MIAA boys basketball: Mahar readies for top-seeded Hoosac Valley in Div. 5 semifinals

Mahar’s Lucas Isrow (4) pulls down a rebound over Granby’s Ben Berger (33) in the fourth quarter of the Western Mass. Class C boys basketball championship earlier this season at Holyoke Community College.

Mahar’s Lucas Isrow (4) pulls down a rebound over Granby’s Ben Berger (33) in the fourth quarter of the Western Mass. Class C boys basketball championship earlier this season at Holyoke Community College. STAFF FILE PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

Mahar head coach Chad Softic huddles up with his team in the fourth quarter against Granby during the Western Mass. Class C boys basketball championship earlier this season at Holyoke Community College.

Mahar head coach Chad Softic huddles up with his team in the fourth quarter against Granby during the Western Mass. Class C boys basketball championship earlier this season at Holyoke Community College. STAFF FILE PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

By THOMAS JOHNSTON

Staff Writer

Published: 03-11-2024 7:04 PM

ORANGE — Mental toughness is a requisite for a championship team.

The Mahar boys basketball team sure showed a lot of it on Friday to reach the MIAA Division 5 semifinals.

The fifth-seeded Senators couldn’t have had a worse start against No. 13 Boston English, falling behind 20-6 after one quarter. It felt like every shot the Eagles put up found its way to the bottom of the net while Mahar struggled to establish anything offensively.

Then, the switch flipped. The Senators made a late run in the first half to get back in the game before dominating the second half, pulling away with a 63-55 victory.

What would have happened if the game was played earlier in the year and Mahar had dug itself that kind of first-half hole?

“If we got ourselves in that hole I don’t think we would have been able to get out of it,” Senators senior Lucas Isrow said. “We would have crumbled and just rolled the ball out. We’re confident now. The fans help a lot; they’re always rowdy and it helps us out.”

That victory showed the growth Mahar (19-5) made throughout the season, as the Senators picked a good time to play its best basketball.

After falling to Pioneer by 27 points and Greenfield by 28 early in the season, a deep tournament run by the Sens seemed like it might be out of the cards. Instead, Mahar found its identity after that: play suffocating defense, wear out the opposition and turn it on in the second half of games.

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Its defensive identity helped the Senators win the Western Mass. Class C tournament and rip off three wins to open the MIAA Div. 5 state tournament to reach the semifinals. Mahar will have its toughest test ahead of it on Tuesday, when it takes on No. 1 Hoosac Valley (22-2) at West Springfield High School. Tip is set for 7 p.m. 

“It’s pretty exciting,” senior Will Barnes said. “Being honest, I didn’t think we’d be able to make it this far at the beginning of the season. I’m really happy we’re here. We just started settling in as the season went on and playing better as a team. We don’t have one player who’s going to put up 20 points a game. Someone different steps up every night to help us out.” 

It’s the first Final Four for the Senators since 2012, when it went on to win the Div. 2 state championship. It’s a whole new landscape now, as the previous format pitted the Western, Central, North and South champions in a four-team bracket to decide the state champ. 

The new format allows for two schools with plenty of familiarity to square off in the semifinals. Mahar coach Chad Softic and Hoosac Valley coach Bill Robinson haved had numerous battles in the past. 

“I know it’s a state semifinal but it feels so different than 2012,” Softic said. “The new alignment, facing a Western Mass. team... We’re very familiar with Hoosac and they’re familiar with us. I think it should be a heck of a game.”

Softic has seen his squad grow before his eyes this season. The talent has always been there, but it’s been about unlocking a new energy and focus that has helped Mahar rip off seven straight wins going into Tuesday’s semifinal. 

“You can see the sense of urgency when they play,” Softic said. “They’re showing much more energy and connectivity. You can see it on their faces and in the huddle. We played Greenfield and Pioneer on the road earlier in the season and not one kid communicated. We all looked like we saw a ghost. I was really worried about that. I was frustrated with this team halfway through the year and didn’t know if we had it in us. They’ve grown up quite a bit.”

The Senators have had the same rotation throughout their tournament run. Morgan Softic and Isrow man the backcourt while Barnes, Jayden Delgado and Marshall Ames start in the front court. Derek Collins comes on as a rotation wing while Lian Lopez-Baez comes in to relieve Softic and Isrow. 

