By John Shimer
---- — All the holiday cheer means vacation basketball tournaments are here.
Three River Rival girls basketball teams will be playing in holiday tournaments — the Pentucket girls (3-0) will travel north to Maine to play in the York Annual Christmas Basketball Tournament, while both the Newburyport (2-1) and Triton girls (1-3) will go to fellow Cape Ann League opponent Ipswich for the Institution for Savings 9th Annual Girls Holiday Tournament.
All the teams get under way tomorrow. Newburyport and Triton play each other at 5 p.m. in the opening round with the winner advancing to play in the championship match against either Ipswich or Manchester Essex.
The Sachems will take on the host team in York at 3 p.m., and the winner will advance to play in the championship game of an all-New Hampshire semifinal match pitting Dover against Spalding.
Having started fairly hot out of the gates, the Sachems will get a good idea where they are in the early stages of the regular season. According to coach John McNamara, the York tournament typically invites one strong team from Massachusetts with schools like Melrose, Reading and Woburn having previously represented the state. And in recent years the York program itself has been a strong state title threat in Maine, having won the state title as recently as 2010.
“York is a very good program, they called, and it just so happened the Masconomet tournament was changing format, downgrading a bit, and we needed a tournament, so it worked out,” McNamara said. “And playing teams we don’t see is kind of neat.”
The defending Mass. state champs will be without one of their three captains, Alex Moore, since she had her tonsils removed recently. The Sachems will also have another major obstacle to overcome — no shot clock. In the state of Maine in the girls game, there is no shot clock.
“Some teams have gone up there and taken the air out of the ball and stalled a little bit, so that’s different,” McNamara said. “For a team like us that plays a lot of defense, it’ll be interesting to see how it goes 35 seconds in, 40 seconds in and the girls are looking around like what’s going on.
“We’re going to play our normal style and we’ll see how it works against teams that try to hold the ball a little longer,” continued the Pentucket coach. “It’ll be a contrast of styles and a big challenge.”
Meanwhile, Triton’s Karen Christian and Newburyport’s Gregg Dollas will get to rehash their annual coach versus former assistant rivalry.
Both teams are in a bit of transition this season trying to develop younger players — the Vikings more so than the Clippers. Triton has struggled mightily on offense in its first four games, averaging only 20 points per game, but hope to get a lift with the return from injury of Hannah Canning and Jessica Greaney.
“Hopefully those two will give us a little more offense,” coach Christian said. “We’re young and struggling, but we played a great first half against Pentucket last night. If we can bring that kind of defense every night, we’ll be OK.
“I think just having a good showing against Cape Ann League teams is going to be huge,” Christian said. “The girls just need to understand the work they’re doing is going to pay off, and certainly a good showing in the tournament would help their confidence as they progress through the season.”
Dollas and the Clippers have had to cope primarily with the loss of 1,000-point scorer Beth Castantini. Against Hamilton-Wenham Friday night, Newburyport was outgunned, 56-44.
“We’re looking forward to our next game to improve upon our last game — we had a difficult night last night,” Dollas said. “We’d like to have a strong game against Triton and play the winner of Ipswich and Manchester Essex, which Ipswich is a favorite and I think we’re also a favorite, too. I think if Ipswich and us are paired on Friday, it’s going to be a very big challenge for us because I think they’re the ultimate favorites. They’ve shown to be a very strong team in all aspects, (so far this year).”
With a strong trifecta of Brigid O’Flynn, Julia Davis and Masey Zegarowski at their core, Dollas said Ipswich has three players who have emerged as star players in the league.
“Their whole team is just very fundamentally sound, they play strong defense, they control the ball, they make good decisions,” Dollas said. “They’re a tough team all the way around.”
Dollas said his team will need to push tempo, play better in transition offense and have better positioning defensively if his Clippers are to contend for the holiday tournament title.
“We’re excited. The tournament adds more atmosphere to our games — a little more hype, a little more pump,” Dollas said. “It gets you ready for tournament-type play because there’s more adrenaline.”