BEVERLY — No team in the River Rival Region can match the consistent excellence of the Pentucket girls basketball team over the last six seasons.
As evidence, consider this: A typical winter sports season includes 20 games prior to state-tournament play. Pentucket clinched its sixth consecutive 20-win season last evening.
As has been the case over the six-year stretch known as the John McNamara Era, this year's 20-win season includes a deep run in the state tournament. Last night, the third-seeded Sachems knocked off second-seed Swampscott 51-27 at the Beverly High Field House.
The Sachems (20-4) will have an opportunity to claim their fourth sectional title in a six-year span when they face fourth-seed Ipswich (18-4) tomorrow (10:30 a.m.) at the Tsongas Center in Lowell.
As is often the case with any six-year stretch of dominance in high-school sports, the one constant for Pentucket during this stretch is the head coach, John McNamara, who took over the program at the start of the 2006-2007 season. Pentucket had logged a record of 20-39 in the previous three seasons, and the state-tournament was a distant memory for a struggling program.
The Pentucket program has been as good as any on the North Shore since. McNamara's teams have gone 109-17, with three sectional titles (2007, 2008, 2010) and one state championship game appearance (2010).
The remarkable part of the prolonged stretch of excellence is the program's consistency in the face of attrition. The Sachems graduated one Division 1 collegiate player in Kirsten Daamen in 2009, and two players who eclipsed 1,000 career points in high school — Ashley Viselli and Erin McNamara — in 2010.
Viselli attended last night's game as a spectator.
"Mr. (McNamara) did a great job with his first group (in 2006)," Viselli said. "He said, 'This is the law. We are not going to be a doormat like we used to be.' All of those players passed along what they learned to the younger kids before we graduated. Now, the younger kids are passing it along again."
Part of that initial group of younger kids is Ashley's sister, junior Coley Viselli. The point guard and floor general turned the momentum of last night's game late in the first quarter.
With Pentucket trailing 6-4 in the closing seconds of a rock fight of a first quarter, Viselli banked in a 3-pointer with the quarter's final shot. Viselli opened the second quarter with eight points in a row, stretching the lead to 15-6. Swampscott drew no closer than eight points the rest of the way.
Still, to win 20 games per season for six years, it takes more than lucky bank-shots that change the momentum of games. Pentucket was in position to take the lead at the end of the first quarter last night despite its poor shooting performance due to its relentless defense.
"We always talk about our defense," said McNamara. "Our defense held us when we couldn't put the ball in the basket. We had a hard time adjusting to a big gym. Our staple is our defense, and it got our offense going. That's our trademark."
According to Coley Viselli, it took time for this year's players to embrace the defense-first mentality. The Sachems started 3-3 in their first six games, putting their streak of 20-win seasons in severe jeopardy. They have gone 17-1 since.
"The streak of 20-win seasons is hard to explain," Coley Viselli said. "It's the system. Diving for loose balls and hustling on defense is everything our coach looks for. (On Wednesday), we were supposed to have a walk-through, and you still see people diving on the floor. That's what he wants to see. You practice like you play."
That's not to say a McNamara-coached team can only win one way. Over the years, the Sachems have pressed on defense, trapped, played a half-court set and switched into occasional zone defenses. There are many ways to skin a cat. This much is evidenced by senior captain Sarah Higgins' career arc. She started as a promising player off the bench in 2009-2010 on the team that played for a state championship. Last season, she made the transition from a glue player to a team leader. This year, she is the team's leading scorer and a consistent threat for a triple-double.
"We've always had talent since I've been here," Higgins said. "This team is more of a family. We don't have the outside shooting guards like Ashley Viselli or Erin McNamara. So we focus on getting boards, working hard in transition and creating turnovers. We're committed on defense, but that's been the same since Day 1."
The John McNamara Era
John McNamara took over as coach of Pentucket prior to the 2006-2007 season. The Sachems went 20-39 in the previous three seasons before his arrival.
2011-201220-4Advanced to D3 North final
2010-201120-5Lost to St. Mary's in D3 North semifinal
2009-201026-1Lost to Lee in D3 state final
2008-200921-2Lost to Swampscott in D3 North semifinal
2007-200821-3Lost to Archbishop Williams in D3 state semifinal
2006-200721-2Lost to Archbishop Williams in D3 state semifinal