Thursday, December 9, 2010

Girls Basketball Division II Preview

While the perception of some is that the top basketball players are in southern part of the state, last year it was two teams from the north who met in the championship game. Both Kennett (last year's champs) and Lebanon (undefeated regular season) represented the north country well. Both teams also return virtually everybody from last year so it's tough to argue with any prediction of a rematch.

Kennett cut the nets down, as they were led by their star back court of Allie Wagner (Merrimack College) and Melissa Frase. Wagner is playing some excellent basketball right now and is the #3 ranked player in the state. But unfortunately Frase tore her ACL over the summer and is out until at least January. Even then it remains to be seen if she'll have the same explosiveness and quickness she did before the injury. Frase was a potential scholarship player, and with her healthy Kennett would be the favorite to repeat as champs.

Also worth noting - Division II is just as good as Division I this year. Why is that? Last year most of the top players in D-I (then called Class L) were seniors. Those players (like Ruffin, Warner, Bakolas, Siegart, Guidi, King, Mahoney, Pierce and Walker) have all graduated. Whereas last year most of the top players in D-II were underclassmen who are all back this year (Walczak, Wagner, Frase, Romano, White, Stopera, Hardiman, French, Wojtas, Brown, Scheie, Beauregard, Stoyle and Morton). Then some of the top Class L girls who were underclassmen last year either transferred, moved away or have injuries (Blais, Cohen, Theroux and Neal. So D-I is down and D-II is up. The result is 2 divisions that are VERY close in talent from top to bottom.

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) Lebanon
Lebanon had an 18-0 regular season and made it to the championship game before falling to Kennett in a close one. And while Kennett has 1 of their 2 star players out with a knee injury, the Raiders have virtually everybody returning. 3 of their top 4 players are underclassmen who have all gotten much better since last season. They have size, they have quickness, they have depth, they have shooters, they have rebounding, they have playoff experience, they have coaching, they have defenders and they have a bad taste left in their mouth from last year's title game (literally too, because of the food poisoning). That's a pretty good recipe for a title contender yes that pun WAS intended!).

The Raiders have a returning all-state player in senior guard Sara Romano. She's the team's floor general, she's a very quick player and hustles all over the floor for loose balls. Romano is also very good at penetrating into the lane and making plays. 3 other girls who are all potential all-state players, either for 1st team, 2nd team or honorable mention are 5'10" sophomore forward Trina Scheie, 5'8" sophomore guard Moriah Morton and 5'9" junior guard/forward Colleen Taylor. Scheie (#3 ranked sophomore in NH) is a physical player with good moves both in the low post and when facing up to the basket from 15 feet away. She is also an excellent rebounder. Morton (#5 ranked sophomore in state) is another very quick player who can play the game at a very fast pace. She fits perfectly with the Lebanon pressing, fast-breaking style of play. Morton drives it hard to the rim and is possibly the best defender in the division as just a sophomore. Taylor brings toughness and is a physical presence on the wing. She also has the size, versatility and skill set to play inside or out.

Those 4 players are not only talented but they all play together VERY well. And the other players all compliment them well. The Raiders have a few other key role players, including 5'7" guard Emily Kehoe and backup point guard Karampreet Kaur.

2) Souhegan
The key for this team will be health. If the Sabers can get all of their key players healthy and stay that way they are as good as anyone in the state, let alone in D-II. But that's a big if. 3 of their key players - Tori Forrest, Taylor Cordts and Lauren Cordts are all good players but they've all been battling injuries. Forrest and Taylor Cordts missed last year's tournament with knee injuries. If they were healthy there's no telling how far Souhegan would have advanced.

If everyone is healthy though this team is VERY dangerous. They have a ton of talent, they've been playing together for a long time. What also hurt them last year was that they had a coaching change right in the middle of the season. But now they stability in that area, as Jeremy Faulkner was hired as the new coach over the summer. Faulkner helped coach the NE Shooting Stars 15U AAU team that won the Division II national championship. On that team were Souhegan players Jane White and Ceara McNamara. So while Faulkner is new to Souhegan, he has already been coaching some of these girls for quite some time already.

"They're a veteran team with a good new coach" remarked one fellow D-II coach.

