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FCL title chases ready to begin

There were plenty of people making trips from the North Quabbin region to Amherst last March.

Athol High School and Mahar Regional School both advanced to the Western Mass. Division II girls’ basketball semifinals at Curry Hicks Cage. The Senators, who were the top seed after a 19-1 regular season, knocked off Easthampton High School and moved on to finals, while No. 6 Athol, which had been wearing Cinderella’s slipper to that point, dropped a 54-28 verdict to No. 2 Palmer High School. The Panthers — who were making their third straight trip to the finals and fourth in five years — beat Mahar 53-37 for their third title in the five-year stretch.

Athol and Mahar return most of the players that helped them get to the Cage, and they should again battle for the North as this year’s Franklin County League gets under way. The league actually opened Monday night when Mahar faced Mohawk Trail Regional High School in a rescheduled game.

Easthampton is also looking to build off last year’s trip to the Cage, and brings back one of the most unguardable players in the FCL in center Elizabeth Whitney. The Eagles shared the South title with Hopkins Academy last year, and both teams should be right back in the hunt.

Here’s a look at each team, beginning with the North, in the order in which they finished last season:

North

Mahar (21-2)

Just like its boys’ team, the Mahar girls had a successful 2011-12 season by advancing to the sectional final.

The Senators graduated their entire frontcourt of Courtney Croteau, Sabrina Lyesiuk and Sam Parker, but head coach Larry Fisher returns leading scorer Jill Valley and has a number of other players capable of filling in the holes, which gives Mahar a good chance to defend its North title and make another deep postseason run.

“We’ve got a good group with a lot of talent,” Fisher said, “and they’re hungry to get back to the Cage.”

Valley should be one of the premier players in the league, both in scoring and in handling the ball. The senior point guard averaged 17.7 points per game last season and can play both guard spots. Freshman Ally Parker also saw a lot of time as an eighth-grader and will start opposite Valley. Both players can bring the ball up the court and help create for other players on the court.

“We are fortunate that we’ve got some girls that can handle the ball,” Fisher said.

Senior Karissa Bardsley, junior Lyndsay Paluk and ninth-grader Kianna Whitmore are all newcomers who will see time at guard.

Taking the place of Parker (12 ppg) is junior Natasha Patria, who netted 6 points per game last year. She will be joined up front by senior forward Jenelle Juskiewicz (5.7) and by senior center Krystal Fredette (2.1). The remaining frontline players are all new to the team, with senior Chelsea Gaudette, juniors Brandy Castillo, Kayla Perea and Myra Johnson, and eighth-grade center Cassie Verheyen round out the team.

Athol (16-7)

Athol finally managed to exorcise the demons that had been advancing to play in Curry Hicks Cage.

The Red Raiders had been eliminated in their first postseason game during the past six WMass tournaments — three times at home by a lower-seeded squad. But last season ended the drought when Athol beat Southwick-Tolland Regional High School and then upset Drury High School, 33-25, to punch their ticket to Amherst.

Getting over that hurdle has head coach Dan Bevis excited for this winter.

“Last season was a great experience,” he began. “I think we learned a lot from that. And losing to Palmer has been a good motivational tool as we prepare for the season and it has built excitement.”

The other reason for excitement in Athol is because it returns nearly everyone from last season. The biggest returnee is senior Alexa Whitney (15 ppg), who can play both forward and center and has the ability to be an elite player.

“Alexa has the experience from starting on varsity for four years, and that can’t be said for many players,” Bevis explained. “She has tremendous leadership, works hard and has a knack for scoring. She’s really worked hard this offseason to become an even better basketball player, and I think she will be one of the best players not only in our league, but in western Mass.”

Senior Shelby Bronnes will likely start at the point and gives the team an outside threat after scoring 7 points per game last season. Sophomore Molly Cleveland returns as the shooting guard after averaging 8 points per game as a freshman, which could set her up for a breakout year. Senior Caitlin Muzzy (9 ppg) can play anywhere on the court and her versatility was huge last season. Sophomore Tanner Favreau (7 ppg) is another player who can play anywhere on the floor, from guard to center.

“I think the greatest thing a basketball player can be is versatile,” Bevis said. “We have a number of girls that are comfortable playing different roles.”

Senior Danielle Whitman and juniors Katie O’Neil and Olivia Smith are backup guards, while sophomores Nicole Guerin and Julia Salmond are reserve forwards who both saw their share of minutes last year.

Pioneer (6-14)

It’s not easy to play a full season with only six or seven players. Don’t believe it? Just ask Pioneer Valley Regional School how last season went.

Although they had talent, the Panthers’ lack of depth was a major issue against deeper, talented teams and opponents took advantage of Pioneer’s short bench and fatigue, especially late and in close games.

Pioneer now has a new head coach — Meg Lilly, a former All-League player and 2006 graduate of Mohawk Trail Regional High School, who played college basketball at Nichols College. She recently served as an assistant coach at Hampshire Regional High School for one season.

Lilly has some pieces coming back this season that could have the Panthers thinking about the postseason.

