As members of the Fenway girls’ basketball program funneled into the Dearborn STEM Academy gymnasium on Jan. 19, players cheered, cried, and — instead of hugging — bumped elbows. A few took Snapchat videos and photos, documenting the return of the three-time reigning Boston City League champions to the court.
The practice session, the first for new head coach Caitlin Fenn, represented an outpouring of joy that the COVID-19 pandemic had bottled away.
“You can just tell what an effect [the pandemic has] had on everybody,” she said. “People wondered when we would ever get back. The girls said that. They were like, ‘I didn’t know when I’d ever play again.’ They’ve never experienced anything like this before.”
Back on the court, the Panthers have rolled to a 4-0 start after the City League’s delayed start. But playing basketball in a densely-populated city, during the darkest hours of a pandemic, is daunting. Fenn feels the added pressure of keeping her team — and their families — safe.
“We have a lot of girls on the team who live with their grandparents, or have multi-family homes, or something like that,” she said. “I understand why people are nervous.”
The 35-year-old Fenn (née Cordaro) played college basketball at Babson (’08) before becoming a personal trainer and developing her own basketball-themed workouts, Sweat’n Buckets. She joined the Fenway staff two years ago, ascended to JV coach last season, and has risen quickly to helm of the varsity.
Fenn inherits a dynastic program from John Rice, who guided Fenway to 20 City League titles. Rice has taken a step back from head coaching amid the pandemic, but continues to work with the program and advise Fenn as she makes the transition.
“Don’t try to take everything on,” Rice said. “You don’t have to come in and reinvent the wheel.”
“What he’s taught me in this situation is . . . what is needed to support different players on the court,” Fenn said. “And that sounds obvious, but figuring out how to fit all the pieces together, and explaining it to kids, and motivating all the kids, is the puzzle.”
But the new coach has an experienced roster, starting with junior Kayana Armbrister, a 6-foot forward who dropped 30 points in the season-opening 59-24 victory over Boston United. The returning Globe All-Scholastic holds Division I offers from UMass, George Washington, Rhode Island, and Florida Atlantic.
Armbrister did not play during the AAU season but constantly searched out safe playgrounds and gyms to practice. She also modified her diet, incorporating more vegetable-based foods instead of meats, and combed through LeBron James and Jayson Tatum highlights on YouTube.
After serious conversations with her family about safety, Armbrister is back to lead Fenway.
“This whole quarantine, I’ve been working out — mentally, physically, all of that — just so I could come in prepared and know what to expect,” she said.
Junior Wynter Neal is also emerging as a key contributor. The versatile wing racked up 30 points of in a 74-8 rout of CASH on Friday.
“I feel great to be back,” Neal said. “With this whole COVID thing going around, it’s pretty hard to fully enjoy it, but I was excited to step on the court no matter the rules we had to follow.”
But a strong start doesn’t mean the games have been easy. Fenn has hurried to get Fenway ready for the season — the Panthers handed out uniforms on opening night just before they took the floor. Armbrister is still adjusting to masks during play.
“All of this is happening so fast,” Fenn said.
Through it all, the Panthers have leaned on compassion and camaraderie. The team watched the movie “Love and Basketball” together over Zoom during last week’s snowstorm. On game day, teammates make sure everyone has a water bottle, and upperclassmen walk new players to the gym. They know how precious this chance to play really is.
“Our team is very close,” Neal said. “We call each other family; we call each other sisters.”
“I’m just glad we’re even able to get on on the court. I wasn’t thinking we were going to have a season,” Armbrister added. “Just hyped about what we have now.”
▪ St. Mary’s, even after going on pause for two weeks following winter vacation, has played 16 games, the most of any program in Eastern Mass. Plymouth South is next, with 12.
The Spartans (15-1, 14-0 Catholic Central) have shown no letdown despite competing in a whopping 15 games in 23 days. This past week, they beat Austin Prep (56-31), Arlington Catholic (69-40), and Archbishop Williams (64-38), and they were set to face Bishop Feehan Monday. They go up against Malden Catholic and Norwell as final tuneups before the Catholic Central Cup next week.
“We have a veteran group and have committed to our league and our student-athletes to get them as many opportunities to play in games as possible,” coach Jeff Newhall said.
▪ A year after finishing the season with a 24-0 record, Franklin followed that up with a perfect 10-0 mark this season.
“We were all clear on the goal of an undefeated season, and every practice and every game we went into it with the intention of achieving that goal,” junior catalyst Olivia Quinn said.
Coach John Leighton said he’s thoroughly impressed with the way the Panthers have kept it rolling despite losing lots of talent from last year’s squad.
“In many ways, having our run to the state championship last year cut short by COVID benefitted this team because they came in day one understanding the value of each and every day,” Leighton said. “They wasted no time and worked as if each day may be their last.”
▪ Winchester (1-6) earned its first Middlesex Liberty win in four years, outlasting Lexington, 54-45, thanks in large part to a 16-point, 10-rebound showing from senior captain Katie Degnan.
“The girls are working hard to get better every day and the results are showing,” coach Sam Mosley said.
▪ Andover senior Tatum Shaw scored her 1,000th career point Wednesday on senior night, finishing with 26 points as the Golden Warriors pulled away from Billerica, 52-31. She’s been one of the most consistent and dynamic players in Eastern Mass. all season.
Correspondent Trevor Hass also contributed.