NEWBURGH — In the halftime locker room, Monroe-Woodbury upperclassmen Alexis Deleo and Emily Harwood told their freshman teammate Olivia Shippee that she was the best player in the gym, “whether you know it or not.”
As the final buzzer sounded, the Crusaders converged around Shippee, who scored five fourth-quarter points to stall Valley Central’s desperate comeback bid in a 54-43 Section 9 Class AA title victory.
Monroe-Woodbury moves on to the first round of the Class AA state playoffs at SUNY New Paltz at 6 p.m. Tuesday against the Section 1 champion.
In March, heroes emerge from unexpected places. Shippee fit the mold of a player who put in the work behind the scenes all season and shone brightest at the most crucial moment.
“I’m on top of the world,” said Shippee, still shaking as she exited the celebratory locker room.
Panic crept onto the faces of the Crusaders in the first half, as Valley Central’s cornucopia of threes forced them into a trailing position. Deanna Murdock made a 3-pointer at the end of the first quarter to break a 9-9 tie. She added two more triples late in the second, and Valley Central led 24-20 at the half.
“Deanna is a dynamic offensive player,” said Valley Central coach Randy Axtell.
Monroe-Woodbury coach Dave Powers didn’t deliver an impassioned plea to his top-seeded Crusaders at halftime. He said, simply, “We’re fine.”
That did the trick. On Valley Central’s first offensive possession of the third quarter, Crusaders guard Taylor Neely stole a pass and took it to the other end for an easy layup. Murdock countered with her fourth three of the game. After that, Axtell said, “They made a concerted effort to take her out of the game.” Much of that defensive responsibility lied in the hands of Shippee, and she silenced the sharpshooting Murdock.
The fans played a role in keeping the score tight. Valley Central’s student section playfully jabbed at Monroe-Woodbury, describing each offensive movement in excruciating detail. Monroe-Woodbury fans tried to fire back, counting down the seconds remaining on the shot clock a few seconds early. Valley Central’s Shaina Cooney was tricked by the calls, but she nonetheless hit a turnaround jumper a few seconds before the shot clock expired.
Taylor said at halftime, “We need to take control of this game,” and her sister Toni said, “We just stepped up.’’
Monroe-Woodbury pulled away in the fourth quarter, aided by Shippee’s scoring to push the lead to 37-34 and, eventually, 48-41.
Valley Central’s comeback bid was thwarted, but Axtell is hopeful his team can win the section next season. He said he’s grown close to the players he’s coached, and “That’s not going to end now.” Five juniors return on a squad that aims to be back in this same position next year.
As for Monroe-Woodbury, the most experienced players stepped up at the right moments. So too did one of their least experienced, and it was Shippee who received all the praise after the game. As soon as Shippee was done with her interview, senior forward Savannah Paul walked past her and said, “Get used to it, kiddo.”