Pictured: Coach Corey Zdunczyk with his Hale-Ray team before a game earlier this season. In the video below, Loudon Chupas’ clean block occurs at 1:42.41. (Photo by Paul Augeri)

By Paul Augeri
middlesexcountysports@gmail.com

Forty-eight hours later, Hale-Ray boys basketball coach Corey Zdunczyk was still grappling with an egregious call that likely cost the Noises a second-round victory in the state tournament.

A clean block by 6-foot-4 senior Loudon Chupas was interpreted to be goaltending in the waning seconds of the Division V game against visiting Windsor Locks on Thursday night.

There’s no point in writing about close calls by officials in any sport. Outcomes are decided by the players, after all. Well, almost always. But this particular call was made by the official 45 or so feet from the basket and not by his colleague who was in position to best make the determination of the play in question.

In the years to come, when these student-athletes have lived a little as adults, maybe they will come to understand that life is indeed unfair at times, and the only way to deal with what’s happened is to let it die and move on.

“Teenagers have a tendency to bounce back,” Zdunczyk said.

The Noises have come a long way under his leadership. The East Haddam and Moodus communities are crazy about Hale-Ray athletics, and their enthusiasm for boys basketball’s return to respectability and beyond has been readily apparent throughout the last four months.

There is irony in Hale-Ray’s latest circumstances. Before COVID-19 derailed the CIAC tournaments two years ago, the Noises snuck in a first-round win, their first in state tournament play in nine years. Still, there was no sense of closure for the seniors on that squad.

Last season was reduced to a dozen or so regular-season games and conference tournaments, but no state tournament experience. Again, the denial of an opportunity to play at the pinnacle of a season’s schedule. But like their peers, the Noises rolled with it. Hale-Ray had strength in numbers in the junior class, which was poised for a full-on 2021-22 season of hoops and an anticipated March run toward some type of tournament final – quarter, semi or otherwise.

And now this.

Hale-Ray trailed Windsor Locks 47-45 with 41.2 seconds left with the Raiders at the free-throw line for a one-and-one. Kyle Hinckley missed, Drew Conroy rebounded and fed Loudon Chupas with the outlet pass. Chupas drove the paint, passed to Conroy, who kicked it to Miles Gagne in the corner, in front of the home team’s bench. Gagne drilled the 3-pointer, the Sound Pound went nuts and Hale-Ray had a one-point lead.

Windsor Locks immediately inbounded, pushed the ball and tried a deep 3 that missed and fell into Chupas’ hands with less than 22 seconds on the clock. Chupas dribbled once before lobbing a long left-handed pass to a streaking Gagne, who beat Locks’ defense down the floor … and missed the layup.

Locks’ Jaheime Thomas rebounded and was just about at halfcourt when he saw Chris Vega uncovered and racing toward the basket. Chupas beat it downcourt and was just inside the foul line when Vega caught the ball and went into a layup stride.

Chupas got a piece of the ball right after it touched the glass. The whistle blew as the rebound settled into Hale-Ray senior Nate Matetich’s hands with 8 seconds left. The home team was exuberant, thinking it snuffed the potential go-ahead basket and that Matetich, who was wrapped up on the rebound, would be going to the foul line.

Only the official trailing the play had called goaltending. And after a conference with his colleague, the call stood and Windsor Locks had a 49-48 lead.

“We got robbed,” Zdunczyk said. “There is no reasonable explanation for that to be called a goaltend in the manner that it was called. The official under basket was not calling for it. The fact they went with the half-court official’s call makes it even more difficult to accept.”

Another rub: Windsor Locks coaches and players clearly knew the finality of the call before Hale-Ray did and were celebrating. Zdunczyk had his players were huddled, thinking over the final seconds, when the referee approached the scorer’s table to confirm his call.

Zdunczyk was stunned.

“The ref said the ball was on the way down,” he said. “I’ve watched it a number of times and I’ve gotten a lot of feedback from other coaches and people. I haven’t seen a shred of evidence to show it should have reasonably been called goaltending. Given the time left and the score, how that call is made in that spot is hard to understand.

“It’s a game-deciding call.”

It negated a tremendous hustle play from Chupas, who eclipsed the 1,000-point mark for his career this season and will go down as one of the best players ever to wear a Hale-Ray uniform.

“There are probably only a handful of people in the state who could make that block,” his coach said. “You see from where he ran to make a clean block. It was an incredibly athletic play that just sums up his career.”

When things settled down, Hale-Ray had possession with 5.5 seconds left and got a deep look from 3-point range that came up short at the buzzer.

For Zdunczyk, this isn’t so-called sour grapes on his part. The trailing official was not in the logical jurisdiction to make the call. The refs had a chance to change the call and didn’t. And “the ball was on the way down” was not a factual statement.

Zdunczyk deserves at least an apology from Board 35.

“I feel for the kids, especially for the seniors, who won’t have a state tournament again and a chance to have a little more closure,” he said. “I think that’s what I feel worst about. It feels like the season is unfinished.”

Hale-Ray held its winter sports banquet on Friday, which allowed Zdunczyk and his players to be together one last time as a group. He said the timing of it was perfect.

“The parents and players and myself, it did kind of help to process this,” he said. “The play and the call were certainly a topic and nobody was particularly happy about it. You always have to live with the what-ifs in sports.

“At the end of the day, I wanted the kids and the parents and everybody to focus on all the good that’s happened. These seniors won 15 games. They’ve come such a long way. That’s three out of four nights you’re celebrating a victory. It took an offseason of work. These seniors have a lot going for them. Spring sports will be starting and some will go off to college. I hope they just understand that it is a difficult event and something unfortunate that they’ll have to be able to move on and learn from it. Hopefully the underclassmen are energized by it, and for the eighth-graders in attendance, hopefully they saw this and the atmosphere and notice what the program is capable of.”

He added: “As much as our last game hurt, it’s going to become a story for them to tell. At least it will be memorable for them. Ten years removed from high school when they look back, an event like that will at least be talked about and remembered. This will pass and certain lessons will be learned about what is in your control and out of your control.”

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