BASKETBALL: 10 years later, the Maloney Spartans look back on an unforgettable championship run

BASKETBALL: 10 years later, the Maloney Spartans look back on an unforgettable championship run

reporter photo

MERDIEN – Ten years ago this winter the Maloney boys basketball team completed a championship season and earned the lone state basketball banner in school history.

The Spartans bested bordering Lyman Hall 54-46 on March 15, 2008 in the Class L final at Gampel Pavilion on the UConn campus in front of 5,200 fans.

“It was something I will always remember,” said Johrone Bunch, who was a senior on the 2007-08 squad. “We had a great team at that time. Our goal was to win it since we lost our junior year. Looking back, it was just an amazing moment at that time.”

“It’s special in so many ways,” Bunch added. “I was glad we were capable of doing it. Certain kids still come up to me and ask if I was on the championship team and ask how we did it. I just tell them, ‘You have to want it and you have play as a team.’ To think we did it, it was unbelievable.”

The list of team championships at Maloney includes a wrestling Class L championship in 1980, boys tennis sharing a state title with Farmington in 1989 and boys volleyball winning a Class M crown in 2005. The boys basketball championship in 2008 is the last state team title the school has won.

The previous season, 2006-07, the Spartans went 26-0 before losing to Weaver 80-73 in the Class L title game at Gampel.

“That year before we probably had better players,” Maloney coach Howie Hewitt said. “But the kids the next year had fought through it before. We had injuries all year. We didn’t win our conference or division. Rash (Vereen), (Steven) Reyes and (Shoquan) Stevens were all out for a while, but we still had a good record.”

After a 15-5 regular season, the Spartans were humbled by Windsor in the CCC Tournament semifinals, 84-44. That would be their final defeat of the season.

“The kids made up their mind that that wasn’t going to happen again,” Hewitt said. “Then we beat some great teams on the way to the final.”

After disposing of No. 27 Fairfield Ludlowe 75-53 in the first round, No. 6 Maloney knocked off No. 11 Career (60-43) in the second round and then No. 3 New Canaan (78-67) in the quarterfinals. No. 2 New London was a 72-50 victim in the semis.

“New Canaan was beating everyone and we beat them by 11,” Hewitt said. “They were the favorite. Then we played New London and beat them by 22.

“This team played together since they were young. It was a great team. Kevin Ruiz and Keith West had strong years. They weren’t the stars, but they kept the team afloat and enhanced our bench. When they came in, they were big time contributors.”

Reyes was the squad’s leading scorer and rebounder. Vereen was a lightning quick point guard.

Bunch, also a standout in football, was a threat to score from all over the court. Stevens was a force in the post who patrolled the paint with authority.

Vereen was the MVP in Maloney’s championship win over Lyman Hall. He totalled 22 points and went 8-of-17 from the floor. He also had a game-high four steals, including a big one down the stretch.

“It’s amazing how fast time goes by,” said Vereen, who now lives in Arizona. “It’s hard to believe it’s been 10 years. That was just another year for all of us to play together. We all played together since we were younger.

“We were the only team to win a state championship at Maloney. It was very special. We put Meriden on the map and made a lot of people turn their heads.”

Vereen said the loss to Weaver in the 2007 final fueled the 2008 championship run.

“There was too much going through my head before that championship game against Lyman Hall,” Vereen said. “I was thinking about the year before. What if it came down to the last possession? But I just calmed down and relaxed and told my teammates to trust and believe. I was the point guard and everything went through me. When it was time to lead the team, I took on that responsibility and we took the W.”

Vereen went to play college ball at Division II Franklin Pierce. He later transferred to Post University before finishing his career at Southern Connecticut.

Vereen remains in touch with Bunch, who is still in town and coaches football with the Meriden Raiders.

“Wow, time flies,” Bunch said. “It’s been 10 years and I can still remember those games. I was just talking to Rash the other day. We couldn’t believe it’s been 10 years. Now we are all adults providing for our families.”

Bunch said the long bond of the 2007-08 squad made it so special.

“We played together when we were younger,” Bunch said. “I think since we lost that junior year, we were so hungry. We had to go back and finish what we started. Everyone brought something different to table. Rashamell was so fast and would go right by you. Shoquan grabbed every rebound. Everyone hustled and contributed in their own way.”

Stevens, who now lives in Georgia, said that championship team will be something he never forgets.

“It’s probably one of the best times of my life, to experience that with kids that I grew up with, a state championship and to feel the love from our fans at our school,” Stevens said. “I have to give a lot of credit to our Green Machine. They supported us.”

Following Maloney, Stevens went to Post University before transferring to Lane College in Tennessee. Following his collegiate career, Stevens played two years of pro basketball in Mexico. He now coaches AAU ball and said he really loves that part of the game.

Stevens, who missed 11 games in 2007-08 with a broken wrist, will be back in town in April for the Class of 2008’s 10-year reunion. He was Class President.

“It was crazy to be able to do something that no one had done before,” Stevens said with his 4-year-old Carson talking in the background. “As each year goes by, you appreciate it more. It was special. The majority of the kids had played together since 6th grade. I got there in sixth grade. It felt like family. Those were my best friends. I still keep in touch with them.”

Hewitt said he’s also pleased he still gets to see many of his players from that team from time to time. Ruiz is now on his staff as the freshman coach.

“I still see so many of them on a regular basis,” Hewitt said. “It’s the first thing they talk about. I have such unbelievable pictures. We have a picture of our bench when Steven Reyes tipped in one of the game-sealing baskets. It’s the first thing they talk about.

“It was a great time,” Hewitt added. “I had hair then too — not much, but I had some. It was one of those situations and those kids were just great kids and are still great people. Kids like that deserve to be rewarded for their work ethic because they are such great people. I also had a great staff that year with Ty Bongiovanni and Dan Gaffney.”

The city’s only other basketball state championships came before the modern CIAC era. They were back-to-back state crowns by Meriden High in 1935 and 1936.

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