A banner over the entryway into the gymnasium at the Reading High fieldhouse states: “You cannot achieve perfection. If you chase it, you might just catch excellence.”
The welcoming quotation, often overlooked as students, fans, and players walk underneath, in reality serves as more of a warning: “Look out. You’re in Rocket territory now.”
With the return of talented senior guards Morgan O’Brien and Olivia Healy , the Reading High girls’ basketball team has its eye on perfection, and repeating as Division 2 state champs.
“With Morgan we were expected to go all the way again, to be the best team, to be perfect,” said Healy.
Before the first game of the season, however, O’Brien tore the anterior cruciate ligament in her left knee and was lost for the season. It was a crushing blow: the Assumption College recruit sank Scituate in last year’s state semifinals with a sizzling 33-point game at TD Garden, followed by a 16-point performance in the final against Tyngsborough.
Cue the Olivia Healy reel, and watch her put on a show.
In a scrimmage Tuesday afternoon, she showcased her vast skills in one 3-minute sequence. After winning the opening tap, Healy converted fancy layups, drove hard to the hole, drained 3-pointers and mid-range jumpers, hit tear-drop floaters, blocked shots in the paint, pocketed steals on the perimeter, dished assists from the point, and ripped down nearly every single rebound available.
Is there anything Healy can’t do?
“Not really,” said Reading coach Kim Penney, with a chuckle.
“I’ve never coached a player like her. In college she’ll be a 2 (guard), 3 (small forward), 4 (power forward), but in high school, she’s really a 1-2-3-4-5. She can play anywhere on the court, and will do anything for her team. She plays with both power and finesse, a rare combination. She’s a special player all around.”
Scott Hazelton , who has coached Healy the last three years with the AAU Rivals Basketball Club, said he has told college coaches that Healy can play any “position that wins basketball games, because she can and will do anything on the court to get you there.”
Her magnificent play this season in powering the Rockets to a 20-0 mark in the regular season — extending Reading’s winning streak to 45 games — has drawn comparisons to a pair of players who were dominant, Nicole Boudreau (Andover High) and Katie Zenevitch (Central Catholic), who are now teammates at Boston College.
Boudreau, the state’s two-time Gatorade Player of the Year, helped lead Andover to three consecutive Division 1 state titles, averaging 23 points, 8.6 rebounds, and 4 assists in her final season a year ago.
The 5-foot-10 Healy has put up 27.5 points, 11.5 rebounds, 5 assists, 4 steals, and 2 blocks per game. She torched Watertown for a school-record 42 points in a 56-39 win in February and went off for another 40 against Archbishop Williams in the Comcast Tournament.
Reading trailed by 12 at the half, but Healy poured in 27 second-half points to fuel a 73-69 comeback win.
“Trying to come up with a way to stop her is a coach’s nightmare,” said Archbishop Williams coach Jim Bancroft .
“She is one of the few players I have seen in Massachusetts girls’ basketball that is always focused, plays both ends of the court, and can carry a team when need be.”
Despite the loss of O’Brien, Reading (20-0) earned the No. 1 seed in the Division 2 North tournament and enters Sunday’s quarterfinal matchup against Burlington ready to repeat.
O’Brien, who has played with Healy since they were 7, has developed an even greater appreciation for her teammate after watching her from the sideline this season.
“If she wants to win a game, she’s going to take it into her own hands and she’s going to finish that game,” she said.
In O’Brien’s absence, Healy saw opportunity.
“I could either be selfish and do my own thing, or get the team together and make it a team experience and [win another championship]. I definitely stepped up my game,” Healy said.
While “it means a lot” to Healy to be mentioned in the same sentence as players such as Boudreau and Zenevitch, she does not forget her own development as a player.
A former ballerina, she credits 11 years of dancing to giving her the balance she needs on the court.
“I’m a little crazy on the court,” she said. “It taught me to relax.”
She’s also a student of the game, desperate to learn as much as she can.
Her normal Saturday routine consists of watching college basketball with her father, Tom, and studying coaches and teams such as Geno Auriemma and Connecticut.
Next season, Healy will play on a full scholarship at the University of Richmond, a Division 1 program just a few hours from her older brother, Christian, who plays at Gettysburg College.
For now though, Healy is focused on the task at hand: a second consecutive undefeated state championship season.
“We really had nothing to lose,” said Healy of the challenging task of tapping off the season minus O’Brien.
“This gave us a little chip on our shoulder, saying ‘we’re not perfect, but we’re going to try pretty hard to be.’ Not every play has been pretty, and we know that, but we play hard. We play for Morgan. We want this for her.”
In their quest for perfection, the Rockets have certainly caught excellence. Only five games stand between now and another perfect season.
Haverhill boys pull out Merrimack Valley win
In a matchup at third-seeded Westford Academy, the Haverhill High boys’ basketball team was on a mission. The Hillies finished the regular season at 11-9, but won the Merrimack Valley Conference Small Division.
Haverhill wasn’t given much of a shot against the Grey Ghosts (16-4), but converted nine of his 3-point shots and escaped with a riveting 62-59 win.
“We did not expect them to shoot the way they did,” Westford Academy coach Jim Bramanti said after the game. “They hit their shots when they needed to.”
Pat Bradley can be reached at email@example.com.