White is playing at a VERY high level right now, and is currently the #1 ranked junior in the state. She excels in an up-tempo game and can hit shots from all over the floor. McNamara has good size and provides the team with an inside presence. Christan Wojtas is a versatile wing player who can play inside or out, can hit shots from the outside and also put the ball on the floor. Forrest and Lauren Cordts are also solid inside players who can score in the post and rebound. And before she tore her ACL last season Taylor Cordts had the potential to be the best player of the bunch.

Bottom line, this team has as much talent as any in D-II. They now have the coaching stability which hampered them last year. If they can stay healthy don't be surprised to see them cut the nets down in March.

3) Oyster River
"Our strength will be our size and the team’s attitude and commitment to excellence" explained Oyster River coach Dave Nichols.

Leading the way in the front court is 6'1" senior forward Danielle Walczak, the division's reigning Player of the Year and #1 ranked player in the state. Walczak has a full ride to the University of Maine next year and is an outstanding low post player. Also providing size are 6'1" freshman forward Brenna Walczak (Danielle's little sister), 5'11" sophomore guard Kelsey Brown, 5'10" junior guard Izzy Gorham, 5'10" sophomore forward Eliza McDonald and 5'10" senior forward Melissa Goodwin. That's a lot of trees!

Brown is the #2 ranked sophomore in NH, and is a very versatile player. Joining her in the back court is 5'8" junior guard Riley Maynard, a tough player who can put the ball on the floor and go by people. 5'5" senior guard Haley Miller is also expected to contribute.

This is a team that went 11-7 last year in the regular season while playing a very difficult schedule. They lost to Lebanon in the quarterfinals in the only game that Danielle Walczak has ever fouled out of. The Bobcats had a 14 point lead in that game when she picked up her 3rd and 4th fouls and had to sit down. Oyster River has a lot of returning talent, size and good coaching. 2 years ago they won it all. Can they do it again? Their weaknesses are ball handling and depth. If they can fix those 2 areas it could be a very real possibility.

4) Kennett
They're the defending champs. They have virtually everybody back from that team. They have the best back court in the state, regardless of division (when healthy). Frase and Wagner play so well together it, and with them both being seniors this year and with how well the other players compliment them Kennett would be nearly unbeatable.

But the fact of the matter is that Frase did tear her ACL just 5 months ago. She hopes to return sometime in January. But she's also a player who could definitely play at the next level, so it would be wise to not rush back. If she can get back to 100% by tournament time this team has as good a chance to win it all as anybody. Only time will tell how quickly she recovers. There's no denying however that the Eagles are a much different basketball team with Frase out of the lineup. It puts more pressure on Wagner to carry the team, and teams are really able to focus their game plan around slowing her down.

Other players to watch out for on this team are senior guard Sam Meader and 5'11" sophomore forward Lauren White.

Other Top Teams

5) Hollis-Brookline
A couple months back when I updated the team rankings I wrote a little scouting report on each of the top teams. I then got an e-mail from Hollis coach Bob Murphy saying that my assessment of his team was spot on. So here it is once again:

They graduated their best player in Kelly Morgan, but thanks to a strong junior class they will again be a very tough team. Look for them to play a fast, up-tempo style of play as their top players are all guards who excel in transition.

The strong junior class consists of guards Katie Stopera, Kelsey Berry and twins Olivia and Jill Gillis. These four all play very well together. Stopera is an excellent shooter who is also unselfish in transition. Berry runs the offense, gets everyone involved, controls the pace of the game but can also score if you don't pay attention to her. The Gillis twins are tough, scrappy players who also have the ability to score in double figures on any night.

This team also has some other solid young players. They will be a good team this year, but with almost everyone coming back and the other top teams in D-II relying so much on seniors Hollis could easily be a top 2 or 3 team in 2012.

6) Portsmouth
The Clippers are annually a very strong program, with good coaching from Eric Chasse. Expect this year to be no different. Last season they made it all the way to the state semi-finals before falling to eventual champion Kennett. They graduated their best player off that team (Rosa Drummund). But they return most everybody else, including a strong senior class led by 5'10" Susie French and 5'7" Ali Beauregard. They also bring up some solid players from JV, have a talented freshman who has been starting all preseason, a player returning from injury after missing all last year and an incoming transfer.