“We’ve got three or four girls that have actually been on a varsity team and have a lot of varsity experience,” she offered. “We are a young, athletic team. I’ve been handed a great group of girls; a smart group of girls, and I think we can be a real competitive team this year.”

Sophomore Natalie Hale had a productive season last year, averaging nearly 12 a per game, and can play either guard or forward. Classmate Hailey Raymond is also back as one of the starting guards. Seniors Kiley Hubbard (forward) and Sarah Shedd (guard) are the other two returnees.

Juniors Jocelyn Peters and Carissa Weeks are both vying for time at guard, but the guard position is crowded. Lilly also has newcomers Josalyn Carney-Podolski (sophomore), Katlyn Grover (freshman) and Madeleine Scott (freshmen) contending for backcourt minutes.

Freshman Alyssa Llewelyn is also a newcomer who will see time as a forward.

Mohawk (4-16)

Mohawk Trail Regional High School finds itself in the same unenviable position that Pioneer faced last year.

The Warriors currently have of just eight players — four seniors and four sophomores — after five players graduated and three others were lost to school choice.

That leaves head coach Chuck Miner with just two remaining starters from last season and needing his players to play heavy minutes.

Senior center Danielle Hartnett (3.9 ppg) is the top returnee in terms of scoring from a year ago. Joining her as a returning starter is classmate Hannah Finck, who can play anywhere on the court and may be asked to bring the ball up the court this season. Senior Elizabeth Porter is the only other returning player to the team and she will play forward this season.

Guard Jen Dawson is the fourth senior on the squad, and she will be joined in the backcourt by sophomores Blaze Petco-Sands and Caity Wilkins. Sophomores Laura Ward and Makayla Hicks round out the team and can play both forward and center.

“We are a very young team, but I’ve been very impressed with them,” Miner said. “I think we should compete. We have to stay out of foul trouble. It might be rough a little early on, but once we get some games under our belts, I think we will be just fine.”

Turners Falls (4-16)

Ted Wilcox left Smith Academy after last season to accept the job coaching his hometown team.

Wilcox takes over an Indians’ program that has been mired in a prolonged slump for close to two decades.

Turners’ four-win campaign last spring extended its string of consecutive years of missing the tournament to 18. In that time, the Indians have gone 54-303, an average of only three wins per season. The four wins last year were the second-most for Turners in a decade.

If the Indians are going to get back to the postseason on a consistent basis, it is likely going to take an effort at the youth level. However, the team does have some skilled players who could make things interesting in the Powertown, and a 20-point road win at Southwick in their opener on Friday can only help build confidence.

Wilcox said that while it may take some time for the team to learn his system, his players have focused on doing just that.

“They’re used to a different system and we all know it’s hard to learn a new system,” Wilcox offered. “They’re working hard, though, and they’re starting to get it. The more we can run the plays, the sooner they will get to learn all the nuances.

Freshman Jenna Putala led the team in scoring last season (7.3 ppg) and she returns to a guard position. She will be joined in the backcourt by senior Katelyn Dodge (4 ppg). Senior Hailey Peterson is a newcomer who will also see time at guard. Wilcox said that all three are good outside shooters.

Senior Tanisha Sanders had a strong season last year and averaged 4.4 points per game, second on the team. Also returning up front are seniors CeCe Campbell and Brittany York.

Senior Summer Forcier and sophomore Amber Caouette are both newcomers up front.

South

Hopkins (15-7)

The Golden Hawks return their top three scorers as they attempt to win the outright South Division crown.

Olivia Mathieu (14.8 ppg), who enters the season with 792 career points, returns after suffering a knee injury during a first-round WMass tournament game against Smith Academy. The injury kept Mathieu on the sidelines for eight months, including the entire fall sports season.

The other returning scoring leaders are twin sisters Kate and Mackenzie Sullivan, just sophomores. Kate averaged 12.8 points per game, while Mackenzie followed at 8.2.

Junior Madi Stevens (6.2) is another scoring option for Hopkins, and classmate Nicole Morrison, a forward, is the other veteran returnee for the Golden Hawks.

Newcomers to this year’s team are senior forward Celeste Beaulieu, junior guards Lacey Waskiewicz and Kayle Jacque and junior forwards Kari Cristoforo and Kyra Michalak.

Easthampton (18-5)

The Eagles are expected to contend again for the South with the return of Whitney, their top scorer and a defensive nightmare.

Whitney, a senior, dumped in 17.6 points per outing last year and needs just 76 points to reach 1,000 for her career. She’s also looking to establish herself as one of the top post players in Western Mass.

The Eagles also have a slew of returning talent, including senior small forward Kelly Avard, guard Rachel Connell, and forward Abby Edgin. Avard averaged 4.6 points last season, but will be a nice complement to Whitney. Those who will figure into the rotation are junior forwards Ashley Sharp and Courtney Nelson-DeNucci and junior guard Kristen Windoloski.

