"It's not how you start, but how you finish" -- that saying could not sum up the 2017-18 Massasoit men's basketball season any better.
A year that started bleak, staring at an 0-3 record to begin the year, to winning the Region 21 Championship and advancing to the NJCAA Nationals for the first time in school history. Quite the turnaround for the 2017-18 squad that will go down in the Warrior history books. A team that took the region's best shots and showed plenty of toughness, to join Brockton's legacy as part of the "City of Champions".
The season definitely did not start the way the Warriors had anticipated, but to win 20 of 23, and earn victories in 21 of their last 25 is quite an accomplishment for District 8 Coach of the Year Jim Stapleton's team. To round out a historic season, the win vs Minnesota West was the program's first ever NJCAA tournament victory in men's basketball lore and marked the 750th win the 50 years of men's hoops at Massasoit.
Losses to Bristol, Bunker Hill and Northern Essex in the first three games put the Warriors in quite the hole to start the year.
Then trailing Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology, a team that went on to finish 3-25, at halftime at home made things borderline alarming. It was an unsung hero on the team, center Mark Munroe, a third-team all-region selection, who carried the Warriors in the second half vs BFIT, finishing with 21 points and 19 rebounds to give Massasoit's its first victory of the season.
"It was a huge game for us," Stapleton, the school's all-time wins leader and just concluded his 17th season on the bench, said. "We were struggling with the concept of teamwork and lacking an identity. Some guys could not see the future because of the fog, but vision is always best when the path is clear."
That victory certainly cleared whatever fog there was and got things rolling for the Warriors, as they ran off seven straight wins and won eight of its final nine to close out the semester with a 8-4 record.
In the second semester, Massasoit held off a pesky Gateway team on the road, 78-77, a team it had demolished by 34 points back in November. Then followed that up with a tough road loss at Bristol, 83-81.
Despite splitting a pair of close games after over a month off, the Warriors already had the confidence that they could compete with the big boys in the region.
"Even before those two games, we knew we could find a way (to win) already," Stapleton said. "We were playing so many different defense to overcome our deficiencies. However, those games showed us that the opportunity to success is gained by the character of the one struggling."
Following the Bristol defeat, the Warriors showcased that self-brewed confidence, closing out the regular season with nine consecutive victories, the longest winning streak since the 2011-12 season.
THE REGIONAL TOURNAMENT
At 18-5 the Warriors earned the No. 2 seed in the regional tourney and ended up drawing No. 3 seed and tournament-host Bunker Hill. Massasoit had played the Bulldogs the weekend prior in a semifinal matchup of the Massachusetts Community College Athletic Conference (MCCAC) held at Springfield Tech.
At the state tournament, Massasoit went with more of a vanilla style of offense and defense, knowing that the two teams would meet again in the regionals. The Warriors lost the MCCAC Semifinal contest, 72-65.
"I knew we would struggle to beat BHCC two times in a row, so I decided to watch them as a personal scout," Stapleton said. "I wanted to remove myself from our team (during the game) and view the contest as an omniscient observer to try and decipher what would give us the best chance to move forward and reach our goal. The guys saw that I was doing this to benefit the long range vision of the squad and that sometimes medicine tastes bitter, but health ensues!"
Just seven days later when Massasoit and Bunker Hill battled again, it was the Warriors that would come out on top. A game to remember, in which Massasoit bombed away, draining 14 3-pointers, the most by a Warrior team in 111 games, on the way to an 82-80 region semifinal victory. Seven of those 3s came from Rollsky Edouard, who finished with a team-high 23 points.
A day later, Massasoit faced top seed Bristol for a right to go to the NJCAA Nationals.
Trailing by nine points with just under 14 minutes left in the game, the Warriors rallied and a 3-pointer by Edouard with 12.1 seconds remaining sent the game to overtime. Edouard's dagger 3, arguably one of the biggest shots in program history, came from the top of the key.
As it's said in sports – It's hard to beat a team three straight times – came to fruition vs the Bayhawks, as Bristol had earned victories in the two regular season meetings and had bested the Warriors in seven straight matchups prior to the region finals.
It was the Warriors which would have the last laugh, as in overtime, Bobby Belezos, who scored a team-best 19 points, sank a pair of big business 3s and Jared Costa-Haywood calmly buried two clutch free throws with 10.2 seconds left as the Warriors escaped with the 77-74 win. Massasoit's victory punched its ticket to the NJCAA Nationals.
First Team All-Region point guard Rael Handy earned Tournament MVP honors, while Edouard and Munroe were also named to the all-tournament team.
THE NATIONAL TOURNAMENT
At the first game of the Nationals, the Warriors ran into a buzz-saw offense in the No. 2 Nassau Lions that shot nearly 60 percent to top the No. 7 seed Massasoit.
In game two, Massasoit hung right with the defending champion North Lake College of Texas, before a late spurt gave the Blazers an 81-74 victory.
But the Warriors did not go home empty handed, leaving the SUNY Sullivan County campus in Loche Sheldrake, NY, on a high note, defeating Minnesota West, 91-86 for the program's first ever NJCAA Tournament victory. Mark Georges, a third team all-region pick, led the team in scoring, pouring in a career-high 31 points in the win.
Handy was named to the NJCAA All-Tournament Team, as the sophomore recorded 21 points, seven assists and four rebounds in his final game donning the Green and White of the Warriors.
"Our players played at a level higher than even I thought they could achieve," Stapleton said. "Our performances were superb. Nassau was a great team that shot nearly 60 percent to beat us. We gave the defending National Champs North Lake more than they bargained for and defeated one of the eight best teams in America in Minnesota West.
Stapleton pointed out that the Warriors overcame plenty of obstacles to make history in 2017-18.
"The way our guys kept fighting through challenges, throughout the year. When we lost Mark Munroe due to injury, Rael missing a game in the middle of the season. Just our overall character and drive. I have such great memories with every student-athlete on the team. We were truly a team, in every sense of the word," he said.