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Lexington boys left their mark during tourney run

Five area teams, some defying the odds, make stunning runs to the sectional finals

Robert Klein for The Boston Globe

Franklin High junior Alicia Kutil, shown here looking to block Braintree High guard Ashley Russell in the Division 1 South final, led the Panthers in scoring.

There was no more tangible reminder that their season was officially over than Tuesday afternoon when the Lexington High boys handed in their game jerseys.

Dulling the pang of finality, though, was the knowledge that the Minutemen had extended their run in the postseason longer than anyone outside their locker room had anticipated.

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Lexington started the season 5-6 but bounced back to win 12 of its next 14 games. The Minutemen entered the Division 1 North tournament as the No. 11 seed, yet went on to beat sixth-seeded Boston Latin, third-seeded Westford Academy, and second-seeded Acton-Boxborough Regional to advance to the sectional final for the first time since 1989.

They challenged Charlestown all the way until the final seconds of the sectional title game at the Tsongas Center in Lowell, finally succumbing to the Townies’ late clutch shooting.

It stung. But by the time their uniforms were handed over, less than three days after the horn sounded on their season, second-year coach Reggie Hobbs noticed a new feeling among his players.

“There’s a happiness in the memories that they’ve made,’’ Hobbs said. “I think they recognize - which is pretty amazing - that they’ve made some memories that are going to last a lifetime for them.

“When you’ve invested in something like our guys had, it’s going to hurt when you come up a little bit short. But that takes nothing away from everything you’ve had, and all the memories and the journey that you’ve been on.’’

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Including Lexington, five area teams - the Natick girls, Hopkinton boys, Arlington Catholic girls (the defending Division 2 state champs), and Franklin girls - know that feeling. Their seasons all ended with losses in the sectional finals, but the memories they made along the way will endure.

The Natick girls made history. When they pressed and outran their foes to the Division 2 South final, they were the first team in program history to get there.

Coach Dan Hinnenkamp remembers feeling like a part of something special as soon as he looked into the stands during the Red and Blue’s raucous Division 2 South quarterfinal game at home against Duxbury.

“We got alumni coming back during their spring break. We got parents of girls who played three years ago coming back,’’ he said. “We got people painting their faces. We got a ton of students, a ton of parents. That was the realization we had surpassed a normal basketball game, and we were playing in an environment that everybody is ultra aware of.’’

Natick won that game and came out roaring in the next against Hopkinton. Early on senior guard Lexi Gifford - who has committed to play softball at the University of Connecticut - fired a one-handed pass to junior Bridget Furdon as though she was making a throw across the infield. The assist gave Natick a 20-4 lead over the Hillers, and sparked the Red and Blue to the final against Scituate.

Though his team’s pressing style faded against the Sailors, Hinnenkamp is excited for next season: 11 players will return.

“There’s a buzz around town that is unreal,’’ he said. “Everyone’s so excited about girls’ basketball.’’

In Hopkinton, coach Tom Keane saw the excitement in his locker room when the Hiller boys beat King Philip Regional in the Division 2 South quarterfinals.

“They weren’t dumping Gatorade,’’ he said, “but a lot of hugs and high fives. A lot of surprise.’’

Like Lexington and Natick, the Hillers weren’t supposed to last that long.

“I remember going to my assistant Mike Greco’s house,’’ Keane said. “We looked at the tape of our first four games, and wondered if we were even going to make the tournament.’’

But Keane had two key players returning to the team: captains Jason Dlugolecki and Barrett Hanlon. When Hanlon made it back from a wrist injury early in the season, Hopkinton took off.

The slight, soft-spoken point guard shouted out his own plays over the din of tournament crowds, and his teammates followed his lead all the way to their second straight sectional final, carrying themselves with confidence, though no one else expected them to make it there.

A loss to Stoughton stopped their ride, but didn’t ruin it.

Memories of this season will stay with Arlington Catholic’s coach, Dave Brady. His two senior captains won’t let him forget. In their careers, Emma Roberson and Nicole Catizone led the Cougars to a 15-3 record in tournament play. They won the Division 2 state title last season, and got back to the North final again this year.

Brady remembers Catizone’s toughness. She sprained the thumb on her shooting hand and played with it taped all year. She still shot about 40 percent on her 3-point shots.

He remembers Roberson’s heart. She scored every time the Cougars needed it, pouring in 27 points - including 21 in the second half - in the team’s final loss to Reading Memorial High.

“The scoreboard said we lost, but never in their careers have they failed,’’ Brady said. “They’ve never failed at anything they’ve ever done for this basketball program.’’

Brady was upset with himself for a technical foul he was issued in the fourth quarter of the final. But he won’t soon forget how the captains embraced him afterward.

“They said, ‘Win as a team, lose as a team,’ ’’ he said. “They’re bigger people than I am.’’

The Franklin girls showed how big they were when they won the Hockomock League’s regular-season title. They could have cut down the nets at their opponent’s gym, but the Panthers did not want to show anyone up. Instead they traveled back to Franklin and snipped the nets at their empty home court as a few parents looked on.

“They made the point: Because we reached one of our goals, it doesn’t mean that our season is done,’’ said coach John Leighton. “It was a nice transition from that point on to say, ‘Let’s go see what we can do in the tournament.’ ’’

With the No. 1 seed in the Division 1 South tournament, the Panthers fought off Newton North and Quincy as senior captain Alicia Wilde essentially doubled her regular-season scoring average, and teamed with senior captain Catie Phelan and the team’s leading scorer, junior Alicia Kutil, to handle the offense.

They eventually lost to Braintree, but Kutil and eight others will be back to try to re-create Franklin’s path to the final.

Lexington, on the other hand, will lose nine seniors from this year’s boys’ team that made a seismic turnaround. Senior captain Chris O’Keefe remembers when the change began.

Midway through the season, on the team’s white board in the locker room, the players wrote in blue ink the qualities they planned to exhibit throughout the remainder of their season. Each player signed his name to the board, vowing to bring those qualities to the floor.

Soon their dry-erase promises became something more permanent, and they surpassed all expectations.

While the seniors leave with memories of what they accomplished, they hope that what they’ve left behind is equally enduring.

“I hope we leave a legacy,’’ said O’Keefe, who followed in the footsteps of his older brothers, Jimmy and Dan, on the court for the Minutemen. “We wanted to leave the legacy of working hard and doing whatever you can to help the team. That’s my intention.’’

Phil Perry can be reached at paperry27@gmail.com.

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