Playing in statewide tournament this year has inspired Mountaineers
Carl Setterlund | Correspondent
The Wachusett Regional girls’ basketball team is again working toward an undefeated regular season, but after last winter’s pod year, the Mountaineers finally have something familiar to compete for again — titles, only this time in the MIAA’s new statewide format.
Coach Jim Oxford’s squad was ready to build off last year’s 8-0 season, returning four of his five starters, while the new entry to the lineup, sophomore guard Mary Gibbons, led Central Mass. Division 1 players in scoring with 14.3 points per game and was named a Telegram & Gazette All-Star, along with teammate Charlotte Head.
“We have different goals when we start than a lot of schools do,” Oxford said. “The fact that we know we’re playing in a statewide tournament has really inspired them to keep working, so we don’t have a season that ends before we’re ready for it to end.”
Joining Gibbons and Head — a 5-foot-11 inside-out threat — in the starting five are ultra-reliable senior Jill Peto and juniors Kate King and Emmy Allen.
“It’s always a good thing when you can return so many starters. That helps with the continuity,” Oxford said. “I’m lucky with this group, because they’re serious about basketball. They play it year-round, and most of them want to play college basketball, so there’s a sense as a collective group that basketball is an important part of their lives.”
Gibbons (team-high 14.8 points per game) has continued to fill up the basket, while Head (11.4 ppg) and Peto (8.0 ppg) have provided steady contributions.
Meanwhile, the two junior starters, Allen (7.8 ppg) and King (6.8 ppg) are both ball movers. Oxford said King, a post player, can lead the team in assists on any given night, while he thinks Allen has developed into the best point guard in Central Mass.
“She’s getting to the point where I just let her make the calls offensively,” Oxford said. “She’s gone from a good point guard to a great one where she’s starting to recognize what the other team is doing and takes the initiative to get us into the right sets.”
The Mountaineers don’t just have continuity in the starting lineup, as 10 of the team’s 11 players were on varsity last year. The only one who wasn’t, 5-foot-10 sophomore Hannah Best (5.8 ppg), has been the team’s leading scorer off the bench.
“I did not expect her to jump into her sophomore season the way she has, but it’s been enormous,” Oxford said of Best’s big leap this season.
Juniors Logan Baker and Lizzy Majersky and senior Sarah Everidge also have contributed to the Mountaineers’ success, while another impressive sophomore, Rileigh Leary, has provided a boost since returning from injury.
Classmate Liz Cain, who started a couple of games as a freshman, is expected to return soon from an injury, giving Wachusett room to improve.
The Mountaineers notched an impressive 60-33 win last Wednesday over Natick High, which knocked them out in the CMass Division 1 semifinals in 2020, but Oxford said he was most impressed by a win back on Jan. 8 over Bishop Guertin of Nashua.
Bishop Guertin, who Oxford compared to a Division 3 college team, won five straight New Hampshire Division 1 state titles from 2016-20 before falling in the 2021 state final.
Wachusett was tied with the Cardinals at halftime before outscoring them, 33-15, in the second half to pull away for a 50-32 victory.
“We’re very, very pleased and optimistic about where we are,” Oxford said. “When we beat Bishop Guertin at Emmanuel College, I think that’s when I became convinced that this is a very, very good basketball team. That was a very good win.”
The Mountaineers have beaten every opponent by double digits this season, but still have tough games left against Concord-Carlisle (twice) and Westford Academy.
Wachusett already has shown it can handle the best team in New Hampshire, and now this year’s new statewide tournament will give Oxford’s latest group of standouts a chance to show what they can do against the other top teams in Massachusetts.
—Contact Carl Setterlund at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tgsports.