GLENS FALLS – Middle Early College has been pretty dialed in during the playoffs, but the Kats played their best games in the most important ones of the season this weekend.
Their reward: the championship.
The Kats did it. They achieved their seasonlong quest of winning the New York State Public High Schools Athletic Association Class C championship by overwhelming Section I champion Haldane, 82-40, before an estimated 2,200 fans at Glens Falls Civic Center.
Middle College (20-7) made the Blue Devils (17-10) pay the price for defensive gimmickry early by raining threes during an explosive first half. The Kats then simply did as they pleased as they were simply too tough and too determined for underdog Haldane to handle Saturday night.
Middle College made the state semifinal Class C bracket look like men against boys as seniors Gary Foster and Joseph Staton alternated making big shots, big plays and setting up other teammates for big baskets. Foster finished with 23 points, 17 rebounds and four assists en route to earning tournament MVP honors. He had 22 points and 12 boards in Friday’s 75-51 rout of AuSable Valley.
The championship is the Kats’ second under coach Randall Rich and first since 2010. Middle College is now 2-2 in state championship games with both wins coming via blowouts.
“These were the best two games I’ve seen us play the last two years,” Rich said. “They were dialed. Tons of credit to both teams (we defeated) but we picked a great weekend to play our best basketball ever.”
“I can’t even describe this feeling,” said an elated Staton, who finished with 18 points – sinking 5 of 12 from downtown. “It’s indescribable. I feel blessed. … We played as a team. We did what we had to do to win.”
With the Blue Devils playing box and one on Foster in the first quarter, Middle College made them pay the price by running offensive plays that left either Staton or classmate Billy Rivera open from beyond the arc.
They didn’t miss when they unleashed their shots as the Kats made their first four three-point shot attempts and turned a 5-0 deficit into a 19-5 advantage in a span of 4 minutes, 44 seconds. Staton drained a pair of open threes, as did Rivera – both of whom were selected to the all-tournament team.
“We love kickout threes,” Rich said. “They’re putting two guys on one. You have Billy and JoJo. They’re going to make those shots.”
Haldane did its best to counterpunch, pulling within 23-17 on Blaine Fitzgerald’s three-point play with 5:24 left in the second quarter.
That just made the Kats angry as they closed the half on an 18-2 burst with Hakeem Dobbins sparking the run by banking in a three. Staton followed with a trey that caught nothing but net as he chipped in five points during the run. Rivera had four points.
Middle College shot only 39 percent from the floor during the first half, but drained 6 of 11 from beyond the arc for a 55-percent clip.
“They’re good,” Haldane coach Joe Virgadamo said. “There really isn’t a thing they didn’t do well.”
Rich added: “Gary Foster was intense. JoJo was precise. We made it look a lot easier than it really is.”
Saturday was the moment Middle College admittedly had been working toward since losing last year’s Far West Regional to Lyons, 67-63 – a game in which the Kats paid the price for settling for too many low-percentage shots from the perimeter instead of moving the ball and players around the offensive end.
It was a painful lesson, but one that got them headed toward paydirt this season.
“We all just came back after we lost that game … working to get this,” said Foster, who also helped South Park make history last fall by becoming the first Buffalo Public Schools football team to win a state title. “I’m just happy we got this ring.”
While the championship is Rich’s second as a head coach and third overall, the former Starling Bryant disciple soaked it all in like it was his first because in a way it was.
“It’s all about the kids,” Rich said. “It’s their first championship. It feels like my first championship.”