“Lift the chorus, speed it onward, loud her praises bless. Hail to thee, our alma mater, Dear CCHS!”
For those familiar with that final verse of Central Catholic High School’s alma mater, those words mean a lot. Every Central Catholic event is ended with the song.
In March 2007, students from the Lawrence school stood arm-in-arm in the DCU Center stands in Worcester and sang the song as their girls’ basketball team walked off the court losers of a 62-49 decision to Springfield Central.
Those same students and players drowned out the DCU Center roar two years later, singing the alma mater in victory as the Central Catholic girls’ basketball team celebrated a state title in March 2009.
This season’s team had never had this experience — until this month. The senior class, freshmen in fall 2009, watched as Merrimack Valley Conference rival Andover High School won three consecutive state titles in March 2010, 2011, and 2012.
Last Saturday, as the yellow school bus carrying the team turned from Auburn Street onto Fairmont and down the hill into the Central Catholic parking lot at 9:07 p.m., a loud joy-filled rendition of the alma mater rang from the windows. The bus pulled to a stop, and 12 players flooded into Central Catholic’s Memorial Gymnasium, where hundreds of Raiders — students, family, alumni, and friends — cheered for their new champions.
They had done it — with a nail-biting 53-48 victory over Worcester’s Holy Name High School — once more.
“I’ve never had a team come together quite like these girls did,” said a near-speechless Sue Downer, completing her 17th season as head coach of the team. “This is the happiest day of my life.”
It would be a common theme for a long and fulfilling day.
Long before game time, at about 1:15 p.m., Downer walked onto a small court in Central’s basement, her team already well into its game-day shootaround. Most players had broken a sweat before Downer reached them.
The scene was calm, with rapper Drake’s song “Forever” blaring on the speakers: “Last name: Ever, first name: Greatest . . . ”
Starting junior guard Courtney Walsh did her best Jerry West impression, dribbling the length of the court, practicing her cross-overs.
Darion Summers, usually the first player off the bench, was casually draining every shot she took, nothing but net — in socks and athletic sandals no less. Summers, one of three seniors on the team, “adds a unique element,” according to Downer.
“I always want to be the energy, the reason people are getting amped. I want to make people play better,” said Summers of her animated and emotional role.
At the far end of the court was an unusual scene. The other two seniors on this squad, captain Casey McLaughlin and guard Allie Tierney, were at the basket, but only McLaughlin was shooting. Tierney merely gathered all the rebounds. The two are best friends, and have played together for six years.
“I just rebound for Casey before the game. I gave myself that job because that’s what the team needed,” said Tierney, who sits right next to the coaches on the bench, cheering for her team and providing the veteran support needed on a championship squad.
“She’s like part of my coaching staff,’’ said Downer. “She’s embraced her role. That takes a lot of maturity and understanding. You need players like her.”
At second glance, all the regulars were shooting, their teammates rebounding for them. No one complained; there were smiles and laughs all around.
“No one told them to do this or even suggested it. They did it on their own. We’ve got a special group of girls,” said assistant coach Keri Ryan as she sipped her Shamrock Shake from McDonald’s, a tradition that started before the first tournament game this March.
“We haven’t lost yet,” noted Ryan.
“They’ll be fine now that you have your Fribble,” chimed in Bob Rooseboom, who is retiring after 38 seasons of coaching Central Catholic basketball.
This wasn’t the first time he’d predicted the victory. Just days before, “Boomer,” as Rooseboom is affectionately known, pulled Tierney aside after their victory in the Eastern Mass. finals. Tierney was the starting point guard for Boomer her freshman year, “the best team I ever had,” Rooseboom recalls — and one that went undefeated. Four years later, she’s the only member of that team still playing Raider basketball.
“ ‘Al, I’m really proud of you. We’re going to win this,’ he told me,” recalled Tierney.
At 1:57 p.m., the team emerged to roaring applause from faculty, friends, and family and clambered into a bus covered in decorations, with a familiar face in the driver’s seat — the mother of Central boys’ hockey coach Mike Jankowski. She drives the school bus for every Raider girls’ away game.
After a silent ride, the bus pulled up to the DCU at 2:58 p.m. Summers was the first one standing and exclaimed “Let’s do this!” before dancing her way down the aisle.
“We’re not getting back on this bus without a win,” said Downer.
Sitting in Balcony Section 234, the Raiders caught the end of the Medfield-Nashoba game for the Division 2 championship. As the final horn sounded, they were silent. Twenty-four eyes were fixed on the middle of the court, where Medfield was huddled, jumping — this is what a championship looks like.
At 4:32, seventy-three minutes before tip-off, they arrived at locker room 5 — “a good omen,” said Boomer. “The boys were here when they won’’ in 2010.
Downer had vowed she wouldn’t get emotional before the game, and followed through with a spirited motivational speech.
“I have never been prouder of a group of girls,” she began.
“We’ve got to push and push and push and fight and fight and fight with everything we’ve got.” She never says “you” — always “we” to her team.
“Most importantly, we need to play Central Catholic basketball. There is no tomorrow after this. . . . Get out there, win that opening tip and we’re going to score first. That’s our first goal.”
Then the team huddled and prayed together. Downer walked to each player and put a stamp on each hand — “team,” it read — and the players finish with a “one, two, three, team!” before heading to the court.
After junior Amanda Williams won the opening tip, McLaughlin found Walsh for an open baseline jumper; she nailed it. McLaughlin would score or assist on 8 of 9 Raider field goals in the opening quarter, helping the Raider lead grow to 14 (22-8) just 1:44 into the second.
“I just wanted it so bad,” she said later. “We wanted it, as a team.”
Holy Name would come storming back to within three points in the final two minutes, but a few clutch free-throws from Summers, McLaughlin, and junior guard Caitlin Dell’Orfano iced the game.
The final horn sounded at 7:08 pm, and the celebration began. Each senior took a turn hugging the trophy. Back in the locker room, Downer received the traditional Gatorade shower, with ice water in its place. The bus pulled away at 8:02 with Queen’s “We are the Champions” blaring on the speakers, but it’s not the song everyone will remember.