale defeated in the first round of this year’s Sectional.
Morelli and Liberatore plan on attending and playing for Worcester State University next year. Morelli is a 6-foot-2 forward and Liberatore is a 6-foot-1 guard/forward.