French and Beauregard are the go-to players on this team and both had excellent junior years. Unfortunately Beauregard is currently out with a sprained ankle and isn't expected back until after the Christmas break. 5'7" freshman guard Phoebe Collins has been starting in her place. The Clippers also have guard junior Markey Flewelling returning from injury. Flewelling missed all of last year and she played for Winnacunnet as a freshman. Also transferring in from St. Thomas is forward Faith Jenkins.

7) Bedford
Bedford will be one of the youngest teams in the division, but there's no question they have the talent to get a home playoff game. Last year they only went 7-11 and lost to Souhegan in the 1st round of the playoffs. But they had a very difficult schedule, and this season they return 4 starters, 7 players off last year's team and they also have an extremely deep and talented freshman class coming up which has 4 girls who are expected to contribute right away.

The returning starters are senior Casey Levis, senior Molly McGown, junior Katie Prothro and junior Haley Barnard. Other returning varsity players include junior Niky Marinelli, junior Lyndsie Barnett and sophomore Maggie McGown (Molly's little sister).

The Bedford freshman class is arguably the best in the state (the only other one that can make a case is Londonderry's). You have 6'1" forward McKenzie Brown (#2 ranked freshman), 5'10" guard Ali Glennon (#3 ranked freshman), 5'7" guard Rachel Collins (#6 ranked freshman), 5'8" Guard Bailey Marshall (#10 ranked freshman) and 5'11" forward Haley Driscoll.

"Any one of our freshman could step in and fill roles as needed" said Bedford coach Scott Sarsfield. "They are all smart basketball players with sound fundamentals. McKenzie Brown is expected to use her size and skill to fill many minutes for us. Rachel Collins' shooting touch could keep her on the floor for long stretches at times. Bailey's work ethic is always impressive, while Ali Glennon's overall game will find her some time as well."

This team has a nice mix of veteran players with the seniors and juniors along with the younger players. If they can all get on the same page and play together the Bulldogs could be a scary team.

"Early on, with all of our new faces, we may struggle with cohesiveness on the floor. It'll take us some time to work as well together as possible" Sarsfield went on. "I hope we can bring speed and intensity to every game and put pressure on the best out there for four quarters. we want to compete with the top echelon programs out there. We want every game to be a battle. We want the top teams to not look forward to us a second time around."

Despite the fact that the still new Bedford High is only in their 2nd year with a senior class and only the 3rd year of varsity competition, virtually all of their athletic programs have already had winning teams and have a strong pipeline of young talent coming up which means they'll be dominant in upcoming years. The girls basketball program is certainly no different.

The Rest of the Pack

8) John Stark
Hard to rank a team that has a scholarship player on it much lower than this. 5'8" senior guard Katie Cullerot is a tough guard, a lights out shooter and hopes to lead the Generals to a home playoff game in her last season before moving on to play at Division II Assumption College. Stark won 11 games last year in the regular season, and they return their best player in Cullerot, so a top 8 seed is a definite possibility.

9) Merrimack Valley
The Pride have a preseason all-state player in Megan Hardiman. She has good size at 5'10" with a strong frame, but Hardiman also has the versatility to knock down shots, handle the ball and run the point as a "point forward." Helping her handle the basketball is 5'5" guard Jordan Filion, a quick player who can go by people off the dribble and make plays. A freshman to watch out for is forward Mary Mullen, a smart player and strong rebounder. Some solid pieces here, and MV also has a couple other strong role players. But this is not a very deep team, and outside of Hardiman they lack scoring punch.

10) Goffstown
Goffstown loses 7 seniors (including leading scorer Leana Berube) off a team that only won 4 games a year ago.

“With losing so many players due to graduation last year, varsity game experience is one of our weaknesses" explained Goffstown coach Frank Girginis. "It will be up to our coaching staff and the players to get ready by working hard at practice. If we play with energy and hustle on every play we will give ourselves a chance vs. any team we play.”

That being said, the 4 win season last year for Goffstown was a little misleading because a) that had a ton of CLOSE losses and b) they were in Class L (D-I) last year, but they have now moved down to D-II (Class I).

Leading the way for the Grizzlies will be junior center Brianna Stoyle, a very versatile player with good size and athleticism. Stoyle (#6 ranked junior in NH) is 6'0" but also has some good guard skills.

