By John Shimer
---- — WEST NEWBURY — The top-seeded Pentucket Sachems (21-1) girls basketball team begins its bid to defend its 2012 Division 3 state title win today at 4 p.m. at home with its first game of the state tournament against eighth-seeded Bishop Fenwick (14-7).
The Sachems enter the second round of the tournament as the favorites after a phenomenal regular season that saw the team finish off with an undefeated Cape Ann League championship, a championship in the York, Maine, Christmas tournament, and, most recently, a Central Catholic tournament championship.
Their opponents certainly pose a threat. The Crusaders have played in perhaps the best Division 3 conference in the state in the Catholic Central, which includes perennial powers St. Mary’s, Archbishop Williams and Arlington Catholic. Most notably on its resume, Bishop Fenwick knocked off Notre Dame of Hingham in Hingham — the team and site of Pentucket’s lone loss this season.
Led by junior guard Kate Lipka, the Crusaders sport an athletic, deep lineup that likes to get out and defend, much in the same vein as their opponents, the Sachems.
“They have a strong team and they are deep,” Pentucket coach John McNamara said of the scouting report on Bishop Fenwick. “It was a tight game the other night (vs. Stoneham). They wore down Stoneham the other night; they were down b y 14 points and just wore down Stoneham until they beat them by six points.
“They’re very aggressive, they press going forward, they play solid defense and they’ve got a deep team where they go nine to 10 deep where they come in waves. They play in the Catholic Central, which is one of the best conferences around, and they’re a formidable opponent because they’re a bunch of athletic kids that get after it.”
Having not played a meaningful game in 10 days after earning a bye in the opening round of the state tournament, Pentucket may have little opportunity to shake off the rust before things kick into high gear.
“We got a little lucky because we had a game postponed when we were all sick, so we actually played the Wednesday of February vacation against Hamilton Wenham,” McNamara said. “That shortened the gap between games, and then we scrimmaged Arlington Catholic on Sunday, so we tried to have a couple of hard practices this week.
“It is tough; you can only practice hard so many days against each other. The formula we tried to do was a lot of skill work in practice this week to stay sharp until we could find out who we were facing and we focus on them at the end of the week.”
The seventh-year coach, who has dominated the North Sectional tournament, guiding four teams to the TD Garden, said the formula won’t change much for his girls — take care of the ball and get after it on the defensive end.
A good first-sign indicator will be if the Sachems can initiate their physical pressing defense to create turnovers for easy baskets. However, McNamara said there will be no specific match-up the Sachems will look to exploit.
“We’re so balanced this year; we don’t really game-plan for one kid offensively to take over,” McNamara said. “(The girls) figure it out a lot of times during the game who has the match-up in terms of who’s feeling good and shooting the ball well. Defensively, we need all five kids ready to step up and be ready to cover their best player for being in help position or whatever.”