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McGair: Open tournament is here to stay

March 14, 2011

SRA head coach Tom Sorrentine signals instructions to his players during first-half action Saturday night against Tiverton.

The great unknown turned into the great success for boys’ basketball in Rhode Island. Thanks to the countless thrills and memories the all-inclusive state tournament provided, the format of crowning one undisputed champion is likely here to stay.
“I can’t foresee anything other than what we’ve had these past couple of weeks,” stated Interscholastic League executive director Tom Mezzanotte moments after handing out trophies to champion St. Raphael Academy and runner-up Tiverton Saturday night. “We may do a little tweaking here and there, but to give kids in every division an opportunity to win a state championship … there are teams out there that beat St. Ray’s and Tiverton and are saying, ‘Hey, we can be the state champion.’ You never know.”
What we do know is that virtually all of the games were pressure packed and tightly contested. From Tiverton and Central engaging in a double overtime thriller to Cranston West and North Providence going down to the last possession, each contest served as a reminder that on any given night – regardless if you’re public or private, higher division or lower – any team is fully capable of winning.
Tiverton certainly made good on those promises when the Tigers ended Bishop Hendricken’s seven-year championship run. Such a performance played right into the “Hoosiers” notion, one that suggests giving so-called smaller schools a chance to hang tough with the proverbial big boys.
“We’ve always been in favor of an open tournament, and I thought this tournament proved that,” said Gerry Arcouette, Tiverton’s head coach. “The credit goes to the Interscholastic League and the Basketball Coaches’ Association for getting us this.”
The fact that the Final Four field consisted of two teams hailing from Division II should be all the sufficient evidence needed in adjudicating that this open derby format works. Had the top four seeds – Cranston West, Central, Hendricken and Coventry – advanced with no problems, it perhaps would have caused some to think twice about making this something other than a one-year wonder. It didn’t work out that way because boys’ basketball in this state has reached a point where there is no dominant team in place.
Yes, Hendricken’s lengthy stay at the top is hardly news, yet we should remember that there were a few close calls along the way. The Hawks needed a shot by Joe Mazzulla in the closing seconds to beat Cranston West in 2006 and were pushed to the limit by Woonsocket in 2008 before prevailing in overtime.
The general consensus prior to the start of the open tourney was that a host of teams could end up being the last one standing. The premise wasn’t biased toward the usual powers, hence why it wasn’t a shocker to see Division I teams fall and Division II teams advance. St. Raphael discovered that Tiverton and North Providence are just as dangerous as Central and Hendricken. The fact that the Tigers and Cougars are based in Div. II meant very little in the Saints’ quest to reach the pinnacle.
“Tiverton gave us a run for the money,” said SRA boss Tom “Saar” Sorrentine.
As Mezzanotte noted, expect changes to the existing arrangement. That could include anything from how many bids are doled out to how to slot teams. For this 16-team lively experiment, the format was such that the first eight placements were awarded to Division I schools, Nos. 9-13 to Division II and the last three to Division III. The field was also all but determined prior to the start of the divisional tournaments, which removed all of the drama regarding who’s in and who’s on the bubble.
Here’s one suggestion: regionalize the open tournament. Create four, six-team brackets that would cover all the parts of the state, then pit the winners in a four-team, winner-take-all sequence. Certainly this sort of twist would give more teams a fighting shot, a complaint echoed by many coaches who saw their seasons end by February vacation.
What we do know is that the open tournament, for a first time event, fulfilled its mission of settling which team is truly the best. That can only mean good news going forward.
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For those bemoaning the fact St. Raphael did not run into a single Division I team, stop. It’s not SRA’s fault that West Warwick took out Coventry, or that Cranston West, Central and Hendricken were banished. That’s how the brackets shake down sometimes, as the Saints simply played the hand they were dealt.
“It just ended up that (North Providence and Tiverton) ended up knocking off those other teams,” said Sorrentine. “We were figuring that we would run into Cranston West at some point. It just didn’t work out that way.”
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Before the open tournament the Saints were reeling, having dropped four of seven games. Seeing a dip in the team’s overall defense, Sorrentine made it a point in the playoffs to station one of his 6-footers – Trevor Vasey, Davon Robertson and Ben Pillsbury – at the foul line. That in turn forced the opposition’s perimeter threats to hoist up shots that probably were out of their comfort zone. Sorrentine also felt that Vasey and Robertson had enough lateral quickness to hustle under the basket to grab rebounds or contest shots, which is why the veteran coach didn’t view the move as a complete gamble.
“We played our best defense in the playoffs,” noted Sorrentine. Truer words were never spoken as Saints allowed an average of 50 points in the statewide tourney. That’s a far cry from the 92 points Coventry amassed in a 20-point loss on Jan. 31.
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Sorrentine and Tiverton’s Arcouette frequently bump into one other during the summer in Little Compton. So when Sorrentine wanted to get in a scrimmage prior to the open tournament, naturally he phoned his good buddy Arcouette.
Little did both coaches know that in two week’s time they would meet with a state title on the line.
“It’s funny how we ended up playing each other,” smiled Sorrentine.
Echoed Arcouette, “We knew after that scrimmage that St. Raphael is an outstanding team. We’re just glad that we were able to make it here. I thought we gave them a game, but they prevailed so the credit goes to them.”
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After nearly a decade in the high school basketball wilderness, the Saints are once again champions. For a program that was viewed by many as the state’s gold standard at the dawn of the century, the fact St. Raphael is back after a prolonged absence can be traced to Sorrentine’s commitment and passion for coaching. The title is now his sixth since taking over for the late Dennis M. Lynch Jr. in the late 80s.
“Saar is a legend. He’s definitely one of the best basketball coaches in the state, if not the best. He has the rings to show it,” said Vasey. “Sometimes he says stuff that you might not tend to agree with, but you look back and it all makes sense.”
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Is it too early to ahead at next season? Not if you look and see that Sorrentine will welcome back Charles Correa, the talented point guard who took his game to another level during this tournament. Cesar Mejia will also return in addition to notable contributors Jordan Peguero, Davon Robertson and Terrence Manning. That’s a pretty good nucleus to start with, one now with some championship pedigree attached.
Said Mejia, “We’ve got a shot to keep it going.”

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