Warriors won a share of M.L. championship, their first league title since 1999
Published in the March 30, 2017 edition.
By DAN BYRNE
WAKEFIELD — The 2016-17 season was a banner year for Wakefield Memorial High School’s varsity girls’ basketball team. With a 12-4 league record and a 17-5 record overall, the Warriors were crowned league champions for the first time since 1999.
Head coach Meg O’Connell recently discuss the Warriors’ season. The season really got off to a flying start with O’Connell’s team winning its first six games.
“I think there was a lot of anticipation coming into this season with a lot of kids coming back,” the coach said.
In the first game the Warriors secured a one-point win over Lexington at home in the season opener. Next, was a three point win over Reading in game two. The Warriors moved to 3-0 with a dominant 48-26 win over Arlington then an even more impressive 52-22 win over Georgetown followed by a 53-22 win over the same team two days later.
As the New Year rolled in the wins kept coming as the Warriors notched a 48-32 win over Stoneham.
“What was nice to see, was the kids build a lot of confidence,” O’Connell said. “To win our first six games was just exciting.”
It wasn’t until they faced Wilmington at home on Jan. 6 that the Warriors picked up their first loss of the season, but they bounced back.
Four days later, they were back on the floor, this time in Melrose to face their rivals. The Warriors were able to get the better of the Red Raiders by five points at 53-48.
The next game was on the road at Burlington and it was the first of two games where the Warriors walked off winners with a free-throw with no time on the clock. Senior captain Emma Butler crashed the boards and got to the line as time expired. She made the clutch free throw to give the Warriors a one-point win, 41-40, to move to 8-1 on the year.
The Warriors girls really started to turn heads after they came out on top in a hard fought contest on the road at Watertown in their next game. The three point win over the defending Middlesex League Freedom division champion Red Raiders proved that the Warriors were a force to be reckoned with in the M.L.
On Jan. 24, the Warriors moved to 10-1 with a 20 point win over Winchester. Over the next two games however, they hit a wall.
The Warriors lost consecutive games for the only time in the season on Jan. 27 and Jan. 31 in road efforts at Belmont and Woburn, the top two teams in the M.L. Liberty division.
“In the middle of the season we hit some road bumps, but in terms of just improving and learning from one game and moving on to the next was really fun to be a part of,” said the coach.
Wakefield got back on the winning track, taking its next four games over Stoneham, Wilmington, Melrose, and Burlington. The Melrose game was the second one point Wakefield had decided by a free throw as the Warriors prevailed, 51-50, as junior Olivia Dziadyk made the clutch foul shots to help Wakefield the game.
The Warriors closed the season out with a tough loss by one point at home to Watertown which resulted in Wakefield and Watertown sharing the M.L. Freedom division title. The Warriors could’ve won it outright with a victory.
Wakefield was invited to participate in the General Patton Tournament at Hamilton-Wenham Regional High School to conclude the regular season, something Coach O’Connell had never won.
In the first game Wakefield took down Tewksbury by three points, 48-45, to set up a matchup with host Hamilton-Wenham for the tourney title. When the dust settled, Wakefield triumphed by nine over the home team 55-46.
“We finished the season nicely, winning the Hamilton-Wenham tournament,” noted O’Connell. “That was the first one we’ve won, that was exciting. To come off winning the league for the first time in so many years, winning that tournament was a nice way to cap off a really good season.”
Wakefield clinched a first round bye in the state tournament, and by virtue of knocking off Wilmington, Tewksbury earned a chance to replay the Warriors. The rematch wasn’t as close, with Wakefield coming out on top by a 10 point margin, 53-43, in the quarterfinal contest.
The victory over Tewksbury set up a another rematch from a Patton Tourament participant with Hamilton-Wenham in the Div. 2 North semifinals. The game at Woburn High was a classic, with the Warriors going out in front early, but a late charge from the Gernals saw the Warriors’ postseason run come to a close with a one-point loss, 54-53.
“That type of loss, anytime you lose by one, anytime you lose by one in the tournament, it stings,” O’Connell admitted. “I told them, when you go home think about what a great season we had. None of us wanted it to end, just hold your head up high because we just have a lifetime of memories as a team. It stings as competitors but they know they gave a great effort against Hamilton Wenham and we just didn’t pull it out.”
When asked what made this team different this year, O’Connell said, “We try to focus on how we can be the best team we can be. When we’re at our best we have great ball movement, everyone touches the ball. We had great team chemistry and they were just a fun group to watch.”
The team was led by a trio of senior tri-captains with Brianna Smith, Julia Hanley, and Butler taking the reins.
“Brianna, Julia, and Emma are first and foremost great leaders by example,” O’Connell said. “They’re great student athletes, they work really hard, they’re very coachable. They’ll do anything anyone asks of them. Just who they are as people and what it means to be a student athlete at the high school, they’re incredibly coachable, hardworking kids,” the coach said.
The Warriors were led mainly by a strong core of juniors that Coach O’Connell relied heavily on and they came up big this season.
“The junior class this year really stepped up and it was great to see,” the coach said. “I would say that we have six juniors who are going to be seniors, and they’re just tremendous competitors. They love to compete night in and night out. I think what we saw this year from them was being a year older and having more experience.
“A lot of them played a lot the year before and I think they came back. Going from underclassmen to upperclassmen, they became a really competitive group in everything they do, multi-sport athletes, very competitive,” O’Connell added. “They bring the effort every night. I think that group has a lot of potential.”
O’Connell sees the example set by this year’s seniors having a lasting effect on the years to come.
“I think the seniors leave a legacy of a selfless team attitude. For the juniors and underclassmen to see that and be part of that is something that they’ll learn from and they’ll build on.”
One thing that stood out to coach O’Connell is the resiliency and toughness her team displayed.
“They’ve been successful in so many situations that they should gain confidence from that,” she said.
The one game that stood out as a turning point for coach O’Connell this year was the road trip to Watertown.
“They had been the league champs and gone to the Boston Garden and the state finals the last few years,” the coach remembered. “For us to walk into Watertown and knock them off. We hadn’t beaten Watertown in a number of years. I think for them, that was the moment when, at about the halfway point of the season, we knocked off that program that has been ahead of us, I think that gave them confidence moving forward.”
Finally Coach O’Connell had to give props to her staff.
“My assistant coaches don’t get as much credit publicly,” She said, “Jason Pavey, Fred Marshall, and Coach Q (freshman coach Rick Quattrocchi) are such a dedicated staff. Coach Pavey and Coach Marshall (the varsity assistant and JV coach, respectively) are two guys who are outstanding coaches. They could be head coaches in their own right. They make our team so much better. I’m just grateful for them and the work that they do.”
With an experienced nucleus of juniors and underclassmen ready to step up, expectations for the Warriors next season will be as high as they’ve ever been.