WORCESTER – Winning the state title proved to be a feat too tall for the 2011 Watertown boys’ basketball team, as they fell 42-36 to Whitinsville Christian Saturday at the DCU Center.
A large obstacle, in the form of the Crusaders’ 6-9 center Hans Miersma, prevented the Raiders from getting their offense on track, but Watertown’s outside shooting and tenacious defense kept the game close to the end.
Early in the game, it looked like Watertown’s outside game might be enough, as the Raiders took a 9-2 lead in the first quarter thanks to three bombs from senior Cory Donohue.
Whitinsville Christian head coach Jeff Bajema changed up his defense for Watertown after seeing their speed and ability to penetrate on tape. Rather than go with a man-on-man approach, he had his team run a zone all game. He had his doubts early.
“With this team, they spread you out if you play them man,” Bajema said. “We sat in the zone, and it was hard to do when we were down 9-2. But being stubborn pays, for once.
The scoring of Miersma and sophomore guard Colin Richey allowed the Crusaders to close the game to 9-7 after the first quarter.
Whitinsville Christian took a lead a few minutes into the second period thanks to the shooting of Taylor Bajema, the coach’s son, who scored half of his team-high 14 points that quarter.
The Crusaders limited Watertown to six points in the second and took a 21-15 lead going into the locker room.
Watertown head coach Steve Harrington, who was looking for his third title, said his team had their chances to get back into the game.
“In the second half we were down six, I don’t think we even got a shot off for four or five trips. I didn’t think we took advantage of that,” Harrington said. “We make a shot or two, (and) that would have made it close. I thought we could have made a run there.”
The teams battled back and fourth in the third, but Whitinsville Christian took its largest lead of the game – 8 points – after a flurry of scoring by Bajema, Richey and Miersma.
A basket by Watertown’s Connor Stockdale narrowed the lead to 30-24 after the third quarter. The senior center scored all four of his points in the third quarter.
The Raiders would not back down, and a Donohue three pointer early in the fourth and then tied it at 30 with his fifth three-pointer with five minutes left in the contest. The tie was short lived as Richey sprinted down court for a layup to give the lead back to the Crusaders.
Coppola, the Raiders’ scoring leader all year, continued to look for baskets, and scored 6 points in the fourth, but only his one jumper. He also sank four free throws.
Down the stretch, the game got frenzied, with both teams throwing the ball away, fouling and generally getting physical. This was not what Whitinsville Christian usually encounters.
“They’re tough. It was like a war. I think we had four guys with bandages on,” Bajema said. “They are good, they didn’t make the final for no reason.”
Watertown clawed back, and after Coppola drove down the lane and hit a scoop shot, the Raiders were within three points.
The Crusaders had to earn the win on the foul line. Miersma struggled, hitting three of seven in the final quarter, but Bajema made three of four in the last 15 seconds to give Whitinsville Christian the 42-36 win.
The victory was the second for the Crusaders (23-2), who also won in 2005. The school runs from kindergarten through high school, so Miersma and the seniors remember the first title.
“I was in sixth grade then, I’ve been at the school since kindergarten,” Miersma said. “This is the way to go out.”
Watertown played the game Harrington wanted, but they just came up short, he said.
“I thought we actually played very well,” Harrington said. “(The Crusaders) are a tough team, they are long. Their zone bothered us.
“We had to fight, scrap for lose balls and get our hands in there and make it a tight game, and I thought we did that. I couldn’t of asked for much more.”
Watertown finishes the season 19-6, and the game marks the end of the career for a dozen seniors, include the five starters – Coppola, Stockdale, Donohue, Danny Kelly and Tyler Romanelli.
Coppola, who Harrington said is strongly considering going to WPI next year, leaves as one of the Raiders all-time best.
“Marco was a hell of a player, one of the best to wear that uniform,” Harrington said. “He’s hurting right now, but he’ll get through this, and he’ll have a great a college career.”