Class C semis: Top-seeded Mahar beats rival Athol for a 3rd time, books WMass final ticket for first time since 2012

Morgan Softic (2) and the Mahar boys basketball team punched their ticket to the Cl

Morgan Softic (2) and the Mahar boys basketball team punched their ticket to the Cl STAFF FILE PHOTO

By THOMAS JOHNSTON

Staff Writer

Published: 02-22-2024 9:00 PM

ORANGE — When two rivals meet in a Western Mass. semifinal, the expectation is that points will be hard to come by.

That was the case on Thursday when top-seeded Mahar and No. 4 Athol squared off with a spot in the Western Mass. Class C final on the line. 

Neither team was able to find any sort of a rhythm on the offensive end of the floor through the first 16 minutes of action, with both teams combining for nine field goals while the Senators held a 14-10 lead at the break. 

It was Mahar that found its footing early in the second half on offense, with Morgan Softic and Lucas Isrow getting the Sens going with 3-pointers early in the third. Mahar would eventually take a 37-17 lead midway through the quarter and rode that lead to the finish line, as the Senators advanced to the finals with a 53-37 victory. 

It’ll be the first Western Mass. final Mahar has played in since 2012, when it went on to win the Div. 2 state tournament. 

“Everyone was just jacked up going into this game,” Senators coach Chad Softic said. “Both teams were playing great defense. It was a packed gym and everyone was just pumped up. We settled down, made a couple of shots and felt better about ourselves. Morgan and Lucas hit 3s to get us going. We got the ball in the high post and had a little high low action. Jayden Delgado went to the hoop like we know he can. He had a monster second half. We just made plays. I thought defensively we were outstanding.” 

Mahar (15-5) will play No. 3 Granby, which knocked off No. 2 Drury 51-46 in Thursday’s other semifinal. The championship game is scheduled for 5 p.m. Saturday at Holyoke Community College.

Thursday was the third meeting of the season between the Bears and Sens. Mahar took the opening two games, though the third win was the most crucial. The three losses are the only three losses Athol (17-3) has suffered this season.

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“It’s somber,” Athol coach Brian Patria said. “We’re disappointed. Being the third time, this had more meaning than the first two. We talked about fighting to the end and I think we did that. Hats off to them and Coach Softic. He’s a fantastic coach. He made adjustments throughout the game and they had that big third quarter. We were in it in the first half. We’d take 14-10 at the half any day. They came out a bit different and you see that with Mahar.

“I’m proud of my guys,” Patria added. “It was special having this game for our area. It’s historic to have these two programs meet in the Western Mass. semis and I’m so proud of how my team fought.” 

When it comes to slowing down the Bears offense, it starts with containing Angel Castillo. 

Marshall Ames was given that task in the semifinals and the big man did his job containing the speedy point guard, using his length to disrupt shots and holding Castillo to 15 points, just four coming in the first half.

Ames comes from a family known for its defense, so it came as no surprise to Softic when he stepped up on Thursday. 

“Everyone in the North Quabbin region has had to play against the Whitmore brothers,” Softic said. “They were tenacious. Those guys are his uncles. Marshall has that DNA to be a pest. He’s long, he can wear you down. He did a tremendous job tonight. Angel made some shots and he’s a heck of a player but Marshall was all over him tonight. He took some pressure off Lucas [Isrow]. It was a great effort.” 

Both teams mustered just six points in the first quarter, with Delgado, Morgan Softic and Will Barnes each scoring a basket for Mahar while Ethan Bacigalupo, Ben Kearney and Castillo had baskets for Athol. 

Ames got inside for two before Isrow knocked down a 3 to open the second quarter for the Senators but they went cold from there, as those were their lone two field goals in the frame. Castillo and Kearney added baskets for the Bears before Softic made a free throw late, giving Mahar a 14-10 lead at the half. 

After struggling for baskets in the first half, Mahar couldn’t have asked for a better start to the third quarter. Softic made a 3, Delgado converted an and-one and Isrow made a trey himself to give the Senators a 23-10 edge. 

Castillo halted the run with a basket but Mahar proceeded to go on a 14-5 run, with scores coming from Ames and Delgado (each making a pair baskets) while Softic and Barnes added points themselves to give the Sens a 37-17 lead.  

Athol closed out the quarter strong. Castillo got to the line and made one, Ethan Goodwin scored inside before Bacigalupo swished a 3 at the buzzer to cut the lead to 37-23 going into the fourth. 

Logan Cormier hit a deep 3 to open the fourth for the Bears and midway through the quarter, Castillo shook free to hit a 3 and got inside for a layup that cut the lead to 44-35. 

Mahar responded with a 9-0 run to put the game away. Ames hit a layup, Softic sank a floater, Delgago made a pair from the charity stripe, Softic made a free throw and closed things out with a tough finish at the rim to send the Sens to the finals. 

“It’s a game of runs,” Patria said. “We just couldn’t get that one run. Credit to their defense. They’re in the Western Mass. finals for a reason.” 

Softic led the way with 18 points, four assists and nine rebounds. Delgado scored 15 points, Ames tallied 10 points and four assists, Isrow had six points and three assists while Barnes scored four points for Mahar. 

Bacigalupo tallied nine points, Kearney scored six points while Cormier had five points for Athol. 

While the rivalry is strong, both Softic and Patria played together at Athol High School. Both noted how special a day it was in the area to have the two historic rivals meet with so much on the line. 

“Brian and I got a nice message from [former Athol coach Chris] Sullivan on how we were teammates 30 years ago,” Softic said. “A lot of what we do and what we instill in our kids comes from Coach Sullivan. He’s down in Florida but he’s still making an impact up here.”