The best Whaler story of them all
Mohegan — If 31 years is enough time to accrue some absorbing historical perspective — and in New London they may think 31 years barely gets you past the concept of “novice” — then this is offered for your consideration:
In an athletic program known for all the big, green banners in their home gym …
In the pantheon of brilliant coaches — Buonocore, Conway, Weiss, O’Brien, Varjas, Roggero, Pennella, Dugan, Misto and Parker …
Tammy Millsaps just authored the greatest single season coaching job of them all in Whaler lore and legend.
She won a state championship with seven kids in the entire program Sunday night — she played but five in the game — as the Whalers raised another one, their third girls’ basketball title in the last 10 years, holding off Mercy, 57-47, at Mohegan Sun Arena.
Millsaps’ reaction to being told this may have been the greatest trick of them all in Whalerville, was classic.
“I would say thank you,” she said. “In coaching, you say thank you when you hear things like that because they’re gonna kick you in the butt the next day. I say thank you and keep it moving.”
So how did the Whalers do this against meticulous Mercy, coached by Tim Kohs, who happens to be one of the state’s best?
Serenity Lancaster’s 24 points is a good start. But it turned out that the answer was in GameDay’s season preview video, shot four months earlier. Many of the Eastern Connecticut Conference’s best players were asked for a one-liner that described the hope and wonder of the season ahead. (The personal favorite was Marissa Nudd of Bacon Academy, who reminded us that “everything’s better with Bacon.”)
Then came Nalyce Dudley’s turn. Dudley, the Whalers’ Sacred Heart-bound senior, offered, “Welcome To Dudleyville.” But who knew that of all the gin joints in all the world, “Dudleyville’s” true homestead would be Mohegan Sun Arena on championship night?
It wasn’t merely Nalyce and her 13 points, but her freshman sister Nyarah, whose 14 points were more valuable than a spleen.
Nyarah banked in a jumper with Mercy in high speed pursuit on the last play of the third quarter give the eventual champs a 38-33 lead. (Kohs threw up his hands after that one.) She made a 3-pointer with 4:35 left to push the lead to six before keeping the rebound off an errant free throw alive that led to Lancaster’s layup and an eight-point lead.
But then, Nyarah’s resume before basketball featured boxing and playing safety in youth football. Part of her hair, the part she pulled back, (as many girls’ basketball players do) was fuschia. Sorry. You don’t do stuff like that unless you have some gas in the tank. And that kind of fearlessness maybe makes a championship game in the Big Room not so daunting.
“I don’t know what to say,” Nyarah said after the game, a mix of joyousness and speechlessness. So her sister came to the rescue.
“When I see her, I see me,” Nalyce said. “I know she’s a freshman. I know we only have seven girls. We had to figure out the little puzzle pieces.”
The little puzzle pieces. Puzzling to many onlookers Sunday night, somewhere between confused and exasperated that Millsaps never went to her bench, despite foul trouble climbing like a hungry bear.
Yet her players remained calmer than a lagoon. Nothing to see here. It was just like every other day and every other demanding practice. As Gil Varjas used to say to his baseball players, “nothing will ever be harder than me.”
When it was over, the kids in the student section began the haunting “WHAY-LURZ, WHAY-LURZ” chant that’s normally saved for the biggies. The tone suggests that, well, we’re the Whalers and you’re not. It drives opponents daffy, which is why they do it in the first place.
But of all the times we’ve heard the chant, the circumstances have never been like this. Seven kids. All year. Coaches forced to practice. No excuses. No mercy. And then they beat Mercy. For it all.
This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro