Thursday, December 8, 2011

Girls Basketball 2011-2012 Season Preview - Division I

Winnacunnet girls basketball has been the NHIAA's most dominating athletic program over the last 5 years. During that time the 'Beattie Bunch' has won 5 straight Division I (Class L) titles and they have won 77 consecutive games. They're the first team in the division to win 5 straight titles since Nashua High (1985-1989).

Of those 5 championships, last year's was the most impressive. They graduated 4 starters and 8 total seniors, including Tiffany Ruffin (now playing at Boston College), plus other star players like Emily Siegart and Lyndsey Mahoney. Yet the Warriors were STILL able to not only win the D-I title but they went undefeated. You have to give head coach Ed Beattie, his staff and the players on last year's team A LOT of credit for that - Londonderry gave them a battle in the regular season and in the final, but Winnacunnet still came out on top.

As we look ahead and preview the 2011-2012 girls basketball season in Division I the question you have to ask is - can anyone beat the 'Beattie Bunch'? Well, probably not. But there's 3 other teams who are all VERY good and could potentially give them a run for their money.

1) Winnacunnet - No surprise here, Winnacunnet is the hands down favorite to win their 6th title in a row. Even though they graduated the 2010-2011 NH Notebook D-I Player of the Year Samantha Corcoran they still have 3 returning starters (basically 4 returning starters since 6th man Aviana Morrison got the playing time of a starter) and 8 returning players off last year's squad.

One of those returning starters is our preseason Player of the Year in D-I for this season, senior point guard Kirsten O'Neil. At certain times last year O'Neil was actually the team's best player, even with Corcoran there. One of those times was the regular season game vs. Londonderry when she dropped 28 points in the win. O'Neil (who will be playing soccer in college at Division I San Diego State) is a lightning quick guard who can handle the basketball well, shoot it from the outside and also create offense via dribble penetration.

The Warriors will likely have 4 all-state players this season. I'm guessing O'Neil makes first team, Anna Sullivan makes second team and Carly Gould and Morrison both make honorable mention. They are the Warriors' 'Big 4'. Sullivan is also an excellent defender - you're not going to find a better defensive back court in NH than O'Neil and Sullivan. Sullivan is also one of the state's most unselfish players - she usually only shoots the ball if she is WIDE open, often electing to pass up a GOOD shot and instead pass the ball to a teammate who has a BETTER shot. Since Corcoran was such a big part of the offense last year and now she's gone you could possibly see Sullivan look for her shot more this year. One player who is definitely not shy about shooting the basketball is Morrison, a 5'6" guard who is one of the state's best spot-up shooters. Winnacunnet has great ball movement on offense - they move the ball around the perimeter, work it inside and back outside at a furious pace until someone gets an open look. Morrison knows how to move without the ball and find the 'soft spots' in a defense so she can get her shot off.

5'11" junior forward Gould formed a dominating 1-2 punch inside last year with Corcoran - both players notched double-doubles in the title game. With Corcoran gone that opens the door for Gould to really show what she can do. For a girl her size Gould is an excellent athlete who can run and jump like a guard and is very active on the boards.

The other 4 returning varsity players are seniors Jacqui Lewis, Michaela Withee and Alexa Mutch and sophomore Melissa MacLeod. Lewis, Withee and MacLeod will battle for minutes in the post, while Mutch will provide depth in the back court. One player who transferred out of the program was guard Megan Hartnett, who would have been a senior this season for the Warriors but instead transferred to Tabor Academy.

The staple of the Winnacunnet girls has been intense pressure defense. They mix up their defense, too. Sometimes a full court press, sometimes 3/4 court press, they'll throw in a half court trap, etc. The one constant is that all 5 players are going to pressure the heck out of teams and force them to turn the ball over. And like I already mentioned, on offense they move the ball so well, it moves seamlessly from player to player and so quickly it's like a hot potato. They have shooters and they have inside scoring. On offense and on defense they are constantly RUNNING, as they play an up-tempo, pressing on defense, fast-breaking on offense style of basketball. They did this last year even with just a 6 player rotation. What does that tell you? That Beattie has his players in EXCELLENT shape. The 4th quarter is when the Warriors really take games over because that's when they are still going strong while their opponents are getting tired from all the running.

2) Bishop Guertin - BG returns a very strong nucleus of players, with 3 returning starters and 7 returning varsity players. Included in that mix is preseason first team all-state player Meghan Green. Green, a 6'1" junior forward, is a dominating inside player who can score in the paint and rebound at will, and over the summer she also improved her outside jumper. When she's on her game Green is capable of scoring 20+ points and grabbing 15+ rebounds on any given night.

