MEGAN CASEY and the MHS girls’ hoop team are riding on a two game winning streak. They will celebrate Senior Night tonight. (Jennifer Gentile photo)
Back in win column after Wilmington & Arlington
By JENNIFER GENTILE
MELROSE—Over the last week, the Melrose High girls’ varsity basketball team was approaching a crucial stretch of their schedule with some “must win” games on tap to keep a playoff season alive. It was mission accomplished.
Melrose now enters the second half of the calendar on a two-game winning streak that has them back in business. With nine games to go (and a favorable power ranking of #21 in Div. 2), the forecast looks good.
Tonight they celebrate Senior Night, when they will honor their six seniors prior to the start of their Stoneham game at home at 7:00 p.m. And that will be all the more special because their upperclassmen have come through in recent efforts. Melrose first enjoyed a solid win over Wilmington at home on Friday, Jan. 20, by a score of 38-27. Then, they followed it up with a convincing victory over Middlesex Large team Arlington at home on Tuesday at the Melrose Middle School gym, 38-26.
Against the Wildcats last Friday at home, Melrose took an early and convincing lead, which began with Melrose starter Elaine Albuja helping to put Melrose up with a basket, and then a trey by senior capt. Sofia Smith, which made it 5-3 early. Senior captains Chloe Gentile and Megan Casey knocked two in to make it 9-3. A Smith shot increased the game to 11-3 at the end of the first and Melrose would take a 16-6 lead at halftime.
Chloe Gentile opened up the second half with two straight baskets and from there junior Lily Nolan put lots of pressure on Wilmington defense and forced two steals for layups to give Melrose a larger lead of 28-11. Senior captain Gia Vlajkovic had a solid fourth quarter with 3 baskets.
After the victory, Melrose followed that effort up with a defensive gem against Arlington. It was a balanced offensive output with Lily Nolan leading in offense with 9 points along with Chloe Gentile and Sofia Smith with 8 a piece. Shooters Megan Casey and Gia Vlajkovic both had 6.
Despite a slow start, Melrose rebounded at halftime with a 19-16 lead that they wouldn’t lose, thanks to a three pointer from Lily Nolan and a Megan Casey layup at the buzzer off a great feed from Alex Leeman.
Melrose defense shined in the second half with great pressure from guards Alex Leeman, Lily Nolan, and Elaine Albuja.
Melrose coach Bill Hirschfeld noted the shift. “We can score a lot of points on defense, and we create it when our offense is sluggish and I think that’s something we did after the first half when we couldn’t really get much going offensively,” he contends. “And we played a different game in the second half. An alarm bell went off.”
Megan Casey took to the foul line and made the Spy Ponders pay going 4-6 while also coming up big in rebounds. Gentile (over 10 rebounds) was brutal under the basket, giving Arlington nothing to work on the inside, while Vlajkovic had several blocks and senior Lily Kavanaugh used her speed to keep the ball out of Arlington’s hands in the final minutes. Leeman was especially strong over the night with a handful of key assists and solid passing. This is a player who is a welcome addition, notes Hirschfeld. “She’s a steady player that always knows where to be,” he says.
The wins put Melrose back on the straight path with their hardest part of their schedule over. In their opening weeks, they had misfortune of playing some of the strongest teams in the entire state, including unbeaten Woburn (9-0), Div. 1 standouts Lexington (9-2) and Belmont (9-3) and a powerful Wakefield (10-2). But that degree of difficulty is paying off. Because Melrose’s regular season is against difficult Div. 1 teams, Melrose is rewarded with a current #21 power ranking in all of Div. 2. All top 32 teams enter playoffs at the end of the season.
With 9 games left on the schedule and some considered winnable, it could be that Melrose will see a playoff bid for the first time in over 3 seasons. But first things first. The team needs to focus and fine tune their skills on the court.
Notes their coach, “This is a much-improved team from last year. We’ve limited turnovers and move the ball well. We’d like to focus on increasing our field goal average and take the shot when it’s there. The most important thing is consistency on both sides of the ball. We’re going to get out of our early-season hole—we have to, because really we got the brass (of the schedule) up front and hopefully we are going to stay on the winning side.”
Tonight, they get that chance against Stoneham on Senior Night. Action starts at 7:00 p.m.