Friday, December 10, 2010

Girls Basketball Division I Preview

With both Goffstown and Manchester West moving down to D-II (and nobody moving up to D-I) this division now has just 18 teams. This means everyone will play everyone once with 1 teams that you play twice. So just like all of the other divisions there is a scheduling imbalance. Because depending on which team it is that you play twice it can have a big effect on the standings. The NHIAA has still yet to come up with an adequate remedy for this imbalance illness.

Don't be surprised if Bedford moves up to D-I sometime in the next couple of years. They're not only one of the larger schools in D-II but they have thriving athletic programs (even down to the youth level) and they have a number of talented young girls basketball players, including possibly the best freshmen class in NH.

Until then, my solution is you play everyone in your division once (17 games) and your 18th game is a non-division game where you can either play a nearby team from a different state (for many "border" schools this is NOT an oxy-moron) or you play a team in D-II. Then use a points system for the standings so those other games actually count. I really didn't think the Heal Points system from last year was that bad an idea. It just needed a little tweaking, and it needed to be updated more often.

Before I get to the rankings, the teams and the scouting reports - I said it in the D-II article but I'll say it here as well. D-II is just as good as D-I this year. This is the result of last year's star studded senior class being mostly D-I players, while most of the top players in D-II were underclassmen. It would be nice if we could have a game at the end of the year between the champions of the 2 divisions. Or maybe you take the final 4 from each and have a playoff with those 8 teams. Most years the D-I teams would dominate those games, but this year the gap between the 2 divisions is MUCH smaller.

Now, onto the preseason team rankings. Winnacunnet has won the last 4 titles in a row. For the last few years it has been Winnacunnet and then everybody else in girls Class L. But the Warriors graduated their "Big 3" of Tiffany Ruffin (Boston College), Emily Siegart (St. Francis) and Lindsey Mahoney along with a number of other key seniors who made up one of the best classes in recent memory.

The result is a much more wide-open division. Winnacunnet will still be a very good team, but there is no clear cut favorite this season.

Here is a ranking of how the division's top teams are looking heading into the season. It is NOT a predicted order of finish - I don't take strength of schedule into account. I rank how good the teams are and that's it.

The Favorites

1) Londonderry
This is the team to beat if you ask me. They have size, they have quickness, they have athleticism, they have depth, they have senior leadership and they have a legendary coach.

John Fagula won 11 titles in 20 years while coaching at Nashua High (before the split). For 3 years in a row during that span he had teams that were ranked in the top 10 high school teams in the country. However he's still looking for his 1st title in 8 seasons at Londonderry. This year is his best shot yet.

The Lancers have a loaded senior class, a loaded freshmen class and a few quality players who are sophomores and juniors as well.

"I'm carrying 15 girls on the team" explained Coach Fagula. "Some of them will swing, but I plan on using pretty much everybody most nights. My teams have always been a press and run game. We have the depth and the athleticism to play this way."

The senior class includes 3 returning starters in Savanna Butterfield (potential scholarship player), point guard Allie Moloney and Jamie Uphold. Other returning seniors are 6'0" forward Catherine Cloutier (very much improved player) and Daniele Crutcher (plans on playing softball at Umass-Lowell next year). Last year was Cloutier's first at Londonderry after moving from Methuen, MA and Crutcher missed the middle of last season due to meningitis. Both players are ready to go now. Cloutier has a year playing with the team under her belt, and Crutcher is fully healthy. Plus the Lancers have some very talented freshmen who are ready to contribute right away. This is all very BAD news for the rest of D-I.

5'6" junior guard Lindsey Bolduc is another player returning from last years team who is ready to have a big year. She's a quick player who can drive to the rim in a hurry and also hit the outside shot. Two of the freshmen who are ready to step in and help out are 5'7" guards Aliza Simpson and Jamie King. Simpson is the #1 ranked freshman in the state, while King is the younger sister of Callie King who is now playing at SNHU after graduating last year.

"14 wins is the lowest we've had since I've bee here" said Fagula. "We've come close but we just haven't won it yet."

This just could be the year it happens.

2) Winnacunnet
This is a fun team to watch. They might not have the superstars or big name players. They might not have any scholarship players or first team all-staters. But what they do is play tough, hard nosed, fundamentally sound basketball. They work together on offense and make the extra pass. They have a very deep team and they use that depth by pressing teams, trapping them in the corners, forcing turnovers and getting easy baskets on the other end.