The other returning varsity players are 5'5" sophomore guard Jamie Sherburne, 5'10" junior wing Madison Gibbs, 5'9" junior wing Nikki Hayner, 5'10" senior forward Cassie Dauer, and junior guards Jillian Barbaro and Lindsay Shepard. Green, Gibbs, Hayner and Dauer are all third year varsity players, so this team definitely has plenty of experience. Gibbs is an underrated passer and defender, and like Green she also improved her outside shot over the summer. Sherburne is an exciting young player. She thrives in an up-tempo game as she loves to push the ball on the break and use her quickness and skill to make plays.

Coming up from JV is sophomore guard Gigi Piercy, who is a gym rat with lots of potential. And BG also has arguably the state's best freshman in 5'5" guard Megan Kerutis. Kerutis is a quick guard who can handle the ball and shoot it. Kerutis and Sherburne is going to be a VERY fun back court combination to watch develop over the next 3 years.

Both of those guards like to run, and so does their new head coach. Former McDonald's All-American and current NH Rivals director Scott Hazelton takes over as coach, replacing Kevin Gibbs (who is now the head coach at NHTI). Hazelton's Rivals AAU teams are known for being up-tempo, pressing type teams.

3) Londonderry - It's not often that a team can graduate their entire starting lineup (including the Player of the Year) and also graduate 2 key players off the bench and still be a top 3 team in the preseason. But that's exactly the case with this year's Londonderry team. Why? Because Londonderry has 2 returning players who came off the bench last year who both would have started for pretty much any other team in the state, they had the best JV team in the state and many of those girls are now varsity players, they also have some very talented incoming freshmen and a legendary head coach.

Savanna Butterfield (currently doing a post-grad year at the Tilton School) and the rest of the starters are gone from last years D-I runners-up squad. The 2 players who came off the bench last year but would have started just about anywhere else are sophomore point guard Aliza Simpson and senior 2-guard Lindsey Bolduc. Simpson might only be a sophomore but with all of the high level games all around the country she's played in she plays more like a senior. She's a very good passer and defender and also has a nice mid-range jumper. Bolduc (who will be playing softball in college at SNHU) is an aggressive slasher who can also hit the outside shot.

Legendary head coach John Fagula (who was at the helm for Nashua High's girls hoops dynasty in the 90's) has plenty more talent on this year's team, although they are very young that's for sure. He will lean heavily on a sophomore class that is VERY good, but only Simpson has any major varsity experience. The other sophomores to watch out for this year are guards Jamie King and Devon Hickey, wing player Jordan Marett and forward Elisabeth Caron. Another sophomore who also played varsity last year for the Lancers was 5'10" forward Maeve Holland, but she transferred to Central Catholic in Mass over the summer.

5'9" junior forward Kirsten Enwright and 5'10" freshman forward Casey Evans-Driscoll give Londonderry a pair of tough, physical inside players. Evans-Driscoll (one of the state's top freshmen) also has an improving offensive skill set. Another member of last year's championship winning JV team expected to compete for minutes is junior wing player Katherine Dzenis.

So yeah, they're young. But they're also deep, they're fast, they're skilled and they play as a team. And with a coach like Fagula it's a safe bet they'll win a lot of games this year.

4) Manchester Memorial - The other team in this year's D-I 'Big 4' is Memorial, a program hoping to reach the Final Four for the second year in a row. Head coach Jack Quirk returns 3 starters and 4 of his top 7 players from that team, plus he has a star freshman coming in as well.

Leading the way will be D-I Player of the Year candidate Amra Elezovic, who has committed to play her college basketball at Division II UMass Lowell. The 5'11" guard/forward is a match up nightmare, with her size and ability to both shoot the basketball from long range and also go by her defender off the dribble. She's also a tough defender and a good passer, and when this team is at their best is when all 5 players are moving the ball around, keeping pressure on the defense rather than everyone standing around watching Amra try to score.

5'3" Allie Hartford has been the starting point guard at Memorial since the start of her freshman year, and now she's a junior and just keeps working hard and getting better. She can shoot it from the outside and also break her man down off the dribble and is also a very good passer. She's a smart player who plays unselfish but also looks for her shot at the same time.

5'6" senior wing Ari Dimou and 5'9" junior forward Danielle Fletcher are both very good players who might be star players if they played on other teams. Both players missed time last year due to injury, but if they can both stay healthy this year the Crusaders could make a serious run come March. And Memorial needs to stay healthy since they're not as deep as the other teams in D-I's 'Big 4'. Dimou and Fletcher can both finish well inside and rebound.

Freshman guard Peace Kabari started out the summer playing with Manchester Central, so you can bet Coach Quirk is glad to have her on his squad instead. The 5'6" Kabari is an electric athlete who is extremely fast, anticipates well on defense and as a result she always gets lots of steals on defense and Kabari also makes some shifty moves to slice through defenders when driving to the basket.

