Alvirne celebrates a 1994 tourney of glory
Let’s do some time travel and head back 25 years.
Ken Johnson saw his players leave the Saint Anselm Stoutenburgh gym floor during a time out walking slowly with their heads down, not running to the bench as was usually the rule.
He was at a loss. An entire season rested on what he could possibly tell the Alvirne High School girls basketball team he coached in this timeout, as they trailed Concord by nine points with just over six minutes to play in the 1994 Class L championship game.
This was crisis point. The Broncos had put an entire season’s work plus tons of drama into this moment. Johnson, who was always an outside-the-box guy when he coached, began the season by issuing an unsolicited declaration to The Telegraph that his Broncos were the team to beat, even though the John Fagula-coached/Michele Cernuda-led Nashua Panthers were a heavy favorite to three-peat.
He changed his team’s offense dramatically in early January, feeling while the current system would win regular season games, it wasn’t championship caliber. But there was a huge uproar when it didn’t quite take right away as the Broncos lost to Nashua 58-38 in early January. He consulted with noted coaches the late Pinkerton boys coach Tony Carnovale and former longtime Concord mentor Bill Haubrich on how to beat the tough, stifling press that the Panthers always employed should the two meet again.
“We just worked through the adversity that some of those changes brought,” the team’s point guard, Karen Biagini, said the other night.
The Broncos, seeded fifth at 14-4, then faced a tall task, as after beating a sub-par Salem team by 40 points they had to survive a horrendously tough tourney bracket and tangle with a good Londonderry team led by University of Connecticut-bound center Kelly Hunt in the quarterfinals and then Nashua in the semis.
They beat both.
All of that had to be going through Johnson’s mind when he knelt down in the huddle with a title slipping away and spoke to his team. “Ladies,” he said. “Look up at the scoreboard.”
That, he felt, would at least get them to lift their heads. And then he blurted, “It’s not supposed to end this way.”
And it didn’t, as the Broncos staged an incredible rally to win the only girls basketball title in school history, 37-35. Such good stuff for a school and town of Hudson that, let’s face it, don’t have a lot of championships to celebrate.
So it was perfectly fitting that the 1994 championship was celebrated and honored this week, first with a dinner on Thursday night and then with a ceremony prior to the Bronco girls game with Portsmouth on Friday night.
It all started back in November when the captain of that team, Kersten Prochnow (now Wuebben), began contacting her former teammates through social media, etc. to get a reunion. Prochnow herself lives in Wisconsin while Biagini lives in Portland, Ore. working for Nike. Johnson himself retired this past year as the Merrimack High School principal and now teaches at High Point (N.C.) University
“We come from seven different states,” Prochnow-Wuebben said, “which is pretty incredible when you think about it. … But I said, ‘Let’s just get this going. This deserves some recognition.'”
Thus they came, nine of the roster of 13.
“A moment like this to bring us all back is really special,” Biagini said.
Back to 1994. Johnson’s efforts worked. Better equipped to handle the full court press, his team only had one turnover, coming in the last 11 seconds, against Nashua in a 44-41 semifinal which he said the other day was “without a doubt the best game we played all year.” Biagini likened it to the Red Sox breaking their curse. Against Londonderry in the quarters, the Broncos shut down Hunt, holding her to a pedestrian 12 points, with a triple team. Against Nashua, they worked on shutting down everybody but Cernuda, the exact opposite.
Johnson felt he failed his team with a zone defense against a bigger Concord team that liked that style. “It was perfect example of how players win games and coaches lose games,” he said. “Our best defense all season was our man-to-man defense.” So they switched to that with six and change to go.
Such drama, similar to what had gone on all year thanks in part to Johnson’s bold prediction, one he would repeat on a television show to yours truly just before the tourney started.
“That put a lot of pressure on us,” Prochnow said. “People kept saying, ‘You can’t do this’ and we said ‘Yes we can.'”
Prochnow remembers turning to point guard Karen Biagini after the time out talk saying, “This is my last time on the court. I can’t do this alone.”
Biagini then hit a shot, and that made Prochnow think “OK, she’s on board. We’re going to do this.”
Prochnow then hit a big one. A steal. Stepenie Maye a 3-pointer against a Tide reserve who played off her after she had been stifled most of the game. Biagini a 3. One-point game. We’ve all seen this before in hoop. Momentum shifted. Eventually Maye hit another thanks to a perfect pick and the Broncos led by one and that was almost it. It took Laurie Skelton to hit a pair of free throws in front of a loud crowd to just about clinch it. “The place,” Johnson said, “was vibrating.”
So much drama went on all winter. “High school drama,” Prochnow said, adding she even had to tell her disgruntled father to back off, “at its best.”
“I really think that this was the team, this was the year,” Johnson told his administration and others at the school.
He was right.
“It was just one of those moments,” Biagini said of the title win, “that you knew was special.”
It was a nice dinner Thursday when the players all talked to the current Broncos. Remember, this is such a rare event. Prochnow-Wuebben told the group, “The town didn’t know what to do when we won.”
It does now. Kudos for Prochnow-Wuebben for organzing it and the school for embracing it. Happy 25th championship anniversary, 1994 Broncos.
Tom King may be reached at 594-1251,email@example.com, or@Telegraph _TomK.