Saturday, January 19, 2013
More hostile crowds, more energy for Central
By Brendan Hall
SPRINGFIELD, Mass. -- Leftover notes and observations from Day Two of the Hoophall Classic, at Springfield College's Blake Arena:
Playing the heel, turning the corner: There are players who thrive in hostile environments, and then there is Springfield Central's Cody Williams, who earned a special place with this brilliant bad-guy-pro-wrestler moment late in the Golden Eagles' win over West Springfield tonight.
The game at this point well in hand with 30 seconds to go, and Williams well behind the play as a teammate attempted free throws, the junior smirked and waved to the West Side crowd as half of the student body began departing for the exits, while the other half continued to remind him for the 200th time tonight how much they think he's a stiff.
"Byeeee!" he waved to the blue-clad faithful, ear to ear grin. Williams then took a few steps forward to greet the reporters at press row.
"Hey Jay," Williams asked softly to MassLive.com producer Jay King, looking back at the crowd. "Where are they going?"
Told of the events outside the Central locker room, coach Mike Labrie shrugged, "That's the quarterback in him", alluding to Williams' prowess at quarterback during the fall, where he led the Golden Eagles to a Division 1 West Super Bowl last fall on a badly-injured ankle.
Said All-State senior forward Kamari Robinson, who finished with a season-high 35 points, "That's my man...His intensity is what makes this team great. It's good to have him. His intensity, his method, the way he thinks, he's just a good dude. Keeps us together."
Stop if you've heard this one before: Central tends to thrive in hostile enrivonments. Last March, in the Division 1 state championship at Worcester's DCU Center, the Golden Eagles had to endure Brockton's notoriously-unfriendly crowd, only to outscore the Boxers 41-19 in the second half to blow them away.
Back on Jan. 2, Labrie felt the team reached a turning point in the season after leaving Northampton with a 54-49 win. The Blue Devil fan base is known for its deceptively creative flow, from dressing in opposing teams' colors to the military gear they brought to the 2011 D1 state semifinals. Mired at 2-2, and having fallen all the way from No. 1 to unranked in ESPNBoston.com's statewide preseason poll, the Eagles got big nights out of Robinson and rising sophomore star Chris Baldwin to escape victorious.
"We love it. The more challenge we have, the better we are. The more hostile the environment, the better it is," Labrie said, adding with a laugh, "We encourage the other team to bring a lot of fans to the game. It's true."
Extending its win streak to five tonight, you had to figure at some point Central was going to figure this thing out. Between Robinson, cousins Cody and Ju'uan Williams, and the raw but talented young Baldwin, there is too much talent on the floor to be wasted.
With the 6-foot-8 Baldwin in the fold, cleaning up underneath, Robinson's role has been tweaked, now seeing more time on the wing and even bringing the ball up on occasion.
"The fact that he's here, I like that he's here," Robinson said of Baldwin, who finished with 13 points and eight rebounds. "He wasn't too happy about the way he played today, but I'll make sure tomorrow that he gets the ball. He's only a sophomore, still got a lot of growing to do, and that's just the young part about him. Once he gets it going, he's hard to stop."
And as far as hostile crowds is concerned?
"For some reason, every time we play West Side, I hear the same thing," Robinson said. "People talking like, 'We're gonna beat y'all', this and that. Last year, they said the same thing, and we just went out there and beat them again tonight. It felt good to shut them up for once."
Dream matchup: On the girls' side, what people most remember from 2012's Hoophall was the clinic Cicero-North Syracuse (N.Y.) All-American Breanna Stewart put on against West Springfield, rolling to an easy 60-20 behind Stewart's 22 points, 18 rebounds and seven blocks -- including one that Stewart sent sailing off a referee's head. Stewart's volleyball spikes were unquestionably the show of the weekend for girls.
For the second year in a row, we were treated to the No. 1 girls player in the country, and she didn't disappoint, as Springfield (Ore.) forward Mercedes Russell finished with 25 points, 17 rebounds and eight blocks in a 51-42 win over Braintree, the No. 1 team in ESPNBoston.com's statewide poll.
In the post-game, the Tennessee-bound Russell revealed she had gone up against Stewart, now a freshman at UConn, in previous summers.
"Our 17-and-under USA team scrimmaged her 18-and-under USA team, so we played a little against each other," Russell said. "It's a lot of fun, she's a really great player. Very talented."