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A new look for FCL

The Franklin County League underwent realignment for the 2013-14 season and the impetus behind it all was to benefit all parties involved.

While the 10 girls’ basketball teams that make up the FCL North and South remained the same, the divisions swapped three teams each to create more competitive balance. Crossover games between the North and South no longer count, either; only the eight games between divisional foes count toward the respective championships.

The hope is that all 10 teams will benefit from the move, and early indications are that everybody is on board.

Athol High School, Frontier Regional School and Mahar Regional School are the local teams in the FCL North along with Easthampton High School and Hopkins Academy, and all five teams have been perennial tournament qualifiers in recent years. In addition to playing each other twice (home and away) during the regular season, they cross over for one game with the Central, which is made up of Hampshire Regional, Granby, Monson, Palmer and South Hadley high schools. North teams also play two or three games against teams from the South, then fill out their schedules with independent games.

Their hope, based on the new scheduling format, is to be better prepared for the Western Mass. tournament when they qualify. Of course, with a tougher schedule comes the possibility that a team that would have qualified under the previous format might not make it now.

Athol coach Dan Bevis said that getting a good team prepared for the tournament outweighs the risk of an average team not making it.

“I think it’s going to help the teams in our division,” he explained. “There’s no freebies in our division or in the Central. You might take more losses in a season, but the ultimate goal is to win in the tournament, and I think playing the tougher schedule is going to help.”

As for the FCL South, locals Greenfield High School, Mohawk Trail Regional High School, Pioneer Valley Regional School and Turners Falls High School are joined by Smith Academy. These five teams will play each other twice, then cross over with the new FCL East, a new division made up of Cathedral, Holyoke Catholic, McCann Technical, Southwick-Tolland and Ware high schools, as well as play the aforementioned two or three games against teams from the North and fill out their schedules with independents.

The end result is that not all the teams in the South will play their North counterparts every year (for example, Mahar will not play Turners Falls or Mohawk, after playing both teams twice a year in past seasons). While the North teams are seeking to be better prepared for a deep run in the tournament, South teams are looking to produce winning seasons as they try to rebuild their respective programs.

And then there is the matter of the MIAA adding a new Division IV sectional in Western Mass., and where the locals fall. Athol, Frontier, Greenfield and Mahar were aligned into Division III, while Mohawk, Pioneer and Turners Falls now belong to Division IV.

Here’s a team-by-team look at the FCL:

North

Athol (19-2)

It’s tough to call a 19-2 season a disappointment, but that may hold true for last winter’s Athol team.

After winning 19 games in the regular season, the Red Raiders entered the postseason as a favorite to not only get to Curry Hicks Cage in Amherst, but to possibly win a title. That all came crashing down in the Division II quarterfinals, however, when rival Mahar Regional School upset the Red Raiders in front of a packed house in the Tooltown. Coach Dan Bevis hopes that loss will serve as a motivator this season for those girls that return.

“Any time you win 19 games and end the season the way we did, you can call it disappointing,” Bevis said. “Not that the whole season was. We won 19 games. But the way it ended was not how we wanted it to go. I thought we lost our legs in the fourth quarter of that Mahar game, and we stressed to the girls coming back that we can no longer get tired in the fourth quarter.”

The Red Raiders are a vastly different looking team than a year ago. Their top three scorers — Alexa Whitney, Caitlin Muzzy and Shelby Bronnes — all graduated, leaving some holes to fill. Athol has no seniors this year, but it does bring back some talented juniors to lead the way.

Junior Molly Cleveland will take on a bigger role after scoring 6.9 points per game last winter. She also gives the team someone that can handle the ball. Classmate Tanner Favreau is the top returning scorer (7.5 ppg), and will play as a guard or small forward.

Kiki Guerin will slide into a starting role at power forward after averaging 4.6 points coming off the bench last season. She’ll certainly see her scoring pick up, as will junior center Julia Salmond, who saw plenty of time last year but usually gave way to Whitney in the low post. Those four will likely be joined in the starting rotation by sophomore Lindsey Hamlett (2.3 ppg), who will handle the point guard duties in an attempt to free up Cleveland to be more of a scorer.

Sophomore Emily Casella will serve as the backup center, while classmate Callie Jillson is a reserve guard. Freshmen Hope Parker (guard) and Julia Carey (forward) round out Athol’s bench.

