Feb. 23—Six games into the shortened 2021 high school girls basketball season, Beverly High was in a funk. The Panthers had but one win and were struggling to reverse that trend.
"It was frustrating, really frustrating," said Sophia Hemsey, one of the team's three captains. "Not at each other, but just because we all wanted the season to turn out differently."
Down the homestretch, it all came together for the Orange-and-Black. Beverly won its final four games by toppling Danvers (twice), Peabody and Marblehead to finish the year at 6-7..
"I think we really deserved to win all of those games that we did," said Hemsey, the team's heart and soul and unquestioned vocal leader. "We didn't win games because of talent; we won because we hustled and dove on the floor and got after it every game. That's why it was great to see it all come together."
Hemsey's fellow senior captains were in complete agreement.
"To end with those four wins in a row was just so satisfying," said point guard Kylie McCarthy, who led the team in scoring with 10.3 points per game. "It was really fun seeing them come one after another like they did, all because of the hard work we put in throughout the season. Everyone on the team had an impact on those wins."
"Being able to finish the way we did is something I don't think any of us will ever forget," chimed 5-foot-8 Sydney Anderson, who added a strong inside game to her 3-point repertoire this winter and wound up scoring 9.3 ppg. "In four really tough games, we all put in the work to get the (results) we wanted."
Having a squad without a plethora of varsity experience, head coach Seth Stantial knew he'd have to approach things a bit differently in this unorthodox winter season. The sixth-year bench boss wanted to focus on player development, intent on playing each of his 14 girls every game.
"This was one of my favorite teams I've ever coached," the 33-year-old Stantial said. "We had to play Masconomet three times and Winthrop twice within our first six games; they were two of the best teams in the Northeastern Conference. But our girls kept working every day in practice without complaint. 'How do I get better?' 'What do I do here?' or 'Where do I belong in this situation?' They were constantly trying to get better individually and as a team. Eventually, it all began to jell."
As the club's elder stateswomen, the three captains set it in their minds how they could increase their on-court roles. McCarthy became more of an impact player offensively; Anderson switched from shooting guard to more of a 4 and became an offensive focal point; and Hemsey became, in her own words, the team's 'hype man' while gaining more of her coach's trust on the hardwood.
With all three of his captains members of the school's National Honor Society (Anderson has a 4.2 grade point average; McCarthy owns a 4.1 GPA and Hemsey a 3.81 GPA), Stantial knew they'd be able to reach those individual goals while bettering the team as a whole.
"Syd had to adjust her game because teams were really keying on her, the first time that'd happened to her," said Stantial, a former Beverly High and Keene State standout. "She dealt with some adversity but found a way to impact the game positively for us each time out.
"Sophia's the kind of person that if you meet her, you'd never forget that you did," Stantial continued. "Her personality, effort and attitude are infectious. She's undersized against 99 percent of the players she covers and takes elbows to the face, the back ... but she never stops working. She's rarely out of position, either, whether it's on or off-ball. She's just so dependable at that end of the floor. And her offensive game really grew this season, too, with way more games scoring in double digits."
Stantial said he spoke with McCarthy several times during the offseason and stressed the need for increased scoring from her. "Her handle is great and she's one of the best passes we've ever had, but we needed more offense from her," he said.
A true student of the game, McCarthy asked him if she could watch replays of game with him, breaking down each possession and seeing what worked, what didn't and what she could've done differently.
"I wanted to see the game from his perspective," said McCarthy, who will be continuing her basketball career at Curry College, where she plans to study secondary education. "That way, I'd know what he was thinking and how I could improve. It made me see the actual games from a different perspective; (Stantial's) judgement is great, so anything he said I trusted."
"It showed how much she cared. The best players want to be coached, and Kylie definitely does," added Stantial. "Kylie doesn't need hugs and high-fives all the time; she just wants to be better. She's literally the exact type of player who keeps you coaching."
There are 11 underclassmen who will be back for Beverly High next season, all of whom filled a role this winter and will be asked to expand those in 2021-22.
Guards Angelina Mazzone (a season high 9 points against Danvers) and Lindsey Gannon, as well as forward Grace Coughlin, all stepped into the expanded roles they were given. That'll go up another notch or three next winter.
A half-dozen sophomores were also key players for the Panthers. Olivia Griffin stepped in as a starter at guard and was always where the team needed her to be. Classmate Nikki Erricola really grew as a player from a year ago and shot well from the perimeter, while Izzy Sullivan used her quickness and defensive abilities to be a difference maker. Up front, forwards Nylah Olivierre, Mya Perron and Abby Ruggeri each made great strides in their second season as varsity members.
