By Mike Zummo
The Wallkill girls’ basketball team trailed for the better part of Saturday’s Section 9 Class A championship game.
But Emma Spindler, one of the Panthers’ three seniors, came up big in the biggest moment of the season to date. With the game tied, she knocked down a 3-pointer to give the Panthers the lead for good.
The Panthers held on from there, repeating as Section 9 Class A champions with a 55-47 win over the Presidents at Monroe-Woodbury High School.
“It’s amazing,” Spindler said. “I got a little nervous, but we pulled through and it feels great.”
The whole team and coach were nervous for the entire game, but Spindler’s bucket finally gave them something to celebrate heading into the third quarter.
Then two minutes into the fourth, Zoe Mesuch, who despite early struggles led the Panthers with 17 points, hit a basket to give the Panthers some additional breathing room.
“It just gave us adrenaline and we were all excited and we were feeding off everyone’s energy,” Mesuch said. “It was great.”
The Presidents kept the Panthers from pulling away by more than five points, until Alex Dembinsky, who finished with 14 points, and Sam Dembinsky hit two free throws each to push the Panthers’ lead to eight points.
But it was already over when Sam Dembinsky took the line. As she was about to shoot, Spindler, who scored 10 points, and Mesuch were already celebrating their repeat.
“We were saying that we’re proud of our team and it’s just really exciting,” Spindler said. “We were just really happy.”
And when the final buzzer sounded, the Panthers were finally able to celebrate their victory over a familiar opponent. The Panthers had already beaten the Presidents twice during Mid Hudson Athletic League Division I play, and the Presidents were doing a good job of frustrating the Panthers for most of the game.
“(FDR coach) Cliff (Saur) knows my offense better than I do,” Wallkill coach A.J. Higby said. “I don’t have a doubt. That’s why I tried something new in the second half. We just didn’t know it well enough.”
It also was a matchup that Higby was not only prepared for, but he expected. After the Panthers beat Millbrook to win the MHAL championship on February 23, he said he expected the championship game to be between his No. 2 Panthers and fifth-seeded Presidents.
Nkiru Awaka had her way with the Panthers on the outside on her way to game-high 21 points, while Erin Drickel was lights out from outside, knocking down four 3-pointers on her way to 16 points.
However, the Panthers got Drickel to foul out with a minute to go, hindering the Presidents’ comeback.
“They didn’t make it easy, but I knew they were that good,” Higby said. “They are that good. They’re easily the No. 2 seed and we should have been the (No.) 1 seed. I understand the system, and I will live by the system, but there’s our problem.”
It was a historic week for the Panthers. On the way to their repeat championship, Mesuch scored her 1,000th career point in the Panthers’ 69-55 quarterfinal victory over Saugerties. They then routed Goshen third-seeded Goshen, 66-22 in the semifinals.
“I was very excited, and I couldn’t have done it without my teammates and everybody supporting me,” Mesuch said.
The Panthers have a week off before returning to action on Saturday at Mount Saint Mary College in Newburgh for the New York State Public High School Athletic Association Class A regionals against the winner of the subregional between the Section 1 and Section 4 champions.
The Panthers were beaten in the regional final last year by Section 1 champion Tappan Zee. But this year’s team, despite its continued success and experience from last year’s team has faced more trials and tribulations than last year’s and comes into the state tournament more battle tested with their holiday trip to the Amsterdam Holiday Showcase and having to play two divisional games against Our Lady of Lourdes, the Section 9 Class AA runners-up.
Last year’s team was deeper with Emma Schwarzbeck and two other seniors in their fourth year on varsity. Spindler is the only member of the Panthers with that kind of experience.
“Everybody else is in their third year on varsity, and one of those years was COVID, where we played five games,” Higby said. “This team is ungodly young in that essence that they haven’t played that much basketball for Wallkill, but they have hung in there this year.”