Easthampton (15-6)

Teams can breath a sigh of relief when looking into the paint against Easthampton this season.

It has been a while since Elizabeth Whitney did not tower over opposing players near the hoop. The center graduated last year after another big season on both the offensive and defensive end.

The Eagles bring back some talent, but will have to change up their offensive style to account for the 20-plus points that Whitney took with her.

“I think everything changes because you don’t have automatic points inside,” Easthampton coach Jay Fortier said. “We are not starting from scratch, we just have to change our philosophy.”

Senior Ashley Sharpe will take over at center and will be joined up front by classmate Ali Dabek. Kristen Windoloski was among the elite 3-point shooters in western Mass. last season and she returns for her senior year, although getting her open shots may be more challenging without Whitney occupying two or three defenders. Sophomore Courtney Urban will start at the point. Coutrney Nelson is the fourth and final senior and will play multiple positions.

The junior class includes backup center Jordyn Burt, guards Mackenzie Raucher and Ashley Reardon, and forward Kate Parzych, while the sophomore class consists of forwards Gabby Downer and Niki Lewandowski, and guard Christie Dabek. Freshmen guards Madison Grabowski and Karina Volpe will also see time on varsity.

Frontier (11-10)

It’s certainly going to be a more challenging year for all teams in the FCL North, but that’s just fine with Frontier.

“An interesting statistic I got using the MassLive preseason top 20 is we play five of the top 16 teams,” Frontier coach Frank Keimig said. “It’s certainly going to be more challenging, but I’m pretty excited about it. I think we certainly need it come postseason. I know my seniors are excited about the challenge.”

Frontier should be able to compete with any of those teams with the numbers of experienced players coming back. Senior Amanda Calvo is among the top area scorers after she averaged 14.3 points per game last season.

“She’s got really strong offensive tools and I think she’s improved dramatically since last year,” Keimig said. “Our offense is not centered around any one individual, but Amanda will find her opportunities. I expect big things from her.”

Calvo plays the small forward, but is more of a third guard in the offense and can handle the ball as well as any player on the team. Olivia Riordan is the Hawks’ other main scorer. The senior forward averaged 7.5 points per game last season, second-best on the team. Junior Camilla Baronas is back at center and makes up for a lack of size with the kind of tenacity that helped her finish fifth on the team in scoring with nearly 5 points a game.

Sophomore Jordyn Roberts will handle the point guard duties, while classmate Mindy Esposito will play the shooting guard. Both saw limited time last winter. Sophomore Katt Miner is a player on the rise and is the tallest on the team at 5-foot-10. She will be among the first off the bench.

Senior Mackenzie Clift has made great strides in the past year and will be the backup point guard but should make a bigger impact on the team this season. Senior Katie Fournier and junior Hailey Oldford-Ostrowski are reserve centers, junior Kelly O’Neil is a backup guard/forward, freshman Helena Diaz will play forward, and freshman Olivia McCulloch will back up at guard.

Hopkins (13-9)

Sisters Kate and Mackenzie Sullivan highlight a Hopkins squad looking to get to the Cage this season. The Golden Hawks fell one win shy of that goal, losing to Granby in the Division III quarterfinals.

This winter, with a team that is among the more experienced in the league, the Hawks will try to make another run. The daunting task of playing in a tougher league stands in the way, but coach Fred Ciaglo isn’t concerned about it.

“We are embracing it and we are ready for it,” Ciaglo said of the schedule. “We’ve got to take it one game at a time. Our goal this year is to get to the Cage. We haven’t been there in a few years. With the schedule the way it is, we know we need to come to play night in, night out. If we lose one or two games in a row, we have to be able to pick ourselves up and move past it.”

The Sullivans, both juniors, will lead the team in the scoring department after Kate averaged around 13 a game last year, and Mackenzie averaged around 10. Kate sits just over 200 points shy of reaching 1,000 for her career, so it’s within reach this season.

Hopkins will also start three seniors. Forward Nicole Morrison should average between 6-8 points per game and will be called on to do a lot of other things, such as rebounding and setting screens. Lacey Waskiewicz is the starting point guard after coming off the bench last year, and Madi Stevens is a shooting guard with a strong outside shot.

