Playoff basketball means many different things to many different people: postseason regulars or playoff newcomers; first-year coaches or school legends; inexperienced athletes and seniors making their last stand. Some teams have enjoyed their tournament ticket for weeks now while others are still vying for their opportunity.
One such team is the Pentucket boys basketball team. A season of inconsistency has come down to this: two more games of must-win basketball. Pentucket’s senior captain Ryan Kuchar will look to lead his team to wins against Newburyport tonight and Saugus on Thursday.
“It would mean the world to me to be in the playoffs,” Kuchar said. “I have always loved playing in the playoff atmosphere. There is nothing better than that.”
If Newburyport has its way, though, Pentucket’s season will come to an abrupt halt tonight. Newburyport has two games remaining and must win one in order to qualify. With tonight’s game at Pentucket just hours away, Newburyport senior Caleb Stott hopes that the bus ride home after the game is a celebration.
“This is my senior year, so I would love to go as far as I could in the playoffs,” Stott said. “It would mean a lot to our whole team because this is what we have been going for since day one.”
If Newburyport is able to win another game this season, they will head to the playoffs along with the team who shares their court: the Newburyport girls varsity team.
Getting off to a scorching 8-1 beginning, Newburyport qualified for the tournament what seems like months ago. While the Clippers have slipped of late, the mindset has largely turned to the postseason and what may await.
“It’s what we look forward to all season and what we work for,” said coach Gregg Dollas. “We have been looking at the standings in terms of the teams that are in the playoffs and seeing who we might match up against. But we still have two games left and a lot can change in that time.”
In her final season of Newburyport hoops, senior captain Mary Pettigrew hopes to lead her team and her younger sister, Emily, to a state championship.
“Making the playoffs gives you a chance to prove yourself,” Mary Pettigrew said. “You work hard all season and once you get to the playoffs, it’s a whole different game. It all comes down to wanting to prove yourself.”
A team that has grown used to deep playoff runs is the Pentucket girls basketball team. Led by head coach John McNamara, who has a 87.7 winning percentage and an overall record of 173-24, Pentucket has found success due in large part to their understanding of the differences between regular season and postseason basketball.
“The fact that it’s one and done makes the game so much different,” McNamara said. “You are playing teams that you aren’t familiar with, so if you didn’t do your preparation, it can be difficult. The fact that it is one and done makes it different and the kids feel the same way. Your season can be over that night and that adds to the pressure and the focus and the effort that the kids put in.”
One of his kids who has seen the ups and downs of playoff basketball is McKenna Kilian.
As a junior, Kilian has already won a state championship. Claiming the ultimate prize her freshman season, Kilian’s team lost a heartbreaking state final game last year.
“I love going to the playoffs,” Kilian said.
“It always has an air of excitement. It always brings the team closer and the atmosphere is a lot of fun. I’m a junior now, and my freshman year we won the championship. Last year, we lost to Archbishop Williams at the Garden. It’s a great experience going with your team. We have fun even if the stakes are high, and it’s cool to have your whole school come out and support you. It’s like a bonding experience.”
While senior seasons are always special and playoff basketball is always guaranteed to provide a unique memory, a run into the postseason is extra special for the Georgetown Royals. Former Georgetown head coach Mike Rowinski passed away during this season, providing an opportunity for a team riding on emotion to play in their former mentor’s honor.
“It means something in terms of us getting some redemption for the past few years when we haven’t made the tournament,” Georgetown head coach Barry Spears said.
“It’s a credit to our seniors. It’s a paying tribute to coach Rowinski that they fulfilled and it was one of their goals to get to the tournament this season for him.”
Newburyport vs. Pentucket Pentucket High School, 6:30 p.m. What's at stake: For Newburyport, it's win and you're in; for Pentucket, it's lose and you're out.