Foxborough girls’ basketball coach Lisa Downs estimates half of the players on this year’s team play basketball in the offseason, whether through AAU or with another club — the highest percentage she’s ever had in her 13 years as head coach.
It’s allowing the defending Division 2 champion Warriors, who start the year atop the Globe Top 20 rankings, and have dropped to D3 in the new divisional alignments, to hit the ground running.
“It’s helpful,” Downs said. “As much as I think it’s important for our kids to play more than just basketball, it does put them at a disadvantage because they just have to get reacclimated with basketball in general.”
‘In general, it does give them a leg up, just because of getting the reps.’
Foxborough girls' basketball coach Lisa Downs, on her team's participation in AAU and club basketball teams
For most of the top players in Massachusetts, basketball is a year-round sport. High school coaches have little control over how their players develop in the offseason. The increased commitment has its benefits and drawbacks, and it’s making coaches evolve their early-season preparation.
“In general, it does give them a leg up, just because of getting the reps,” Downs said. “If for no other reason, just getting the time on the court with the basketball in your hand and you know, putting up a lot of shots.”
Coaches and players have echoed a similar belief that AAU basketball is a much more physical game than high school. When the winter season comes around, players often have to recalibrate their understanding of what constitutes a foul.
Downs says she really works with her team being disciplined defensively with their hands. Woburn coach Steve Sullivanemphasizes the importance of avoiding foul trouble early in a game.
“I definitely think there’s a lot more called in the high school season than in AAU, so it’s just having players understand each game is going to be called differently,” Sullivan said. “Even referees might not call the game the exact same way. Players have to adjust to the referees; referees aren’t going to adjust to the players, so especially early in games, [it’s about] being smart, being careful, seeing how the game is going to be called, and not getting those cheap fouls that are unnecessary.”
Woburn players like McKenna Morrison and Shannon McCarthy, who compete in the offseason for Evolution Basketball and the Maine Firecrackers, have an easier transition back to basketball. For others, including multi-sport athletes, it takes a bit more time.
Sullivan likes to break down a season into chunks of 3-4 weeks. The first segment, up until Christmas, is about remembering the details of the game and finding a comfort level.
“It’s getting kids in shape, getting kids back acclimated to the skill stuff, and then trying as best you can to put as much of your systems and philosophies in as possible,” he said.
Methuen third-year coach Ryan Middlemiss wants to make sure his team, which is skewed heavily toward multi-sport athletes, builds confidence coming back to basketball.
The start of the season can be frustrating for players trying to relearn the skills of the sport. At the same time, players returning from AAU, in which game reps dwarf practice time, might lose motivation while practicing on countless long winter nights for comparatively fewer games.
Middlemiss tried to introduce new drills and mix up the practice routine to keep things fresh. He also wants to include virtual golf, yoga, and college basketball games as ways to engage the team away from the high school court.
“We just try to find that appropriate balance of practices, working on skill development, going over all the stuff you need to grow, but also making sure that it doesn’t become overwhelming — that they continue to want to join a team sport and want to come and practice,” he said.
But all three coaches agreed that year-round basketball is great for player rivalries and even better for scouting.
Methuen is led by returning All-Scholastic forward Samantha Pfeil, whose natural affinity for film study gets a boost from her AAU experiences with Mass Rivals.
“Having someone like Sam, who can give a lot of feedback, who takes it very seriously, whose focus is on those attention to details [is helpful],” Middlemiss said. “[She] spends time watching film, knows much of the other kids, and allowing her to have that space where she can feel like her input is valid and valued is really, really important for us.”
At Foxborough, Downs often gives returning All-Scholastics Camryn Collins (a Bay State Jaguars player) and Kailey Sullivan (Honey Badgers) the floor during film study because of their extra knowledge about opposing players. Those detailed insights helped Foxborough win the Division 2 championship last season.
“Camryn, Kailey, and even Addie [Ruter], who have experience playing with or against these other girls, will have their time that they can give their first-hand accounts,” Downs said. “This is what [an opponent] likes to do when she gets the ball here. This is how she plays defense. This is what her attitude is like. Any of those little things that you wouldn’t have caught on film is really, really helpful.”
▪ Medfield, coming off two straight trips to the semifinals, will look to take it even further this winter. The Warriors will miss do-it-all guard Kate Olenik, currently leading Colby College in scoring as a freshman, but others are poised to collectively fill the void.
Seniors captains Annie Stanton and Sadie Cumming will help lead the way. Tess Baacke, Izzy Kittredge, Jailen Annigeri, and Mary Palladino are catalysts as well. The MIAA tagged Medfield to move down to Division 3, but the Warriors elected to stay in Division 2.
“We’re looking to use our combination of experience and very talented youth to take that next step and hopefully compete for our third state championship,” coach Mark Nickerson said.
▪ With Sarah Hilliard, Kaydance Derba, Kamryn Derba, Avery Gamble, and Maeve Horsman back for another year, Oliver Ames will look to return to its winning ways under first-year coach Brian Costello.
The Tigers, who won the state title two years ago, lost in the first round and finished 11-10 last year. This year’s group has a chance to blossom into a contender in Division 2.
“The girls are well aware of the history and tradition of excellence of OA basketball and are ready to step up this season,” Costello said.
▪ Rockland will be without coach Diana Newcomb until Tuesday, Dec. 12, as she cares for her newborn daughter, Stevie. Chris Devine is interim head coach, and Chris Beatrice, Mal Cotton, and JJ Kelleher are assistants.
The Bulldogs, who finished last season 21-3 and earned a spot in the Division 3 semifinals, are built around four-year starter Maggie Elie.
“She’ll be surrounded by a bunch of hungry underclassmen who will shape the program for the next few years,” Newcomb said.
Rockland will miss Zariah Ottley, who transferred to South Shore Christian Academy.
▪ Bishop Fenwick, after falling by four points to St. Mary’s in the Division 3 state final, is adjusting knowing it won’t be eligible for the postseason this year.
American University-bound standout Cecilia Kay will lead the way, and Tess Keenan, Kate McPhail, Caitlin Boyle, and Celia Neilson are all in the mix.
“Fenwick’s administration shouldn’t have done what they did, and the MIAA’s punishment is way over the top,” coach Adam DeBaggis said. “Both are true. Because of that, our team and many others won’t have a chance to compete for a state championship. Doesn’t make sense, and anyone with two working eyes can see that. That being said, we’re not going to play victims. We’re just going to be the best we can be.”
Trevor Hass contributed to this story.
Ethan Fuller can be reached at email@example.com.