"We are a fast group" said Girginis. "When your center is one of the most athletic players in the state you can do a lot of things other teams cannot."

The rest of the projected starting 5 includes junior forward Paige Tuttle and junior point guard Maddie Lynch (both are returning varsity players), plus sophomore guards Rosie Edmunds and Brionne Turcotte. he Grizzles also landed a transfer from New Hampton prep in Melanie Margeson.

With the top 3 players being juniors and the other 2 starters being sophomores this team might be a year away. For this year look for them to be a solid middle of the pack team.

11) St. Thomas
This might seem a little low for a team that not only made it to last year's final 4 but took top seeded Lebanon to quadruple overtime before losing. But the fact is, last year they relied heavily on seniors, seniors who have since graduated. Some of the key players the Saints lost include guard Caleigh MacDonald, guard E.C. Chojnicki and forward Melissa Karpel. The Saints do have a good program though, led by 2nd year head coach Sabrina Payeur. They have some strong younger talent, and return junior guard/forward Gretchen Anderson. Also look for point guard Lyndsie Davis to have a strong year as well.

12) Windham
Windham is a 1st year varsity program with no senior class. In most cases, teams in this position really struggle to win games. Windham is a good basketball town though, they have a good new coach and they have some very talented young players.

Joe Mason takes over the program, and he has previously bee coaching for the NE Crusaders AAU program with the likes of Kevin Gibbs, Mark Hayner, Kara Leary and Mike Collins.

This will be a very young team, but they'll be competitive. 5'10" Junior forward Kerry White, who transfers in from Salem High looks to be the go-to player. She's a physical presence in the paint and played some high level ball all spring and summer with the Crusaders. Also watch out for sophomore twin guards Kelsey and Amanda Schiebel (good shooters) and sophomore Bernadette Connors. Winndham also has a very talented freshman in 5'6" guard Clairee Putnam (#7 ranked freshman in NH) and White will get help in the post from junior Ashley Adamson.

Like I said, this is a very young team. But with a good new coach and some talented pieces they look to be a tough team and one that will get better as the season goes on.

"We will have to over come our inexperience and youth. However, the players are working hard and working together. They are focused in becoming better and improving each and very day."

13) Kearsarge
Scrappy team that is fearless and has toughness. Kearsarge beat both Nashua South and Salem in one-half scrimmages a couple weeks back, and although they're not the most talented team in the division they play hard and they play as a team. 5'6" guard Morgan Church (#5 ranked freshman in NHIAA) is a player to watch and could get minutes right away.

14) Coe-Brown
I liked what I saw from this team at the Oyster River Preseason Jamboree. They don't have any big name players, but they do have a lot of girls back from last year, the have some good shooters and they a scrappy group of girls who work hard. Not an elite team, but definitely one worth keeping an eye on.

15) Hanover
Just a couple years ago this was an elite team, and one that annually was making trips to the final four. But they've been hit hard by graduation losses each of the past 2 years, and there isn't much left from those loaded rosters of the not so distant past. Still, this is a good program with a winning tradition. Don't be surprised if they pull a couple upsets if teams take them lightly.

16) Milford
The Milford boys basketball team has gotten as much press as any team in the state over the past year or 2. The school's girls program has struggled though, as many of their top female athletes have been more focused on other sports (like Morgan Andrews who is one of the country's best young soccer stars).

However 1st year head coach Steve Signor is trying to change that. Signor comes from coaching AAU ball with the Granite State Rockettes, and is used to his players making basketball a priority over other sports. Although she's only a sophomore, Signor definitely has a player he can build the team around in 5'9" sophomore Dina Pitsas. Pitsas is a very good player (#6 ranked sophomore in the state) who can really drive it strong to the rim but also never forces anything, is fundamentally sound and just plays the game the right way.

Milford might struggle a little this year. But as Pitsas gets older and Signor is able to develop more of his players they could be a team to watch over the next couple of years.

Preseason All-State
Danielle Walczak (Oyster River), Allie Wagner (Kennett), Sara Romano (Lebanon), Jane White (Souhegan), Katie Cullerot (John Stark) and Megan Hardiman (Merrimack Valley)

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