Poirier-Vaughters is back home again for ECC tournament champion NFA

Mohegan — Makayla Poirier-Vaughters stepped away from the game for a year.

Then, not only was she hounded by her Norwich Free Academy girls' basketball teammates to return this season, but she felt pulled back to the game in another way. Basketball was a bond she shared with her late father Karon Vaughters, who died suddenly of a heart attack in the summer of 2017, just before Makayla's sophomore year.

"If he was here, he'd be so proud," Poirier-Vaughters said late Tuesday night from the floor at Mohegan Sun Arena. "This was a dream of ours.

"I knew I needed to come back."

Poirier-Vaughters, the 6-foot senior center, finished with 24 points to help lift NFA to the Eastern Connecticut Conference Division I tournament championship before 2,253 fans under the glimmering lights of the Sun.

The top-seeded Wildcats beat No. 3 Bacon Academy 58-30 to win their first ECC tournament title since 2016, unaffected by the enormity of the stage on which they played, although NFA junior Sarah Ericson would say later that the vision of herself on the arena's gigantic overhead scoreboard may have been a little bit too "up close and personal."

Poirier-Vaughters was named the tournament's Most Outstanding Player and she carried with her the oversized trophy which branded her as such, grinning into the night.

Poirier-Vaughters is cheerful, gracious and well-spoken. But she admits she used to "get angry down in the post" during her sophomore season in 2017-18.

She stopped playing after that, but now you see she has come back even stronger.

She earned first team All-ECC Division I honors, leading NFA (19-4) to a share of the league's ECC Division I regular-season title a year after the Wildcats finished 10-12. NFA is ranked fourth in the GameTimeCT Top 10 poll, which delineates the state's finest teams.

"I've matured a lot," Poirier-Vaughters said. "I know the most important thing is to keep my composure in these games."

"I think first of all, I'm so proud of Makayla," NFA first-year coach and former Wildcats all-state point guard Courtney Gomez said. "What a way to come back. She's so resilient, the way she's playing through adversity. She probably did lose a little love for the game, but she got it back this year. When you watch her play, you see that heart and soul."

Returning hasn't been the simplest task for Poirier-Vaughters, either. To start, she was out of shape from the year off. Then, just as she worked her way back into the familiar rhythms of the post, she suffered a concussion on Feb. 6 which would keep her out of the lineup for the last three regular-season games. The Wildcats went 1-2 during that span with losses to East Hartford (54-38) and Bacon Academy (53-52).

Poirier-Vaughters returned to the floor for an ECC tournament quarterfinal triumph against Ledyard, finishing with seven points, just enough to ease her way back into the lineup. The semifinals against East Lyme went to overtime. Poirier-Vaughters led the way with 18 points, as NFA joyfully booked a date to play in the championship game at Mohegan Sun.

Her teammates, who spent time last season telling Poirier-Vaughters "you can can always come back, you know" are more than happy to have her in their midst again.

"She wants to win more than anyone. Sometimes you just stop and watch her when she's playing and say 'I don't know how she did that,'" Ericson said. "Everyone loves her here. We've been waiting for her to come back. Now it's like, 'Thank you, Makayla. Thank you.'"

"She's a strong player. Who can guard her down there?" Gomez said. "It's obvious how much she means to us when we play without her and when we play with her. The girls know they have to get her the basketball."

Poirier-Vaughters came off the floor Tuesday to an embrace from Gomez. Later, after the final buzzer sounded, former coach Bill Scarlata sought her out and hugged her, as well.

Poirier-Vaughters' dad, Karon, just 44 when he died, was a former basketball player at NFA, too. His funeral service was held in the school's gymnasium, in fact, Alumni Hall.

Now Makayla is back spending time in the gym at NFA again, too. She's uncertain what her future in the game will hold past this season. Gomez believes the "sky is the limit" for her center. But first, Poirier-Vaughters has the Class LL state tournament for which she will wear jersey No. 20 in the red and white.

Back home again.

v.fulkerson@theday.com

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