STONE RIDGE - Some teams, when it's suspected that whispers of doubt might swirl, will attempt to insulate themselves and insist they know little of the naysaying and care even less about it.
Not this group.
"We all knew what the narrative would be going into this season and we heard some of it from the spring," Millbrook point guard Liam Flaherty said. "We understood why people thought that, but the only thing we could do was use it as motivation.”
After the Blazers lost their three best players last season -- two to graduation and another to transfer -- it seemed as if the program would stumble, at least initially. A small school, in particular, wouldn't be able rebuild and contend again so soon.
That was a pervading belief, and a reasonable one.
So, Millbrook preparing now to compete in the Mid-Hudson Athletic League final, senior Joe Gjidoda said, "is a very big deal."
The forward had 27 points and 13 rebounds on Tuesday, leading Division Four champion Millbrook to a 64-49 win over Division Three champ Onteora in a MHAL boys basketball semifinal at SUNY Ulster.
The Blazers will face Marlboro or New Paltz in the tournament final at 5 p.m. Thursday, also at SUNY Ulster.
"To do it with this group is really fulfilling," said coach Jeremy Croft, whose team was expected to struggle after winning three consecutive Section 9 Class C titles. "We didn't make it to the (MHAL) final last year and we had more talent then. But these guys have worked so hard and played well together."
The emergence of former role players Flaherty, Gjidoda and Isaiah Edmunds has expedited the process, and that trio again shined on Tuesday. Edmunds had 17 points, four assists and three steals, and Flaherty had 15 points and five assists for Millbrook (11-8).
Jake Stern scored 23 points and his jumper pulled Onteora within 24-20 with 2:24 left in the second. But Millbrook answered with a 9-0 run. Flaherty's free throws made it 33-20, then Gjidoda's layup at the buzzer sent them to halftime with a 35-23 lead.
Gjidoda scored 18 points in the second half as the Blazers pulled away. "We came into this season and underdogs," the 6-foot-1 senior said, "and we're still underdogs."
They certainly were after losing seven of their first eight games, before a drastic turnaround.
"I couldn't be prouder of these guys," Croft said. "They've made huge strides throughout the season and they're probably surprising some people right now."