NEWTON — Kayla Burton is one of the best point guards in the state, a fact not lost on the basketball players from Needham High.
Though the Rockets had not played Newton South since Burton’s freshman year, they already were quite familiar with the 5-foot-7 senior, who possesses a devastating crossover dribble and silky jump shot.
Needham senior Maddie Ganser has faced Burton during AAU play, and had a good idea of what to expect in last week’s opening game of the high school season.
“She’s awesome,” Ganser said of Burton, who will play at Lehigh University next year. “We came to the game knowing they had awesome shooters. We focused on long close-outs,’’ and not leaving players uncovered to help out on defense, she said. “I think it helped us shut her down, but she’s an amazing player.”
Burton scored 14 points Tuesday. Ganser put up 20 to help propel Needham to a 49-38 nonleague win over the Lions.
A number of local coaches contend the state’s most talented basketball players are now more familiar with each other than ever because of the year-round nature of the sport for elite competitors.
The best of the best play with and against one another in the spring and summer for AAU clubs. Then in the winter, during the high school season, players help serve as scouts for their coaches, breaking down the strengths and weaknesses of the players they encountered in their AAU experiences.
The scouting process works both ways, of course. As Ganser knew Burton, Burton knew Ganser.
Burton is a product of the Bay State Jaguars AAU program, coached by Newton South head coach Sam Doner . After playing Ganser’s Ashland-based Massachusetts Blue Devils squad last summer, Doner and Burton had a plan to stop the 5-11 forward, who will play at Holy Cross next year.
“We talked about fronting her,” Doner said. “We were going to put in a play where we trap her a little bit, but I don’t think our kids are there yet with the angles, and that’s on me,’’ the coach said after Tuesday’s loss. “She just took us apart today.”
The state’s pool of girls shooting to compete for a Division 1 or Division 2 college program is a small one. Because most play for a select few AAU programs, players often find themselves in the same tournaments, bumping into each other and watching each other play in gyms around New England.
“I would say that’s the biggest thing that’s changed since I started coaching,” said Franklin head coach John Leighton . “Within our league there are a bunch of players on common teams and so they already know each other backward and forward. It feels like there’s not a team in the state we could see and one of our players wouldn’t know at least one of theirs.”
It’s impossible for high school coaches to scout each team on their schedules and understand the tendencies of every opposing player. But that’s where their own players can step up. If insider information on another team’s star is available, coaches are all ears.
“More and more I have kids that are more excited and willing to be part of the game plan and scouting,” said Lincoln-Sudbury Regional coach Liza Feldman . “I’ve gotten some great information from them, too. Now, you have to take it for what it is. Teams run different things that your players may or may not know about, but I take all the information that I get from what I see, what I read, what I hear, and I take that and see how that player is going to match up with us. It’s another resource.”
At a recent preseason tournament game, Rivers School center Jen Berkowitz , who also plays for the Jaguars, provided her teammates with tips for to guarding Lincoln-Sudbury senior captain Ashley Lutz . The junior from Wayland knows Lutz as a member of the New Hampshire Rivals AAU team.
“I know Ashley pretty well, so I said ‘She’s an amazing shooter, we definitely have to stop her shot,’ ” Berkowitz said.
There are a few high school squads who benefit from having their best players participate in the same AAU program. Berkowitz and Rivers senior Emilee Daley, who is heading to Boston College next fall, are together nearly year-round as teammates for the Jaguars and their Weston prep school.
Newton South freshman guard Emily Chang is on a younger Jaguars team, but she practiced with Burton during the summer so the two knew each other well before this season.
More often, though, it seems the AAU experience helps foster friendly high school rivalries. Ganser said she is looking forward to battling in the post against a couple of her Blue Devils teammates this season when she faces Wellesley center Grace Miller and Natick forward Bridget Furdon .
“We’re all really close so it’ll be fun playing them,” Ganser said. “It’s a lot of fun. We say hi to each other during the game, and we both know we’re going to go equally hard just to see whose team is better, I guess. It definitely doesn’t affect our friendship, wins or losses, but it’s fun to see them on the court.”
For a few months out of the year, those who play AAU make new friends from different towns, playing a sport they love, and the relationships often extend well beyond the spring and summer seasons. Take Burton and Berkowitz, who didn’t know each other until meeting as Jaguars teammates.
Now they are best friends.
“We talk all the time, we work out together, we just have the same mentality,” Burton said. “When we have frustration problems we wan to talk about, she’ll call me or I’ll call her, and we’ll vent about it. We try to see what ideas we can bounce off of each other during the high school season, too.”
That’s the part of the AAU experience that Arlington Catholic coach Dave Brady said he thinks is most beneficial — even if the relationships his players have with opponents at other schools occasionally take the edge off his pregame speeches.
“I’ll say to my girls, ‘OK, they’re the enemy,’ ” Brady said. “Then we go out on to the floor, and they’re all hugging each other. But that part of it is nice. The friendships are a real positive.”