The game was only two minutes old, and already it seemed out of hand.
“This could be over and done by the first quarter,” an announcer for East Bridgewater Community Access Media said.
In the opening round of the Massachusetts state high school girls’ basketball tournament, the East Bridgewater Lady Vikings overwhelmed Roxbury’s Madison Park Technical Vocational School from the opening tip.
It only got worse. By the end of the first quarter, the score was 24-0. By halftime, it was 48-4.
Many teams on their way to a clear rout, especially in scholastic sports, back off a little, benching starters, easing up on defense and slowing the pace of the game to limit scoring. Some states even have rules aimed at curbing such blowouts. But East Bridgewater appeared to keep its foot on the gas, using a full-court press into the third quarter, sinking 3-point shots, and allowing some of their best players to remain in the game.
When the final buzzer sounded last week, with an astounding score of 93-7, the announcers seemed flummoxed, and news of the blowout began to ping across the country, eliciting strong negative reaction on social media and in news reports. Some ordinary people were appalled. One man said the winning coach should be suspended. And questions were raised about sportsmanship, respect, and what kind of lessons, exactly, can be gleaned from a nearly 90-point loss.
“You never want to go out and embarrass a team,” said Kristen McDonnell, a girls’ basketball coach at Braintree High School. “I’m kind of a big believer that once you hit 20, 30 [points ahead], you try to pull it back.”
East Bridgewater School Superintendent Elizabeth Legault apologized, calling the wide gulf in points an “unfortunate situation” and saying that it is not a reflection of the school’s student body or athletic program. East Bridgewater girls’ basketball coach Andrew MacDonald and athletic director Patrick Leonard did not respond to requests for interviews.
The target of the suburban team’s overzealous play was a predominantly minority vocational school, which has struggled to overcome near-constant controversy about its leadership and effectiveness.
A statement from Madison Park assistant principal and athletic director Kristen Weeks praised the team for its season. The Boston Public Schools declined to grant interviews with the coach or school officials.
“We are even more proud of our players and coaches for the character, integrity, and resiliency they displayed in the face of adversity,” Weeks said in her statement. “They demonstrated remarkable sportsmanship during and after this challenging game.”
Despite the controversy, some local coaches said reining in a team can be harder than it looks, particularly in a competition when players are keyed up and one team is significantly better than another.
“It’s probably one of the toughest parts of coaching,” said Matt Mahoney, the girls’ basketball coach at Archbishop Williams High School in Braintree.
Coaches can feel an obligation to keep their starters in the game because those are the players who have earned court time, local high school coaches said. And asking teenage kids to play less than their best can run counter to what they’ve been telling them all season.
Such lopsided games are rare but not unheard of. Three years ago, the girls’ basketball coach at California’s Arroyo Valley High School was suspended for two games after his team defeated an opponent 161-2. In Texas, a high school football coach drew scrutiny after his team’s 91-0 thrashing of another team.
Some states’ athletic associations have gone so far as to enact so-called “mercy” rules designed to combat overly lopsided victory margins.
In 2006, the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference enacted a “50-point rule” in football, meaning that coaches whose teams won a game by more than 50 points could be subject to a one-game suspension.
The rule had its intended effect, said Joel Cookson, CIAC’s director of media and sports information, and by 2016 — with an average of only two or three blowout games a year and a feeling that the rule had adversely affected play — it was abolished.
But for the most part, Cookson said, coaches can be counted on to self-regulate.
“The bad incidents get a lot of publicity,” he said. “But I’d say the vast majority of games are handled appropriately from a coaching perspective.”
Eileen Donahue is no stranger to success, having coached the Watertown High girls’ field hockey team to a staggering nine straight state titles — and a number of lopsided victories along the way.
Though she’s not a fan of pulling her starters when things start to get lopsided, she will shift the team’s focus away from scoring to other aspects of the game, such as execution.
“I’ve always felt there’s no point to overdo it in terms of stats and things like that,” she said. “What is the point, if the goal is to win and to do your best and be competitive?”
Braintree’s McDonnell, who said she empathized with coaches from East Bridgewater and Madison Park, said she keeps something in mind whenever her teams are on a path to a lopsided win. “Karma can be real,” she said.
Indeed, after East Bridgewater defeated Madison Park and moved to the next round in the state tournament, it lost to Archbishop Williams by a resounding 52-33.
Dugan Arnett can be reached at email@example.com.