Herzog covers high school sports as a writer and columnist. His primary area of coverage is football,
GLENS FALLS, N.Y.
If you define a team's character by how it reacts to a crushing defeat, then here is a one-word definition of Babylon's 2012-13 boys basketball team: Winners.
After letting a four-point lead with 3:40 remaining in the fourth quarter of Saturday night's state Class B championship game slip away, then losing in overtime to Watervliet, 72-60, here is what the Panthers didn't do (which several other losing players did do this past weekend at Glens Falls Civic Center):
They didn't bounce the ball angrily skyward after the final buzzer. (They embraced each other.)
They didn't pull their jerseys up over their faces to hide the fact that they were crying. (They weren't crying; they were smiling.)
They didn't sit dejectedly in their chairs during the postgame medal ceremony. (They stood and applauded their opponents.)
They didn't avoid the media or sob their way through interviews. (They punctuated their lucid, insightful answers with ready smiles.)
"I'm happy. We played well. We came from 16 down [at halftime] and we thought we had it," said senior guard Fernando Vazquez, the star of the weekend. He scored 40 points in Friday's semifinal comeback win and had 27 in Saturday night's loss.
"I'm proud of my boys. I've only been at Babylon for one year, but they are family to me."
Vazquez, a 5-10 guard, emerged as the team's favorite son, with the flaming orange stripe in his hair and an even flashier game that featured daring drives, clutch jumpers, gritty rebounding and newfound three-point range. He enjoyed every moment of an unlikely journey. "My dad didn't think we'd get this far," Vazquez said.
Who could blame Fernando Vazquez Sr.? Babylon had never reached the Final Four here. But he and his wife, Vimary, were among the family and friends who made the trip north. "They hugged me after the game," Vazquez said. "They were very proud of me. And I'm very proud of them."
Pride was abundant in Panther Nation, long known for following its highly successful football team all over Long Island. Babylon has won 10 county and five Long Island football championships, the most recent last fall. With its victory over Wheatley March 5, Babylon became only the third school ever to win Long Island titles in football and basketball in the same school year. North Babylon (1998-99) and Amityville (1999-2000) are the others, with Amityville the only school to also add the state basketball crown.
Babylon, with seven football players on its roster, came awfully close. "I tried to bring that football mentality to basketball. Play tough and aggressive," said Panthers coach Chris Morra, also the defensive coordinator of the football team.
In defeat, there were no regrets. The kids understood that sometimes the journey is its own reward. "This was a great experience. We have such a great bond," said junior forward Ray Wardell, a football starter who had 18 points and 10 rebounds in the title game.
Vazquez, who set the two-game Class B Final Four record with his 67 points, said, "We took this loss very well. We had a great time up here. We tied the game but we couldn't pull it out. Our shots weren't going in. It just wasn't meant to be. But we feel proud of ourselves."
Saturday night's loss didn't prevent the Panthers from interrupting postgame media interviews to pose happily on the court for team photos taken by family members and friends. They smiled and joked during the impromptu photo ops, usually reserved for championship teams. Those images will be shared digitally now and recalled fondly years from now.
"I don't know if anyone expected this, but I knew I had something special at the start of the season," Morra said. "Did I think the journey would take us this far? Probably not."
Was it a win-win experience even though it was a win-lose weekend? Most definitely.