"I don't care who they lost, they have a system that wins games and a winning attitude over there" said one rival coach.

Winnacunnet head coach Ed Beattie has done an amazing job of building the program and creating a winning culture. Winning is contagious, and at Winnacunnet they flat out know how to win games, the older girls pass it on to the younger players and then everyone in the program just expects to win. So even when the Warriors graduate the incredible class that they just did they are still able to remain a contender.

Beattie's team does return 2 starters and 3 key players off last year's team. 6'0" senior forward Sam Corcoran and 5'7" junior guard Anna Sullivan (started in place of injured Mahoney) are the returning starters and 5'6" junior guard Kirsten O'Neil (a D-I college prospect in soccer). Those 3 will be relied upon to be the leaders of this team. Corcoran is a good inside player who can also step away from the basket and hit the 3. Sullivan and O'Neill are both quick, athletic guards who compliment each other well. They aren't as strong shooting it from long range, but they're both good slashers, smart players and can really get out pressure teams hard on defense.

After those 3 you really start to see how much depth this team really has. They fast break and press teams virtually all game long, so it's a good thing they're so deep. Because just like Londonderry, they're style of play and depth will really allow them to wear teams down over the course of a game.

Candidates for the other starting spots appear to be 5'11" forward Morgan O'Connor, 5'6" junior guard Aviana Morrison, sophomore guard Carly Gould and 5'8" wing player Alexa Mutch. Gould missed some time this fall after foot surgery, but she's expected to be ready for the season. Also providing depth is 5'7" junior Megan Hartnett and 5'6" Kiel DiPietro in the back court and Jacqui Lewis and Michaela Withee in the front court.

Most teams are lucky if they have 4 or 5 good players. But Winnacunnet has 11. If that's not depth I don't know what is. I saw this team play against Central Catholic of Lawrence, MA three times during the fall. Central is the 2nd best tea in all of Mass. and they have 2 scholarship players (Melissa Miller and Gabie Polce). But Winnacunnet battled hard and barely lost each of the games, despite the fact that they were missing key players in each contest.

3) Manchester Memorial
I had Memorial ranked #2 for a while there. I moved Winnacunnet ahead because although the Crusaders have as much talent as the Warriors, Winnacunnet is deeper and they also play better as a team than Memorial. That being said, Coach Quirk has himself a VERY talented group of players that is expected to be right in the mix for title contention all year.

Memorial returns basically their whole team from a squad that won 10 games last year and advanced to the quarterfinals in a very tough Class L. They have as much returning talent as anyone in NH.

"We return 3 1/2 starters" said head coach Jack Quirk. "Taylor Leonard is coming back from a serious injury and may not be herself until 1/2 - 2/3 of the way through regular season. She has not been able to play since basically the end of last year. Ashley Gendron, Amra Elezovic, Ari Dimou, Allie Hartford are all back. Christa Sopel has improved quite a bit."

Gendron (going to D-II Stonehill College to play next year) is a wing player with good strength which allows her to finish and also rebound against much taller players. She can also run the break and knock down shots. Elezovic is a match-up nightmare for opposing teams, as she is 5'11" with the skill set to play guard. And Hartford is one of the state's best true point guards. She's a good distributor but can also score if left open. Dimou and Sopel are the unsung heroes of the team, and the "glue players." Leonard would add another dimension to the team if healthy.

Key reserves for the Crusaders are sophomore guard/forward Danielle Fletcher and freshman guard Kayla Stacy. Both are young but talented players who will add much needed depth to this club.

Other Top Teams

4) Trinity
Another talented yet not-so-deep team. Trinity has as good a starting 5 as any. But unfortunately they had 2 of their better players both go down with knee injuries over the summer.

The Pioneers went 10-8 last year despite the fact that they had ZERO seniors. Now they're a team made up mostly of seniors, with a couple sophomores and juniors mixed in. Projected starters are 5'6" senior Emilee Marro, 5'5" junior Hannah Willard, 5'9" guard Lia Nawn, 5'10" forward Paige Heslin and 5'11" senior forward (playing at Bowdoin college next year) Emily Martin.

They can match up with any starting 5 in the state. And if they had all of their players healthy then Trinity might be even higher on this list. But senior guard Jasmine Theroux and senior forward Emily Bourque are both out with knee injuries. According to Pioneers head coach Pat Smith Bourque is out for the year while Theroux still has a shot at coming back later on in the season.

