What was it like to coach an NBA star; One team doesn’t have a home gym or stat person; Family history plus traditions and four teams with a chance to win a state title
(Editor’s Note: The four coaches in the state final four from Class D took time to talk to the Hornell Sun for this preview)
By Bill Collmer and John Anderson
GLENS FALLS — When Avoca/Prattsburgh enters the Glens Falls Civic Center/Cool Insuring Arena, the coaches and players will know the entrance, the locker rooms and how to get to the floor.
After all, A/P won a state title here last year, and coaches Brian Putnam and Zac Devoe won as players as well in 1991.
However, you can throw experience at the top away as their foe, Hamilton, has a coach who has also visited the arena as much as Putnam with great success.
Hamilton coach Tom Blackford is a New York State legend. He has been coaching for 41 years, won over 600 games and will be making his sixth appearance in Glens Fall but first since 2001.
He won the state championships in 1994 with future NBA Star Adonal Foyle, and again in 2000, in one of the greatest high school basketball games in state tournament history, a triple overtime thriller, 91-86 over Alexander Hamilton.
Section III’s Hamilton had a chance to scout A/P live during the Far West Regionals (A/P’s win over Panama) and could be the team to stop A/P’s hot shooting with their 1-3-1 zone as well as dominate the boards with their size and length.
The storylines make this a can’t-miss game.
Like A/P, Hamilton has not lost to a Class D school all year, with Hamilton going 19-0, and A/P going 13-0. Avoca/Prattsburgh is 37-0 vs. Class D schools since joining forces in 2021. The Titans of A/P lost to Class C York and Class C Lyons, while Hamilton lost to Class C runner up Waterville and Mt. Markham. In a rematch with Class C Mt. Markham (17-7, the second place team in Division II), Hamilton came away with a win.
On the other side of the bracket are two more teams making headlines when Chapel Field Christian from Section 9 and North Warren from Section 2 will square off.
Like A/P, both teams have a head coach with a son on the team who was named MVP of sectionals. And like A/P and Hamilton, Chapel Field has not lost to a Class D School this season.
This is the first final four appearance for both schools.
Chapel Field, the lone private school in the bracket, has been a force in the state the last few years. They qualified for the state tournament two years ago, but the season ended because of the pandemic.
North Warren played at the Glens Falls Civic Center two weeks ago in their sectional championship victory. Chapel Field is ready for the final four as they played a tough schedule as there are only four Class D Schools in Section 9.
LET THE GAMES BEGIN
GAME 1: Chapel Field (19-5) vs. North Warren (19-5)
WHEN: 12:30 p.m. Saturday March 18
GAME 2: Avoca-Prattsburgh 23-2 vs. Hamilton 22-3
WHEN: 2:30 p.m. Saturday March 18
A LOOK AT THE TEAMS:
Hamilton Emerald Knights, Section III champions
Coach: Tom Blackford
Numbers: Average 64.9 PPG, allow 38.6 PPG
History: State Championships in 1994 and 2000
Players to Watch: 6’3” Senior Hudson Idzi, 18.9 PPG, 10.5 RPG, 6.3 APG, 6’2” Reese Snyder 14.3 PPG, 4.7 APG, 4.0 SPG, 6’1 Junior Luke Jackson 7.3 PPG, 3.6 APG. 6’6” Sophomore Drew Baker 7.6 PPG, 3.8 RPG
OVERVIEW: Tom Blackford started coaching in 1982. With over 600 wins, he is one of the winningest coaches in Section III history. He’s been to Glens Falls before and knows what it’s like to leave a winner. He’s also had heartbreaks. The last time Blackford coached Hamilton in the state finals at Glens Falls was in 2001 when they fell to Batavia Notre Dame in the Championship game 62-61.
For Blackford some things have changed and some things haven’t in his 41 years as a coach.
“I’m still an ‘old young guy.’ Kids for the most part are still very coachable,” Blackford said. “However, kids have too many voices now. They have AAU coaches, shooting coaches, moms, dads, grandpa’s, uncles … younger coaches have a difficult time with that. Kids listening to other voices besides their coaches.”
The other difference is lack of sportsmanship, an issue the NYSPHSAA is addressing in all sports, but especially basketball.
