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Panther pride: Thetford girls capture third title in six years

  • Oxbow's Mariah Shumway dribbles away from a backcourt trap by Thetford's Emi Vaughan (14) and Kiana Johnson in the first quarter of their Division III state championship in Barre, Vt., on March 9, 2019. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Officials meet with Thetford coach Eric Ward, left, and team captains Lily Brown, foreground, and Kiana Johnson and Oxbow coach Barry Emerson and captain Kaysea Neil before the start of their Division III state championship in Barre, Vt., on March 9, 2019. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Thetford's Kiana Johnson shoots over the defense of Oxbow's Melanie Neil, left, Mariah Shumway and Arianna Bolles (25) in the first quarter of their Division III state championship in Barre, Vt., on March 9, 2019. In the background is Thetford's Casey MacVeagh. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Thetford's girls basketball team hoists the hardware following their 42-36 win over Oxbow in the Division III state championship in Barre, Vt., on March 9, 2019. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Oxbow's Mariah Shumway hugs Thetford's Abby Berard (20) and others after Thetford's 42-36 win in the Division III state championship in Barre, Vt., on March 9, 2019. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Staff Writer
Saturday, March 09, 2019

BARRE, Vt. — Ask around about the model of consistency that is Thetford Academy’s girls basketball team and you’ll get a few familiar responses: depth from the junior varsity program, a family-like atmosphere, a strong presence at the top in Panthers head coach Eric Ward.

Give that consistency a few years to show itself, let the potion brew and a team will likely acquire the unshakable confidence required to hold off anyone in big moments — no matter what kind of magic is raging on the other side.

The No. 2 Panthers, slowed by nerves and a cold spell of offense in the first quarter, built a nine-point lead at halftime and held off surging No. 8-seeded Oxbow, 42-36, in the VPA Division III championship game from the Barre Auditorium on Saturday night. The victory gave Thetford its third title in its record-breaking sixth straight D-III final appearance and its third championship plaque in program history.

“We’ve got a strong program; our jayvee is strong, as is our junior high,” Ward said. “We’ve lost some strong girls over the years to graduation, but our program is so that if someone graduates, we just replace them. It’s not like when we lose seven players, we’re not going to be good next year. We have some girls on jayvee who are good enough to be varsity. We only have so many spots available.”

The O’s, who finished the regular season losing six of their last seven, including their last five in a row, knocked off No. 1 Hazen and No. 5 Green Mountain on their way to their first final since 2012. Breakout Oxbow freshman star Emma Parkin led the team with eight points in the loss. The O’s finished their season 10-14 overall.

“It didn’t, actually,” Emerson said when asked if the game felt like a David versus Goliath, an experienced annual contender against an up-and-coming underdog. “When those girls stepped in that locker room tonight, they felt like they could win.”

Thetford’s Casey MacVeagh, who helped lead the Panthers to a girls soccer title with 14 goals and 27 points in the fall, scored a game-high 13 points. Kiana Johnson and Grace Davis each scored eight in the victory.

“I think we’re always confident, but we know we have to come into the game playing our game,” Thetford senior Lily Brown said. “The way Eric (Ward) and Jeff (Vaughan, Thetford’s assistant coach) and everyone associated with coaching our team and being part of our community. … It’s everybody who contributes to them getting on the court and being able to play their game.”

Thetford led from start to finish, holding a 8-2 lead after a low-scoring first quarter and a 18-9 lead by halftime. Johnson and MacVeagh led the way with five points each. Oxbow managed only two free throws in the first quarter, finally hitting its first field goal — two of them, actually — in the second.

“We had shots, but our shots were outside; we weren’t getting inside as much,” Ward said. “Oxbow did a good job on us. … Tonight, the ball wasn’t there. We didn’t play great. Credit to Oxbow; they hung in the game. They’ve had a great run in the playoffs.”

Added Emerson: “The message at halftime was we held a team that is used to scoring 50 points to 18 points in the first half. That’s good defense. We just have to do something offensively.”

Oxbow picked things up in the third quarter, opening up with some pressure to keep Thetford off its game. A Grace Davis 3-pointer for Thetford and a basket by Oxbow’s Mariah Shumway in the final seconds gave the Panthers a 33-23 lead headed into the final stanza. The Olympians kept the pressure on in the fourth, cutting Thetford’s lead to five points, 34-29, off of back-to-back steals and baskets by Melanie Neil and Parkin.

But Thetford never faltered, netting seven of 12 free throws in fourth quarter to secure the win. Oxbow missed five free throws down the stretch, cutting the deficit to six points three more times before the final buzzer.

“We played hard and never gave up,” Emerson said. “We played from behind the whole game. Offensively, we couldn’t get it going in the first quarter. But I was very proud of these girls for keeping playing.”

Melanie Neil had seven points for Oxbow, Shumway added six points and Kaysea Neil netted five. The O’s lose seniors Shumway, Kaysea Neil and Rilee Wadsworth to graduation and return three starters: Parkin, Melanie Neil and Arianna Bolles.

“The kids are believing,” Emerson said. “It makes a difference. … I’m very optimistic about our chances next year.”

Thetford, which outscored the O’s, 125-59, in two regular-season meetings this winter, finished its season 20-2 overall. It graduates seniors Johnson, Lily Brown and Abby Berard — vastly changing the makeup of Thetford’s backcourt next winter — and returns starting juniors MacVeagh and Davis as well as sophomore Emi Vaughan.

For Brown, Thetford’s consistency starts off the court and ends at the Aud, where the Panthers are accustomed to finding a few tough battles on their way to a net-cutting ceremony and a team picture with a trophy. But Ward’s strength is in his ability to adjust on the fly — changing the game plan with an ever-changing roster.

Those adjustments bring consistency, which in turn brings confidence. The formula has put the Panthers, once again, atop D-III.

“It’s going to be a little different (next year); we’re going to be longer but, like, who are going to be our guards next year?” Ward said. “That’s what we start doing now. … I think we’ll be OK next year, but this group finished what they started.”

Josh Weinreb can be reached at jweinreb@vnews.com or 603-727-3306.