Providing depth off the bench for Trinity will be senior forward Alyssa Attar, junior guard Haley Cirka, junior forward Lauren Seitz and sophomore forward Kelleigh Murtaugh.

5) Bishop Guertin
If Guertin does end up this high it would definitely be an accomplishment because they're so young. The Cardinals have 3 sophomores in the starting lineup, 2 freshmen are expected to also play key roles on the team and they had one of the state's best juniors transfer to prep school. At the same time, their younger players are very talented (there's no denying that) and they return 4 starters and 8 total players from a team that won 11 games a year ago. When you consider that they're ranked exactly where they should be.

The go-to player will of course be 6'1" sophomore forward Meghan Green (#1 ranked sophomore in NH). Green has good size, a strong frame, good low post moves and a soft shooting touch around the basket. The other 2 sophomore starters are 5'10" guards Nikki Hayner (still working way back from ankle injury) and Madison Gibbs (daughter of BG head coach Kevin Gibbs). The other returning starters are 5'10" senior forward Jenny Fallon and 5'7" senior guard Lauren Stelmash. Others expected to help provide depth are 5'9" junior forward Cassie Dauer, 5'5" freshman guard Jamie Sherburne (#4 ranked freshman in state), 5'6" senior guard Lindsay Spirito and 5'5" junior guard Leandra Piercy (still recovering from late summer knee surgery).

If BG still had Alex Cohen (transferred to Tilton prep school) they would REALLY be tough. But this is still a very solid basketball team that will win their share of games.

6) Alvirne
Good team, lots of veteran players, a pair of seniors who can light up the scoreboard in a hurry and some solid role players who can play defense. Definitely a team that is capable of making some noise with Coach Tracy taking over for for previous head coach Karen Bonney.

5'9" senior guard Deanna "DJ" Purcell is really playing some good basketball right now. She can make shots from all over the floor, and has also developed a well rounded game which includes passing, defense and slashing. 5'10" senior Katie Donovan is a versatile player who can score inside or out. Purcell and Donovan look to once again carry the Broncos offense - these 2 have been playing together for a long time.

Others to watch out for for Alvirne include Taylor Carbone, Deanna Trearchis and freshman guard Sandi Purcell. This team definitely has plenty of girls who can run, shoot, handle the ball on offense and pressure the ball on defense. For teams who have weak guards they will be in for a long night when they play Alvirne.

7) Dover
Dover was a strong middle of the pack team last year, then upset Central (and their star back court) in the 1st round of the playoffs. They then lost senior guard Nichaela "Nike" Neal who moved away. But this is a Dover team that played together all spring as their own AAU team, they've been playing together all summer and all fall as well. The Green Wave might not have as many big name players as some teams, but there's no question they're one of the most physical, scrappy teams in the state.

5'6" junior guard Allie Mahan and 6'0" senior forward Jamie Boyatsis (yes, another Boyatsis for Dover). Both players have a toughness and an edge to them which the rest of the team really feeds off of. Neither player backs down from any challenge, and they're both physical players who aren't afraid to mix it up in the paint go hard to the rim or take charges on defense. Also look for 5'5" guard Laura Hambrook to have a solid season in the back court alongside Mahan. Also look for contributions from Julia Wise and Megan Walcek.

8) Pinkerton
With a winning tradition and a handful of players returning from last year's team that made it to the championship game, including Player of the Year candidate Katherine Harris don''t be surprised if the Astros finish higher than this. But the fact is, they graduated their 2 star players (Guidi and Pierce) and 3 of their top 4 players off last year's team. The returning players that they do have have also been hurt by injuries (Liz Laing and Michelle Reid are both out, Sam Breslin still working her way back). All of this means Pinkerton is kind of a tough team to get a read on for the upcoming season.

They do return Harris though, and that's a pretty good start. The 5'7" senior point guard is arguably the best player in the division. She is a very unselfish player, always looking to set up her teammates for a better shot even when she might have an open look for herself. Harris is also the best defensive player in the state this year.

5'5" senior guard Danielle Kimball also played a key role last season, and gives Pinkerton a veteran back court that Coach Barry knows he can count on. Kimball is one of the more underrated shooters around. If Reid can get healthy she give them another experienced player.

