Gabriella Coppola laughed in disbelief as she spoke.
She was a member of the Watertown High varsity girls’ team three years ago as a freshman, when the Raiders lost half of their games by double-digits and routinely played in near-empty gyms. Now a senior point guard and the Middlesex League’s Freedom Division MVP, she recently helped the Raiders finish 19-1 and earn their first league title in more than 30 years.
“It feels unbelievable to say that we’re Middlesex League champs,” she said. “We’re all really proud of each other, but we know there’s more work to be done. We’re not about to let us winning the league get in the way of even bigger goals that we could accomplish.”
Everything changed for the program on the night of Jan. 7, 2011. In his first year as the team’s coach, Pat Ferdinand had watched the Raiders lose their fourth game out of five to start the season, and plans by the players to celebrate his birthday — freshman Francesca Korte had homemade cupcakes — were spoiled by an ugly defeat in Wakefield.
When the team arrived back at Watertown High, Ferdinand pulled aside the three freshmen on his varsity roster, turned on the lights over their home floor, and spoke to them at center court.
Coppola, Korte, and Casey Halle, all now senior captains, remember the talk vividly.
Ferdinand pointed to the red banners with white lettering hanging on the walls and told them that by the time they were seniors, they would hang one themselves.
“This isn’t going to happen for long,” Ferdinand told them that night. “There’s going to be a new norm. We’re going to change the program. But you’re going to have to make sacrifices, and you’re going to have to be committed.”
“We were little kids in this big varsity world,” Halle said, looking back. “But he said, ‘You guys are the ones that I’m going to trust with this. We need to be better than we were tonight.’ ”
“We were like, ‘Why are you telling us this? There are the [other] people on the team,’ ” Coppola said. “He said, ‘No, you guys are the pillars of the program.’ He calls us ‘pillars.’ He wanted us to hold up everybody else.”
“I really feel like after we had that conversation with Pat, it lit a fire under us,” Korte said. “We really haven’t looked back since.”
After finishing 7-14 that season, Watertown went 14-7 the following winter. Last year the Raiders accomplished their goal of hosting a tournament game, and then made it all the way to the Division 3 North final before falling to Pentucket Regional.
With the confidence of a lengthy playoff run spilling over into this season, the Raiders won all of their games save for a two-point loss to Wilmington last month.
Ferdinand’s deep roster and myriad lineup possibilities allow him to match up with a variety of opposing styles. He can feature a smaller lineup that highlights the talents of Coppola, Halle, Coppola’s junior sister Gianna, and Middlesex all-star sophomore forward Katelyn Rourke. If the Raiders need to highlight their size, they can turn to their two 6-foot-1 post players: the Wellesley College-bound Korte and freshman Middlesex all-star Shannon Murphy, as well as Korte’s sophomore sister Felicia .
Watertown’s versatility has helped keep the Raiders competitive, which has attracted fans to games in droves.
The days of wondering whether the Raiders would make the playoffs now seem to be long gone.
Now the question is, how many postseason games they will see.
“To go 19-1 and win a league title and put a banner up, it’s pretty phenomenal,” Ferdinand said. “Now where else can we go with the story? Is that it? Do we end with one game in the tournament or do we make a deep run? We’ll see.”
If its steady rise over the last four seasons is any indication, Watertown will be a team to watch in the upcoming MIAA tournament. Here are four more girls’ teams and five boys’ squads worthy of postseason attention.
►Arlington Catholic (16-3): The talented one-two punch of senior captain Maura Buckley and junior guard Emma Lutz helped the Cougars rip off seven wins in a row late in the season.
►Medfield (20-2): Coach Mark Nickerson has leaned on two 1,000-point scorers in point guard Lauren Petit and dynamic forward Kristin Fechtelkotter, as well as junior forward Peyton Ouimette (10.5 points per game, 8.7 rebounds per game), who took her game to another level during last year’s Division 2 state title run.
►Nashoba Regional (20-0): The Chieftains plowed through their regular-season schedule, winning games by an average margin of 19.5 points. An early rematch of last year’s championship game could be in the works now that Medfield has shifted from the South bracket to the Central.
►Newton North (18-3): With a suffocating defense that has been led by senior captains Infiniti Thomas-Waheed and Maddie Bledsoe , the Tigers will be a tough out in Division 1.
►Acton-Boxborough Regional (11-8): Led by a pair of Dual County League Large Division all-stars in the front court in seniors Nnamdi Udokwu and Alex Boyd , the Colonials have a paint presence that could cause mismatches in the tournament.
►Arlington (14-8): Junior guard Miles Robinson — co-MVP of Middlesex Liberty who has already committed to play soccer at Syracuse University — has been a double-double machine, and could help the Spy Ponders survive in the win-or-go-home format.
►Ashland (19-1): A 45-42 loss to Norton last week was the first of the season for the Clockers and could provide their undersized lineup extra motivation to make an extended run in the Division 3 postseason.
►Brookline (13-8): The Warriors have shown an ability to raise their level of play against strong opponents, beating Newton North twice this season and playing Franklin tightly in their season finale. Can they continue that trend in tournament play?
►Needham (17-4): With Ryan Charter and Matt Glenn on the perimeter and John Madsen (6-foot-7), Mike Elcock (6-3), and Cody Mosgrove (6-5) hitting the glass, the Rockets will look to stretch their season-ending 10-game winning streak into the MIAA postseason.Phil Perry can be reached at email@example.com.