During their practice session Wednesday, the Acton-Boxborough Regional girls’ basketball team ran its fast-moving offense against some of the biggest opponents that the squad will see all season.
With four boys — three of whom play football for the high school — clogging the lane, the girls worked to find holes in the defense for open shots. They knew that if they could score in those situations, they would be even more confident against another girls’ team.
“They do a good job,” senior captain Becca Shamah said of her practice opponents.
“They’re definitely not blocking all of our shots like they obviously could with their athletic ability. But I think it brings out the competitor in me and everyone else. They steal your pass, and do you want to go back out on the floor and do the exact same thing? I think it works. It’s definitely a great tool that we have that we can use to our advantage.”
Those competitive juices have flowed over into their games, and helped them rack up an 8-2 record under second-year head coach Tim Bassett , giving them more wins than they had all of last season in a 6-14 finish.
The team has welcomed practice competition from boys since Bassett was an assistant under former coach Kim Landry . As a defensive coordinator for the football team, Bassett has encouraged his gridiron athletes to help him on the hardwood.
There are some restrictions for the boys — they’re asked to challenge shots, not block them — but otherwise they are present on a regular basis to test their female classmates.
This season, junior Jack Hoggard and seniors Drew Sullivan, Thomas Saponaro, and Chris Noeth are the practice players.
“We’re supposed to just give them a look,” said Hoggard, who will be a football captain next season, “because we’re a little more aggressive. They can’t go over us, so we’re trying to get them used to boxing out and making ball fakes before they pass.”
Though there is often a period of tentativeness between both the girls and the boys at the beginning of the season, by last week there was no holding back on either side.
“We push and shove and do things to them that girls would say, ‘Are you kidding me?’ ” said sophomore Tyler Keohan . “Guys just say ‘OK, whatever.’ Then you go to a game and you have that tougher switch that’s been turned on. From playing with boys you get tougher.”
Junior Lindsey Sweet grew up sharing a court with boys in her family’s backyard, which has made the competition always feel normal.
“I have four brothers,” she said with a smile, “so I’m not afraid.”
The boys don’t receive any kind of school credit for their efforts. For them, it’s a way to stay in shape, play some basketball, and contribute to a winning team.
“They’re just good kids,” Bassett said. “They don’t really get anything out of it except for maybe a sweat shirt at the end of the season.
“They’re all competitive guys, so sometimes you have to rein them in a little bit,” he added, “but they know what we’re looking for, and we’re happy to have them.”
It’s not an unprecedented idea to have boys and girls go against each other in practice. Newton North High coach Linda Martindale has incorporated male opponents into workouts in the past with similarly good results.
And while having the extra bodies at practice has helped Acton-Boxborough, it’s the team’s overall experience that has been the biggest difference in the dramatic change of its record.
The girls’ team features seven sophomores, four of whom saw significant playing time as freshmen. Two — Keohan and Emma Crooks — are among the team’s top four scorers, averaging between 9 and 10 points per game along with Shamah and Sweet.
Sophomores Kristin Ropiak and Samantha Ford split time as the team’s point guards and are part of a rotation that uses eight or nine players a game.
Their depth — as well as the addition of the boys — has helped make practices consistently competitive and contributed to turning around their game-night execution.
“We’re definitely putting in the work and practice,” said Shamah, who serves as captain along with fellow seniors Annalise Mcdonald and Brooke Goshtigian.
“I think we got a couple games already here that have tested our ability to fight back. It’s just something we lacked last year. Seeing that early on this year has been really exciting to show that even if the other team starts to make a run, we can come back at them. I think for big games ahead that’s going to help us.”
Small in stature,
long in experience
The Ashland boys are one of the smaller teams in Tri-Valley League — they don’t have a starter who stands taller than 6-foot-2 — but through 10 games they had done nothing but win.
With seven seniors, three of whom start for coach Mark Champagne , their combined on-the-floor experience has helped them overcome what they lack in height.
“We do some things differently,” Champagne said. “Other teams have their strengths. For us it’s defensive pressure and making the extra pass. We’ve had six different scorers in 10 games, and that keeps the kids invested. And we play a lot of kids, which is philosophically what we believe in. That’s good for the kids. They stay invested, they stay focused, and they know every kid has a chance to play.”
At 5-10, senior cocaptain Joe Byrnes leads the team in scoring at around 13 points per game, while sophomore guard Max Feinberg (6-1) puts in 12 per game. Senior cocaptain John Iarussi (5-10), senior David Morrison (6-2) and junior John Van Kleeff (6-2) are all threats with the ball as well.
Defensively, Ashland uses its athleticism to press for the majority of their games. In his fourth season as head coach, Champagne is comfortable giving his players various trapping schemes depending on the game, which has helped them hold opponents to an average of 41.9 points per game — lowest in the TVL.
“With this senior group, you can challenge them with a lot of different things,” Champagne said. “In previous years, we were limited in the type of structure we would give kids. Now I can put some plays in the day before a game and they can actually run it. It’s a lot of fun to watch them be able to handle more information.”
Here and there
Roxbury Latin senior Pat Benzan, a Wellesley resident, scored 36 points in an 83-30 loss to Middlesex School last week, making him the school’s all-time leading scorer. With 1,565 career points, the Holy Cross recruit surpassed the total of Remy Cofield (1,549) . . . Shrewsbury High senior Elizabeth Grip recorded her 1,000th career point in a 58-40 win over Fitchburg to become only the second player in school history to achieve that mark. . . . Watertown High boys’ coach Steve Harrington earned his 300th win last week with a 50-38 victory over Reading that left the Raiders 9-3 on the season. . . . In a 60-57 win over Concord-Carlisle on Jan. 17, Waltham sophomore Courtney Paschal hit a shot from three-quarters court to beat the buzzer at the end of the first quarter. Video of his long-distance heave can be found on www.whdh.com.