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Tournament time often creates the great equalizer

The look on Hollis Brookline senior standout guard Christina Balsamo told it all a few nights ago.

It was a look of shock.

It was likely the same look the players from the Merrimack High School girls basketball team had on Saturday night. Or the Hollis Brookline-Derryfield hockey players.

Or the girls hoop players from Manchester Memorial.

The list goes on.

But those teams on that list don’t.

Welcome to tournament play, where, despite the odds, despite the apparent overwhelming favorites teams may be going into games, you have to expect the unexpected.

For the underdogs who pull off the unexpected, it’s obviously ecstacy. And just as apparent, for the overwhelming favorites, it’s agony.

The old saying “That’s why you play the games” never rang more true. It was an amazing weekend of stunning results. It would have been even more stunning had the Bishop Guertin girls basketball team been knocked out by Concord. They were still up just 12 in the third quarter before they closed out the game with one of their patented blowout runs, this one of 26-2 over a span of just over 10 minutes.

But you can bet Kreick had seen that HB result from Friday and got a little nervous. Plus the fact he knew he was going to have to play freshmen in the game Saturday night, which he will also have to do vs. Bedford in the semis Thursday night.

Many will wince and chuckle. What does he have to worry about, they’re thinking, his team is going to win a fifth straight title, right? But Kreick and other coaches also know if his or any other team’s players take that approach, they’ll be ripe for the upset.

You see, the postseason is a whole new world. You saw it with the great crowds for games over the weekend. More at stake, more interest, and more of the p-word.

“I just think the added element – there’s pressure,” Cards coach Brad Kreick said. “There’s different intensity, different level of pressure. Fortunately, a lot of our kids, our key kids, have been through it and aren’t really fazed by it.

“Sort of the great equalizer sometimes is pressure.”

Hollis Brookline wasn’t overconfident on Friday. The No. 2 seed (in Divison II) Cavaliers played hard, they didn’t take No. 7 Bishop Brady lightly. In fact, Cavs coach Bob Murphy was probably hoping the Green Giants wouldn’t be the team he’d have to face in the quarters just because of their explosive nature, the nature that Friday led them back from a 38-20 late first half deficit. The Green Giants chipped away, chipped away, then surged. That’s when the pressure Kreick was talking about mounts.

“It’s tough,” Murphy said. “I really thought we were going up to Hanover (Dartmouth College, site of the semis).”

Merrimack coach Mike Soucy had the same thought. His team looked primed to be at least a semifinalist and even make the finals. He called Saturday night’s loss “a tough pill to swallow.”

Sometimes there have been indicators of these tourney surprises. Merrimack had to battle back in the fourth quarter to beat Londonderry on the road just a few weeks ago. In Division III hockey, Kennett (8-11) had won only seven regular season games, but one of them was against the HBD Warriors, who rode the “Why Not Us?” slogan to 13 wins and a third seed. That loss was 2-1 in overtime and Saturday they went down 4-3 in OT in the first postseason game played at Conway Arena in several years.

Overtime hockey adds another dimension to this whole thing. The tension is incredible, as a bounce or roll of the puck, a penalty, etc. can lead to that golden goal the causes ecstacy for one team and agony for the other.

Luckily for the Bishop Guertin, it was on the ecstacy side the other day vs. No. 3 Exeter in the Division I quarters, played in front of a full house at prep school Phillips Exeter’s cushy digs. The game had overtime written all over it from the start, and the two teams had played in OT (with Exeter winning) early in the season.

Hockey’s a little different. It’s not too unusual for a lower seed to win, as we saw with Kennett.

“We lost to them 3-2 in overtime at the beginning of the year,” Guertin coach Gary Bishop said. “They got better, we got better.”

And the game had everyone on edge.

There’s so much emotion involved, which takes us bac to Friday night. Balsamo stood and stared at the bleachers when it was over for the Cavs, because her stellar HB career, which included a title two years ago, was also over. Just like that, when perhaps an hour earlier it looked alive and well.

“I don’t know,” she said, “if we got too comfortable or not.”

Anyone’s heart had to go out to her and the other Cav seniors, the main remnants of that great season two years ago.

“It sure does, it sure does,” Murphy said. “We’re all going to move on.”

Easier said, of course, than done.

Welcome to the exhilarating highs and exasperating lows of high school single elimination tournament play.

There’s still two weeks to go.

Tom King may be reached at 594-1251 or tking@nashuatelegraph.com. Also, follow King on Twitter (@Telegraph_TomK).