Marauders Sets Sight on North Championship vs Rival Watertown

Photo: Head Coach Melissa Hart at practice.

During a short break at Thursday’s practice, Belmont High Girls’ Basketball Head Coach Melissa Hart points to a team title banner high on the wall of the Wenner Field House, as her team searched for the last time the girls won a sectional championship.

“State Championship Girls Soccer” the banner reads. Hart knows it’s up there because she was the team’s goalkeeper.

“And we also started against Marblehead,” said Hart, referring to the first playoff game her team won, just like the team she now coaches.

Soon afterwards, it was back to practice: running plays, three-on-three full court games, and running “suicides.” The drills have a lighthearted feel as the girls demonstrate a comfortable comradery found on teams with a special chemistry.

After practice ended, Hart looked back at the wall.

“I want these girls to have a banner up there,” she said,

That wish continues on Saturday night, March 12, at 7 p.m. at the Woburn High School gym when Hart’s Marauders will battle traditional and historic rival, neighboring Watertown High School for the Division 2 North championship which the Raiders won last year.

The road to the championships has been a thriller as the 10th-ranked Marauders have upset the 7th (Marblehead), 3rd (Arlington Catholic) and the 2nd (Newburyport) seeds, twice on the road and the last game on a neutral site. It’s a run that many outside of Belmont didn’t really see happening coming into the tournament at 11-9, having badly stumbled in the middle of the season.

But over the final two weeks of the regular season and during this run, the team has begun to come together, working confidently on both sides of the ball. Unlike earlier in the season, including it league game with Watertown, the girls are unlikely to panic or play scared when pressured by good players and teams.

In each of its playoff games, Belmont has faced deficits – in the last two, falling behind in the second half – only to continue to play their game and pull the game out.

“The girls have the confidence now that they are as good as they are,” said Hart. “They know they’re good enough. They’re in a good place,” said Hart.

Hart said the familiarity of Belmont with Watertown – the squads are in the Middlesex League and many of the players are on the same or rival AAU teams – takes away the element of surprise when approaching the game as a coach.

“It’s basically the same team they had last year,” said Hart, referring to last year’s sectional semifinals in which Belmont could not overcome a double-digit shortfall to fall 49-40.

“We’ve seen plenty of [Watertown]. We know what they have and they know us to a certain extent,” said Hart.

Watertown’s All-Star Junior Center Shannon Murphy usually leads the scoring. Other big contributors are senior forwards Katelyn Rourke and Felicia Korte – who is also a good defender – and senior guard Nicole Lanzo. Senior point guard Michaela Antonellis brings up the ball and plays tough D, as she did in the Raiders’ semifinal win against Triton.

“[Watertown has] got good players like  Antonellis. They’re tough. Their two posts (Murphy and Rourke) are tough and they are legitimate threats.”

“But we’ve seen a lot of great posts in the last week and a half, a lot of big girls who are all-stars. We were able to stop them from hurting us. We know what to do,” said Hart.

Belmont’s heart and soul is its three senior co-captains – Sarah Stewart who takes on the center or tall forward, Samari Winklaar who led Belmont in scoring against AC and Irini Nikolaidis who hit five straight free throws in the final two minutes vs Newburyport.

The Marauders is also a young squad. The point guard is sophomore all-star Carly Christofori who works with sophomore Jenny Call in the back court. First off the bench are freshmen who in the past two weeks have become steady contributors: guard Meghan Tan and center Jess Giorgio who is becoming a real stopper down low. There could be times when Belmont will have three sophomores and two freshman on the floor.
Watertown Head Coach Patrick Ferdinand told the Watertown News that “Belmont, [has] a lot of good basketball kids out there. The coach, Melissa, is extremely smart and they work really, really hard.”
The Raiders will not come into the game expecting a repeat of the past two games against the Marauders.
“It doesn’t matter (what happened in the first game). It’s 0-0. We don’t look at what happened before. We just look at some stuff that happened that game how we can fix it or go off it,” said Ferdinand.
 Hart believes that Watertown will enter the game with a positive outlook to the contest due to its past success in the tournament including last year’s trip to the state semifinals and a 23-1 record.

