Surprising year ends in sadness
By BRIAN RICHESSON
VINDICATOR SPORTS STAFF
HERSHEY, Pa. -- Remember this 2002-03 Union High basketball team. How could you ever forget?
The Scotties, who finished third in their section and at one point carried a 12-10 record, snuck up on everyone, including their own coach, Mark Stanley.
"At the beginning of the year, I just wanted for us to get into the playoffs because we had a young crew and you want to get them playoff experience," said Stanley, a Union High graduate.
"I thought we'd be pretty good next year, but they came out of nowhere [this season] and just finished the job."
Almost. Union fell one step short of the ultimate prize with an 80-69 loss to Scotland School in the PIAA Class A state championship game Friday at GIANT Center.
"I'm sad now, but in about two hours we'll all think about what happened, what we did," said Union junior Craig Hannon, who scored 19 points.
"It's amazing. We're the first team in Union history to win a WPIAL title, the first team to come to the state finals," Hannon said. "Unless we do it again next year, I'll never feel anything like it."
Indeed, this was a season and a playoff ride to cherish.
The Scotties began their ascent in early January, Stanley said, with the return of junior Bob Bondi from mononucleosis.
"But the problem was, we didn't know if we were going to get in [the playoffs]," said Stanley. "So once we got in -- and Bobby just kept improving and Jeff Nero really picked his game up -- we felt we had a chance."
Path to Hershey
Union's path to Hershey included victories over Conemaugh Valley, West Middlesex and California. The highlight came in the Western finals, where the Scotties eliminated perennial power Kennedy Catholic, 40-39.
"Whenever we faced adversity, we always stepped up," said Nero, a senior who led Union with 25 points Friday. "We were always the underdogs and we always came through."
The magical ride allowed the Scotties to enjoy the tournament experience and reap the benefits of an enthralled community.
"The fans stick out the most," Union senior Damian Cassano said. "It was fun going to school. Little kids didn't care who you were; they just wanted to be around anybody on the team."
Union arrived in Hershey on Thursday evening. The Scotties ate pizza and played video games, but it was difficult not to think about the game against Scotland School.
"You try not to think about basketball the whole time, but you can't," Bondi said.
"You have people from the community who you don't even know coming up to you, talking to you, reminding you about it; little kids asking for autographs," he said. "It was just a great experience."
It is an experience that Union will be talking about for the rest of its life.
"I'm gonna have a story to tell my kids now," Cassano said.