Woodstock joins Waterford as ECC's second straight first-timer

Mohegan

Woodstock. Go ahead. Knock on your neighbor's door and say the following:

"The final Jeopardy answer is Woodstock."

Your neighbor will respond, "where did I hear Arlo Guthrie?" or "Who is Snoopy's best friend?"

But will your neighbor say, "what is Connecticut's hottest new basketball town?"

Doubtful.

Or: "What is Connecticut's newest state championship basketball town?"

Please.

And then along came St. Patty's Day Eve, 2013.

That's when the unthinkable happened: Woodstock Academy, which many people never knew was even in Connecticut before Saturday, became a basketball state champion for the first time.

This was one year and one day after the unthinkable happened: Waterford High, which many people never knew had a basketball program, became a basketball state champion for the first time.

Two straight years, two first-timers from the Eastern Connecticut Conference.

And just about the two best coaching jobs anybody's ever seen in this corner of the world.

Maybe it's the magic of the name "Greg."

Greg Gwudz in 2012.

Greg Smith in 2013.

Start the statue process forthwith.

Because nobody - nobody - could ever say with a straight face they ever saw this coming.

The Centaurs, three days after taking down favored Bunnell of Stratford in the semifinals, had to seemingly walk barefoot up the Appalachian Trail to make history, but outlasted favored Trinity Catholic of Stamford, 52-49, before a howling crowd at Mohegan Sun Arena, which included most of Woodstock.

Loud, proud Woodstock.

"At the (pre-tournament) banquet the other day, I think most people in the room thought we were a hockey team," junior guard Chris Lowry said.

"We heard 'where is Woodstock?' all season," senior Ian Converse said. "No one knows where we are. Coach compared it to 'Hoosiers.' A bunch of white kids who live on the farmland and came out of nowhere."

An inquiring mind asked Converse if that made him Jimmy Chitwood.

Converse: "I guess so. But I can't shoot like him."

But then, Chitwood couldn't negotiate the traffic in the post like Converse, who, in case prospective college coaches are reading, isn't being recruited to play basketball. It's Worcester Polytechnic Institute for soccer at the moment. And Converse said financial issues may preclude that from happening.

Note to prospective college basketball coaches: Call this kid in the next five minutes.

Converse's story personifies the unlikelihood of it all. He was 5-foot-9 as a freshman at Woodstock. Now he is 6-foot-5. He played junior varsity last season. He was the best player on the floor Saturday.

"The whole bus ride up," Converse said, "we were all shaking."

Imagine: The biggest venue and the biggest crowd and the biggest circumstances any of them had ever seen. And they played great. Especially considering degree of difficulty.

Woodstock's ascent to the top of Connecticut is a great lesson to the entire ECC. But it's a case study for many in the "quiet corner" who perpetuate an annoying inferiority complex. Woodstock has illustrated there is life beyond the Quinebaug Valley Conference.

Smith said he never had to convince his kids they "only" played at Woodstock.

"They believed in themselves," Smith said. "It started at the end of last season in the weight room. They got stronger. We've been talking from day one about hanging banners in the Woodstock Academy Fieldhouse.

"The day after tryouts," Smith said, "we told them we were going to hang an ECC championship and a state championship banner in our gym. We've got a for real floor (in the fieldhouse) because the people believe in us. We brought a whole community together at a time when Woodstock Academy was being questioned by others. They're not questioning us anymore."

Imagine: a year ago at this time, Ian Converse, 23 points and 11 rebounds in the championship game, was a junior varsity player. Sullivan Gardner, the rugged post player, was a football player. Now they are part of lore and legend.

"To win here, with these guys, it's an unbelievable feeling," Smith said. "I'm floating. Absolutely floating. You saw that crowd. Was that ridiculous how many fans we had?"

This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro.

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