Newcomers to the varsity include junior forwards Tierney George and Ali Otis and sophomore guard Ashley Reardon, as well as freshmen Niki Lewandowski (forward) and Courtney Urban (guard).

Frontier (11-10)

After struggling to win any games five years ago, Frontier has put together three straight tournament-qualifying seasons.

The Red Hawks got back to respectability under coach Ralph Loos, who demanded that his teams play strong defense, sometimes at the cost of big offensive numbers. It was a successful style that led the Hawks to go 59-21 in the past four regular seasons. Unfortunately, it did not translate into postseason success, as Frontier went 0-4 in those four years.

Frontier welcomes a new coach this season in Frank Keimig, who has been the junior varsity coach for the past six seasons. Keimig said he expects the Red Hawks to continue their strong defensive play again this season.

“Our strong point is once again going to be our defense,” he began. “I expect it to be at the same level it has been.”

Keimig is greeted with a number of returnees from a team that went 11-9 last season and suffered a 44-30 first-round loss in the Division II playoffs to Belchertown High School. He said that he believes there are some things his squad can do better this season to help an offense that has struggled at times.

“We have to be a lot better from the foul line,” he explained. “That’s not a big basketball point, but that’s huge. And we’re a pretty athletic team. We have got to make use of that athleticism on offense.”

Senior Jordan Rowe will be a welcome returnee after she missed last season due to an injury. Rowe is likely to give the team a much-needed boost from one of the two guard spots. Classmate Sydney Judge is another option at guard after averaging 4.3 points per game last season. Freshman Jordyn Roberts is another strong guard that returns after playing in nearly every game as an eighth-grader.

Amanda Calvo is a junior that can play either guard or small forward and led the team in scoring last season with 8.5 points. Classmate Olivia Riordan was the second leading scorer (7.8) a season ago. Riordan can play anywhere from shooting guard to center and will be asked to do that again this season.

Senior Brice Gagnon joins juniors Mackenzie Clift and McKayla Poissant (from Mohawk) and freshman Mindy Esposito as reserve guards. Junior Katie Fournier, sophomores Camilla Baronas and Jackie Spencer, and 5-foot-11 freshman Katherine Miner will back up at forward and center.

Smith Academy (10-11)

Smith Academy has to fill a major hole as the teams leading scorer and 1000-point club member Alyssa Klepacki graduated last spring.

The Falcons were able to qualify for the WMass tournament last year behind the 16.4 points per game from Klepacki, but with the loss of its top scorer from a season ago, Smith has to find the answer to the question of who will provide the offense for this year’s team.

Junior Cassidy Snyder is expected to step up and fill a piece of the offensive void left by Klepacki. Last year as a sophomore, Snyder averaged 9.5 points for the Falcons and will have to improve on that number if Smith is going to qualify for postseason play for a fifth year in a row.

Fred Glanville will step in to coach the Falcons this season after Ted Wilcox left to coach Turners Falls. Glanville will inherit a very young squad as the Falcons only have one senior on the roster and six girls who are still in middle school.

The lone senior for the Falcons is guard Emi Barker and the only other returnee is freshman center Ashley Higgins. The lone junior is Snyder and the underclassmen include sophomore guard Kate Yagodzinski and sophomore center Katherine Hogan. The freshman class includes Rachel Newton, guard Moira Pitrat, and forward Kayla Miastowski, all of whom are expected to contribute at some point this season.

The list of middle school players who will see time for Smith will be eight-graders Olivia Shaw-Merrigan, forward Santana Dubois, and guard Olivia Cavanaugh. The three seventh-graders playing for the Falcons are guard Isabelle Duseau, guard Hannah Rickert, and forward Shannen Hogan.

Greenfield (0-20)

It has now been seven seasons since Greenfield High School has qualified for the postseason.

The Green Wave last participated in the tournament in 2005. Second-year coach John Hickey continues to try and help the Green Wave rebuild, and while the team might not be there yet, he said he has seen signs that the program is heading in the right direction.

“We had a summer league team for the first time in a long time and a couple of girls played AAU ball,” he said. “It’s a step in the right direction.”

The Green Wave may continue to struggle offensively this season as it does not return any player that averaged more than 5 points per game last season. Senior guard Tori Adams was second on the team in scoring last season with 4.1 points per game. She will be joined in the backcourt by classmate Siena Isotti who was third in scoring at 2.6 points per game. The third senior captain on the team is forward Aliona Olaru.

From there, the Green Wave will need to some players to step up this season. Freshman Kelsey Roberts can play guard or forward and is an athletic player, while forward Valenka Kosick is a sophomore forward that saw a lot of playing time in the second half of last season. Junior guard Erika Glabach played in every game last season, as did senior forward Sarah Wallitis.

Hickey has five more sophomores to round out the team: guards Alina Tahij, Lenna Tahij, Seaira Wolfe and Rachel Lapointe join forward Chelsey Opalenik.

“I’m really happy in the way we’ve been practicing,” Hickey said. “They are improving. We still have a long way to go, but I know this group will keep working hard and we should improve every day.”

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