The Hopkins bench includes senior Kayla Jacque (guard), junior Jaline Ruiz (guard), sophomore Katie Dunn (forward), freshman Ally Janks (forward) and eighth-grader Erin Tudryn, a point guard with a lot of upside.

Mahar (18-5)

Mahar may have come up short to Athol in the regular season last winter, but in the tournament, it got its revenge.

The Senators went 16-4 and finished one game behind their FCL North rival, but got their revenge with a come-from-behind 46-38 quarterfinal win to punch their second consecutive ticket to the Cage. Their season came to an end with a 57-37 semifinal loss to Hoosac Valley Regional High School.

If Mahar is going to make it three straight trips, it will have to find a way to make up for the loss of guard Jill Valley and her area-leading 18.4 points-per-game average.

The Senators will try to replace Valley by committee. Sophomore Ally Parker is already in her third varsity season and this could be the year she takes her game to the next level. Parker finished fourth on the team with 5.1 points per game last season. She will be called on to handle the ball more this season with Valley gone.

“I think she’s ready to step into her own,” Mahar coach Larry Fisher said.

Senior forward Natasha Patria is a matchup nightmare for most teams. Patria has the height to be a force in the paint, and the shot to make her a threat at the perimeter as she showed off in the Senators’ season-opener on Thursday, when she knocked down three 3-pointers. She finished second on the team in scoring at 10 points per game last season.

Another young up-and-comer is freshman center Cassie Verheyen, who finished with 5.1 points per game last season and had a big game against Athol in the postseason. She is a double-double threat every night. Senior Caitriona Cronin will start at a guard, and sophomore Keanna Whitmore is another potential starter at the forward.

Juniors Hannah Marshall (center) and Sydney Whitcomb (forward) will be two of the first players off the bench up front, while freshman Kadie Jillson will be the first guard off the bench. Seniors Kayla Perea (forward) and Brandy Castillo (center), and juniors Caitlin Gullage (forward) and Erin Robinson (center) round out the team.

“Our depth is a little bit of a question mark,” Fisher admitted. “I’m sure that a couple of the girls on the bench will step up and contribute, it’s just a matter of who right now.”

South

Greenfield (2-18)

It’s likely to be another tough year for Greenfield.

The Green Wave brings back little in the way of offense from a team that won just two games last season. The good news for third-year coach John Hickey is that the Wave has some young players breaking their way onto the varsity squad that give hope for the future.

Greenfield does not bring back a player that averaged more than two points per game, so it is going to need to have some players step up this season if it is going to add to last season’s win total.

Senior Erika Glabach is a guard that will likely lead the Wave in scoring and is among the most experienced players on the team. Junior forward Chelsey Opalenik is the only other player on the team to play on a consistent basis last winter.

There are five other juniors on the team in guards Alina Tahij, Lenna Tahij, Rachel Lapointe and Ceaira Wolfe, and forward Tiana Duggan, and each will see playing time. Sophomore Mirandah Coulombe is a new center on the team, while freshmen Molley Duclos (forward/center) and Grace Kennedy (guard/forward) are a pair of up-and-coming youngsters.

“We are very young and very inexperienced,” Hickey said. “The kids are working hard. This is my third year, and we’re ahead of the game at this point of the season in terms of basketball IQ. We just don’t have a lot of varsity experience.

“When I started, I gave myself five years to rebuild this program and this is the third year. We keep progressing. But to the point where we’ll win 14 or 15 games, we are not there yet.”

Mohawk (5-15)

Could this be the year Mohawk returns to the postseason?

The Warriors are one of the favorites to finish second in the South, which would put them in the playoffs. The last time Mohawk made the tournament, it went 18-2 in 2008-09. Since then, it has not won more than five games in a season.

The Warriors do not have a senior on the squad, but they do have a pair of talented returning juniors, including leading scorer Blaze Petko-Sands, a guard who is not afraid to shoot the ball. Petko-Sands scored over 7 points per game last winter and should see that number go up. Classmate Laura Ward is back to play the forward/center position and should see her scoring improve from 3.2 points per game last year. Those two are joined by the third junior on the team in Mackayla Hicks, who came off the bench last season.