“Watertown has built confidence over their years of success,” said Hart, noting it’s Watertown’s fourth time in the North finals.

“When teams win a lot they expect it a little more. That’s how [Watertown] carries themselves,” she said.

Hart said Belmont is beginning to feel that same self-assurance during its impressive three-game run.

“And now our girls are starting to realize that they can carry themselves that way too,” said Hart.

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Sports: Upset-Minded Belmont Football Falls to Final Minute Watertown FG, 24-22

Photo: Belmont RB Ben Jones runs through a wide opening in the line to score late in the fourth quarter against Watertown.

In what will be remembered as an epic Thanksgiving Day clash, Belmont’s bid for a memorable upset of arch rivals and host Watertown was derailed by the foot of sophomore Conor Kennelly as the Raiders’ kicker hit a field goal from 35 yards out with 56 seconds remaining to give Watertown a 24-22 victory over the Mauraders on Thursday, Nov. 26 at Victory Field.

“We played a great football game, all aspects of it. Our coaches did a tremendous job, planning it up for them. I was really proud of the effort we put forth in this game,” said Belmont Head Coach Yann Kuman, who fought off his emotions to reach out to his players.

“I hope that we sent a message to people in general that Belmont football is on the rise and Belmont football is here to stay. Get ready for us because we’re going to lick our wounds and in a month we will be back in the weight room getting ready for 2016,” said Kuman.

Calling his team’s performance Thursday, “the season’s most complete game from both sides of ball,” Kuman said the players and coaches stayed with the plans mapped out in the past two weeks in preparation for Watertown’s rushing attack and strong defensive line

“We stuck with [our plan] even though we had some execution problems in the first quarter of defense, we didn’t abandon what we practiced and prepared for,” Kuman said. 

But for the fourth time in time this season, Belmont could not find a way to score or hold the lead at the end of the game.

“We have to be like the experience teams and know how to close out a game,” said Kuman.

One of Belmont’s season-long bugaboos raised its head once again as Watertown quickly marched down the field – aided by four offsides penalties against the Marauders – towards a go-ahead score. But Belmont’s interior defensive line spearheaded by senior Justin Aroyan and stopped Watertown’s running game inside the 5-yard line.

“The guys did a lot of work this week, and the coaches put in a lot of hours on the grease board and we came up with a good package,” said Kuman.

“We had faith in the guys in doing the job, and they did it,” he said., 

On his first passing attempt, Watertown junior QB Deon Smith threw the ball into the arms of junior Marauder defensive back Kevin Martin in the end zone at 4:43 in the first quarter.

After gaining a first down, Belmont’s drive stalled and on the subsequent punt attempt, the ball sailed over punter Aidan Cadogan’s head. When all was said and done, Watertown had the ball on the Marauders’ 19 when on their first play, Watertown’s Smith juked down the right side 19 yards for the opening touchdown with 56 seconds left in the first quarter.

After the kickoff, Belmont kept the ball for nearly eight minutes, mixing short runs by senior Mehki Johnson – which Watertown successfully bottled up for most of the game – and junior Ben Jones and passing by junior QB Cal Christofori to senior WR Justin Wagner (including a six-yard pickup on fourth down and four yards at the 18 yard line) culminating in Christofori finding senior WR Joe Shaughnessy on a seven-yard slant for the game-tying touchdown at 4:07 to the half.

Watertown quickly went downfield – helped by a Smith 30-yard run – finishing with senior running back Kyle Foley scoring on a 7-yard run with 41 seconds left.

But that was enough time for Christofori to complete three passes and for Johnson to break a 30 yard gain that allowed Cadogan to hit a line-drive field goal with three seconds remaining to cut the halftime lead to 14-10.

Watertown caught a break when the third quarter pooch kickoff eluded Belmont’s return team, and the Raiders recovered the ball on the Belmont 22. A few plays later, the score was 21-10 as Foley ran the ball in from 2 yards out early in the third.

