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home : sports : regional September 1, 2014

Vt. D-I Semifinal: Top-Seeded SJA Clashes With Surprise Seahorses
Photo by Michael Beniash
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Photo by Michael Beniash

Sports Editor

ST. JOHNSBURY -- When it comes to athletics, St. Johnsbury Academy senior Griffin Comerci is a calming presence. Never too high, never too low, the football standout and key basketball reserve is as steady as they come.

It's the same demeanor the top-seeded and unbeaten Hilltoppers have carried onto the hardwood all season.

They will need that steadiness tonight in the program's first appearance in a Division I semifinal since 2005. The Hilltoppers (22-0) meet No. 12 Burlington (11-11) at 7 p.m. inside University of Vermont's Patrick Gymnasium for a berth in Thursday's title tilt.

No. 3 Rice (18-4) and No. 2 Rutland (18-4) meet in the nightcap.

"It's exciting to say the least to be given this opportunity," said Peacham's Comerci, a three-year varsity player.

The opportunity comes with a question mark: the health of leading scorer and rebounder Vlad Cobzaru, who tweaked his ankle in Saturday's quarterfinal win over Missisquoi. The 6-foot-7 junior forward sat out practice Monday morning -- stretching and testing his agility as he nursed the injury.

"I really want to play tomorrow," Cobzaru said. "As long as my ankle doesn't bother me too much, I'll just ignore it and play. But I trust my teammates and know if I can't play, they could do it without me."

While Burlington is the most decorated hoop program in the state -- making its 46th semifinal appearance and first since 2010 -- the Seahorses are the surprise team of the tournament. After dispatching No. 5 MMU in the playdown round, BHS hit 12 3s en route to a 21-point home win over No. 13 Mt. Anthony on Saturday to become the first No. 12 team in 41 seeded D-I tournaments to reach the Final Four.

The only lower seed to reach the semifinals was No. 16 BFA-St. Albans in 1985, which ultimately lost in the championship. Current Burlington coach Matt Johnson was a sophomore on that BFA squad.

"The kids read about that and its certainly something we've talked about it in terms of believing you can accomplish something that seems improbable," said Johnson, whose guided the BHS program for over a decade.

"I think some of our kids are still pinching themselves that they have gotten to this point."

Freshman Josh Hale leads the Seahorses with 12 points and eight rebounds per game. Three-point threat Bryan Vachereau averages 10 points and Ryan Boera is the assists leader at five per contest. Hale and Vachereau combined for 36 points in the win over MAU.

"I think Burlington is playing really well right now and they are playing with some confidence," second-year SJA coach Tom O'Shea said. "I think they will be a different team than the one we saw two weeks ago. Their confidence level is much higher."

Led by Taeshon Best, the Hilltopper defense has been dominant all season, allowing just 44.6 points per game. SJA held the Seahorses to less than 40 points in two regular-season meetings, the latter a 55-39 victory in the regular-season finale that gave the Hilltoppers their first perfect season since 1979-80.

"We've seen them twice now," Comerci said. "We know how they play and they know how we play. The big thing for us is to not underestimate anyone. They gave us trouble in the first meeting and hung around until the fourth quarter. This time we'll be better prepared."

The Hilltopper offense is tough to prepare for. Four players average double-digit points, led by Cobzaru (16.0 points and 10 rebounds a game). Deft shooters Ross (13 ppg) and O'Shea (12) complement swingman Jake Grinbergs' 10 points per game. O'Shea leads the team in assists at 5.0 per game.

While history will be made on the court, history abounds off of it. Two of coach O'Shea's sons played varsity hoop at Burlington High School. His eldest, Joe, led the Seahorses to a 24-0 record and a state title in 2008 -- the last Division I team to run the table -- and Connor, who played two years of varsity ball for coach Johnson.

Brendan, meanwhile, played junior varsity his freshman season at BHS before moving to St. Johnsbury.

"We lived in Burlington for 25 years. I know all their coaches and two of my sons played there," coach O'Shea said. "So it does add a little something to the game. But really, we just want to give the fans a good game to watch."

A dominant regular season and two convincing playoff wins aside, Patrick Gymnasium will bring a new experience for the entire Hilltopper squad.

"Obviously it's a great honor to be in the semifinals," Cobzaru said. "Everybody is working even harder, getting to the gym earlier. Everybody is really excited and talking about how they can't wait to play at Patrick, in front of all our fans.

"It will be a nice experience for all of us, that's for sure."

NOTES: Only seven times since 1973 has the No. 1 seed won the tournament. MMU did it last season and Burlington accomplished the feat in 2008 and '96. Essex (1998), MAU ('91, '76) and Rice (2000) also won. ... Burlington leads head-to-head in tournament play 6-3. The teams' only semifinal meeting came in 2000, a 63-58 Seahorse triumph. SJA's last state title in 1997, however, came at BHS' expense, 65-51. ... The Hilltoppers, who are 6-6 all-time in semifinal games, have lost their last two semifinals (2000, 2005). The program made three straight semis (1995-97) and six semis between 1981-88. ... SJA has three titles (1981, '82 and '97). ... The Seahorses have won their last 12 semifinal games and only twice were they the lower seed.

Related Stories:
• Vt. D-I Boys Quarterfinal: Best, Hilltoppers Lock Up T-Birds, Advance to Patrick
• Vt. Boys Hoop Playoffs: Hovey Finds Success; SJA Starts Title Run

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