“I’ve scouted 30 to 40 games,,” Blackford said. “I’m noticing fans getting kicked out. I’ve seen a lot of technical fouls called this season. More than ever in 41 years. The biggest issue is getting through to kids who have so many voices and I’ve seen a big change in sportsmanship.”
Blackford is back home when it comes to coaching as he started out at Hamilton and then left for Fayetteville-Manlius.
“Because of the success I had at Hamilton — I coached there for 20 years — when I interviewed for a job at Fayetteville-Manlius, I got it. And I coached there for 14 years before I returned to Hamilton in 2016,” he said. “The program struggled while I was gone, but it’s done well since I’ve been back. Last year we had a team that was 23-1 and we lost in sectional finals. We lost by two in overtime.”
The 23-1 team graduated four starters. A/P lost two, but one was New York State Player of the Year Pacey Hopkins. With four starters missing, Blackford said he is very pleased with the season they have had so far.
“We do some things really well, we rebound really well, we don’t run well all of the time. We pass the ball extremely well; we have a very unselfish team,” Blackford said. “Our 1-3-1 defense is really tough, I’ve ran it 36 or 37 of my 41 years coaching.”
Then there is the offense that causes defenses fits.
“We have one kid who has more than 30 3-pointers this season,” Blackford said. “We make 3’s to draw the defense out and then we pound it inside.”
While at Rush-Henrietta last Saturday, Blackford sat quietly in the bleachers across from the Panama bench. With the score 57-17 after the third quarter, he let the gym and went home.
“I watched them play last Saturday in Rochester and I really like them, they remind me a lot of my 2000 State Championship team,” Blackford said. “I really like #0 (Sawyer Devoe), he’s got a motor on him that doesn’t stop and we can’t allow them to run on us. We have to try and slow them down and make them play half court.”
The other three coaches in the Final Four have sons on the teams. Blackford does not, but he remembers those days. He has a daughter who he coached during his 18 years as a varsity softball coach.
“It was fun, but it could be a pain too, I enjoyed it but sometimes it was hard, there might have been an hour or two of silence after we got home if she didn’t agree with something, but then things were back to normal again,” he said.
You can’t talk to Blackford without asking about Adonal Foyle. He was one of the most talked about recruits in the country and everyone thought he would go to Syracuse. Also, playing for a Class D school in 1994, players like Foyle and Prattsburgh’s Marius Janulis were an inspiration to other student-athletes that school size did not matter.
But he was a calming influence, even as a teenager.
“Adonal Foyle had one of the greatest personalities of any kid I’ve coached — he just happened to be 6-foot-10,” Blackford said. “One time before a game, there’s 10 to 15 college scouts in the gym. We were on the road yet Jim Boeheim is there along with assistant coaches from Duke and North Carolina.”
And Foyle had no sneakers.
Blackford was nervous. All eyes were on his team and all eyes were going to be on Foyle. He was not a kid who could borrow practice shoes unless Bob Lanier was on the team.
“It’s five minutes before we’re supposed to go out there to warm up’s and he has on dress shoes, he told me he forgot his shoes back in Hamilton,” Blackford remembered. “He wears a size 19 shoe so I’m thinking, ‘What am I going to do?’ Finally, he smiles and pulls his shoes out of his bag!”
Foyle played his way into the state record book that season with 47 points and 25 rebounds in the state semi-finals. He was then a first-round pick (8th overall) of the Golden State Warriors after an outstanding career at Colgate. He played 13 years in the NBA.
Avoca/Prattsburgh Titans, Section V champions
Coach: Brian Putnam
Numbers: Average 82.3 PPG, allow 44.5 PPG
History: Avoca won a state championship in 1989, Prattsburgh won in 1991, Avoca/Prattsburgh won last season in 2022 and went 27-0.
Players to Watch: Sr. Sawyer-Devoe, 18.7 PPG, 10.1 RPG, 3.3 APG, 4.0 SPG, 1.0 BPG he’s scored 1,016 Career Points and grabbed 538 Rebounds. His career record is 65-3, one of those losses was to Avoca in 2020 in the state qualifier.
Sr. Haden Abbott, 21.1 PPG, 5.6 RPG, 2.5 APG, 2.5 SPG, has scored 832 points in just two seasons (52 games). He is 50-2 at the varsity level.