Though they might not be as deep as some of the other top teams, with Elezovic, Hartford, Dimou, Fletcher and Kabari, Memorial has a starting 5 that can match up with just about anyone in the state. They would have been deeper, but sophomore guard Kayla Stacy (played varsity last year as a freshman at Memorial) transferred to Pinkerton. But according to Coach Quirk he does see promise in players like Michaela Demers, Jenieda Rosello and Amela Imamovic (all returning varsity players) coming off the bench.

5) Pinkerton - Pinkerton has a good program, a good coach and year in and year out they're a top 5 team in D-I. They will miss point guard Katherine Harris (now playing at Division I Bucknell) and guards Danielle Kimball and Michelle Reid who also graduated. However they return a handful of girls from last year's team, they have one player returning who missed all of last year due to injury, they have a transfer coming in from Memorial and they have one of the state's best freshman as well.

Pinkerton's 2 returning starters are 6'0" senior forwards Sarah Goodwin and Mariah Bonneau. Goodwin is a force inside rebounding and scoring the basketball while Bonneau is best when running the floor on the break and in the half court when facing up from 15 feet and making plays. They give the Astros good size inside, and off the bench you have 5'10" freshman forward Val Martin who is ready to step in and make an immediate impact.

In the back court you have junior wing player Sam Breslin, who was a key player off the bench last year. 5'4" sophomore point guard Kayla Stacy transfers in from Memorial - she's played well in the preseason, especially considering she's had to learn a whole new offense (Pinkerton's offensive sets are not the easiest to learn and to run). The player returning from injury is 5'7" junior guard Liz Laing, who is coming back from a torn ACL. Sophomore guard Brandi Bonneau (Mariah's little sister) is expected to provide depth in the back court as a tough defender and a good shooter.

6) Keene - Keene is a team everyone seems to be talking about in the preseason as one to watch out for. They only went 4-14 last year but that was a team with VERY little varsity experience. However this season is a different story. The Blackbirds return their 3 best players (I'm pretty sure they're the only D-I team that can say that), and they have a total of 10 returning varsity players.

Leading the way is 5'10" senior guard/forward Ashley Clough, a third year starter and one of the top 5 players in D-I. Clough is a versatile player with a good all-around game. She can do a little bit of everything, including running the point, going inside and grabbing boards, hitting threes and slashing to the rim off the dribble.

Look for 5'10" senior forward Cailey White and 5'10" sophomore forward Allison Yeaw to step up once again this year to take some of the pressure off of Clough so she doesn't have to see so many double teams. White is a force on the boards while Yeaw is also a good rebounder who can step out and hit shots from 15-18 feet.

Keene has 7 other returning varsity players, including 5'7" junior guard Ali Wilson who also got lots of minutes last year.

7) Dover - Dover will once again be a tough, hard nosed, defensive minded team that will play smart and work for good shots on offense. They will miss the inside presence of Jamie Boyatsis (now playing at Keene St.) but they have a good amount of returning talent from a team that went 14-5 before falling to Memorial in the quarterfinals.

Leading the team this year on offense and on defense is potential first team all-stater senior Allie Mahan. Mahan is arguably the best defender in the state this year, and has improved offensively as well. With Boyatsis gone, Mahan knows she's the team's best scoring option. She looks for her outside shot and driving lanes to the basket, but always keeps her head up while dribbling to spot open teammates.

Along with Mahan, fellow seniors Julia Wise and Chritine Zubkus give the Green Wave 3 guards who are all tough-as-nails, who will all pressure the heck out of you on defense and can also score the basketball inside or out on offense.

Other players to watch out for on a deep, scrappy Dover team are sophomore forward Molly Wotton, Shannon Goff, Madison Wheaton, freshman guard Abby Tilton and Katie Boyatsis.

8) Alvirne - Alvirne is a VERY young team, and they won't be as good last year but they will still be a very good team. The Broncos went 19-6 last year, advancing to the Final Four for the first time in 8 years where they came THIS close to knocking off Londonderry. Alvirne looks to replace star players DJ Purcell (now starting at Rivier alongside older sister Amandra) and Katie Donovan (now starting at Rhode Island College). Plus Taylor Carbone, who would have been a third-year starter this season as a senior decided not to play this year to focus on softball (she has a scholarship to play softball starting next year at UMass Amherst).

"We are so young, especially now with Taylor gone, it isn't even funny!" said Alvirne head coach Steve Tracy, who enters his second year at the helm. "We only have two seniors and they play the same position for the most part. Most nights we'll be starting four sophomores. Also, two freshmen will see a lot of time based on our scrimmage assessments."