In the post look for 5'11" junior Mariah Bonneau and 5'10" senior Sarah Goodwin to be relied upon to provide size and rebounding. And Breslin is only a sophomore but she's a very athletic guard who can put the ball on the floor and make plays.

Coach Barry always has Pinkerton ready to play. He does a good job of making sure each player has a specific role and that they're filling that role in the way that best helps the team win games. This could definitely be one of the better defensive teams in the league, and if Reid and Laing can get healthy by tournament time they will also have the depth to compete with the best teams out there.

9) Nashua South
Another team that could end up finishing higher than this. They struggled to win games a little bit last year, but the good news is they have pretty much everybody back, and they have some solid sophomore players coming up from JV as well.

There’s no question this team begins and ends with Player of the Year candidate Caitlin Ackerman. The 6’0” senior forward (who will be playing at D-II Assumption College next year) is a very good inside player who can also step out and knock down the 15-18 foot jump shot. For a player her size she also has the versatility to lead the break or finish it. She has been hampered lately by a sprained ankle, and hopes to be ready to play for South’s first regular season game next Tuesday.

Ackerman’s supporting cast includes seniors Tavia Rzasa, Julie Fierley, Nicole Gaudet and Erin Shannon who are all returning varsity players. Rzasa is a two-guard who can shoot it well and push it up court on the break, Fierley is a solid inside player and with her inside it allows Ackerman to play away from the basket more. Gaudet is a solid role player who does a little bit of everything, and Shannon is a tough, scrappy guard who makes plays.

Other players to watch include sophomore point guard Caitlyn Perry, junior guard Sara Roy (both solid ball handlers), wing player Jill Joyal and sophomore guard Jenn Gaudet.

This is a deep team, but they’re still looking for the right mix of players. They always seem to have 1 or 2 players who are injured or just not there when I’ve seen them. If they can get all of their pieces to fit together, stay healthy and play as a unit they could be very scary. Other players need to step up to take the scoring pressure off of Ackerman, and there’s definitely some girls here who have that potential. Look for them to press teams and force tempo, especially when they have a smaller lineup out there.

10) Manchester Central
Another team that will be a little down from last year due to graduation losses, but also has enough talent to stay competitive. Coach Wenners will really miss his all-state back court of Christiana Bakolas (now playing at Bentley) and Samantha Walker (now playing at Plymouth St.). It was a very fun tandem to watch, and outside of Winnacunnet they were the best guard combo-in the state.

But now the new guard combo-to watch out for is senior Olivia Lacroix and junior Ashley Giampetruzzi. They’re two players who excel in a transition game and can turn steals into baskets on the other end in a hurry. Like last year Central is expected to be a guard oriented team (not a lot of bigs in the division anywhere). Other guards to watch out for include Lauren Harvey, Shannon O’Neil and freshman Samantha Gauthier. This is a group of guards who are quick, skilled and play hard. However they definitely do lack experience at the varsity level and in big game situations.

In the post look for sophomore Katherine Johnson, Zoe Stamoulis and Megan Cleary to contribute. Johnson is only about 5’8, but she is strong player who is very active on the glass and plays very hard. In one game over the summer vs. BG, she had about 15 points and 15 rebounds.

The Rest of the Pack

11) Timberlane
Timberlane had a tough season last year, but they have pretty much everybody returning. Key players to watch for are 5’10” junior forward Emily Rose, 5’8” senior guard Katie Matatall, plus Meghan Short and Aven LaRosa. That gives the Owls 4 solid weapons, all capable of scoring in double figures.

Rose is a very versatile player and a tough match-up. Often times she will probably have the opposing team’s center covering her, yet she has the ability to step outside, draw her defender away from the basket and either drain the three or go to the rim off the dribble. Rose is a hard worker and a good rebounder as well. Matatall is another good shooter, and player who has already had a number of high scoring games over the past couple of years. Short and LaRosa are both tough, hard nosed players who can play tough defense.

Don’t be surprised if Timberlane pulls off an upset or 2 this season.

12) Merrimack
First year head coach Amy Larkin-Perez takes over at Merrimack and looks to bring stability to the program. They might take their lumps against the top teams, but they will be a respectable team. The Tomahawks looked solid in fall league action. Even at times when they didn’t have their best player (Rachael Carter) there, they were still competitive against some pretty good teams.

