Lady Whalers Strip League Title from Mattituck on Senior Night

Celia Barranco gives Sodia Mancino a ride as Pierson players celebrated after winning the League VI title outright with a 38-32 win over Mattituck on Thursday. Michael Heller photos

Chastin Giles wears number one for the Pierson/Bridgehampton girls basketball team, and Katie Kneeland wears number two. Together they have become quite the 1-2 punch for the Lady Whalers.

And now, with their teammates, they have the League VI championship all to themselves.

Kneeland, one of nine seniors to play their final home game against Mattituck on February 7, came on late to score a game-high 14 points and lead Pierson to a 38-32 victory that capped a perfect regular season and the Lady Whalers’ first league championship since 2014.

Emotions ran high right from the start with the program celebrating its senior class in front of the biggest girls basketball crowd outside Spirit Night in recent memory. It was also announced early that Thursday was also head coach Kevin Barron’s last game coaching at Pierson High School, at least for the time being, as he will step away to spend more time with his family, including his two young children, 2-year old Annabelle and 6-month old Andrew.

“I’ve been with Barron for five years. It’s just incredible,” a teary-eyed Kneeland said during a wild celebration at center court. “I was in eighth grade and that was our rival, and all of a sudden I’m a senior and we’re finally the top of our league. It feels amazing and I got to do it all with Barron.”

Pierson coach Kevin Barron coached his last game at Pierson High School for the foreseeable future after announcing that he will step aside as the varsity head coach to spend more time with family.

Pierson finished the league schedule with a perfect 16-0 record, while Mattituck will head off to the Suffolk County Class B playoffs after finishing 14-2, both of its losses coming at the hands of Pierson.

The Lady Whalers (17-3 overall) have no Class C rival in Suffolk County, so in essence they staked claim to that title as well. They will compete next in the overall Suffolk County tournament starting with the C-D title game against Smithtown Christian on Friday, February 15, at Centereach High School.

The winner will advance to play the Class B champion, possibly Mattituck, back at Centereach on Wednesday, February 20.

“It’s all preparation,” Barron said about the Suffolk tournament. “It’s a chance to win a tournament and it’s a chance to work on some things we need to work on as we get on our road upstate.”

There are also no Class C schools in Nassau County, so no matter what happens in the Suffolk tournament, Pierson will play a Southeast Regional Final with a berth in the state final four on the line on either March 8 or 9 at a location north of New York City, against a team from either Section I or Section IX.

The winner will advance to the state public high school girls basketball championships at Hudson Valley Community College over the weekend of March 15 through 17.

“We’re not stopping now,” Kneeland said stone-faced as the celebration quieted down last Thursday.

Thursday’s game against Mattituck was physical from the start, as Pierson senior Katie Kneeland learned on this play. She went on to lead all scorers with 14 points.

Pierson got off to a slow start against the Tuckers, a perennial powerhouse, and fell behind by 11 points late in the first half. Giles, who finished with just six points but made immeasurable contributions in other ways, was on the bench in foul trouble at the start of the third quarter as the Lady Whalers started to claw their way back into the game. Kneeland, who went into the game just 40 points shy of 1,000 for her career, hit just her second field goal early in the quarter and Bridgehampton senior Aziza El finished off a great pass from freshman Sofia Mancino to pull Pierson within five.

Giles returned with 4:26 remaining in the third quarter and sent the Lady Whalers into overdrive as they capped an 18-0 run to put the game away. She scored on a slashing drive to the hoop to pull Pierson within three with 2:45 left in the quarter, and hit Kneeland with a no-look pass in traffic to trim the lead to just one. Kneeland scored again with 20 seconds left in the third to give Pierson its first lead since early in the first quarter, and four minutes later, Pierson’s lead had ballooned to nine.

“We got a little nervous in the beginning,” Kneeland admitted. “We were thinking about this game all week, and it’s been on our minds. It finally came and the nerves finally got to us.”

Pierson senior Celia Barranco dominated the fourth quarter, scoring six of her 12 points while forcing turnover after turnover, and grabbing rebound after rebound.

“Celia was huge in the second half,” said Barron, who also credited the frontline play of El, Phoebe Arkinson and Carly Browngardt down the stretch.

Celia Barranco played a huge role on both offense and defense in the fourth quarter of Thursday’s win.

“This means the world to me, to be honest,” Barranco said afterward. “We’ve been working really hard for this. I’ve always seen Mattituck as a rival and I feel like our hard work really paid off.”

Like Kneeland, Barranco has been a four-year varsity player under Barron, and has been there through good times and bad. “He really pushes me a lot and he made me the player I am today,” Barranco said.

Mattituck’s Rachel Janis broke a long scoring drought for her team with 3:19 remaining in the game, but the outcome seemed to have been determined. With Giles controlling the ball and her teammates wreaking havoc on the defensive end, the Pierson faithful danced and chanted their way through the final three minutes.

“It means all of the hard work has paid off from the beginning of the season, when we started in November,” Pierson senior Paige Schaefer said later. “And we still have a lot more work to do.”

Friday’s game against Smithtown Christian tips at 4:30 p.m.

Chastin Giles was in foul trouble much of the night but still played a key role in Pierson’s victory.