---- — Death, taxes and a Pentucket girls basketball playoff run.
The Sachems 2013-2014 campaign began with more questions than answers. A team dominant under head coach John McNamara’s reign (170-23 record) was facing a season of youth, inexperience and growth.
It’s something McNamara wasn’t accustomed to dealing with — the Sachems made the state championship game the previous two seasons and finished on top in 2012.
Following this year’s season-opener, a feeling of nervous energy was halted, if not for just a week’s time. Pentucket not only began its season with a win over Saugus, but scored 70 points in the process. All seemed well from West Newbury.
Then McNamara’s preseason fears came to fruition. Notre Dame of Hingham, a team that has historically given Pentucket troubles, held the Sachems to less than half of their Game 1 point total. With a 36-32 victory, the Cougars handed McNamara’s team its first loss of the year.
The slide didn’t stop there. Just two days later, Hamilton-Wenham managed a two-point win over Pentucket before Masconomet blew out the Sachems by 26 points on Dec. 27. At just 1-3 in his team’s first four games, McNamara knew that patience and progress were mandatory.
“I knew we had a lot of work to do,” McNamara said. “We weren’t playing good basketball on the offensive or defensive end. We had to be patient as a coaching staff and let them develop and gain confidence.”
“Slow” starts are something that the Sachems have experienced recently. In their 2012 championship season, a 3-3 beginning gave way to a 18-1 finish. Through the past three seasons, McNamara has seen his team go a combined 11-5 in December, 26-3 in January and 11-0 in February. If anybody knows the formula for growth, it’s McNamara. It is no surprise, then, that patience paid immediate dividends.
“We haven’t all played much together on the court, so we had to get to know each other’s style,” sophomore forward Carolyn Modlish said. “Last year we had five stars so we had to get used to having a new kind of team. I feel like (Coach McNamara) has gotten to know us and how we have played and his patience played a part in that.”
Then came the turnaround. Since falling to Masco, the Sachems are 11-0 and clinched a birth to the state tournament on Wednesday with a win at Georgetown.
“On our run, there have been some games where we have played well and others where we haven’t. But it has been a growing process for the team as a whole, for both the coaches and players,” McNamara said.
Signs of progression in Pentucket’s play is a code easily deciphered. Two of the three teams that the Sachems have fallen to early on have later fallen to Pentucket in rematch games. After losing to Hamilton-Wenham on Dec. 23, the Sachems earned a nine-point win against the Generals on Jan. 8. And, after losing to Notre Dame in just the second game of the season, McNamara was pleased with what he saw in the rematch this past Saturday.
“As the kids worked through the season, I think they gained confidence,” he said. “Especially on Saturday night against Notre Dame, it was night and day from the last time we played them. We played more as a team, trusted our teammates and looked like a team that had improved.”
The year’s largest test to date will likely come on Monday, when a 13-0 Masco team travels to Pentucket looking to keep its perfect season intact.
“I think that beating all of the teams that have beaten us has been our goal as the season went on,” said Modlish. “If we beat (Masco) I think we would have a lot more confidence heading into the tournament. It has been our goal to beat them.”
While handing Masco its first loss would undoubtedly work to boost the confidence of his team, falling to them isn’t something that McNamara believes would be devastating.
“I don’t think we need to beat them to have confidence,” he said. “At some point we aren’t young anymore. We have played (14) games so we can’t keep using that as an excuse. As long as we are playing well, I don’t want to say that the Masco or Newburyport games are statement games.”
With the way this season has unfolded, one might draw similarities to the 2011-12 campaign that ended up with a state title. That year, Pentucket began the season 3-3 before finishing on a 21-1 run that concluded with jubilation on the TD Garden parquet.
“I think it’s completely different,” McNamara said. “That team, even though we were 3-3, we lost to Westford Academy, Arlington Catholic and Billerica Memorial, which were all in the top 10 in the state. We did get on a roll and played some great basketball, but this is a different type of team.”
Nevertheless, it’s a goal that remains fresh on the mind of his players.
“Obviously, it’s our goal to get that state title,” Modlish said. “For me, that’s what I’m looking for. Hopefully, we can work together and get that far.”