Freshman Lauren Caley saw a good amount of minutes in the frontcourt and while still learning the game, used her length and ability to cash in when the opportunities presented themselves. Fellow ninth grader Mia Bilotti, a guard, is a strong shooter and worked hard to learn the BHS system throughout the season.
"As a coach you're hoping (the returnees) grow together as a group," said Stantial, who had Bridget Keaton as his varsity assistant coach while Kevin Keilty and Tom Wilder worked with the jayvees. "They saw how our program should be run, how we carry ourselves and the standard of how hard we work. Those are all things we pride ourselves in.
"Plus, each of these girls now have that carrot of what they need to do to get into the starting lineup and/or give themselves more minutes next season. They have that motivation to better themselves, so that we as a program can get better."
Hemsey said her best memory of the many she experienced this winter ("practices were always so fun with each other, which made it hard to stay frustrated when we weren't winning," she admitted) was a team trip after a well-played 2-point loss to Buffalo Wild Wings for a socially distanced feast.
"It was a great four quarters for us, everyone was hype on the bench ... we just wanted to stay together as a team afterwards," she said. "It was a really good night. Like our season as whole was, really."
Long-time coach Paul Moran, who guided Marblehead to another strong (8-5) season, forsees good things for Danvers in the future. His squad had a pair of nailbiters with the Falcons, taking a 4-point loss in the first meeting before a furious last-minute rally forced overtime in their second meeting last Friday. The latter contest resulted in a Marblehead win, where Emily Clough hit the winning free throw in a 33-32 triumph.
"Danvers, that's a team I give all the credit in the world to," said Moran. "Pat (Veilleux, the DHS coach) was missing two or three of his top players to injury (last week) and what they did, taking us to OT ... they'll win those kind of games next year, and a lot more, too."
Indeed, Danvers (7-8) loses only 5-foot-9 post playing senior captain Julia Vaillancourt ("one of the best leaders I've ever been around," said Veilleux) next season, returning 10 of their 11 players. Among them will be returning captain Gabby Chisholm, sharpshooter Kristina Yebba, Reese Pszenny, Jazmine Wallimann and Jordan Ortins, among others.
The 54-year-old Moran, whose Magicians wrapped up with a 7-5 mark, said he was extremely proud of how his players handled this pandemic influenced season. "Kids always persevere," he said. "Adults struggle, but the kids were so excited to be on the court, play and smile, and have team activities in a controlled environment."
His four captains (Maddy Erskine, Fehr Gillette, Leila Walton and Clough) were great leaders, he noted, with Walton among the best scorers he's ever coached and Clough in the same category as a rebounder. Gillette, he said, was of the fiercest competitors that's ever been on a roster of his, and so is Erskine, who came back from an opening game injury to play in the season finale. In doing so, all four seniors were able to play their last game together (a 50-30 triumph over arch rival Swampscott).
While he missed not be able to play every other NEC team, particularly Salem ("I have so much respect for Evie (Oquendo)," he said in reference to the Salem High coach), he wanted to thank the area's athletic directors, principals, superintendents and school committees for giving student-athletes the chance to compete this winter.
"They deserve all the accolades for giving kids this opportunity," he said. "It wasn't about wins and losses; it was about getting out on the court every day and letting kids do their thing and express their feelings. A lot of people deserve a lot of credit for that."
As someone who was high risk, the 54-year-old Moran wore his facemask along with a face shield and rubber gloves during games to help prevent the spread of the virus. "I wouldn't have missed this year for the kids. I was going to do whatever it took," he said. "I loved every minute of it."
Chris Tolios is no different than most coaches in that he wishes he was able to have a full season with his Ipswich squad.
The Tigers were led by senior captain Riley Daly who had an outstanding season while averaging 12.8 points, 9.8 rebounds, 3.2 assists blocked shots and 4.3 assists per game, along with canning 20 three-pointers. But so many of her teammates stepped up into bigger roles, such as sophomore Carter King, who wound up as the Cape Ann League's second-leading scorer (11.6 ppg.) while also averaging 9.1 rebounds, excelling defensively and earning league all-star honors.
Ava Horsman went from having a lesser role a year ago to playing upwards of 26 minutes a night and pulling down 9.4 rebounds a game. The other two starters, juniors Jennie Tarr and Maddie Duffy, brought good instincts and athleticism to the court while complimenting the offense. In addition, freshman Ella Stein came up from the JV's for the CAL playoffs and scored 11 points in her first varsity game while looking cool as a no-look pass.
While there's no replacing Riley, whom Tolios said belongs in the conversation of the best and most complete players in IHS history, the returning players should strive to reach another level as a team next winter.
"I have no doubt they can and will do it, especially behind the experience and success that they had this winter," said Tolios. "There should be a lot of excitement and buzz around this team headed into next year because of what they were able to accomplish, maybe unexpectedly to others, this season."