Published March 23. 2014 4:00AM
The feeling that this is no ordinary season sank in slowly.
"Obviously, there's going to be highs and lows," New London High School junior Deanna McCarvell said. "But we started beating teams we never beat: Montville, Stonington, East Lyme, Holy Cross ... they were the No. 1 seed."
"Beating East Lyme, beating Ledyard," New London coach Kerrianne Dugan said, labeling the back-to-back come-from-behind wins in the Eastern Connecticut Conference as when it hit her. "The girls came from being down ... and fought. It clicked."
Then last week, as a part of the festivities surrounding today's Class M state championship girls' basketball game at Mohegan Sun Arena, with New London playing in its first state title game in program history, senior Lexus Childs-Harris stood before a room full of her peers at the Aqua Turf Club in Southington and suddenly became unable to speak due to a tearful lump in her throat.
Said Dugan: "That just sums it up. It hits home just how much we need to take advantage of every opportunity."
Fifth-seeded New London (23-4) meets No. 6 Morgan (22-5) for the championship beginning at 12:30 p.m.
The Whalers, who have four starters averaging double figures, led by McCarvell with 12.3 points per game and a team-best 48 3-point field goals, knocked off No. 1 seed Holy Cross in the semifinals, 44-32 on March 14 in yet another fight against a pair of Division II recruits for Holy Cross and their own foul trouble.
Childs-Harris had 14 points in that game, scoring New London's final 10, all on free throws, and sophomore Charee Osborne had 10 points and 19 rebounds.
Childs-Harris averages 11.4 points, 5.6 rebounds, 4.0 assists and 2.3 steals per game, a player to whom McCarvell said the other players look up and Dugan calls "a natural-born leader." Osborne averages 10.8 points and 11.6 rebounds per game and the Whalers also start a pair of freshmen in India Pagan (10.4 ppg, 9.0 rpg) and Jada Lucas (9.9 ppg).
New London was 2-18 in 2012 before Dugan's arrival. Dugan, a 2008 graduate of Waterford High School where she was a 1,000-point scorer and all-state pick, played in two state championship games with the Lancers. She later played for Division I Central Connecticut State University.
It's been up to Dugan, then, to manage the Whalers' firsts this season, but keep them in perspective.
"I'm trying to keep it just another day," Dugan said of today.
Meanwhile, the Whalers face Morgan, coached by New London native Joe Grippo, who lives in the heart of the city on Ocean Avenue and has his entire life. Grippo has 545 wins and two state championships in basketball in 31 years at Morgan and another 594 wins in volleyball, including the 2013 state title.
Morgan defeated No. 2 Cromwell 50-39 in the Class M basketball semifinals after falling to Cromwell in the Shoreline Conference championship game on Feb. 28. The Huskies are led by sophomore Sami Ashton (13.6 ppg) and junior Jen Dawson (12.6 ppg), both of whom were also members of the volleyball state championship team.
"The kids play hard," Grippo said, asked to describe his team. "They have quickness to pass and get up and down the floor, but my kids play hard. We constantly give it all we have."
Sounds a little like New London, as well, in addition to the fact both teams have young lineups.
"We're going to the Sun; not everyone gets that experience," Dugan said. "It's a very special night. We just need to stay strong and all have our focus."
Said McCarvell: "We have our coaches, we have our defense, all those things, but it's got to be from your heart."