But Belmont would not fold, coming out with a masterpiece of a drive,a 19 play, 11-minute possession (including a 15-yard roughing the passing personal foul on the Raiders) in which Belmont, behind the ever-improving offensive line – sophomores Dennis Crowley and Ryan Noone along with seniors Chris Piccione, Lowell Haska and Aroyan – and the bruising blocking from sophomore fullback Adam Deese saw Jones and Johnson eat up yards while Christofori connected with his favorite target Wagner.

The Marauders took the ball 81 yards where Johnson busted through for his 22nd touchdown of the season to shrink the lead to 21-16 with 9-minutes remaining. While it appeared Johnson had scored on the two-point conversion, the referees said the Belmont runner’s knee had first hit the ground.

A good kickoff return by Watertown was negated by a 15-yard personal foul penalty, and Belmont’s defense stuffed the Raiders on three consecutive plays. On fourth down, Wagner used his basketball reach to block the Watertown punt, and Belmont recovered the ball on the Raiders 10-yard line. Two plays later, Jones scored on a 4-yard run with 6:05 remaining in the fourth quarter, giving Belmont a 22-21 lead after missing the two-point conversion.

Watertown had the ball on the Belmont 45 and nearly lost the ball on a fumble and a near interception. On fourth down and 4 yards at the 38, Smith’s pass was a poor one, and Belmont took over on downs with 3:56 to play and up by a point.

A Christofori sprint pass to Wagner and Deese run gave Belmont a first and ten at its 48-yard line with 2:56 remaining. It appeared Belmont had sealed the upset when Johnson sprinted to the Raiders 20-yard line with 2:39 left, but the Marauders were penalized for holding. Belmont punted with 1:39 left giving the Raiders the ball on its 19.

Some hard running by Smith and a timely pass to senior Tyler Poulin coupled with two near interceptions by Belmont where Watertown receivers had to play “defense” gave Kennelly the opportunity to play the hero of the day.

Watertown now leads the yearly contest 46-43-5.

Players and coaches were resolute in defeat, showing their disappointment but also congratulating each other for the season they completed.

“The big statement of this game would have been winning it. But we’re proud of what we accomplished. This was a program with one win in two seasons, and now we’ve won seven in two [years] and competitive in all but two games this season,” Kuman said.

“The only emotion I have right now is pride. I’m proud how the kids played this year, how the coaches led the players. We’re proud where we are and really proud of what we did,” he said.

Sports: Belmont Field Hockey Forces Watertown to Work for 150

Photo: Belmont’s stellar defense against Watertown.

Belmont High Field Hockey made Watertown work hard for this one.

The match played in Belmont Thursday night, Oct. 8, didn’t follow the oh-so-typical Watertown script in which the six-time consecutive Division 2 state champions score countless goals minutes after the opening whistle before handing the game off to the subs in the second half.

By the final horn with the Raiders up 4-0, Watertown’s starters were still on the field and, by their demeanour and body language, were glad the contest was finally over.

“I am so proud of you,” Belmont Head Coach Jessica Smith told her team after the game. “I was worried that we were g0ing to come here and flop. And you did not do that. You stood up strong, and you really made them work.”

The final tally sheet didn’t reflect the superb effort the Marauders 11 (9-2-0) left on the Harris Field pitch, forcing the 12-0 Raiders – which won its 150th consecutive game as it heads towards the national high school sports record of 154 – to earn each goal, battling through a “hold-on tight” marking defense that frustrated the Raiders in the first 30 minutes.

“Of course, I’d like the scoreboard to be the other way, but to play Watertown and make them sweat like that, I feel good about that,” said Smith.

“[Watertown] is an extremely strong team. It’s so well oiled; they have everyone in their position. If one misses, another is right behind them. And they are so fast, they never let you any space,” said Smith.

Watertown came out firing, sending eight shots on net against sophomore goaltender Christina McLeod, who Smith said played “out of her mind.”

“[McLeod] was the reason we were in this game,” said Smith.

