National champs! Local basketball stars win national championship with Spartans club team

Courtesy PhotoThe New Hampshire Spartans 9th Grade Elite team poses after winning the USBA National Championship down in Raleigh, North Carolina, last month. Pictured top row, left to right: coach Chad Cyr, Ava Winterburn (New Boston), Olivia DeLong (Amesbury), Gracie Salema (Kittery), Savannah Emery (Greenland), Gabby Redford (Amesbury), Natalie Simonds (Durham) and coach Chris Coates. Bottom row: Mackenzie McNutt (Dover), Grace Farley (Holderness), Kassie Bashaw (Newbury), Anique St. Laurent (Greenland), Libby Harris (Wolfeboro) and Sydnie Chin (Conway).

When the New Hampshire Spartans 9th Grade Elite AAU team traveled to North Carolina for the United States Basketball Association Girls National Championships last month, nobody was really sure what to expect. The team had plenty of talent, sure, but the girls had never even had a full team practice as a group. Could they compete with some of the best competition in the nation?

Once all was said and done, the girls had left no doubt.

The Spartans, based out of Hampton, N.H. and led by Amesbury’s Olivia DeLong and Gabby Redford and by Newbury’s Kassie Bashaw, rolled through the tournament in dominant fashion to capture the program’s first-ever USBA National Championship. After going 2-1 in pool play to earn a bye in the knockout phase, the Spartans went on to beat clubs from Connecticut, South Carolina and Georgia to win the title.

“It was crazy,” said DeLong, a rising sophomore at Amesbury High who played varsity as a freshman last winter. “I think that was the first time that program has won a national championship, so it was very exciting for everyone.”

The Spartans started off the knockout phase with a 57-35 win over the Waterbury, Connecticut based CT Rebound, and then in the semifinals the team blew out the Florence, South Carolina based Phantom Ballerz 72-52. That set up a showdown with the Liberty Roadrunners out of Hinesville, Georgia in the championship game.

“In the beginning we came out really strong,” said Redford, also a rising sophomore and returning varsity player at Amesbury High. “We were pressing and got a lot of steals and layups, and then late in the game they started catching up and it was really nerve wracking. But they didn’t catch us and we got it together, this was the championship and this is what we came for.”

The Spartans wound up holding on for a 51-46 win, and program director and head coach Chris Coates said it was not only the first national championship in the club’s history, but also marked the first time a New England team had won the event.

Afterwards, the girls all said it was an incredible experience, especially getting to play against talented teams who often play a completely different style than what you typically see in New England.

“It was like a whole different perspective,” said Bashaw, a rising freshman point guard at Portsmouth Christian Academy who aspires to play college basketball down the road. “Around here people aren’t as tough and physical, so going down there was a change that we adapted really well to.”

While most of the team came together only recently, the girls all said their chemistry developed quickly, which was key to going up against teams that might have been playing together longer.

“It was a running joke that we never had all 11 at the same time, and they were able to come together still,” Coates said. “They played together, were physical, played with confidence and they bought in.”

That’s not to say everyone was unfamiliar, as Bashaw and several other girls had played for the club before, while DeLong and Redford have been teammates in Amesbury for years.

“I thought it was really good because me and Liv have played together before so we work well together,” Redford said. “But the whole team works well together.”

The team will continue to play together through the fall, after which point most of the girls will turn their focus to the upcoming high school season. DeLong and Redford have continued to play with their Amesbury teammates in summer leagues like Hoops for Hope, and they’re hoping to help the Indians remain contenders in the Division 3 North after last year’s run to the sectional final.