Trust. If you had a penny for every time you heard that cliche used in sports, you would probably have enough money to buy several slices of overpriced PTA pizza sold one Wednesday per month. However, trust is what has gotten the Bears boys’ basketball team to its first state final four in state history.
Trust is also what lifted the Bears after a 55-43 loss to Class AA opponent Spring Valley to drop their record to 8-4. That record might not seem poor, but for a program that eats, sleeps and breathes excellence, there was an air of emptiness following that Saturday loss.
“As a team we sat down and everybody shared what they thought,” Moffett said. “We said ‘Hey, let’s get back to playing with some swagger and some confidence. Let’s just try to enjoy it a little bit more.’ It was after that game of us coming together and jumping that mental toughness hurdle that we were able to put it together.”
Since then, the Bears have played like a team on a mission. The veteran group embarked on a stretch winning its last 14 games. The team has not lost in a month and a half.
Anyone who followed the Bears last year knows how unceremoniously the season ended. The Bears, the number one seed in the section, were overwhelmed by the stage and lost to their archrival, Pleasantville, in the Section 1 Championship.
“As a team we said last year we felt like we peaked early,” Moffett said. “At this point we didn’t want to go down the same road into the playoffs and not playing our best basketball.”
Although the 2017-18 Bears feature much of last year’s lineup, there was some uncertainty on the outside as to what to expect. Would the Bears recover after losing a heartbreaker and 1,000-point scorer Jack Reish?
On the inside, there was a clear answer. Beginning during offseason workouts, it was clear the team would not let it happen again. Last year’s bitter taste never left the players’ mouths. Even through the early and mid-season ups and downs, the team stuck together and forged a clear identity: a team that plays stout defense and also has five players who can score at any level.
“A lot of these guys were on the team two years ago when we won, and we rattled off a lot of wins last year,” Moffett said. “So those guys had never quite experienced what it was like to go through failure. When you add that fire to them with the addition of the experience, that’s when you have something as special as we do. They realize how precious each moment is and how to capture it while also having that experience of what needs to be done and what the next steps need to be.”
When February rolled around, the Bears went into the Section 1 playoffs riding a level of contained confidence balanced with a focused mindset. There was reason to believe the battle-tested, third-seeded Bears had what it would take to raise their second Gold Ball in three years. Both local basketball writers, Kevin Devaney Jr. and Josh Thomson, picked the Bears to win the Section based on their tough schedule, and the team never let anything on the outside get to it.
“The reason why you play good teams is to pinpoint where you are, what you need to work on, what you can get better at,” said Moffett.
The Bears defended their way to the County Center, blowing out both Pleasantville and North Salem before facing their first real test of the postseason in second-seeded Irvington in the Section 1 semifinal.
The team may have faced its late-season defining moment in the latter stages of the third quarter. A defensive struggle, the Bears had a lid on their basket for a stretch while Irvington put together a run to build a four-point lead. After a couple of turnovers, the moment seemed eerily familiar to last year’s breakdown in White Plains. Coach Cody Moffett called timeout to stop the bleeding.
“We were calm in the huddle,” Moffett said. “There was no yelling, no finger pointing. So we said let’s get back to doing what we do as far as trusting each other, and we did that. We ran a great set out of bounds, got a basket, got a few stops, Tucker hit a big basket and Jackson hit a big basket. All of the baskets they got came within a flow of trusting each other.”
The Bears showed their trust, mettle and championship DNA, surmounting the de cit and outscoring Irvington 21- 10 in the fourth quarter to advance to the Section 1 Final. They could never have overcome the situation without senior leadership.
“It’s the best leadership I’ve seen not only here coaching, but as playing as well,” Moffett said. “As a coaching staff we can try to do our best to put guys in successful positions, but when you have players holding each other accountable it really makes for a special team, and we are truly witnessing that. I’ve barely used my clipboard these last few games.”
“Team chemistry is probably the single biggest factor of our success,” said senior Jack Ryan. “We’ve done activities all year, and I think it shows on the court.”
In their three games since then, the Bears have started strong and never looked back, though they have been no stranger to close games. They handled Blind Brook to win Section 1, achieving their season goal, but they weren’t content with stopping there. Two years ago, the Bears won Section 1 for the first time since 2007, but in their first state tournament game in 10 years, they were a step behind Section 9 Champion Marlboro and were sent home.
This year the Bears drew the same opponent in the same game in the same gym. But this year it was the Bears who started fast and weathered Marlboro runs to advance to the New York State Regional Final with a trip to the program’s first state final four on the line.
Playing a de facto home game at Pace University, the Bears used the crowd’s energy to start fast, playing a near-flawless first half, leading 31-23 at the break. The team continued its stellar play in the second half, riding a combined 35 points from Jack Ryan and Jackson Gonseth and swarming defense from Spencer McCann, AJ Panarese, Miles Jones and Tucker Wexler to the state final four.
In Cody Moffett’s five seasons at Briarcliff, he has only once missed a Section 1 title game, he has won two Section 1 titles and he has now led the Bears to their first-ever state championship weekend. “Winning a state championship is always the end goal, but one thing we emphasized this year is you cannot worry about the end if you do not
take care of the present,” Moffett said. “There’s a lot that has gone into this week, but at the end of the day it is a basketball game. You don’t win Friday with what you do Friday. You win Friday based on what you’ve done leading up to Friday. As long as we have a good few days of practice, I always love our chances.”
For a team that has embodied his message for the entire season, it would be silly to think it would be satisfied with a historic trip to the state final four. For the Bears, top-ranked Mekeel Christian is Friday’s opponent in Binghamton, and their coach has a
“Trust each other,” Moffett said. “Trust what we’ve done. Trust everything, all the work we’ve put in. All the work we put in didn’t start last week. It didn’t start five months ago. It started as soon as we got on the bus after that Pleasantville loss. Two weeks later, we had the mentality of a team that was aggressive and hungry. And two weeks later we were back in the weight room and then postseason and preseason workouts. It all comes up to a moment like this, and just worry about the task at hand, just trust each other. Trust each other and go after it.”