“I was just afraid of letting a shot go in,” McLeod said of her performance.

Coming off a less than successful match against Wakefield in which it gave up three goals in a 9-3 win on Tuesday, the defense back line was stellar against the Raiders.

Facing an aggressive, quick squad which employed tactics such as multiple players crashing the goal mouth and deliberate “picks” of defenders, Belmont defenders – led by senior captain Serena Nalley and included converted wing Julia Lynch, Molly Thayer, Lilly Devitt and Molly Goldberg – kept the ball between them and the goal, stepping in front of passes and being general pests to the Raiders forwards and midfielders. 

“What a great job they did. They never let up during the entire game. That is the best team they will face now and in the tournament and they shut them down,” said Smith.

Some of the best action occurred when the team’s best players, Belmont’s AnnMarie Habelow and Watertown’s Kourtney Kennedy (both juniors who have already committed to play Division 1 field hockey for nationally-ranked teams), squared off against each other.

Belmont weathered the Watertown storm front for 23 minutes before a shot after a penalty corner – a bugaboo for the Marauders all season – saw Raider’s Michela Anotenellis score in close redirecting a Maddie Leitner pass.

Just a minute later, it appeared from the sideline that Belmont had scored off a tip by one of two Marauders at the goal mouth from a Habelow rocket shot from distance. After a few seconds of no call, the officials concluded that Habelow’s attempt was outside the 15-meter scoring circle.

Moments later Habelow got Belmont best chance of the half with a full-swing shot from 12 meters out which Watertown’s goalie Joanna Kennedy blocked with her right pad. 

At the half, Watertown had its slimmest lead of the season and the Marauders were in high spirits on the sidelines. 

“We just need one beautiful shot to tie this game,” said Smith.

At the start of the second 30 minutes, Belmont began pressing up the field. But after a failed penalty corner, Watertown commenced a fast counter attack that saw Raider Ally McCall bury a breakaway against McLeod four minutes into the match. 

Five minutes later, Watertown put the game away off another penalty corner as Maddie Leitner scored off a perfectly set-up shot.

“That was a frickin’ great goal. There was nothing McLeod could do about that,” said Smith.

Anotenellis finished off her brace and the scoring with 12 minutes left in the game.

Smith was philosophical after then game when talking to her team that handled the defeat matter-a-factly.

“I think a lot of it is that they have more veteran players. And some of our players were intimidated and maybe didn’t step up to the next level tonight. But in the future, they’ll be able to step forward,” said Smith.

“You know what, they’ll go win their championship, and we’ll go win ours,” Smith told the team. 

Belmont’s next match is a holiday matinee as they take on Arlington at Harris Field on Monday, Oct. 12. 

Belmont Girls’ Hoops Goes Out Fighting, 49-40, in Sectional Semis to Watertown

Photo: Senior Elena Bragg stares at the court after Belmont lost in the sectional semifinals to Watertown on Wednesday, March 4. 

They working themselves to exhaustion, physically and mentally, on that basketball court in Malden. The Belmont High School Girls’ Basketball team wanted this game against its arch-rivals, knowing to a player they were capable of pulling off the upset.

They put it all on the line.

It wasn’t enough.

When the buzzer sounded to announce Watertown High School’s 49-40 victory over Belmont in the Div. 2 North Sectional semifinals Wednesday night, March 4, the tears and emotion from the players who bonded throughout their successful season unashamedly came forth.

“I’m super proud of those girls. I can’t say enough about this team and how great they are. It’s just a shame that it’s over,” said a subdued Head Coach Melissa Hart, looking at her girls pulling their uniforms into their face, not to show how bad they felt.

“I think we left everything on the court, for sure,” said Sophia Eschenbach-Smith, one of the team’s co-captains.

“Yes, we came up short but we played our hearts out for every second of it, so none of us have any regrets how the game went,” she told the Belmontonian.

On this night, Watertown – undefeated, a number-one seed and a top-ten ranking in media polls for the entire season – made more plays and fewer mistakes against their neighbors, earning that trip to Lowell Saturday for the sectional finals against Pentucket Regional.

