This season’s boys’ basketball team earned the program’s first-ever state title.
Preparation for the state championship game was underway when Whitman-Hanson Regional High boys’ basketball head coach Bob Rodgers heard his phone ring. He had a hunch what it was going to be about.
“We just finished our film session and scouting report and we were about 15 to 20 minutes into the on-court portion of practice when I got the phone call,” Rodgers said. “I stepped out of the gym to take it and walked in and I could see the kids. We all knew it was inevitable.”
The Panthers Div. 2 state title game against Taconic was canceled. While the initial reaction was heartbreaking, Rodgers said it didn’t take long to put it into perspective.
“One thing I told the kids is to look up at the banners in the gym on that boys’ basketball league championship banner, there’s a co-champion in there,” said Rodgers, who wrapped up his 20th year on the Panthers’ bench. “Nobody knows what year it is. It’s such a great accomplishment for the kids to win our first-ever state championship. It’s not going to say co-champions, it’s going to say state champions. That’s what they are.
“We were all pretty confident we were gonna be able to complete it if we were able to play that last game.”
It’s tough to argue with that. The Panthers (25-2) hadn’t lost in nearly two and a half months and were riding a state-best 23-game winning streak.
“When I realized how good of a basketball team we were was when we were at Scituate,” Rodgers said. “Scituate was an outstanding basketball team and we played near flawless basketball and made a big statement (75-45 victory).”
One of many big statements for the Panthers, who knocked off Div. 1 contenders Brockton (75-70) and Mansfield (72-59) to win the Roundball Classic, and capped the season by getting over the hump at TD Garden with an 86-68 rout of Beverly.
“The accomplishments of the team, to end the season with a win at the TD Garden,” Rodgers said, “so many positives we can take from it.”
The Panthers were buoyed by a balanced attack all season — led by senior captain Stevie Kelly. The Clarion University commit was a stat-sheet stuffer, recording 14 points, 6.3 assists, and 5.1 rebounds per game en route to being named Patriot League Keenan Division MVP.
“Stevie is a great story,” Rodgers said. “He was cut from the middle-school basketball team and he is somebody who has a tremendous work ethic and if he’s not good at something, he’s going to keep practicing it until he gets better at it. He’s like having another coach on the team. He’s one of the all-time best players that ever played at Whitman-Hanson.”
Many of Kelly’s assists were to fellow senior captain and Patriot League Keenan Division All-Star Ben Rice. Rice, who stands at 6-foot-7, knocked down 77 3-pointers, leading the team with 14.7 ppg to complement 5.9 rpg.
“He just had such a passion and love for basketball and the basketball gods rewarded him by making him 6-7,” Rodgers said of Rice, who will play at Connecticut College next season. “I think he played his best basketball at the end of the season.”
Juniors Cole LeVangie (11.4 ppg, 5 rpg) and Nate Amado (13.7 ppg, 5.4 rpg) were also named Patriot League Keenan Division All-Stars. The captain-elects combined for 99 3-pointers.
“They’re both incredible, multi-dimensional basketball players,” Rodgers said. “They can shoot it, get to the hole, they can rebound, they can handle it. They both have very similar styles of play. They’re both extremely coachable, very kind and outstanding leaders. I’m really excited about having them as the foundation for trying to continue what we’ve been having going on at Whitman-Hanson for a long time.”
Seniors Tommy Vassil (headed to play at Springfield Commonwealth Academy prep school next year) and John Zeidan were also key parts of the Panthers’ run this season.
“I consider us to be a character-based program,” Rodgers said. “We try to be the best people we can be. Not perfect people by any means but my kids take pride that they’re role models for the younger kids in the community. They have been through the Whitman-Hanson experience as kids so they recognize the importance they have on the future of Whitman-Hanson basketball and take great pride in it. For me, that’s what makes this program special.”