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    Tuesday, February 27, 2024

    St. Bernard’s Mark Jones: Now a forever state champion

    St. Bernard head coach Mark Jones, right, holds up the state championship trophy to his players after the Saints defeated Staples 63-50 in Sunday night’s CIAC Division II final at Mohegan Sun Arena. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    Mohegan — Mark Jones, a young man by any measure, nonetheless owns a lengthy basketball resume — all-state high school player and Division I college player, later adding some college coaching experience to his current perch: rebuilder of the proud program at St. Bernard.

    And while it would be unfair to say the metaphorical albatross hovers over a man with such credentials, there’s one subject that creates a wince here, an ache there. Jones came within an eyelash of a state title while playing at Norwich Free Academy, 22 years ago. Just as it eluded him that day, it has a St. Bernard, too, falling short in the quarterfinals and semifinals the two previous seasons.

    And then at 7:42 on Sunday night, Mark Jones got his state championship.

    St. Bernard 63, Staples 50.

    “There’s Marcus (Outlow) over there, Lamar (Mikel) and Mark,” said Neal Curland, who was NFA’s coach 22 years ago, later mentioning that Jones was the Most Valuable Player in the title game that NFA lost. “They’re another family to me. Maybe this makes up for it for Mark. But he’s so competitive. All I know is he and those kids really worked hard for this.”

    And then it was over, they made the mad dash to midcourt, later holding up their ring fingers for all to see.

    “It does make up for it,” Jones said, grinning after the game. “I’m just so happy for these kids. They worked their butts off for this.”

    Jones’ players knew how badly the state championshipship loss stung him.

    “Mark is a Norwich guy. I’m a Norwich guy. Half the team is Norwich guys. Mark means everything to us,” senior Cedrick Similien said. “We’re all just so happy we could do this for him.”

    This was St. Bernard’s first state title since 1982. Jones and the team got a pep talk from the centerpiece of the 1982 team, future NBA forward Harold Pressley, Saturday night. The win also marked the fifth straight state tournament that an ECC school has won a basketball title.

    St. Bernard joins the New London girls (2017), Waterford boys (2018, 2019) and Windham boys (2022). There were no tournaments in 2020 and 2021.

    And now the Saints are hanging another banner, back in the fraternity. With their championship coach.

    “I came to St. Bernard to play for Mark Jones,” senior Tyson Wheeler said. “I probably had my mind up since the sixth grade. Wherever he went to coach, that’s where I was going.”

    m.dimauro@theday.com

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