Ryan Peek still remembers the escort back to Millbrook.
Police cruisers and firetrucks flanked his Blazers boys basketball team’s bus, which was loaded with overjoyed — and overwhelmed — players.
It was a Sunday morning, March 21, 1999, and the Blazers had won the New York State Public High School Athletic Association Class D championship the night before. Millbrook became only the second team from Dutchess County to win a state title in boys basketball. No other team has since.
“Not too many people get to share in that,” Peek, the team’s coach, said on Wednesday. “Those are once-in-a-lifetime moments for those kids.”
It’s a story Mike Blue, a sophomore point guard at the time, now tells his sons, Malachi and Isaiah.
“There were fans, people cheering for us,” Blue said on Thursday. “It was a rush. When you get back home, that’s when you know it’s real, you know?”
The Our Lady of Lourdes Warriors are hoping to have that feeling this weekend, and join exclusive company. Lourdes, of Section 1, will take on Section 11’s Southampton in the Class A semifinals Saturday at the Floyd L. Maines Veterans Memorial Arena in Binghamton. The winner will face either Jamesville-DeWitt from Section 3 or Irondequoit of Section 5 in Sunday’s final.
Poughkeepsie became the first boys basketball team from Dutchess to win a state title, competing in Class B in 1995. Since Millbrook in 1999, four teams from Dutchess have made the state final four — Beacon in 2003, Red Hook in 2010 and 2014, and Pine Plains in 2013 — but none has been able to duplicate the feat.
Those Blazers share a link to these Warriors through Jim Santoro, Lourdes’ longtime coach who once mentored Peek when he, too, wore a Warriors uniform. This weekend, Lourdes hopes to enjoy a similar championship celebration. At the time, Anthony Paesano, the Blazers’ junior center, described the heroic treatment as “something you’d see in the movies.”
Peek said he was nearly as stunned, and didn’t anticipate all that came with winning a state championship.
“I got a key to the village, given to me by the mayor,” Peek recalled. “I still have it. It was quite an honor.”
Peek sees similarities between the Millbrook championship team he coached and this year’s group of Warriors, particularly in the two teams’ defensive style of play. And Peek wants nothing more than for Santoro to join him in state championship glory.
“Not too many coaches work as hard as coach Santoro,” said Peek, who is now an assistant boys basketball coach at Spackenkill. “I am rooting for him, the community is rooting for him. He’s been at this game for so long and it’s his turn.”
The two met on Wednesday after Santoro held practice and spoke about it.
“I was there and now he’s there,” Peek said with a chuckle. “It’s nuts! I’m just so happy for him.”
Long road to success
To get to the state semifinals, the Warriors (19-6) beat Poughkeepsie, 61-46, in the regional finals at Pace University Saturday. Lourdes had beaten Tappan Zee in the Section 1 finals, 42-39, after withstanding a tough Byram Hills team, 54-48, in the semifinals. A fifth seed entering the Section 1 playoffs, Lourdes has needed multiple last-possession victories to earn its title shot.
The Blazers also had a long road to win the state championship.
Millbrook faced Section 5’s Canaseraga in the Class D state semifinals, and won 47-39. The Blazers played a defensive-heavy game, forcing Canaseraga to commit 26 turnovers —17 in the first half. The Blazers also had 17 steals, seven by Blue, who back then Peek called an “Energizer bunny.”
“(The semifinal against Canaseraga) was the hardest game,” Blue said. “They really scouted us well. We were kind of nervous, but excited to play them.”
Similarly, a steal and a subsequent layup by Lourdes senior guard Kevin Townes put Tappan Zee away in the section final.
“Our team was tough, well-balanced,” Peek said. “Just like the Lourdes team.”
Peek also noted that he learned his defensive scheme while playing for Santoro.
“I can credit (Santoro), 100 percent, with the way we played defense,” Peek said. “It went back to coach Santoro. I was a defensive player for him. I brought his defensive mindset into that area. We were defensive, aggressive and physical.”
The Blazers then rolled to a 44-31 win over Section 2’s Fort Ann in the state final, finishing the season 18-9. Millbrook leaped out to an 18-4 lead after the first quarter, and an early key takeaway by Blue convinced Peek his team would win.
“He was quick,” Peek said of Blue. “(When he made the steal) I said, ‘Holy cow. We’re faster than them!’ And we jumped on them.”
Paesano was given the sportsmanship award, while Tyson Siegler led the Blazers with 16 points against Fort Ann. Blue was named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player.
“It’s the first time I won the MVP of anything … I was happy,” Blue told the Journal in 1999.
Eighteen years later, he looks back with amazement.
“I was more shocked than anything,” Blue said. “I played with older kids.”
Blue and Peek now hope that Santoro and Lourdes can match the feat. Peek said he would advise the Warriors to enjoy the experience and simply treat the tournament like any other pair of games.
“I’d tell them to just imagine you’re still playing at Lourdes. Stay focused on what you got,” Peek said. “I would love for them to win it.”
“I hope they do it. The kids will have that on their record forever,” Blue said. “They work so hard to get there, you want to see them win.”
A.J. Martelli: email@example.com, 845-437-4836, Twitter: @AJM_PoJoSports