As the New Year comes around, I wanted to take a look at how Division 1 is shaping up, and what to expect over the next three months.
We’ll start with the girls, as there should be a great fight for the title. There are about four or five teams I could see raising the trophy at WPI this year, as I think it will come down to Wachusett and Shepherd Hill – and I’m thinking the Rams and coach Jim Hackenson will come away with the title for the second year in a row.
Why? The Rams have started out 6-0 and have registered two big wins already – beating Holy Name, 60-34, and taking down Quaboag, 51-32. After the break, they take on Shrewsbury next Thursday and also have tough games on the horizon with SWCL foes Millbury, Northbridge and Tantasqua, while going up against Holy Name and Algonquin before the playoffs.
This is why the SWCL Central is going to be so big – because the Rams will be tested heading into the postseason. In the past, they really didn’t get a big push until the second or third round. Remember, a key story from last year’s run was it was the first time Shepherd Hill played well when it got to WPI. A lot of that had to do with playing a weak SWCL schedule and suddenly needing to ramp up their play to face Mid-Wach A teams in the postseason. Those Mid-Wach teams have already had 3-4 games against some quarterfinal-level opponents, so they were used to playing at a high level.
I really think that made a difference for Shepherd Hill. Now, with a relaxed league schedule (in the past, SWCL teams had to play their league twice, then one game against the other SWCL division, usually leaving teams two games to schedule non-league). Compound that fact with the Rams returning some spectacular players in Mary Barbale, Ali Tyburski and Megan Boutillette, well, they’re just going to be tough to overcome.
I think Wachusett should emerge from a BATTLE in the Mid-Wach A. The Mountaineers will be fighting with Algonquin, Leominster and Shrewsbury for the league title – and watch out for Milford. I think Bentley-bound Jacqui Brugliera will give a lot of teams fits – not too many opposing players match up with her size. Wachusett also has some solid players like Jackie Boffoli, Shannon Holt and Cheyene Jennings that compliment Brugliera, so if teams come in focused on stopping her, those three are capable of picking up the slack. The Mountaineers are 5-0 and just about to get into the league slate, so they should start to rack up the big wins.
Like I said earlier, there are plenty of teams out in Division 1 that I could see upending my two favorites and winding up with a new trophy. I think Algonquin could be one of those teams, as the Tomahawks have two great players in Sarah Dahlstrom and Sam Friday. Algonquin needs to play more consistent to hang with the big foes, as the Tomahawks are 4-2, but have lost to Holy Name (49-42) and Milford (63-48) in their last three games. They pulled out a win against Leominster (51-49) in between, and already have a 38-30 win over Westboro, so they can win the big games – they just need to keep that tempo.
Leominster has jumped out of the gate, as returning all-star Gina Angelini is one of those players that will deliver double-digit points every time she steps on the court. I also like Victoria Almeida and Brianna Martinez as players that will chip in each night. They have a coach who knows how to win in Kevin Grutchfield and the Blue Devils will be a team to watch this year. They’re 4-1, but their only loss was a 51-49 decision to Algonquin where the Tomahawks had some last-minute heroics to win it. They have an OT win over Doherty under their belts and with some strong games against Wachusett, Shrewsbury and Milford coming up, their situation bears watching.
I have Shrewsbury pegged as one of those teams that start out unimpressive – maybe like 6-4 in their first 10 games, but once their younger players get some time, watch out. The Colonials know how to win – they were in the D1 final last year – and they have great players like Allison Wood and Tory Benoit in the mix. They graduated some strong players, but once they get some younger players some reps they will be hanging with the rest of the pack in the Mid-Wach A.
St. Peter-Marian bears watching, as Ali Nalivaika is one of the best players around and the Guardians can surprise some people with a solid supporting cast in Tarisha Renaud, Lauren Barry and Rachel Kusz. SPM is 3-3, but those three losses were to good teams like Shrewsbury, Doherty and Wachusett. If they can learn to win those big games, they should be in that contender category.
Also, don’t sleep on Westboro. They aren’t as dominant as they were a few years ago, but they have some capable players like Maddie Fryer and Laura Murphy and they could pull off an upset or two in the postseason. The Rangers are 3-2, but their two losses have been to Algonquin (38-30) and Shrewsbury (43-40), so it’s not like they’re getting blown out. They also smoked Groton-Dunstable, 64-34, earlier this week – and I think the Crusaders are one of the best teams in D2. The Rangers are pulling it together faster than people think.
Two more sleeper teams for you – Doherty and Holy Name. The Highlanders have Kiesha Jones and Alayna White back, but they are in the same position as a SPM. They need to start beating those good teams (they are 3-2, but lost to Leominster and Wachusett) to be in that top tier of D1 teams.
Holy Name is 3-3, but their losses have come to Cardinal Spellman, Westboro and Shepherd Hill. Not too shabby. I refuse to count them out because they have (in my opinion) the best player in Central Mass. in point guard Anh-Dao Tran (bound for the University of New Haven next year). Tran is one of those players that make others around her better, and the Naps could be dangerous in the postseason.
Like I said earlier, Division 1 girls is going to be a dogfight this year. I would not be surprised in the least if the winner finishes with like five or six losses on the year. There’s a lot of parity this year and I think that will be reflected as the season goes on.