Jr. Macoy Putnam, 14.6 PPG, 4.9 RPG, 8.4 APG, 4.6 SPG. In 68 varsity games, he’s scored 913 points, with 468 assists and 310 career steals. His career record is 65-3. One of those losses was to Avoca in 2020 in the state qualifier.
Sr. Evan Campbell, 11.8 PPG, 2.5 RPG, 2.4 APG, 1.8 SPG
Sr. Jamel Crowder, 5.2 PPG, 2.9 RPG, 1.4 APG, 1.4 SPG
OVERVIEW: In 10 seasons as varsity coach at Prattsburgh and now Avoca-Prattsburgh, Putnam is 193-41 with six sectional championships and a state championship. He’s only had one losing season, his first. In eight of his 10 years, his teams have made it to the sectional finals. In 2016, they lost in the sectional semifinals to Avoca.
The A/P starting five all played at the Glens Falls Civic Center last season. Macoy Putnam was MVP of the state tournament last season. All of A/P’s wins this season have been by double figures as their closest game was a 19-point victory over Mt. Morris in the state qualifier. They won both games in Glens Falls last season by double figures. Sawyer Devoe was Steuben County League MVP, Macoy Putnam, Haden Abbott and Evan Campbell were first-team all-stars. Macoy Putnam was the Section V Tournament Most Valuable Player, the other four starters were selected to the Section V All-Tournament Team.
Those victories mean nothing on Saturday when the score is 0-0.
Putnam and his coaching staff had to prepare for the Far West Regionals, but the night before, they watched Hamilton play on a NFHS live stream.
“I watched Hamilton play Heuvelton, that’s a good team,” Putnam said. “They have great length, they rebound the ball really well.”
As Blackford said, A/P will have to contend with a team that can shoot the 3-pointer. And once you come out, they pound it inside where they have a height advantage.
“They can shoot, they’re going to be a handful in the post, they’re big and there 1-3-1 defense is going to be tough,” Putnam added.
The A/P team has looked at the 32 minutes ahead of them all year, but the goal was to get back to Glens Falls.
“They treat that as business as usual and I think that is a great mentality to have,” Putnam said. “That helps you from looking ahead and looking past things for sure.”
Family Matters: Brian Putnam coached his son Mason, who is now playing college basketball at D’Youville, and now coaches his son, Macoy.
“I think it’s a very special thing to be able to coach your own kid,” Putnam said. “The memory and experiences you make through basketball or athletics is a special thing. And to be able to achieve what we have achieved with your kid is pretty exceptional.”
Name Game: Senior Jamel Crowder and eighth grader J.J Crowder are brothers, senior Josiah Stilson and sophomore Daniel Stilson are brothers. Senior Haden Abbott and junior Chris Abbott are cousins. Juniors Collin Hammond and Connor Hammond are cousins.
Heritage: Josiah and Daniel Stilson’s grandfather Lynn Karr played on Avoca’s first ever sectional championship basketball team in 1970.
Chapel Field Christian Lions, Section IX champions
Coach: Brad McDuffie
Numbers: Average 56.9 PPG, allow 43.2 PPG
History: This is the second time the team has qualified for the state final four. But the first time is quite a story!
“In 1991, that team was not allowed to compete because of some paperwork oversight, if you can believe that,” McDuffie said. “The section voted on it, and they voted against CF going to finals. So, the team they beat, Bridgehampton, went on instead that year. I played college basketball at Nyack College with David Julien, who was on that ’91 team. He told me the story about that ’91 team when I was a freshman at Nyack in ’95.”
McDuffie and Chapel Field would not be denied this year by paperwork, “28 years later here we are!” he said.
Players to Watch: Jonah McDuffie 17.0 PPG, Noah Swart 17.0 PPG, Mikey Bonagura 12.0 PPG
OVERVIEW: Chapel Field is hoping playing a tough schedule will pay off.
“We have not lost to a section D school this season. We tend to play bigger schools because there are not a lot of D schools in our area,” McDuffie said. “This year we played even more games against bigger schools because we wanted our guys see teams that were the level of South Kortright. Last year they kind of overwhelmed us with their speed and athleticism.”
Chapel Field does not go deep, but each player has a role.