As Barnes noted earlier, Mahar doesn’t have one player who dominates the scoring sheet on a nightly basis. Delgado leads the team with 11.9 points per game, Softic averages 10 ppg while Barnes (8.8), Ames (8.5), Isrow (7.4) and Collins (6.9) aren't far behind. 

Softic has scored in double digits in all six tournament games thus far, playing his best ball down the stretch. Isrow had a big second half in the Western Mass. Class C final against Granby, Ames’ 16 points led Mahar against Old Colony while Delgado and Barnes both stepped up big in the comeback over Boston English on Friday. In big moments, it seems a different Senator player steps up to the table. 

One of the big changes Mahar made came against Athol in the Class C tournament. Chad Softic opted to have Ames — who had been playing in a post position defensively due to his size and length all season — go out and guard Bears guard Angel Castillo. Ames’ length gave Castillo problems and suddenly the Senators found something to move forward with defensively: having Ames guard the opponent’s best perimeter player. 

With Barnes and Delgado providing size to defend the paint, Ames was able to step away from the rim and alleviate the pressure on Isrow and Softic to defend the opposition’s best perimeter players while also controlling the ball offensively. Since that change, English is the only team to break 50 points against Mahar. 

It’ll take the Senators’ best defensive effort to slow down the Hurricanes on Tuesday. 

Hoosac features two 1,000 point scorers — guard Joey McGovern and forward Frank Field — who are capable to taking over a game themselves. Field is averaging 17.9 ppg while McGovern is tossing in 17.8 ppg. 

“Their big looks like a really good player,” Barnes said. “We have to account for him. We have to play the way we’ve played the last few games — our defense is really what’s been helping us out — it all starts on defense for us.”

Sophomore Quanell Bradley, eighth grader Tre Moynihan and sophomore Adan Wicks are other options the Hurricanes have at their disposal, with Hoosac not short on players who can put the ball in the basket. 

“In my opinion Billy Robinson is as good of a coach as any coach in the state,” Chad Softic said. “It starts there. All his teams over the years take on his personality. They’re mentally tough, they have two 1,000 point scorers that you have to account for but they have other kids who can hurt you defensively. They’re a tough team to defend but we do a pretty good job defending. That’s what we need to do.”

The Hurricanes have scored 70 or more points in 11 games this season and enter on a 14-game win streak, their last loss coming to Monument Mountain on Jan. 25. It’ll be an interesting matchup to see how the Mahar defense attempts to slow down Hoosac. 

“Communication on the defensive end and cranking up everything has been the difference for us,” Isrow said. “At the beginning of the season we didn’t care about defense. We thought if they scored we’d just be able to come back and score ourselves. We figured out quickly we weren’t an offensive team. If we can slow them down on the defensive end and tire them out, we can get easy baskets.

“They’re a solid team,” Isrow added. “They’re like us. They’re good on the defensive end and they can knock down some 3s. We’re not a good 3-point shooting team but it’ll be interesting where it’s a neutral site. Nobody has the upper hand. It’ll come down to defensive urgency and making plays. You’re not going to win a game without making plays. That’s what got us the win against English.” 

With the focus on defense, Chad Softic made sure to note that Mahar will have to do a better job of getting out to a fast start and putting points on the board themselves. 

“We have to be able to score as well,” Softic said. “I’m really hoping our defense can pick up our offense and create some opportunities where we can get out and run. That’s something I think we need to do: get easy baskets from our defense. I think that would help us immensely.” 

The winner of Tuesday’s contest will take on the winner of No. 2 New Mission and No. 3 Pioneer, which square off at Worcester State University on Wednesday at 5 p.m. It’s the first time since 2002 that the Recorder area has two boys basketball teams reach the state’s Final Four, when Athol and Frontier both won sectional titles and reached the semis in different divisions. 

With the last trip to the state semis coming 12 years ago, Chad Softic said he hopes his players understand how special of an opportunity they have to play in this game, knowing a lot of things need to go right to reach this point.

“You never know if you’ll get another opportunity,” Softic said. “I know how difficult it was in 2012. I also know how fortunate we are. A lot of things happen over the course of a season. The basketball gods smiled down upon us. In 2012 we could have been beat by Drury in the semis. This year we could have lost to Old Colony, we could have lost to [Boston English]. We could have faced other teams, brackets could be different. So many things could happen. It’s great and special to be here but there’s a lot of fortune that goes in. I hope we earned it because we’ve done a lot of good things this year and in the past. The basketball gods have rewarded us.”