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Repeat sweet for TA boys

  • Jackson Ransom, of Thetford Academy, evens the score at 11 on a breakaway against Enosburg in the Division III championship at the Barre Auditorium in Barre, Vt., Saturday, March 7, 2020. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 3/8/2020 10:27:40 PM
Modified: 3/11/2020 2:46:19 PM

Jason Gray stood back and watched Saturday night as his 14 players took turns snipping a piece of net from the basket at one end of Barre Auditorium.

The coach of the Thetford Academy boys basketball team had just won his second consecutive VPA Division III state title in convincing fashion, a 54-44 win over Enosburg.

Gray, a 2009 graduate, never won a state title in his four years playing varsity ball for the Panthers.

But in only four seasons as a coach, he’s got two rings to show for it.

“Never would’ve believed it,” Gray said. “To bring these guys here as a coach, it’s just awesome.”

Making it to the Aud seemed doubtful around the mid-season mark for Gray’s team. With only two starters back from last season’s state championship campaign, Alex Emerson and Eli Dunnet, the Panthers endured a midseason, five-game losing streak — a 59-45 win over Oxbow on Feb. 11 ended the skid.

“In the beginning of the year, I was hesitant to see what this year was going to be like,” said Gray, who lost six players to graduation last season. “These guys had one thing on their mind and that was to play good basketball. They had a slump there, but I kept telling them ‘we play a tough schedule because we want to be successful at the end of the season.’ ”

But through it, TA’s other three starters came into their roles. Eamon Deffner — the younger brother of Owen who averaged 10.2 points a season ago — at 6-foot-5 turned into the big man the Panthers needed.

Jackson Ransom and Logan Brinkman gave TA some length and experience that could play inside or out. Ransom entered Saturday night averaging over nine points a game while Brinkman has done whatever TA’s needed.

“Meshing was difficult, we had four different starters rotate through our system,” Emerson said. “We finally found one that worked for us.”

The Panthers’ tournament run this season was much different than lasts. A year ago, TA was the No. 3 seed and even received a first-round bye before winning three consecutive games en route to its championships.

Instead, the Panthers entered the tourney this year as the No. 7 seed and knew it would be the highest seed in all but one game.

TA didn’t do itself any favors in the postseason, either. When it hosted No. 10 Green Mountain in first-round action on Feb. 26, the Panthers needed a 27-9 fourth quarter to advance, winning 63-47.

The quarterfinals showed how dominant the Panthers could be when they visited No. 2 Randolph, a Capital League rival.

Deffner scored a career-high 20 points and Dunnet added 18 as the Panthers led 50-30 after three quarters. TA slipped a little in the final quarter, but still punched its ticket to the Aud with a 63-54 victory.

On Thursday night, TA pulled off some more late-game magic to advance to Saturday night’s championship game. Trailing 30-13 at the half, the Panthers outscored No. 6 People Academy 38-18 the rest of the way to grab a 51-48 victory.

The Panthers didn’t take the lead until the 1:49 mark of the fourth quarter in that game. It was Emerson and Ryen Wolf who led the way with 15 points.

Possibly TA’s best win of the postseason came in Saturday night’s state title game. Three players scored in double figures and the Panthers opened the fourth quarter on an 11-2 stretch to put the game out of Enosburg’s reach.

“We saw we had Randolph second round, and I think we almost lost in the first round because we wanted to play them so bad,” Deffner said. “Up here, seeds don’t matter. You’re just playing.”

The victory makes TA the first school to repeat as D-III state champs since Willamstown did so in 2014 and 2015.

Pete Nakos can be reached at pnakos@vnews.com.




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