“The first five players on our roster have been our starting five the entire season. We usually play a 6-man rotation with Aaron Falkena playing the 6th man. Jonah was the Section IX Class D Player of the Year last season,” McDuffie said. “Leam Powell provides us with a defensive presence in the middle of the paint and Bryce Hollo is a key role player who tends to do a little bit of everything on the court.”
No place like the road
The Chapel Field team plays every game on the road because we do not have a home gym.
“It’s a credit to the guys who have really stuck with the program through some very difficult years,” McDuffie said. “My first couple of seasons we did not win more than 10 games combined both years. We do not have a home gym, so every game has been on the road.
“We don’t have a statistician, so I only have points,” he continued “We will go through the videos after the season and try to get some stats.”
Did we mention McDuffie is also the bus driver? He is.
“Yes, I do all the driving for the team,” he said.
So to play at Glens Falls, this team is excited.
“We are excited to be in the state final four. When I took over the program a few years ago, even last year, we often only had enough guys to do drills, 6 to 7 guys at the most,” McDuffie said. “Now we have a bunch of guys chomping at the bit to get their turn.”
McDuffie on North Warren: “They look like a fast, quick team. It looks like they like to get out and run. The seem to be more perimeter minded and they can shoot the three and attack the paint so that will put a lot of pressure on our defensive rotations.”
Family Matters: “I have been coaching Jonah since he was in 7th grade (that’s when they asked me to take over the program, mid-season). At this point, we have gotten used to the dynamic of father/son/coach/player. I try to treat all of the players the same and make the same demands from all of them. It took me a long time to transition from player to coach in terms of how I think about the game and I think that has been one of the most important changes in the program.
“Early on I coached like a former player — which I don’t think was great for the players. I’ve tried to see the game more like a coach these past couple of years. I even stopped playing in men’s leagues because I think it was having a negative effect on how I saw the game as a coach. My other son, Micah, is also part of our program. He played JV this year,” McDuffie continued. “My assistant coach/brother-in-law, Michael Bonagura, also has a son on the team, Mikey Bonagura (and his son Anthony also has come up from JV for the stretch run).”
North Warren Cougars, Section II champions
Coach: James Cuyler
History: North Warren is making their first trip to the state tournament
Numbers: Averages 63.1 PPG, allows 46.8 PPG
Players to Watch: 5’11” Senior Guard Sean Evans 17.6 PPG, 5’11” 7th Grader Semaj Cuyler 12.3 PPG, 6’5” Junior Derrick Tyrell 11.8 PPG, 7.5 RPG, 6’2” Senior Cooper Morehouse 8.2 PPG, 6.6 RPG
“It feels wonderful to get to a final four. These guys worked hard all summer and it’s showing in this state run,” Cuyler said. “This team went 19-1 playing JV. I felt we would have been building a culture up here of winning when these guys became juniors and seniors.”
The pandemic year stings for programs like A/P and North Warren. Going undefeated and playing just a few games.
“I felt that 2020 team was good enough to go deep and possibly would have won it all,” Cuyler said. “It’s just refreshing to be able to play this far and things out of your control stop it.Having a mixed group of underclassmen and upperclassmen is great.
The upperclassman have done a great job leading the younger players this year. They teach them how to deal with the grind day to day under my coaching. The underclassmen are learning how to win right now which will help them carry on the winning culture when the upperclassmen graduate,” he added.
North Warren has already played at the Civic Center and only has a 29-mile trip to play in the state semifinals on Saturday.
In 2020, North Warren won Section II sectionals and advanced to the regionals with a 21-2 record. They were favored over Schroon Lake when COVID-19 shut the season down.
This season, Cuyler doesn’t feel there is a favorite.
“At the end of the day, all the teams playing right now are good,” he said. “Yes, it’s closer to our home than the other teams, but if we don’t come out ready to play, playing closer to home won’t matter. The guys know that so we focus on this we can control like how hard we play and execute our game plan.”
Cuyler on Chapel Field: “They have two really good players #23 (Noah Swart) and #33. (Jonah McDuffie) They can light it up if you leave them open. They have some serviceable players who do the other things to help their team to win. This will be a tough matchup for us so we have to play hard and take care of the ball and rebound because they crash the boards.”
Family Matters: “Coaching Semaj is great and even better watching him grow as his father. He’s been working since he was 3-years old with me. He’s a tough kid you would think he’s older than 13 but he’s always played kids older than him, so he knows what to do on the court.”