From there, the Warriors will rely on six underclassmen. Sophomore guards Hope Lively and Sam Cairns each came up to varsity last season and got plenty of experience after beginning the season on junior varsity. Both should continue their growth. Classmate Maddie Roccio comes up from junior varsity to back up at forward. Freshmen Abbie Boswell and Hayley Lowell are reserve guards, and eighth-grader Emma Poplawski is someone to keep an eye on for the future and makes her varsity debut as a reserve forward/center.

“I have a very good group here,” fourth-year coach Chuck Miner said. “They are young, but they all want to be here and they’re working hard. I’ve got kids that are a lot quicker than what I’ve had. I can see us starting to be a more top-seeded team. If this group continues to play together, they can do some very good things.”

Pioneer (9-11)

One win.

That’s all that stood between Pioneer and the postseason last winter. The Panthers came up just short in their quest for a playoff berth after missing in 2011-12, but did improve upon their six-win season from the year before.

And with four of their five starters back, the Panthers are the favorite to win the South.

Pioneer may have the top scorer in the league in junior guard Natalie Hale, who finished second last year in area scoring (15.3 ppg).

“She had a great year last year, and I think this year she has even more support,” coach Meg Lilly said. “All the girls really came together towards the end of the year last year.”

Joining Hale in the starting rotation is sophomore guard Katlyn Grover, who was second on the team in scoring last season at 5.7 points per game. Freshman center Gabby Carpenter (4.6 ppg) returns after a strong eighth-grade season, as do junior guard Hailey Raymond (3.2)and junior forward Alyssa Llewelyn (3.0).

With everyone in the starting rotation having a year under their belts, Lilly believes the team can make strides.

“Sometimes our inexperience got to us down the wire in close games,” she said. “They were freshmen and sophomores last year. We’re still a young team, but we have more experience.”

Senior guards Jocelyn Peters and Carissa Weeks will come off the bench, while sophomore Mikaila French will come off the bench as a forward. Freshmen Logan Anderson (guard) and Caroline Merkle (forward) are both first-year players.

Smith Academy (4-16)

Another team looking to perhaps finish second in the South is Smith Academy.

The Falcons have several returnees who give them some experience, and a veteran coach in Fran LaFond, who returns to the team after a four-year stint from 1999-2003, which included winning a Western Mass. title.

Smith is still young, however, with no seniors on its roster. Katie Yagodzinski and Jen Adamites are the two juniors and captains on the team. Yagodzinski is a do-it-all type of player, while Adamites will handle the point guard duties. Sophomore Ashley Higgins returns and will play center, while classmate Kayla Mastkowski will back her up.

After that, it’s all freshmen and eighth-graders for LaFond. Freshmen Olivia Cavanaugh and Carly Pedruczny can play guard and small forward, while eighth-graders Hannah Rickert (guard/forward), Izzy Duseau (point guard) and Angie Tiwari (forward) will also see plenty of action.

“We are looking to improve every day,” LaFond said. “I am in teaching mode and they are sponges.”

Turners Falls (8-12)

Turners Falls made strides last year.

The Indians won their most games in over 10 years and came up just short in their quest to make the postseason. Unfortunately, they finished two wins shy of ending their postseason drought, which is now 19 years long.

Things will not get any easier this winter, as Turners lost a number of seniors and then had the bad luck of losing two of its top returnees to knee injuries in the fall. That included Jenna Putala, who led the Indians in scoring (10.8 ppg).

That leaves coach Ted Wilcox with a very inexperienced squad that includes four freshmen, including three who are slated to start. The most experienced returnee is junior forward Amber Caouette, who tied for fourth in scoring on the team last season at 4.1 points per game. She will be joined in the starting rotation by junior center Haleigh Bassett, who played sparingly last winter.

Aside from those two, no other players saw any varsity action last season. The three freshmen starters are point guard Wileshka Vega, shooting guard Alysha Wozniak and forward Michelle Leh. Jordyn Fiske is the fourth freshman and can play guard and small forward.

Junior Jade Linscott will serve as the backup center, while classmate Alex Wing-LaClaire is a backup guard. Sophomore Nadia Hasan is a reserve forward, as is classmate Jessica Loynd, who is out until January with an injury.

“Our goal is to come in second, but the good thing is, really the story is, we have eight eighth-graders on our junior varsity team and they are good,” Wilcox said. “And with the youth we have on our varsity team, the future looks great.”

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