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McGair: North Smithfield hoopsters had a season worth savoring

March 11, 2013

North Smithfield head coach T.J. Ciolfi, left, claps as senior forward Matt Walkow (22) walks off the floor during the final seconds of Friday’s season-ending loss to Classical in the semifinals of the R.I. Open Tournament at URI’s Ryan Center. In the same picture, assistant coach Brian Chuey greets senior guard Walker Strick. The Northmen hit plenty of highs this winter, from capturing the Division III championship to winning 26 straight games. PHOTO BY ERNEST A. BROWN

Looking back at the recently completed boys’ basketball playoffs with an emphasis on what the young men and coaches from North Smithfield accomplished …

Heartache and disappointment always seem to boil to the surface whenever extenuating circumstances arise. Yet as he paced around a somber locker room to console a hazed and dazed group of downtrodden teenage boys, North Smithfield head coach T.J. Ciolfi kept thinking about a bonding/healing session to be conducted on a yellow school bus.
The return trip from URI to North Smithfield High School may have been just what the doctor ordered. The Northmen departed South County late last Friday night with Classical having dealt them, in boxing speak, a hard jab to the face followed immediately by a punch to the stomach.
Not many high school squads around these parts can lay claim to losing their first game of the season on what turns out was their final game of the season. It’s a crusher of a double whammy that’s tough to shake, even if the task of defying the odds and creating a legacy had been achieved long before North Smithfield fell in the semifinals of the R.I. Open Tournament.
At that point following Friday’s 61-54 defeat to Classical, there was probably no one wearing a Green & Yellow uniform who wished to regale about winning 26 consecutive games. The one in 26-1 tasted plain and nasty, hence why Ciolfi saw the hour or so trek to 412 Greenville Road as a prime chance to get everyone in a better frame of mind.
“We had never lost as a group, so the first 15 minutes were like … there was a lot of emotion, there really was,” Ciolfi recalled Sunday night not too long after the same Classical squad responsible for North Smithfield’s lone blemish celebrated on the Ryan Center’s floor as newly-crowned state champs.
“I think the long ride was almost a blessing because by the time it ended, the (seniors) who aren’t returning were in the back of the bus and we started to put into perspective that there’s no reason for us to hang our heads. It took the best team in the state thirty-one-and-a-half minutes to beat us,” Ciolfi continued. “When we started to talk about what we did … I think they’re too young to even appreciate it right now.
“Once they’re 27 or 30-years-old, they’ll look back and these high school seasons will still be going on. A Division III team may go back to the Final Four 10 years down the line, but there’s no way they can do that without mentioning us, and I think that’s pretty cool,” was Ciolfi taking stock in how this group of Northmen hoopsters will be remembered down the line.
The mentor who seemed to be on par with his players in terms of enjoying the magic carpet ride of the past four months crossed paths with several Northmen at Saturday’s state cheerleading meet at the Providence Career & Technical Academy field house. The pain of losing had subsided to the point that Ciolfi called out one final play – call it a desire to never forget.
“They were happy to see each other again,” Ciolfi said. “The only thing I ask of them is that I hope they stay in touch with each other and me. I really think we have a tremendous bond.”
***
You could probably count on one hand the number of folks living outside of North Smithfield’s borders who earnestly believed that a tiny school competing in the state’s lowest division could hang with the big boys. Those same non-believers probably weren’t paying much attention, for if they merely scraped beyond the surface, they would have realized that these Northmen featured a nucleus that pound-for-pound rivaled or exceeded many R.I. clubs.
That said, the distinction the Northmen earned as a Division III member that happened to reach the Final Four has helped further the belief that the open-tournament format is liquid gold. The first year the Interscholastic League staged an all-inclusive event saw two Division II participants crash the Final Four party with Tiverton reaching the 2011 title game. Two years later, this great experiment seems to have turned up roses once again, but not all that glitters is gold, at least to Ciolfi.
“It’s a good story for us, but if you look at the Division II teams, Cumberland really stands out. (Saturday at the PCTA), I got a chance to talk to a player on that Cumberland team and the only thing I said was to remember that you’re a state champion. You won your division and that’s what the goal is,” Ciolfi said. “For one team like us to go on a ride like we did or what Tiverton did a few years ago, it legitimizes (the open tourney) to the people who need to feel that.
“In reality I’m not a big fan of this tournament, which I’ve been clear on,” Ciolfi expressed. “Last year we played North Providence (in the states) and had no business being in the same gym as them [the Cougars walloped the Northmen, 99-59] and I think that’s the case more times than not.
“As far as this year, we proved that we did belong and I’m happy about it, but I find it hard to belief that this is the right way year after year,” Ciolfi delved further. “You look at like Cumberland that won its division and celebrated like rock stars that night. They earned every single moment. To let them walk off the court as losers [Cumberland fell to Prout in the Round of 16], I don’t understand that.”
On the opposite side of the equation, Sunday’s title game participants are prime examples of what can happen when you know there’s a second chance. Neither Classical nor North Kingstown captured the Division I flag. Each team took its mulligan and pressed forward.
“In Division I, you get two bites at the apple. In Division III, you get no bites,” Ciolfi said. “As we stand here right now, who’s the best team in Division II? Is it Prout because they played us (in the state quarterfinals) or Cumberland for winning the tournament? Is it Shea? No one knows and I think that kind of ambiguity kind of hurts the season as a whole.”
***
Switching gears, Ciolfi was asked about what stands out the most: North Smithfield reaching the R.I. Final Four, hoisting the Division III hardware, or winning 26 straight.
“It’s complicated. In my head I think 24-0 and winning that championship … if it had ended right there, it would have been absolutely perfect,” he responded. “To go to the Final Four was tremendous, but when I look back, I’m going to remember the undefeated season and the Division III championship for a long time.”
***
They may have resided in the shadows and watched from the bench as teammates Matt Walkow, Dan Jordan, Walker Strick, Cody L’Heureux, Peter Keenan and Bruno Pena carved up opponent after opponent, but Ciolfi expressed gratitude to North Smithfield’s reserve players for hanging in there. Someone had to check Walkow in practice, and while Player X was clearly no match, the effort did not go unnoticed.
“They were in the layup line at the Ryan Center. How many 13-year-old kids can say they did that?” Ciolfi said. “They were on the team and should be proud because everyone of those kids earned that spot. We pulled some kids up from J.V. that showed an incredible work ethic. They were all onboard.”
***
Regarding paying proper tribute to North Smithfield’s remarkable campaign, Ciolfi mentioned he has a few ideas up his sleeve.
“Whatever funds are available, we’re going to exhaust them down to zero to celebrate the season,” he said. “I don’t know what the money looks like, but if we can have a banquet, raise a banner and buy some rings, whatever the maximum amount of appreciation we can give the kids is what we’re going to give them. It’s been an once-in-a-lifetime season and I’d like them to have an once-in-a-lifetime party to celebrate. ”

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