CLIFTON PARK — Still a little bit out of breath, Shenendehowa sophomore T.J. Sangare had just finished playing in his first varsity boys’ basketball game against Saratoga Springs. His introduction Wednesday to arguably the Capital Region’s top rivalries had come in front of a sold-out crowd, in front of which the Plainsmen had held off a late charge to collect their 50th consecutive win inside of Suburban Council play.
“It was really exciting. I mean, I’ve played against Saratoga all my life, but I’ve never played them in an atmosphere like this one,” said Sangare, who was a part of Shenendehowa’s crunch-time lineup. “You could feel it going up and down the court. It was something else.”
And it was that way for two games, as the boys’ game followed the girls’ game in a varsity doubleheader.
Shenendehowa won both games, taking the girls’ game 61-47 before a 70-58 decision in the boys’ game. The action was fast-paced throughout the evening, and play was at a high level as it typically is when teams get together from Saratoga Springs and Shenendehowa, schools which boast two of the strongest overall athletic programs in the state.
“This, to me, is what high school sports is meant to be. There’s a packed gym and two schools that are rivals going at each other,” said Shenendehowa athletic director Chris Culnan, whose school finished first this past school year for the second time in a row in a New York State Sportswriters Association ranking which judges the overall strength of a school’s athletic program. Saratoga Springs finished in sixth place this past school year and was fifth the previous year.
While Wednesday’s games were regular-season games, there were high stakes involved in both games. Each of the girls’ teams were fighting to stay close to league leaders Columbia and Shaker, while the winner of the boys’ game was guaranteed first place.
Games with consequences are nothing new for when the Plainsmen and Blue Streaks collide. This past fall season alone, the two schools tangled in the area’s field hockey championship game and finished 1-2 in the girls’ cross country championships. But the pressure of the Saratoga Springs vs. Shenendehowa rivalry only adds to the enjoyment for the athletes involved in the matchups.
“These games are definitely fun,” Saratoga Springs girls’ sophomore Kerry Flaherty said. “They’re our rivals.”
Flaherty and her team started off strong in the evening’s first game, as Saratoga Springs (3-3, 3-3) pushed to a 20-13 lead early in the second quarter. Shenendehowa (5-1, 5-1) found its groove from there, though, as three baskets from senior Alexa Knudsen jump-started what became a 27-3 run that stretched into the third quarter. A switch from a man-to-man defense to a matchup zone helped the Plainsmen keep Flaherty and freshman teammate Dolly Cairns in check during that Shenendehowa spurt.
“We got out on them and that was the changing point of the game,” Shenendehowa head coach Joe Murphy said of Cairns and Flaherty, who each scored 14 points.
Murphy’s team had lost the night before against Bethlehem. The chance to take on a rival, junior guard Cam Tooley said, came at a good time for the Plainsmen.
“Our energy has been so low,” Tooley said. “To be able to get out there and have so much intensity, it brought our game back.”
Tooley scored 16 of her game-high 21 points in the second half and made all eight of her free throws in the fourth quarter. Tooley’s strong close to the game provided a nice backdrop for the between-games presentation of a $2,500 donation from the night’s ticket sales to the The Melodies Center for Childhood Cancer and Blood Disorders at Albany Medical Center. That’s where Murphy’s son, Vincent, had been treated when he was diagnosed with cancer several years ago.
“What they do at the Melodies Center is just tremendous. Obviously, my son is living proof,” said Murphy, whose son is now a healthy 7-year-old.
Wednesday’s matchup with Saratoga Springs, though, was not the first one that meant something extra to the Plainsmen for off-the-court reasons. In attendance for Wednesday’s games was former Shenendehowa star Kevin Huerter, who remembered it was the Blue Streaks his boys’ basketball team first played in 2012 after the crash that killed two Shenendehowa students, injured a Shaker student, and injured Shenendehowa student Matt Hardy, a basketball team member.
“It was obviously a big rivalry game, and we won in a close one,” Huerter said. “The locker room afterward was so emotional.”
In Wednesday’s boys’ game, Shenendehowa senior Luke Hicks led all scorers with 24 points. Shenendehowa (6-0,
6-0) led by 15 points at halftime and never saw its lead dwindle to fewer than nine points in the second half. Despite the relatively safe lead over Saratoga (4-2, 4-2), Sangare said he could sense some extra pressure to hold on for the win because of the night’s opponent.
“There was a lot of people here,” he said. “I’ve never played in front of a crowd this big.”
SHENENDEHOWA 61, SARATOGA SPRINGS 47
Vamvalis 1-0-2, Cairns 5-2-14, Flaherty 5-0-14, McGinn 1-0-2, Barringer 0-2-2, Patnode 6-1-13. Totals: 18-5-47.
Almeida 4-2-10, Gillooley 1-0-2, Tooley 5-9-21, Drum 3-0-6, Walker 1-0-2, Knudsen 3-0-6, Tudor 4-3-12. Totals: 21-14-61.
Saratoga Spring 14 9 8 16 — 47
Shenendehowa 13 15 14 19 — 61
Three-point goals: Cairns 2, Flaherty 4, Tooley 2, Tudor.
SHENENDEHOWA 70, SARATOGA SPRINGS 58
Hart 8-7-23, Tillman 3-0-8, Lawton 3-1-9, Anderson 4-7-15, Sullivan 1-0-3. Totals: 19-15-58.
Hulbert 1-1-4, Hicks 6-10-24, Benson 1-2-5, McMahon 4-2-13, Pizziketti 7-1-15, Sangare 2-0-4, Warner 2-0-5. Totals: 23-16-70.
Saratoga Spring 15 10 11 22 — 58
Shenendehowa 17 23 17 13 — 70
Three-point goals: Tillman 2, Lawton 2, Sullivan, Hulbert, Hicks 2, Benson, McMahon 3, Warner.
Reach Gazette Sportswriter Michael Kelly at 395-3109, [email protected], or @ByMichaelKelly on Twitter.