WEST NEWBURY — John McNamara has had a pretty good thing going with the Pentucket girls basketball team, as most River Rival basketball fans know.
On top of having the most successful basketball program in the Cape Ann League, he's been able to coach his two daughters — Erin first and Kelsi now — five out of the six years he's been in charge of the Sachems. Four out of those five years, his teams have made it to the TD Garden, where most New England basketball youngsters dream of playing one day.
The roles his daughters have played with the Sachems have been quite different as freshmen. Erin was the starting point guard, battle tested from Day 1. She helped form the core nucleus of three freshmen, a sophomore and a senior. Together they started to put Pentucket on the map.
Kelsi, on the other hand, has grown into the Sachems' sixth girl, the first sub and a real contributor off the bench behind an established core of upperclassmen.
Like her big sister, Kelsi proved she is clutch in knocking down three huge 3-pointers in the fourth quarter Tuesday in the Division 3 state semifinal against Fairhaven. Her 10 points were crucial in a 53-39 victory.
"It's neat that Erin as a freshman went to the Garden, and we lost to the Archies (Archbishop Williams), but I remember her hitting a couple of threes. Kelsi hit a few, so not many coaches get that opportunity," said McNamara, who was on the road yesterday to scout his team's next opponent, Sabis, who beat Sutton yesterday 54-29. "I'll appreciate it more in a couple of weeks when we get through this next game."
Erin and Kelsi are alike in many ways, both supremely driven to get to the Garden and become state champions. The state championship never happened for big sis, and it's something Kelsi could accomplish as a freshman.
Having watched Erin for four years and even her brother Corey on the boys side, who just completed his stellar basketball career with the Sachems, the motivation to live up to the family name and perhaps even outperform her siblings is what's driving Kelsi right now.
"Knowing Erin and Corey are really good helps me want to do better because I don't want to be known as the worst McNamara," said Kelsi, who said she was determined to make varsity as a freshman just like her sister. "There's a lot to live up to. Obviously because they're both such good players and really talented. It puts a little more pressure on me, but I know I'm my own person and whatever I do will be fine.
"Some people have been telling me since Erin and Corey both scored 1,000 points that I need to, but I don't want to worry about that now, especially as a freshman," continued Kelsi, who added that Erin has been there for her, giving her advice through tryouts and helping her become a better player. "I'd rather win a state championship than score 1,000 points. Hopefully if we win a state championship, it will be the best thing I can do because it's the farthest you can get. It will also be one thing Erin and Corey both didn't do."
However, personality-wise and demeanor on the court, the sisters are anything but alike. Stern-faced and always intensely focused, Erin rarely smiled during game time, whereas Kelsi's bubbling smile never relents — much like the Sachem defense — whether she's just made a big play or a freshman error.
"I like living in the moment with my whole team," Kelsi said. "I've never experienced anything like this before and being able to hang out with seniors all the time is so fun."
McNamara said he's been able to adapt slightly over the years, delegating a little more responsibility to his assistants in terms of how he handles the balance between playing coach and father.
"I think probably my assistant Bob Beaton would say I was harder on Erin as a freshman than I was on Kelsi," he said. "Even (Tuesday) I got on Kelsi pretty good after she shot those first two shots in the game without any confidence. Erin had more responsibility, though, because she was the starting point guard. I was on her because she kind of ran the show, whereas Kelsi comes in as a role player and it's a little easier for her.
"I try to let my assistant Amy (Beaton) take care of Kelsi now more than I would in the past when me and Erin would go at it. I let Amy talk to her before I go down there and say something I don't want to say," the coach said. "In that way I think I have a different approach.
Admitting at times the relationship is wearisome and tough to handle, Kelsi still said there was no one she'd rather have as her coach.
Together, the two have also shared some special moments, including a big birthday a little over a month ago and the maturation now of a state-title contending team.
"Probably the thing I remember most from this year was when we threw him a surprise 50th birthday party right before practice," Kelsi said. "We hid at the top of the stairs and all jumped out at him when he was there. I think he really appreciated it.
"I also remember on the bus ride when we were going to Notre Dame when we passed the TD Bank Garden. We were all saying we want to get there, we want to be playing there in a month," Kelsi said. "Then to realize we actually made it was incredible, and then playing there is such a privilege."
"The best thing about watching her this year is the interaction between the older kids and the younger kids, not just Kelsi, but the other freshmen on the team as well," McNamara said. "It's special how they hang out. The older girls don't treat them as freshmen, they treat them as part of the team. They've all become good friends, probably the closest group as far as off the court, hanging out doing things together and being close."