Still, this will be a tough team that will still have a very good shot at getting a home playoff game. Their 'Big 3' is the sophomore back court of Sandi Purcell (DJ and Amandra's little sister) and Veronica Moceri plus senior forward Maya Desfosses. Sandi Purcell is a 5'3" point guard who is extremely fast and uses that speed to push the ball on the break and blow by her defender off the dribble. She's also a good shooter and is not afraid to drive it inside and finish against bigger players. Growing up playing against her 2 older sisters has made her a very tough, smart player no question about it.

Moceri is a 5'7" 2-guard, and when she's on from the outside she's as good a shooter as you'll see in this division. Her and Sandi play on the same AAU team with the NE Shooting Stars and have very good chemistry together on the court. Desfosses is a strong inside player who can score and rebound and also has a rapidly developing perimeter game which makes her even more difficult to guard.

The other 2 expected starters are sophomore guards Brittney Lambert and Tori LaRoche. Lambert is a 5'8", athletic and can hit shots while LaRoche is a smaller player but is a very good defender and is unselfish on offense. The other senior is 5'11" forward Jessica Underwood, who got minutes coming off the bench last year.

9) Trinity - Trinity will be a middle of the pack team that will give many teams trouble this year with their speed. They don't have much size but they'll be tough to match up with because they will spread you out with all of these small, quick guards who can handle the basketball and shoot it, drawing the big forwards for opposing teams away from the basket and creating driving lanes.

Trinity graduates 3 starters, including all-state point guard Emily Marro. But they return a pair of senior guards who both started last year in 5'8" Lia Nawn and 5'5" Hannah Willard. Nawn can light it up from the outside with a smooth release and is also a good passer, while Willard is a tough, scrappy 2-guard who is one of the top defenders in the state.

"They were only about 10 points total away from a 13-14 win season last year and they have added a transfer" said one D-I coach.

The transfer is 5'6" junior guard Kayla Denison, who comes to Trinity from Proctor Academy. Denison is a guard who can handle the basketball and finish inside. The team's other returning varsity players (all got good minutes off the bench last year) include Lauren Seitz (5'7" senior forward), Haley Cirka (5'5" senior guard), Lizzie Meehan (5'7" sophomore guard) and Meredith Farrell (5'6" junior guard).

10) Manchester Central - I wouldn't be surprised if they finished higher than this, but a lot of the teams in the middle of the D-I pack are all very close talent-wise. There should be some very interesting games when teams like Trinity, Timberlane, Central and Alvirne square off. These teams all want that home playoff game but they can't all get it.

Central loses their best player from last year in Olivia Lacroix (now playing at Simmons College), but fortunately they do return just about everyone else. Last year they were a very young team with lots of girls getting their first varsity experience. Now those players have that experience and will be better because of it. The Little Green only won 5 games last year but just like Keene you can expect them to climb back up the standings this season.

Leading the way is 5'8" junior forward Katherine Johnson (rebounding machine), senior guards Ashley Giampetruzzi and Shannon O'Neil (athletic guards who can shoot the ball) and tough senior forward Zoe Stamoulis. Also adding depth inside is junior forward Megan Cleary and adding depth to the back court is 5'7" sophomore guard Sam Gauthier.

Central has some girls who can really shoot the ball well, and a couple good inside players. They could definitely surprise some people this year.

11) Timberlane - A similar program to Dover, because both of them are well-coached teams who play half court offense and tough, physical defense. Timberlane wasn't a deep team last year and they won't be this year either. But they have an all-state player in 5'10" senior Emily Rose and senior wing player Rebecca MacDougal, who is a VERY good defender.

12) Nashua North - The loss of transfer Paige Parkinson definitely hurts the Titans. Parkinson is a player with a lot of upside and if she came back they would have 3 returning starters 2 other key players returning off the bench and one of the state's top incoming freshman, which would have possibly been a recipe for a top 8 seed.

They will still be a solid team, though. The returning starters are seniors Emily Boots and Katelyn Roeser, while Summer Choate (missed most of last year with an injury) and Genevieve Gosselin will are also impact players who are back. The incoming freshman is 5'7" guard Taylor Choate (Summer's little sister, although Taylor is actually taller!).

NH Notebook All-State Team
First-team: Kirsten O'Neil (Winnacunnet), Amra Elezovic (Manchester Memorial) Meghan Green (Bishop Guertin), Ashley Clough (Keene), Aliza Simpson (Londonderry), Allie Mahan (Dover)

Second-team: Anna Sullivan (Winnacunnet), Emily Rose (Timberlane), Lia Nawn (Trinity), Allie Hartford (Manchester Memorial), Sandi Purcell (Alvirne), Sarah Goodwin (Pinkerton)

Preseason Player of the Year: Kirsten O'Neil (Winnacunnet)

Championship Game Prediction: Winnacunnet over Bishop Guertin

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