Look for Carter, a 5’9” senior guard and 5’7” sophomore guard Kate Cole to lead the way for Merrimack. Carter is in excellent shape right now and is one of the better senior players in NH. She’s a good slasher who is tough on the boards, defends well and has a high basketball I.Q. Cole is a tough, hard nosed guard who can score and bunches and is also a good defender.

The Tomahawks also have a number of other solid players who will fit a role nicely for this team.

13) Nashua North
North is consistently a top 8 team in D-I and last year was no different. But they did lose a lot of talent to graduation, including Kyla Gustavson. Head coach Ricky Oliver has a lot of kids in the program, lots of numbers and lots of depth. While they have lots of girls, not a lot of them have varsity experience.

Look for senior guard/forward Lauren Wingate to lead the way for the Titans. She’s an athletic player who can score and rebound effectively. Other players to look for are junior guard Katelyn Roeser, sophomore guard Summer Choate and junior forward Emily Boots. Roeser is a solid point guard who can handle the basketball, Choate is an athletic player who plays with good energy and can make shots while Boots looks to bring size and rebounding to the table.

14) Keene
The Blackbirds made it to the final four a year ago, and although they did lose a lot of talent off that team (including Cammie Warner who’s now playing at D-I Quinnipiac), they do return one of their better players off that team in Ashley Clough and some other quality players as well. So don’t be surprised if they end up finishing higher than this.

I saw them play a little bit over the summer and even when they didn’t have Clough in there they were still able to play tough defense, get some points on the board and be competitive. Keene is a scrappy, well coached team. And Clough (top 5 ranked junior in NHIAA) is a very good all around player. The 5’10” guard/forward can hit shots, crash the boards and take it to the rim.

15) Spaulding
Another team with a new head coach (sensing a theme yet?). Karen Malsbenden takes over a program that has struggled in recent years. But in the preseason I have been impressed with how hard they have been playing. They’re young, not very deep and they don’t have many scorers. But they really get after it on both ends of the floor and run some good sets in the half court that get them some good looks, especially for senior guard Aly Towle. Towle is the Red Raider’s best player, and she flat out plays the game the right way. She can shoot it, handle the ball, and defends very well. Look for Malsbenden to develop some other players and for this team to get better as the season goes on.

16) Salem
Salem has been a struggling program in recent years, and with nearly all of the Windham residents now going to Windham High, it’s hard to expect a huge year from the Blue Devils. But at the same time it’s hard to believe that a team with a potential scholarship player in 6’2” senior forward Jenn Bujnowski could finish this low.

Bujnowski is a dominant low post player with good moves on the block and she’s also a very good rebounder. She runs the floor well and is a decent shooter from mid-range. You can expect many teams to either double team her though or play a box-and-one defense on her to slow her down and keep her off the boards. If Salem is able to develop another weapon it would really help to take the pressure off Bujnowski. Unfortunately one of the Windham girls who left Salem (Kerry White) would have fit that role very nicely.

There’s a lot of teams that like to press in this division. So Salem will also need to get steady guard play in order to get the ball in to Bujnowski. Freshman Emily Hickey is a strong wing player and could develop into a very nice player down the road.

17) Exeter
Tough break for the Blue Hawks. You’re not surprised when a player who is a Division I prospect to goes prep on the boys side. You’re a little surprised when it happens with the girls. Especially since last year so many girls got basketball scholarships from NH without having to go prep, and since Exeter plays in the state’s highest division. But Maddie Blais left Exeter for the New Hampton School. And Exeter, who has already been struggling in recent years is left picking up the pieces. Exeter does return 5’9” senior guard Kayla Janowski, a very good player. Janowski and Blais would have been a really tough duo for teams to deal with, but instead it’s a possibility that Exeter will miss the tournament. The Exeter boys team also had 2 of their better returning players transfer to private schools. The Blue Hawks have such a beautiful new school, why are all of these players leaving?

18) Concord
Neither the boys or girls teams at Concord have won a game in 2 years. The football team has also been struggling in recent years. The Crimson have a very big school right in the middle of a big city – the state’s capitol. So what’s the problem? I saw this team play a couple weeks ago, and while they played hard they lack size and just didn’t seem to have very experienced players. Could be another long year. I’m hoping they can turn things around though.

Preseason All-State
Katherine Harris (Pinkerton), Deanna Purcell (Alvirne), Caitlin Ackerman (Nashua South), Savanna Butterfield (Londonderry), Meghan Green (Bishop Guertin) and Jenn Bujnowski (Salem)

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