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Franklin girls’ basketball is off to a sterling start

Relaxed and versatile, Panthers get off to a sterling start

Robert E. Klein for The Boston Globe

Franklin High coach John Leighton slaps the hand of Alicia Wilde during player introductions before the Attleboro game.

ATTLEBORO - The manner in which the Franklin High girls warm up is a reminder that the upcoming game will be just that: a game.

On Tuesday night, junior Kaitlin Copponi chatted playfully during a passing drill as though she were glued to a cellphone. Sophomore Lauren Irvine stood underneath the basket and danced to one of the many hip-hop songs that thumped from Attleboro’s pregame playlist. Senior captain Catie Phelan - proving that the team’s “joie de vivre’’ isn’t restricted to underclassmen - chortled moments before tip-off after hearing a teammate’s quip.

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No game faces here.

“We’re pretty much always trying to crack jokes,’’ Phelan said. “They aren’t usually funny, but we think they are.’’

The Panthers had one final light moment before tip-off against the Bombardiers. Huddling in front of their bench, they shouted their mantra for this season three times over: “Hakuna matata.’’

The Swahili phrase, made popular in the movie “The Lion King,’’ is translated in the film to “no worries.’’ It’s the perfect credo for this year’s Franklin High squad.

Propelled by their easygoing attitudes, they have maintained confidence and jumped out to a sterling 15-0 start.

“Sports have to be fun,’’ said coach John Leighton. “There’s enough stress with real life stuff, so I let them goof on each other a little bit.’’

Against Attleboro, their carefree attitudes helped them survive a shaky first quarter. Franklin escaped the first eight minutes with just a three-point lead over the Bombardiers (2-9). Playing for a chance to clinch the Hockomock League Kelley-Rex title, the Panthers were stumbling.

No problem. With cool heads and crisp shooting strokes, they put together a 13-4 run in the second quarter that padded their lead en route to a 46-29 victory and their first league championship in four years.

Robert E. Klein for The Boston Globe

Junior Alicia Kutil (34) and senior captain Catie Phelan share a light moment before Tuesday’s game against the Bombardiers.

“We’re not really a very serious team, which you might know [watching us] on the court,’’ said junior Alicia Kutil, who finished with 13 points and 8 rebounds. “But we have fun . . . I feel like that’s the key to basketball. If you’re not having fun while you’re playing and you’re not enjoying it, you’re not going to play well.’’

The win over Attleboro was the latest in a season that has resulted in nothing but happy finishes. And every player has chipped in with more than just a ready smile.

The Panthers have received the bulk of their scoring from Phelan (14.0 points per game) and senior cocaptain Alicia Wilde (14.0), but Leighton often goes deep into his bench, using depth to out-pace opponents like Notre Dame and Oliver Ames - both of which were undefeated before playing Franklin. Many games, all 12 players see minutes.

Franklin has solid ball-handlers and defenders in junior Kristi Kirshe and senior cocaptain Rachel Flynn. The Panthers have good size in Kutil (6-foot-0), Irvine (5-foot-11), Copponi (6-foot-0) and junior Sarah Shaw (6-foot-1), who is quick enough to play on the perimeter of the team’s zone defense and has the shooting touch of a guard.

Their versatility has allowed them to brush aside every opponent. They can play man-to-man defense or zone. They can press or drop back. They can push the ball into the paint or hit shots from the outside.

“It doesn’t hurt to have 6-foot girls who can shoot the 3 and dribble-drive,’’ said Attleboro coach Missy Traversi. Leighton “just has an army of talent.’’

Though the Panthers are well aware of their record, they don’t fret over keeping it pristine. They talk openly about how they might react to a loss. As much as they would like to continue their perfect run, they do nothing superstitious to keep it going.

They do have one routine before home games, though. Prior to taking the floor to warm up, they have what outsiders see as a typical pregame team meeting in the Franklin wrestling room. What’s really going on, though, is they are pumping music out of a boombox and dancing.

“That’s probably our only ritual,’’ said Kutil. “It’s like we’re getting all our nerves out then.’’

After that, no worries.

St. John’s boys turn it around

St. John’s of Shrewsbury coach Bob Foley has seen this before. With a basketball roster chock full of football players and new contributors, it can take weeks, sometimes more, for his team to round into form.

“We find this happens to us every year,’’ Foley said. “You’ve got kids coming off of football. You might have a big turnover from the year before . . . so early in the season you’re not quite there yet. But we work really hard in practice and in games, and every game we seem to get just a little bit better.’’

The Pioneers started out this season slowly, going 3-4. But after Tuesday’s 68-45 win over Doherty, they have won 11 of their last 12 and sit at 14-5, playing their best basketball as the regular season finishes up.

They have received big performances from go-to players like junior Ken Harrington and senior Matt Palecki, who scored 22 points and grabbed eight rebounds against Doherty. But Foley also credited his team’s underclassmen for the turnaround.

Freshman Davon Jones has taken over as the starting point guard and sophomores Charlie Murray and T.J. Kelly give an inside-out presence that has helped them on their recent eight-game win streak.

“We had some lessons to learn,’’ Foley said. “But to watch young kids just develop the way they have - people were looking at us saying, ‘You’re not gonna make the tournament this year. Wow, this is the year St. John’s really struggles.’ And these kids don’t believe that.’’

Dribble drives

Ashland’s Blake Underhill tallied her 1,000th point last week, scoring 24 in the Clockers’ 54-31 win over Westwood . . . Sophomore Sean Peterson hit a 3-pointer at the buzzer to lift Maynard over Ayer-Shirley, 63-30 . . . Last week Medway High principal Richard Pearson was named associate executive director of the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association and the Massachusetts Secondary Schools Administrators’ Association.

Phil Perry can be reached at paperry27@gmail.com.
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