By Mal Boright
For the Champlain Valley Union (CVU) High School girls basketball team, Tuesday night was just another early March evening at the office.
Well, that is if you are in the annual state crown business. And coach Ute Otley’s Redhawks are very much in that business.
The task before them Tuesday was putting the lid on a third consecutive Division 1 championship, a third undefeated season in a row, and their D-I record-setting 71st consecutive victory.
Their 41-23 triumph over challenging Essex High got the job done quite nicely, thank you.
It was a red and white evening from the first words of CVU sophomore Katie Usher’s sensitive and warm singing of the Star Spangled Banner through to the annual ritual of the cutting of the nets by coach Otley and her team.
Prior to the opening tap (as usual won by CVU), there was lingering uncertainty about how this contest might go. Third-seeded Essex had put up a clogging, bristling 2-3 zone in turning back second-seeded Bellows Free Academy of St. Albans 39-34 in its semifinal, limiting the Comets to a paltry 3-for-19 from the threebie zone. BFA had defeated Essex twice in the regular season.
CVU held a pair of regular season triumphs over the Hornets, but the second game, in early February at CVU, was a ding dong doozie. The Redhawks came from four points down in the final minute to force overtime before escaping with a 43-37 victory.
And the game was a defensive grind into the middle of the third quarter as CVU clung to a shaky 19-17 lead after missing its first five shots of the third quarter. The Hornets were no better from the field, having scored in the first minute of the half on a pair of free throws by Emily Goodrich.
The game changer (she does this a lot) was senior CVU guard Caitlin Grasso who swished a mid-range jumper with 3:45 left, on a pass from Laurel Jaunich. Amanda Daniels quickly stole the ball back for CVU and Grasso found an open Marlee Gunn who drilled a booming trey to send the Redhawks on their merry way.
That merry way meant offensive rebounds and points as CVU, following an Essex miss and Jaunich rebound (one of her 10), held the ball at its end for next minute. A flurry of seven rebounds from the offensive board and five points got the Redhawks in front by 29-17 and Jaunich’s layup made it 31-17 by quarter’s end.
Essex was cooked. The CVU defense held the Hornets to just two connections in 21 shots over the closing 16 minutes.
“We are a second half team,” said junior guard Sadie Otley (9 points, 2 assists) of her third title team in three seasons. “We are in good shape and the other teams tire.”
Coach Otley was emphatic in her praise of CVU’s decisive “board ownership” minute.
That was all Laurel (Jaunich), Amari (Boyd), and Marlee (Gunn),” she said of the suddenly dominant board cleaners. Fot the game, CVU held a 39-27 advantage on the glass led by Jaunich (10), Annabella Pugliese (7) followed by Boyd and Gunn with five each.
Pugliese also blocked three Essex shots as did Jaunich.
Asked which she gets a bigger kick from, rebound or rejection, Pugliese was quick to answer, “Rejection,” with a grin.
The junior Jaunich, with a solid all-around game in this her third crowning effort in three years of varsity play, led all scorers with 16 points and added two assists and two steals.
Recalling the thrill of winning over Rice Memorial her freshman season and last year’s final seconds victory over Rice on Amanda Lougee’s game-winning foul shots, Jaunich added that while six graduated from the 2014 champs the fact “we have been playing together since the fifth grade,” was important.
Game stats showed CVU with 37.5 percent (15-for40) from the field and Essex just 22 per cent (9-for-41).
A key to the outcome, according to coach Othely, was that defenders Grasso, Laura Durkee and others were able to hold Hornets floor general Mychaela Harton under control.
“Mychaela is a good player. She was the key (15 points, 3 rebounds, 2 assists) in their win over BFA,” Otley said. The Redhawks kept Harton under feathers with nary a point.
Boyd and Grasso were the lone seniors on the latest Redhawks edition. Essex also had but two seniors, Alexis Britch and Alex Esposito.