BRAINTREE — Maura Buckley and her Arlington Catholic teammates huddled in front of their bench as the cramped gymnasium at Archbishop Williams shook with noise before tip-off. The senior captain shouted over the din.
“I was pretty excited for this game so I guess I just kind of took over there a little bit,” Buckley said. “I don’t even remember what I said.”
Whatever it was, it worked.
The 5-foot-10 small forward scored 20 points and pulled down six rebounds in a 64-43 win over the Bishops Tuesday night, moving Arlington Catholic’s record to 11-3.
Buckley was forced to miss her team’s first 10 games of the season while she recovered from knee surgery, making the Catholic Central rivalry game just her fourth of the season. Yet by the time the Archies speakers blared to announce the starting lineups on Tuesday, she had clearly settled in to her on-the-floor leadership duties as though she had not missed any time.
And in a way, she had not. While the two-year captain could not play early in the season, she was a constant presence around the team, not missing a single practice or game.
“Mo’s influence was already there before she ever even stepped on the court,” Arlington Catholic coach Dave Brady said. “She was leading practice and drills and patting kids on the back and giving them tips. She was a coach on the court.”
‘We really want to work hard to get [to the state title game] again. It was just the best experience. I would love to do that again.’
Buckley, from Melrose, tore her ACL while playing in the Bay State Games on the Fourth of July weekend. Told she would be unable to return to game action for a minimum of six months after her July 24 surgery, she circled the Cougars’ Jan. 24 game at Austin Prep as her return date.
“I think I had it circled on everyone’s calendar,” Buckley said. “I made it pretty clear to everyone that that was going to be the day.”
She rehabbed for months at Excel Orthopaedic Specialists in Woburn and spent weeks slowly building herself up at practice, eventually going from spectator to full-contact participant.
In her first game back, Buckley’s family was present in the Austin Prep stands, as were many of her classmates. Her older sister Rachel , a senior on the AC team that won a Division 2 state title in 2011, brought cutouts of Maura’s face and handed them out to the crowd to be displayed whenever she scored.
Buckley’s return gives the team an all-around talent — she averaged 19 points, 11 rebounds, and five assists per game as a junior captain last season — who takes pressure off of the group that carried AC in her absence.
Guard Emma Lutz transferred from Lincoln-Sudbury for her junior year and gives Brady perhaps his best shooter on a team full of them. Against Archbishop Williams last week, she showed off a quick release and a textbook follow-through to lead the team with 22 points.
Junior point guard Melissa Rogers (Billerica) is a sharpshooter in her own right, while senior captain Presley Silva (Wilmington) and sophomore 6-2 center Demi Fogarty (Burlington) have controlled the paint for the Cougars. Off the bench, senior Jen Corso (Arlington) is a versatile defender who filled in as a starter with Buckley out.
“I think we’re actually still getting to know each other on the court,” said Lutz. “Mo is just getting back and we have five freshmen, too, so we’re all playing together for the first time. I think we can get even more comfortable communicating with each other and pushing each other.”
Buckley and senior cocaptain Ellen Coholan were both freshmen playing for the varsity team when Arlington Catholic captured its state championship three years ago. At the time, Buckley thought she might have the chance to make it back to the DCU Center multiple times.
In her sophomore season, the Cougars lost in the Division 2 North final. Last season, they fell in the sectional quarterfinals.
Now that Buckley is healthy and contributing to a team that still has room to grow, she said she hopes she will be able to make it back to Worcester in her final opportunity.
“Freshman year I was thinking of course I want to come back here every year,” she said. “It was awesome. It was kind of a reality shock sophomore year when we lost at the Tsongas [Center] and then last year was kind of tough. But I want to go back so bad. I think everyone on this team does. We really want to work hard to get there again. It was just the best experience. I would love to do that again.”
Needham boys get better game by game
When the Needham boys dropped their first game of the season to Wellesley, 63-28, the players did not panic.
Going into the holiday break, they had lost three of their first four games of the year. Still, there was no dreading what the winter might become.
Senior cocaptain Ryan Charter had articulated Needham’s only goal at a team dinner before the season.
“We just want to perform every night to the best of our ability,” coach Paul Liner remembered Charter saying, “and move on to the next night.”
With that game-by-game philosophy the Rockets (12-4) went on to win 11 of their next 12, placing them above teams like Brookline and Braintree in the competitive Bay State Carey.
It took a few weeks for the Rockets to get into basketball shape as each of their five starters played a fall sport. Charter was the quarterback of the football team and was a teammate on the gridiron with basketball cocaptain John Madsen and fellow seniors Mike Elcock and Cody Mosgrove. Senior point guard Matt Glenn , who played soccer in the fall, has rounded out the all-senior starting five.
With their basketball legs now under them, the Rockets use their length — Madsen (6-foot-7), Mosgrove (6-5), Elcock (6-3), and senior Jack Winston (6-5) — to their advantage on defense, holding opponents to a league-best 47.3 points per game.
Offensively, the Rockets run a new offense that emphasizes spacing and ball movement. Elcock leads the team with 9.5 points per game and Charter is right behind (9.2 points per game).
In a 56-41 win over Framingham last week, all 14 players on the roster scored.
“With a lot of teams you know who’s going to shoot the ball,” Liner said. “With our offense, nobody knows who's going to shoot, even myself. We might reverse the ball two or three times in a possession and get the best shot available. The kids have really embraced it. When everybody gets a touch, they really buy in. I think that’s the way kids want to play.”
It is a style that has helped Needham piece together a drastic turnaround and become one of the hottest teams in the state.Phil Perry can be reached at email@example.com.