A day after his team’s lackluster season-opening 30-point victory on Tuesday night, Andover High girls’ basketball coach Jim Tildsley summoned his players to center court and delivered a succinct message.
If they wanted to win consistently, it would take far more aggression, intensity, and enthusiasm than what they had displayed the previous evening.
Following his prepractice reality check, Tildsley led his players through a series of tightly structured drills. Intermittently, he would stop to provide instruction — how to throw a pass or where to position oneself defensively — before play would resume.
This formula of tough love and attention to detail has produced remarkable results for Tildsley and the Golden Warriors.
In his 18th year as coach, Andover enters the season as three-time defending Division 1 state champion and winner of the Merrimack Valley Conference for six consecutive years.
Andover knows how to win, even when the target lies squarely on its back.
“It’s good going into games having the confidence, experience and motivation that we know what we need to do to win,” said senior cocaptain Devon Caveney , who averaged 10.5 points per game last season.
But Andover is facing an admittedly steeper climb after graduating current Boston College freshman Nicole Boudreau (22.9 points per game a year ago, including 31 in the state final) and Ally Fazio (9.2 points per game), who together captained last season’s 27-0 team.
“They were great players and leaders,” said Tildsley.
“All you try to do is move on and get other kids to become leaders. It’s just about working together and working hard as a team, and everything else will fall into place.”
With greater competition expected from Merrimack Valley opponents like Central Catholic and Billerica, Tildsley knows this year’s path will not be easy. It will take a cohesive effort from everyone wearing the blue and gold, including starters Caveney and senior captain Jackie Alois , both MVC all-league selections, along with Alois’s younger sister, Rebecca, a junior; Caveney’s cousin Colleen , a sophomore; and senior Angelice Gonzalez .
“We don’t stress individuals; we talk about trusting in your teammates,” said Tildsley, who will again employ an up-tempo, full-court defensive pressing style in which turnovers lead to transition buckets. “If that happens, we’ll have a pretty good season. If it doesn’t, we’ll struggle a bit.”
This focus on team is part of an approach that the Golden Warriors hope will result in a “four-peat.”
“Everyone is kind of overlooking us because Nicole and Ally left,” said Jackie Alois. “But Devon and I know what it takes to win. We want that feeling to come back.”
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While Andover enjoyed a perfect season on its way to last year’s state title, Pentucket Regional peaked at just the right time for the Division 3 tourney. The Sachems were 3-3 before embarking on a 20-1 streak, which included 12 consecutive victories to end the season.
Pentucket graduated four seniors, including Cape Ann all-league selection Sarah Higgins , but coach John McNamara believes this year’s squad will feature a stronger top-to-bottom roster. “We have a nucleus of seven newcomers,” he said. “They’re all pretty solid, and I think a few of them will emerge as pretty good role players. It’ll give us some depth on the bench for some of the tougher games.”
McNamara has focused on familiarizing his new players with the full-court defensive schemes that define Sachems basketball.
“We’re known as a defensive team,” he acknowledged. “We’re continually working on our defense and trying to get the new kids to understand their role and how we play it.”
Blending these newcomers with a starting five of returning players that includes a pair of sophomores, McKenna Kilan and McNamara’s daughter, Kelsi , who contributed 14 points off the bench during last year’s title game, and senior tricaptains Tess Nogueira , Alex Moore , and Coley Viselli — who was a Cape Ann all-league selection — will be paramount to another successful tournament run.
The Sachems also now realize that becoming a viable title contender is a process.
“We understand that you don’t have to be completely ready to go at the beginning,” said McNamara, who has led Pentucket to the TD Garden and the EMass final four out of the last six years. “You just want to make sure you’re focused and healthy and playing your best at the end of the season.”
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Like Pentucket, Reading was well-positioned for another successful year after last season’s 25-0 run.
With its two most prolific players — seniors Olivia Healy and Morgan O’Brien — returning, 15-year coach Kim Penney was optimistic that in her final season at the helm the Rockets could recapture the Middlesex League and Division 2 state championship titles.
But O’Brien, who will play at Assumption College next year after averaging 16.9 points last season, suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament attempting a layup in late November.
“She’s irreplaceable in the fact that she can create her own offense, she’s the best 3-point shooter to ever play in Reading, and she scored 33 points” in the championship game at the Garden last year, said Penney.
Penney is now scrambling to redefine roles and develop team chemistry.
The Rockets have seven returning players, including four who have already been designated starters: Healy — who last season averaged 21.8 points and will play at Richmond next fall — and seniors Katie Starble , Meghan Stanford, and Siobhan O’Sullivan . The fifth starter is still undetermined.
“We had a meeting to talk about our strengths and weaknesses as individuals and we went down the line,” said Penney. “I said what I thought about every player in front of everybody. We were very honest.
“They have to understand their strengths and what we need them to do for our team to be successful. Whether it’s the position they want to play or not, they have to do it. They’re good kids and they get it.”
Having already defended its state title twice, Andover knows the challenges and obstacles it must overcome to reach the pinnacle.
Inevitably, these are lessons that both Pentucket and Reading are about to learn.
Paul Lazdowski can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.