There was nothing that more than a half-foot of snow and blistering cold winds could do to deter the Andover High girls from practicing Tuesday night.
With the upcoming state tournament around the corner, coach E.J. Perry and his Golden Warriors have no time for days off.
Transitioning into a fast break after a defensive stop during a full-court scrimmage, Rachael Cormier called for the handoff from Alyssa Casey and weaved her way down the floor. The junior point guard fired a one-handed, cross-court bounce pass to shooting guard Colleen Caveney , who delivered a touch pass to Rebecca Alois for an easy two.
The play unfolded smoothly, taking only seconds to execute.
Cormier and Caveney have connected on those types of plays all season for the Golden Warriors (15-5). Perry’s guards will have to carry over that pinpoint execution in the tournament when back-court efficiency becomes vital.
“At the high school level, everything is about guard play,” Perry said.
“That’s where everything starts,” he added. “They have to run the point, defend the perimeter, and just play crisp for a team to win.”
Cormier has been everything Perry could ask for in a point guard. The 5-foot-5 first-year starter’s averages of 7 points and 6 assists per game are only a sample of her impact.
Cormier has dealt with the death of her father, Warren, a day before the school year began.
The perseverance and mental toughness she’s displayed throughout the aftermath of her family’s loss, along with her play-hard attitude, amazes Perry and the team every day she takes the floor.
“With what she’s been through, she’s just a warrior; nothing is going to rattle her,” Perry said of Cormier.
“Mental toughness is half the battle of being a point guard, and she has that.”
Cormier admits this season was “nerve-racking” and the most pressure she’s ever faced as a floor general. Her intense, passionate style of play helps keep Cormier levelheaded and focused on her job.
“I just try to keep everyone calm and build trust in my teammates,” she said. “When games get hectic, we have to play at our speed, and not the other team’s.”
Caveney complements Cormier as the starting two-guard.
The 5-foot-7 junior averages a team-high 16 points, along with 4 rebounds and 2 assists per game. Caveney’s height allows her to become a two-way threat, with her ability to drive the lane and step back to shoot from behind the arc, and then wreak havoc defensively.
Her basketball IQ is “off the charts,” according to Perry.
“We have to make sure we communicate on both sides,” Caveney said of her role in the back-court pairing. “Break double teams, make cuts to open the lanes, and just create some space.”
Along with the team’s starting guards, the experience and leadership savvy provided by Alois are just as crucial to a title run.
The 5-foot-9 senior forward has been the constant that Perry and the team have leaned on all season.
Alois was part of two of Andover High’s three consecutive Division 1 state championship teams starting in the 2009-10 season, including her starting role two years ago.
Averaging 9 points and 10 rebounds this season, “the most coachable player” Perry has ever had says she understands what it takes to advance deep in the tournament.
“It takes five players on the same page with the same goal,” the senior captain said. “If you want it bad enough you can get it, but nothing is given at all.”
Perry himself knows what builds a state champion. He coached the Salem (N.H.) High boys’ basketball team to back-to-back Division 1 state titles starting in 2007, and also led the Blue Devils’ boys’ volleyball team to six consecutive Division 1 state titles, with the string ending in 2009.
In his first year as the girls’ coach at Andover, Perry has picked up nicely for Jim Tildsley , who stepped down as coach after 18 seasons with the Golden Warriors.
Perry knew that stepping in for a man who coached four state champions and 360 wins wouldn’t be easy.
“I have to thank all the girls for accepting me,” he said. “Following a guy like him was something great, but had high expectations.”
Cormier and her teammates embraced the change.
“His intensity is what we need; he doesn’t treat us any differently than he treats his boys,” Cormier said of the team’s new coach. “He’s not afraid to hold back, and I think that makes us mentally and physically stronger.”
While the up-tempo game best suits Andover’s run-and-gun style of play, half-court execution becomes pivotal in the playoffs when the pace slows down.
Casey, a 5-foot-10 freshman, will be a catalyst for Perry, and has averaged 10 points and 9 rebounds as the starting center.
The team’s other senior captain, 5-foot-7 Jessica Witten, helps spread the floor as its 3-point specialist, pouring in 11 points a contest.
Perry believes the tournament is “all about execution in the half court.” Recognizing man-to-man, zone, and matchup-zone defenses will go a long way toward orchestrating a successful rhythm on offense, he said.
Alois and her teammates are looking for a long postseason run; they’re not ready to play their last game so early.
Perry is right there with them.
“ I can’t wait,” he said.
“There’s nothing like March Madness.”
Boys’ teams to watch
► Andover (15-4): The ability of junior guard David Giribaldi to go off for 20-plus points a night gives the Golden Warriors a valuable offensive weapon needed for a deep tournament run.
►Central Catholic (17-4): After getting off to a rocky 3-3 start by their standards, the Red Raiders won 14 of their next 15 games, including a 10-game winning streak. The dynamic duo of 6-foot-1 star point guard Tyler Nelson and 6-foot-6 big man Nick Cambio pose a legitimate title threat.
► Danvers (17-2): The defending back-to-back Division 3 state champions look formidable in their first season competing in Division 2. The Falcons’ 6-foot-3 junior center Devan Harris is an offensive force in the paint (19 points per game).
► Greater Lawrence Tech (17-2): Riding an 11-game winning streak, coach Dan Habib and the Reggies — led by two junior forwards, 6-foot Oscar Reynoso and 6-foot-1 Frankely Estrella — look poised to reach the Division 3 North finals.
► St. John’s Prep (16-4): The Eagles trot out one of the most balanced lineups in the state, as 5-foot-9 junior Kareem Davis , 6-foot-4 Ben Judson , and senior captain Max Burt run the back court, with 6-foot-4 senior center Max Butterbrodt working in the paint.
Girls’ teams to watch
► Central Catholic (19-1): The defending Division 1 state champs are playing their best basketball of the season, riding a 16-game winning streak. Senior captains Courtney Walsh and Amanda Williams lead a group of four returning starters from last year.
► Pentucket Regional (16-6): Junior point guard Kelsi McNamara has been cold-blooded in late-game situations with her offensive play (16 points per game), and will be the Sachems’ X-factor in the Division 2 playoffs.
► Lynn English (21-0): Looking dominant through an undefeated regular season, the Bulldogs’ trio of senior guards Catherine Stinson , Deidra Newson, and Diondra Woumn all average more than 14 points per game.
► Masconomet Regional (19-1): Led by senior captains Hannah Kiernan and Nicole Femino , the Lady Chieftains have been solid all season, outscoring their opponents by an average of 24 points per game. Their only loss of the year came Monday to Lynn English.
► St. Mary’s (19-2): The Spartans’ three college-bound guards — Brianna Rudolph , Sharell Sanders, and Jennie Mucciarone — lead one of the favorites for the Division 3 state title.