Whalers Won’t Wallow In Defeat

Centereach, NY - 2/15/19 - Pierson girls basketballl v Smithtown Christian at Centereach in Centereach, NY February 15, 2019. (Photo by Gordon M. Grant)
Independent/Gordon M. Grant

Katie Kneeland was crying tears of joy as she walked off the court Saturday afternoon.

After her Pierson basketball team’s historic season came to an end with a 55-26 loss to defending state champion Milbrook in the regional final at SUNY New Paltz March 9, Kneeland admitted she was sad, but she couldn’t help looking back on all the success that came with this season. The Whalers went on a 19-game win streak, finished 16-0 in conference play for the League VI title, took home Class C/D and B/C/D crowns, and played in the small school championship before the regional final.

“I was actually crying happy tears in the end because I had so much fun in the process,” said Kneeland, who entered the game averaging 19 points, and scored just nine, but ends her career with 1,043. “For me, I didn’t reflect on the end result, I reflected on all the relationships I had made and the fun times I’ve had in the gym.”

For Kneeland, things also came full circle. She started her varsity career as an eighth grader, which was the last year the Whalers made it to the regional final.

“I’ve done a full loop and ended back here,” Kneeland said. “It took five years to get us back there, but it made the accomplishment feel very deserved. Three wins against Mattituck also made us all very happy — that’s always been one of our goals because we hadn’t beaten them in seven years.”

Millbrook went on an 11-0 run right out of the gate, led by junior forward Erin Fox, who led all scorers with 26 points. Pierson (19-5) didn’t score until Kneeland hit a three-pointer with 1:14 left in the first quarter. By halftime the Blazers led 27-7.

“I actually thought we prepared pretty well, and defensively I don’t think we did a bad job,” head coach Kevin Barron said. “Our game plan was to double-team as much as possible.”

He added, “With Erin Fox, there’s not much you can do when you’re up against a player that is that dominant — she kind of takes over the whole game. She’s an extremely smart player, getting in good positions and dishing the ball off at the right times. She was ready to play against our defense, but I think we did an excellent job against the other players we were preparing for, like Sam McKenna, who in one game we watched hit eight three-pointers.”

McKenna, another future college player who averaged 19 points per game heading in, finished with 13 points.

Pierson, which trailed by 25 entering the final quarter, was hurt when one of its top scorers, Chastin Giles, couldn’t get her shots to fall. She finished the year averaging 12 points per game, but was held to just one in her final appearance this season.

“I just had a very hard time scoring,” Giles said. “Everyone has their off days.”

Barron said it was a credit to Milbrook, which normally plays a 3-2 defense, but sat in a 2-3 zone, he thinks, to keep Giles from driving to the basket. The Blazers put a six-foot girl right in the center to block shots.

“They totally smothered us with their defense,” Barron said. “We were struggling to shoot and get open shots inside, and when you can’t get inside, you have to be on with your shots from the outside.”

Senior Celia Barranco, who hit two from three-point range, finished with a team-high 10 points for Pierson. Seniors Phoebe Arkinson, Aziza El, and Paige Schaefer each added two.

The End Of An Era

Kneeland, along with eight other seniors, bid farewell to the team. Barron said it was emotional for everybody, especially subbing the seniors out at the end of the game to give the younger players a taste of high-level varsity competition.

“It was tough for me,” he said, adding it was also hard on Kneeland’s father George and her uncle Woody, Barron’s assistants. “I’ve been with these girls for a long time, and so have they, so it was a lot for everybody. Obviously, we had high hopes for this game, and have been through a lot together.”

After 11 years coaching, seven with the varsity girls program, Barron is also stepping aside to focus on his family.

“This is the best team I’ve coached in terms of success and all-around chemistry on and off the court,” he said. “These girls were a very tight-knit group and that even showed more on this little trip to New Paltz — eating dinner on the bus ride together they had so much fun. The laughs we had . . . I think a lot of memories were created there.”

Barron said being a coach is something he’s wanted to do since he decided to become a teacher in high school.

“It was for this exact reason,” he said. “I always had such great relationships with my coaches when I was in high school and in college and I wanted to form those same relationships with kids. It’s different when you’re a teacher up in front of a classroom. You get to see kids in a different light on the court and be more interactive with them and just learn more about them.”

That’s why he said he thinks he isn’t turning his back on it just yet.

“I don’t think I’m done with coaching,” Barron said. “This is just a temporary break. Being a parent right now, I have to be able to spend more time at home, because I did miss a lot the last few years. Living in Center Moriches, the travel back and forth late at night after practice and games has been wearing on me. I just want to take a little bit of a break.”

Kneeland, who grew up with a basketball in her hand, will be moving on from the court, and is currently in pursuit of her private pilot’s license. She’s cherished being able to have the unique opportunity to play with her family so close by her side.

“My dad has pushed me hard on the off-season to work on my game and get my shot down,” she said. “Every time I’m with him we’re playing basketball, and that’s why I’m the shooter I am today. Working with coach so many years, he’s also almost family to me. I will miss that a lot,” she said.

Kneeland added, “Basketball itself has shaped me into a very organized and driven person. It has given me confidence in other areas of my life where I never thought I could go, such as flying. Being a small school, we may end up having a less-skilled team than the bigger schools, but I would say by far we have the most heart. It’s how we’ve been able to make a name for ourselves in many sports.”

Don’t Count Them Out Next Season

While graduating most of the team can seem daunting, fans can relish in the fact that the junior varsity team went undefeated this season. Kneeland sees nothing but good things for the year ahead.

“There are some incredible athletes on that team that are capable of forming a state-bound team in the future,” the senior said. “And even one of our freshmen, Sofia Mancino, was one of the loudest girls on the court.”

Barron said several of the junior varsity girls got to travel with the team upstate, getting a taste of the playoff atmosphere, and already started forming relationships with the other girls. He added they were crucial components during practice. The coach said he’s even seen numbers in the youth circuit continue to rise with each season. Giles is happy to be a part of it.

“Basketball means everything to me, and I’m excited to see how Pierson basketball grows,” Giles said. “I would love to pave a path or inspire other kids to want to work hard for this game and be as motivated as me and my team were this year. I’m looking forward to next year, and I know it’s only going to get better, because Pierson basketball never regresses. We will only get better from here.”

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