Boys basketball: Pioneer holds off Hopkins Academy 63-57 for 1st Western Mass. title since 2018 (PHOTOS)

By JEFF LAJOIE

Staff Writer

Published: 02-25-2023 11:41 PM

WESTFIELD – The train is, perhaps, ahead of schedule.

Buoyed by a sophomore core of players who have been together since elementary school, the Pioneer boys basketball team added another chapter to its storied program history on Saturday. The top-seeded Panthers led for the majority of the contest, holding off No. 2 Hopkins Academy for a 63-57 victory in the Western Massachusetts Class D championship game at Westfield High School.

It was the Panthers’ first Western Mass. title since 2018 and sixth in program history (1996, 1997, 1998, 2000, 2018), as they improved to 18-3 overall.

“We’ve been playing together since fourth grade. We’ve had all this success, we didn’t come in cocky or anything but we’re a pretty tight group so when it gets rolling, it’s kind of hard to stop us,” said Pioneer sophomore Brayden Thayer, who scored all 13 of his points in the second half on Saturday.

Veteran head coach Scott Thayer said he knew his team had some pieces back in November, but wasn’t exactly sure what that would mean come February and March.

“I know we have talent but will that talent come together?” he recalled. “I told them it’s amazing what you can accomplish when nobody cares who gets the credit. That was on display the last two weeks of the season.”

Taking down rival Hopkins to bring home that sectional title also added to the satisfaction of Saturday’s win. The Panthers also beat them to win the 2018 crown, 59-53, at UMass’ Curry Hicks Cage.

“Back to 2018 when we played them in the finals, it’s the same… they’re a small community like us but they show up and we show up,” Scott Thayer said. “It makes it a fun atmosphere for all the kids. Two of the smallest schools in Western Mass. and we’re here.”

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While Pioneer led for the final 31 minutes, 3 seconds of Saturday’s title game, the Golden Hawks never made things comfortable as the lead was single digits for all but 32 seconds of regulation.

After being held off the scoresheet for the entire first half, Brayden Thayer came to life offensively in second half. He scored his first bucket of the game with 41 seconds left in the third quarter, and the Panthers led 44-36 entering the fourth.

“He got a little mentally out of it and we got him back in at halftime and said, ‘You’re going to have to make some plays down the end, just focus,’” Scott Thayer said of his son, Brayden. “And he ended up making some solid plays for us.”

Hopkins (17-4) didn’t go away, thanks in large part to a Herculean effort from Teddy Cyr. The freshman guard scored a game-high 28 points, including two 3-pointers in the fourth quarter to keep his side within striking distance.

But Thayer scored his team’s first five points of the fourth quarter, and his spree sparked a 9-3 Pioneer run that that was capped with a baseline jumper with 2:17 to play gave the Panthers their largest lead of the contest at 55-45.

“Hopkins is a good defensive team and their coach knows what I can do,” Brayden Thayer said. “They had a good game plan but my teammates kept feeding me and I took what they gave me. Once I saw one [shot] go in, the confidence was up from there. I didn’t score for the first two and a half quarters and we still had the lead so credit to my guys on this team. It’s all because of them.”

Hopkins chipped away at the Pioneer lead in the final two minutes, and Cody West was fouled shooting a 3 with 23 seconds left. He made all three from the charity stripe, getting the Hawks within 59-56.

But Brayden Thayer and Josh Wood (13 points) each hit a pair of free throws in the final 22 seconds to seal the deal.

“I told the kids, ‘don’t play the scoreboard, play the game,’” Scott Thayer said of the frenetic final few minutes. “You get sophomores with their minds start racing, guess what happens… but that’s something that I think will come in time.”

Junior Hugh Cyhowski led the way offensively for Pioneer with 15 points, 11 of those coming in the first half.

“I was just trying to get rebounds,” offered Cyhowski of his first-half contributions. “I scored most of my points in the paint so I was just trying to be big in there, box their big guy out, and if they happened to leave me open, I hit a 3 as well.”

Kurt Redeker made it four Pioneer players in double figures with 12 points.

“Hugh stepped up in the first half. We’re versatile like that, we can switch things,” Scott Thayer said. “And that’s what we want to be. We’re fortunate enough to have that and try to use that to our advantage.”

NOTES: Scott Thayer noted the fact that both the Class D and Class C (Greenfield-Drury) title games featured teams from the Hampshire League. “It says a lot about the Hampshire League that we have four teams playing for championships. Every night in that league was a dogfight. It made us prepare for this.” … Cyhowski on winning a WMass title: “It’s a great feeling. We did it in baseball so to be able to help the team do it in basketball, [my] first year playing in high school, it’s just a great feeling overall.” … The two teams split a pair of regular season meetings, setting up Saturday’s rubber match. There’s also the possibility of a fourth meeting – it would have to happen in the MIAA Division 5 championship game. Pioneer is the No. 4 seed in the state tournament while Hopkins is seeded seventh. … Brayden Thayer on winning his first sectional title and playing for his dad Scott: “I hear all the stories of my dad winning [big games] all the time. I’m glad I get to do it with him. He’s a great coach.” … Pioneer trailed 14-13 after one quarter but held Hopkins to just five points in the second quarter – a Chace Earle 3 and a layup from James Fitzgibbons. The Panthers outscored the Hawks 14-5 in the second period, taking a 27-19 halftime lead.

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