By John Shimer
---- — WEST NEWBURY — When your harshest critic is your head coach and he describes your preseason practices as kindergarteners trying to learn the basics, you know he’s not going to let you off the hook on anything — even when you are the defending state champs.
That’s the position the Pentucket girls basketball team finds itself in this preseason.
The pedigree is there; the Sachems have been to the TD Bank Garden as sectional champs four times in six years, they have then advanced to the state title game twice, and most recently won the state title last year.
The team this year returns four key cogs. Seniors Alex Moore, Coley Viselli and Tess Nogueira are all returning starters, and sophomore Kelsi McNamara was a very reliable player off the bench who should become the team’s starting point guard this season.
The girls also looked great in the offseason, capturing the Andover Hoops for Hope summer league championship that included teams like reigning Division 1 state champs Andover and New Hampshire’s state champs Bishop Guertin as well as several other bigger programs. The Sachems also captured a summer league tournament championship in southern Maine.
But as coach John McNamara likes to point out, high school state championships are not won in the summer. And there’s plenty of new faces on this year’s squad. Seven of the 15 players on the roster were not varsity players, and during the preseason McNamara has really implemented a “back to the basics” approach to get the new kids caught up to speed.
“I don’t know even know if we’ve mentioned the state championship at any of the practices, and it’s mainly because we have seven new bodies, and it’s trying to get them caught up to speed and teach them how we do things,” McNamara said. “We don’t want to not mention the word, that’s crazy, we’ve got eight kids coming back that won a state championship. There’s nothing wrong with that. But this is also not the same team; it’s not like baseball of the ’60s and ’70s where every team was set year after year. Every year here is different.”
Last year’s team wasn’t without its growing pains either. The team came out to a not-so-hot 3-3 start, before finishing off the season with an incredible 20-1 stretch that saw the Sachems win their last 10 all by an average 22.4 points per game.
The fiery coached learned an important lesson in staying even-keeled, trusting the process and allowing the team to develop slowly but surely.
“We’re starting slow right now, so it’s hard for me to jump up and down and say we’re looking great, but last year at this time I was probably thinking the same thing because we were struggling,” McNamara said. “We’re looking at this as kind of like last year. You don’t have to be good at the beginning, you don’t have to play your best at the beginning, you just want to be playing your best at the end. I think we all learned it’s OK to take your time and do the right things, then cram and come out of the gates thinking you’re all set.
“We can use (the start of the season) as a measuring stick and as a learning device from last year,” the seventh-year Pentucket coach said. “If we have a loss, we will talk about last year, what we did, here’s how we dealt with it, here’s the end result, and I think that’s how we’ll look at it.”
If the going does get tough, McNamara does also have his three established senior captains who have been in so many big games to carry the team and its young players.
“I think they’re definitely focused, but I think it’s my job to make sure they don’t think it’s just going to happen again,” McNamara said. “I’ve got to try to get that same drive from them. I think I’ve mentioned it to them individually that winning one state championship is pretty special, but if you win two that would put you in a pretty elite class. Not many kids have won two.
“We haven’t talked as a team about state championships, but I just try to get them to understand that they shouldn’t be satisfied and content because this is their senior year,” McNamara said. “Last year they were juniors and we had a couple of seniors. That was their team, this is their team this year. We’re trying to take that approach with them and make them understand there’s nothing better than your senior year in high school, and you can go off and play college basketball, but we’ve got something special with the community supporting us. They’ll never enjoy basketball more than their senior year.”
Once again the motivation for this particular collection of players is to do what no Sachem team has done before — repeat as champs — a legacy that would put them in a rarified air with some of the all-time great players in the history of the state of Massachusetts.
“Basically having that first one in our pocket is what’s getting us off to a pretty good start,” said Viselli. “At practices we talk about repeating as something we want, something we’re motivated to get. But we can’t get there if we don’t work hard, so we’ve been pushing each other really hard because that’s already the motivation factor that’s getting us going.
“That’s something we want — we want that repeat year because that’s something Pentucket’s never done. We want this legacy to end that way. We want to stay on the right foot to get that second one and show people that, yes, we lost kids that were key to us, but we can still play. We still have a good team, so having that first one is the biggest motivation factor for us right now.”