Hands crossed, whistle around his neck, lobbying up and down the sideline gymnasium at Masconomet Regional, varsity girls’ basketball coach Bob Romeo was conducting his usual practice.
“Sprint! Keep sprinting!” rallied the 12th-year coach in between whistles to his sweat-drenched players.
“Faster, faster, keep going!” Romeo shouted during his team’s 10 minutes of nonstop defensive slides and foot-fire drills.
The squeak made between his players’ matching red Nike sneakers and the hardwood floor was heard all evening long, silenced only during their water breaks.
“It’s a long, long two hours,” senior captain Nicole Femino joked about the Chieftains practice session. “Sometimes it feels like the clock doesn’t stop.”
The clock on the scoreboard timer rarely stopped Wednesday night between drills.
When the buzzer sounded, Romeo moved his team immediately to the next activity. From full-court sprints to the three-man weave to the Mikan drill (a layup exercise named after NBA legend George Mikan), it was Masco in motion.
During the season they repeat the two-hour routine six days a week, except on game days.
“There’s a reason we are undefeated,” said Femino. “And that’s due to our practices,”
The Chieftains tapped off the season with 11 straight wins, doing so in dominating fashion by outscoring their foes by an average of 29 points. With 10 returning players, including four starters, Masco has already secured a berth in the Division 1 North tourney.
In addition to Femino, senior captains Hannah Kiernan and Lexie Nason , along with junior Meghan Collins, are back in the starting lineup.
Considered undersized in basketball terms — no starter is over 5-feet-10 — the Chieftains embrace their fast-tempo style of game.
“It really starts with our guards,” Romeo said. “They’re the motor in the team; they make us go.”
Femino, a 5-9 wing, and Kiernan, a 5-9 guard, pace the attack, averaging 13 points, along with three assists and three steals per game. Femino also hauls in seven boards per game.
Collins is an orchestrator at both ends of the floor. The 5-foot-7 point guard runs the small-ball system on offense, while setting the tone with man-to-man ball pressure defensively — the hard-nosed style of play Romeo stresses.
“We do our best when we run on teams,” Collins said. “When we’re in transition, it’s hard to stop. We don’t let teams get comfortable running an offense.”
Nason is the energizer. Romeo describes her as “just that kid that does all the little things that fill up the stat sheet.” The 5-foot-9 forward hauls in seven rebounds and collects two steals per game.
The four have shared the court together since fifth grade, playing on numerous travel, intramural, and Amateur Athletic Union squads over the years. They all share the belief that their recent success is a direct result from the quality time they put in at practice.
Other teams “usually crack around the fourth quarter, but that’s when we thrive because of the toughness of our practices,” said Kiernan.
“There’s no such thing as not running,” Nason said. “We always have that second wind in games.”
The Chieftains also lean heavily on their togetherness, a unity fostered through team dinners, pasta parties, and sleepovers.
“I try to keep everyone connected when the game gets tough,” Femino said. “I try to be not only their captain, but a friend, because I think that’s more important.”
Since fifth grade, Femino and Kiernan have donned the same team jersey — every winter, fall, spring, and summer basketball season.
In between introductions and the opening tap, the two meet in the center circle of the court for their traditional “dorky” handshake. Two high-fives, a fist bump, and a body pump gets them going.
“We know how to make each other laugh all the time,” Kiernan said. “No matter if we had a bad game or anything, we’re always there to pick each other up.”
Kiernan is looking to continue her playing career in college, likely at a Division 3 program. Femino joked that she doesn’t see herself in the WNBA; she is focused on nursing school, preferably near Philadelphia.
First, however, they have a bit of unfinished business.
Two years ago Masco lost in the Division 1 North final to Andover. Last season, a 15-5 campaign ended with a quarterfinal loss to Billerica.
Romeo said he believes this group is determined to break through, and made a run to TD Garden. For one, he cites their mental toughness.
“In the beginning of the season, coach asked me for one thing: He wants to get a number on the banner at the gym,” said Femino, recalling an earlier conversation. “I promised him I will get him two numbers; the league title and a state title . . . that’s what we’re trying to do.”
Underdog Salem boys team is on rise
The Salem High boys netted their seventh straight win Tuesday night, bouncing Peabody, 65-49, following a 56-36 win over Shepherd Hill on Monday.
The Witches dropped two top teams from the unbeaten ranks the previous week with wins over two-time defending Division 3 state champ Danvers (41-38) on Jan. 14 and Lynn English (74-69) the next night.
“That was just a huge week for us,” said coach Tom Doyle . “We were underdogs in both games in back-to-back nights, but they just kept fighting.”
Senior forward Rashad Keys and senior guards Bryan Martinez-Rodriguez and Jamie Dominguez have led the way for Salem (9-2).
The Witches have a tough stretch ahead, with a game against Lowell (Sunday, 3 p.m.) and a rematch with Lynn English (Friday, 7 p.m.). Their 11-year coach is hoping for consistency.
“The boys have responded; they’re just working hard,” Doyle said. “We’ve had different guys step up throughout the stretch — just doing what they need to do. I just hope we keep getting better.”
Danvers season honors slain teacher
The Danvers High girls have dedicated their season to teacher Colleen Ritzer , who was killed at the school in October.
The Falcons, who won two of three games this past week to improve to 7-4, are learning to deal emotionally with the loss of one of their biggest supporters.
“This season has been more about life than basketball,” said coach Pat Veilleux . “She was more than a teacher. She was a role model for a lot of our players, and that’s why the kids thought highly of her.”
The eight-year coach said he was impressed with the way his team has dealt with Ritzer’s death.
“Just being able to come together after such a tragic event is so impressive,” he said. “When it happens in your backyard, at your own school, there’s never a day when we take the court where someone isn’t thinking of her.”
Here and there
Lynn English senior guard Catherine Stinson netted her 1,000th career point in a 60-27 win over Medford on Jan. 16. She has also surpassed 500 assists. . .
St. Mary’s of Lynn senior guard Brianna Rudolph became the fourth player in program history, and the second in two weeks, to reach the 1,000-point milestone with her 23-point effort in a 63-51 win over New Mission. Jennie Mucciarone reached the mark Jan. 7 against Arlington Catholic.