Pictured: Angela Mercaldi (15) and East Hampton teammate Danielle Adams (34) are overcome with emotion when coach Shaun Russell called on Mercaldi to inbound the team’s final possession of the Shoreline Conference championship game.
By Paul Augeri
EAST HAMPTON – Collectively, senior starters Mya Field, Meryl Curtin, Hannah Barrientos and Danielle Adams had dynamite performances in the Bellringers’ second straight Shoreline Conference basketball championship. They deserved the lion’s share of attention on Friday.
But this special unit of Bellringers is a party of five, not four, and in their celebration and appreciation for what they have accomplished these last two years, they were not going to overlook Angela Mercaldi.
During a timeout taken just for her with 6.6 seconds left in East Hampton’s 50-43 win over Morgan, Mercaldi peeled off her sweats to reveal her tried and true No. 15 East Hampton uniform. She got to her feet and with some help, over to the sideline. She inbound the ball to Field, who dribbled out the clock.
Let the final possession of the East Hampton careers of Field, Curtin, Barrientos and Adams show that their warrior teammate, Mercaldi, was indeed a part of it.
“She finished up on the floor with her four teammates, the five of them together,” coach Shaun Russell said. “That’s how it should have ended.”
Mercaldi tore the ACL in her right knee in the final minute of East Hampton’s regular season and did not play in any of the three tournament games. Several teammates broke down at the first sign of Mercaldi checking into the game.
“I could cry again just thinking about it,” said Field. “The second I saw her get up, it just kind of hit me that she wasn’t (playing). It was hard. I can’t even understand what she was feeling tonight, not being able to play one last time. But seeing Angela get up made me so happy to be ending the season with her. Then it felt like she was out there with us all night.”
The moment also hit Barrientos in the stomach.
“It was definitely special,” she said. “When we went over to the bench (for the timeout), everybody started to tear up. Coach did too. I think that’s when it hit us, that this is our last game ever playing together. I’m happy that Angela could get it out there. It was definitely important for her and definitely important for all of us.”
The Bellringers missed everything Mercaldi provided — scoring, rebounding, defense, toughness, leadership. For their tournament games, itching to contribute in some way, Mercaldi kept track of the times for when Russell needed to make substitutions.
And then, her time arrived.
“My biggest struggle was feeling like I wasn’t doing anything to help them win the tournament,” she said. “I came in in my full uniform for the game and was a little shocked that I was actually going to be (involved) in live play. I was really grateful for the opportunity to finish off with the rest of the starters.”
Mercaldi is no stranger to dealing with injury. She played most of her junior season with a stress fracture in her left foot, yet she produced at a high level and earned All-State and All-Shoreline recognition.
In East Hampton’s third game this winter, Mercaldi suffered a concussion against Cromwell and sat out several games. Then, in the Bellringers’ regular-season finale against Old Lyme at home March 18, she dribbled to about half-court and crumpled to the floor in the final 90 seconds.
“Mentally, being hurt was really stressful at first,” she said. “Obviously I wanted to play with my best friends on the court again. But it was also great watching them play together without me, because they’re doing it for me and doing it on their own and working together. I showed up to practice, watched them play, watched them get better and watched them beat every team. From my seat, that wasn’t too bad.
“Although good things come to an end, I wish this didn’t have to.”
At the time of her ACL injury, the Bellringers had a few days to catch their breath before preparing for the challenges without her. Barrientos said the team was able to make adjustments along the way as it advanced against Portland in the quarterfinals and Old Lyme in the semis.
“And then today with Morgan, we had it in our heads that we had to come out here and really turn it up and play,” she said.
Mercaldi got to watch the tournament through a different lens and liked what she saw from her teammates on Friday, especially when Morgan made a big charge in the third quarter to make it a one-possession game.
“I think our response was great,” said Mercaldi. “Me being a ballhandler, now that we didn’t have as many ballhandlers out there, we were handling the face-guarding pressure and everything was really great on our end. Our defense improved as our shots started falling and we started to box out more and started jumping more passes. I thought we played phenomenal.”