, Newburyport, MA

March 12, 2013

The Pentucket winning tradition is likely to continue

Dan Guttenplan
On Basketball

---- — BOSTON — The Pentucket girls basketball team plays into March every year, and the 20-plus win seasons often end at the TD Garden or DCU Center in Worcester.

That’s just the way it has been in seven seasons under coach John McNamara, who has led the team to a cumulative record of 158-20 during that stretch. McNamara’s teams have collected one state championship and five sectional titles.

In the years in which the Sachems’ season has not ended with a state title (all but 2012), the season typically ends with a hard-fought Pentucket loss in front of some 2,000 fans from the district. Tears stream from the faces of the seniors as they hug on the sidelines, and the common sentiment among spectators is always, “That was a great run for the program.”

Such was the case yesterday in Pentucket’s 52-38 loss to Archbishop Williams in the Division 3 state semifinal at the TD Garden. After Pentucket’s third loss to the Archies at the Garden in the last six years, fans were left to wonder if Pentucket’s run has come to an end.

No one will bet against Pentucket returning to the Garden for the sixth time in eight years next season, but the feat will require a quick transition process after the graduation of yet another program-altering senior class. This year’s seniors include 1,000-point scorer and reigning Cape Ann League MVP Coley Viselli, all-purpose center and three-year starter Tess Nogueira, defensive stopper and three-year starter Alex Moore, and vocal leader and valuable asset off the bench Emily Dresser. Each of those seniors played four seasons at Pentucket, serving various roles on teams that logged a cumulative record of 93-12 with three Garden appearances and one state title.

“It’s a testament to their will power, leadership and basketball skills,” McNamara said of his seniors. “Those girls have had fantastic careers. I told them, not many seniors can say they’ve been to the Garden three times in four years. It hurts today, but it’s a pretty special run.”

This year’s group of Pentucket seniors picked up where the program’s last prolific senior class left off. The Class of 2010 included two career 1,000-point scorers who went off to play in college in Erin McNamara and Ashley Viselli. Those two were just one year behind dominant center Kirsten Daamen, who later played at Central Connecticut State. Erin McNamara and Viselli took a team to the state-championship game as seniors, falling just short of the ultimate goal.

“I have a ton of respect for John McNamara and the things he does up there,” said Archbishop Williams coach Jim Bancroft. “The consistency he brings to the court, the way he teaches his players every year, I’m not surprised they come out of the North every year. And they don’t play the same way from season to season. When we beat them in 2008, they had a big post player (Daamen). They fed the post in more of a slow-down game. Now it’s a fast pace with more 3-pointers. He adjusts to whatever type of players he has.”

Coley Viselli, Nogueira and Moore took on leadership roles on last year’s team, determined to take the program one step farther than their predecessors. They did, winning the title game at the DCU Center for the first time in program history. In fact, before coach McNamara took over the program in 2006-07, the Sachems had gone 17 straight seasons without making the tournament.

If it were not for Archbishop Williams, the Sachems would likely have at least two or three more state championships in McNamara’s eight years. The Archies have won state titles both previous seasons they beat Pentucket at the Garden, and this year’s squad — stocked with Division 1 talent — appears primed to achieve the same feat.

“Our kids come from three small towns, so we compete the best we can,” McNamara said. “It’s tough to compete against that. We’ve had a good run of players, and that’s what it comes down to. I think they have to. They have one at Michigan (Valerie Driscoll) this year. They’re loaded with talent. We may not have scholarship players, but we have kids who play tough basketball and like to compete.”

That doesn’t figure to change for Pentucket. McNamara has no plans to leave after seven seasons, and his best player on the floor yesterday — his daughter, Kelsi — is only a sophomore. She led the Sachems in scoring throughout the tournament, and for the second year in a row, elevated her play at the most important time of year.

“She played well in the tournament; she stepped up,” said John McNamara. “She plays well in big games. She was a little hurt with her knee today, but that’s the will power of the team. That’s what made them special. Even if they’re not at 100 percent, they go out and play defense.”

Kelsi McNamara figures to play in many more big games throughout her career. She will be joined by fellow starter McKenna Killian, and then whichever of the remaining players commits to becoming the next Kirsten Daamen, Ashley Viselli, Erin McNamara, Sarah Higgins, Tess Nogueira, Coley Viselli or Alex Moore.

“It usually comes down to who works hardest in the offseason,” John McNamara said. “Now we have spots to fill. Three years ago, we had three spots to fill. This group of seniors took the opportunity to get ready to go. Next year, we’ll have three starting positions to fill. We have to see who steps up to be a key player, not just a role player. That takes place in the offseason.”