ACTON - Elizabeth Belanger often stays late after practice at Acton-Boxborough Regional High School to work on her game, but her session ended uncharacteristically early on Wednesday night.
It was a rare sight at the Colonials’ gym: Belanger sat on the baseline as her teammates ran through drills. She had Uggs on her feet, not basketball sneakers. Her right sock was off, her right ankle ready to be iced. She had tweaked her Achilles’ tendon and decided to pull out of practice.
“It’s nothing serious,’’ said Acton-Boxborough coach Kim Landry.
The smile on Belanger’s face said as much. She grinned and had no noticeable limp as she broke the team huddle at the end of the session.
The injury had been nagging since tryouts, but it didn’t prevent Belanger from playing, producing, when it mattered. In the season-opening game, she went off for 36 points and 19 rebounds in a 61-51 win over Newton South, a Dual County League Large Division foe.
“She has great mental toughness,’’ said Newton South coach Sam Doner, whose team beat the Colonials twice last season. “She’s a very unique player. She never shows emotion. She never gives up.’’
It’s how Belanger has played during entire high school career.
She was on the varsity as a freshman, and earned league MVP honors as a sophomore. Last season, she averaged 20.5 points, 11.4 rebounds and 2.7 steals per game, passed 1,000 career points, and carried the Colonials to the Division 1 North sectional finals at TD Garden, where the team lost to eventual state champion Andover.
This year, she wants more.
“We want to take it another step,’’ Belanger said. “We have a lot of confidence left over from last year. We definitely have a lot of work to do, but the Newton South game was a good start. It felt like we picked up from where we left off.’’
Her toughness - both mental and physical - was developed at home, playing games of one-on-one against her older brother PJ, who played football at Acton-Boxborough. Her grit combined with her refined skill set and high basketball IQ has turned her into one of the most difficult players to cover in the state.
Belanger has always been a scorer, and now, in her senior year, the points are expected to come in bunches. At 5 feet 10 inches, she is able to post up most defenders, but she’s also a threat from the outside. She can knock down a 3-point shot just as easily as she can drive the lane, absorb contact, and finish with a layup. She does it all while constantly facing two, and sometimes, three defenders.
Her skills, and her potential, landed her a scholarship at the University of New Hampshire next fall, and she’s still improving.
“This year she’s become a better defender and a better finisher around the rim,’’ Landry said. “And as great as she is, she’s unselfish with the basketball. She doesn’t have to take every shot.’’
She is eyeing a deep run in the MIAA tournament, but first things first: The first goal is a DCL Large title.
“I need to get one,’’ she said with a smile. But she knows she can’t do it alone.
Senior guard Abby O’Brien and senior forward Victoria Gomez help make up a deep roster that should be able to take some of the pressure off Belanger.
“I trust all my teammates so much,’’ Belanger said. “We played in the summer, and I played with some of them for an AAU team during the fall. We’ve been together so long, we know exactly where we’re going to be at all times.’’
Junior Sarah Smith, who started at the two guard last season, will run the point this year. The transition has been smooth, according to Smith, and made easier by the presence of Belanger.
“When the game is close and there’s a few seconds left, you definitely want to pass it to her,’’ Smith said. “And she’s just as nice as she is a good player. If you mess up she’s there to give you a high five. But if she has constructive criticism, she’ll let you know.’’
Belanger is the team’s lone captain, a role she relishes. She sat out the first five games last season after violating a Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association rule, but she said the entire experience helped her mature as a leader.
“That was the toughest time I had in high school,’’ Belanger said. “But I just tried to become a better practice player, and tried to give my teammates tips to help make them better.’’
Now she leads by example.
Whether it’s by taking extra shots after practice, or competing against the male players that Landry uses to make her practices more physically demanding, Belanger makes a statement every time on the floor.
“She has a lot of natural athletic ability, but she’s put the time in,’’ Landry said. “She’s really worked. She sets the tone because she works so hard on her game.’’