When started talking about his Tewksbury High Redmen making the state tournament way back in November, there were more than a few people in Tewksbury who thought the new coach was aiming a bit high.
After all, this was a program that was mired in a three-year home losing streak, and hadn't experienced post-season play since 2007.
So pinch yourself if you have to, because the beat Dracut, 61-50, Friday night for their seventh win of the year, and in so doing qualified for a berth in the 2012 MIAA Division 2 state tournament.
and senior forward Sean Foley had 13 as the Redmen broke open a tight game with 20 fourth quarter points and raised their record to 7-11 in the process. More important, TMHS is now guaranteed to finish above .500 against MIAA division 2 and 3 opponents, which qualifies the Redmen for the state tournament under the Sullivan Rule.
"It feels great," said senior guard Mike Doucette. "It feels like a weight has been lifted off our shoulders. Seriously, it's been five years, and for (the seniors), this was our last chance. We had to do it."
Senior guard Bobby Lumbard agreed.
"If you told me this a year ago I would have thought you were crazy, to be honest," Lumbard said. "But really, we started to see that we had a chance way back at the start of (preseason) practice. Everybody has been working their butts off since the first practice, and hard works pays off eventually. So here we are today."
With just two games left on the regular season schedule, the Redmen will not finish above .500 for the season. But Friday's win left Tewksbury's record against Division 2 and 3 teams at 5-3, with only one Division 2 opponent left to play.
"That's the beauty of the Sullivan Rule," Conners said. "You have hope. And we deserve hope being a Division 2 team in a Division 1 league. It's a fair rule. I'm really happy for these kids. They've worked hard all year and they deserve it."
After a slow start by both team's, hit a long-range three-pointer to put TMHS on top 7-4, and the Redmen lead for the rest of the first half, taking a 23-21 lead into the break.
Dracut grabbed a brief, two-point lead early in the third period but TMHS responded with an 8-0 run that put the Redmen in front for good. Tewksbury controlled the backboards in the second half and got multiple fast break baskets in the final two quarters. Foley was 6-for-6 from the floor, mostly on fast break lay-ups, and scored all 13 of his points in the second half. Doucette scored all six of his points in the second half and Chris Fandel came off the bench and scored eight of his 10 points in the second half as Tewksbury High's seniors stepped up and took charge.
"Our seniors stepped up," Conners said. "They played with a lot of fire."
The defensive effort was the key, according to Lumbard.
"We were stringing stops together," Lumbard said. "The more stops we got the more energized we got, and that led to some easy buckets and we just got going like that."
Dracut never came closer than down six in the fourth quarter, and a 10-2 Tewksbury run bumped the TMHS lead to as much as 15 points in the latter stages of the game. The comfortable lead gave Conners a chance to sub out his seniors, who were all rewarded with loud ovations from the unusually large Tewksbury High crowd.
"I was nervous about this game. We only beat them by four last time. I thought the kids felt a little pressure with the big crowd and they thought, state tournament, I think they felt that a little bit," Conners said. "But we started getting some stops in the second half and we got out and ran."
Senior guard Anthony Chiccarelli added five first half points before leaving the game with a knee injury while freshman guard Alex DiRocco added three points and junior forward Cory Cataldo had two.
The Redmen have a week off to enjoy their big accomplishment before facing Billerica next Friday night.
"Seven wins, I'm happy with that," Conners said. "The kids have been awesome. We wanted to compete in the small school division, which we have. And we wanted to get in the states, which we did. It was good for the kids. I'm happy for them."