“Watertown, they made the plays, they made the shots. And we were just a little sloppy,” Hart said.

A major aim of Belmont’s game plan was to keep Watertown close, both in the score and physically, to hamper the high-powered offense that proved itself by sweeping through the season without a loss, including an opening game win against a much different, less put-together Belmont team.

On Wednesday, Watertown was successful with their “drive and dish” offense in which a Raider players would head for the basket, luring Marauders to her, when she would pass to an open player, with sophomore Shannon Murphy (10 points) or junior Katelyn Rourke (game high 15 point) mostly on the receiving end.

Nor was the level of officiating helping Belmont. While both teams play a physical game, and the Raiders are known for their ball hawking manner, the officials appeared to pay closer attention to incidental contact from the Marauders. Near the end of the first half, Belmont amassed nine fouls to Watertown’s two, a discrepancy noted by the large turnout of Belmont students who came to support their team.

Watertown played a crisper first half while Belmont found the going tough near the basket as Murphy swatted away a number of Marauder attempts. At the end of the first quarter, Belmont was looking up at a 7-point deficit, 11-4.

But the Marauders appeared to shake off their nervousness between quarters and came out a more confident crew, especially on offense. Senior Co-Captain Linda Herlihy (4 points, 5 rebounds, got things rolling with her patient hook shot off the glass. Junior Irini Nikolaidis (4 points, 5 steals) hit a jumper in the paint before freshman Jenny Call (5 points) knocked home an open 3 pointer to cut the lead to a deuce, 13-11, at the 6:30 mark.

Resting starters, Hart placed the game into the hands of three freshmen – Call, Carly Christofori (9 points) and Greta Propp – who kept the game close, and when Eschenbach-Smith hit a 3 pointer and Christofori put in one of two from the line, Belmont was within a bucket, 24-22, with 60 seconds remaining to play.

But in that final minute, the Raiders made the decisive move of the game, going on a 7-0 run – with baskets by sophomore Murphy and junior Michaela Antonellis (5 points, all in the first half) as well as a big 3 from senior Rachel Morris (her only basket of the game) – to shot the lead up to 9 at end the half, 31-22.

The third quarter was like trench warfare during World War I; no one was giving an inch as both defenses stiffened. After six minutes, a total of 7 points (five for Watertown, two for Belmont) was scored before the Raiders punched home two buckets off  “drive and dish” moves to lead by 13, 38-25, with eight minutes remaining.

With the exception of the second quarter, the anticipated Belmont surge – an explosion of points that put away opponents for the entire season – had not materialized, and with less than four minutes remaining, Belmont trailed Watertown, 44-29.

Then finally, it appeared. The final push from the Marauders came in the guise of an 11-2 run, all within two minutes. A pair of Christofori free throws, Eschenbach-Smith’s second 3 pointer and a pair of free throws got the score within 10 points before senior captain Elena Bragg (6 points, 2 rebounds, 2 assists) put her stamp on things.

Bragg – who is looking to play in a Division 3 college program in Boston next year – took a pass from Eschenbach-Smith for a layup, then immediately stole the ball and proceeded to throw up an over-the-shoulder, running prayer that was answered. The improbable basket brought the Marauders’ within six points with 59 second remaining, sending the Belmont fan base roaring and Herlihy calling out supporters to become even louder.

But that was a close as Belmont could get as Watertown settled down and spread the court, forcing Belmont to foul and sending them to the line.

At the buzzer, seniors sought each other while some of the younger players looked a bit in awe after seeing the emotion and grit spent Wednesday night.

Outside the locker room, parents and friends waited to greet their loved ones, to brush away tears and applaud the team one final time.

“We all came out with such high intensity from everyone,” said Herlihy. “The girls who don’t play that much, they were on their feet, ready to go come out and play.”

“I love this team, honestly, and I hate to see it end, but we had an amazing season. I’ll miss everyone so much,” she said.





Sports: Boys’ Basketball Drains Watertown in Opener, 66-49

Photo: Belmont’s senior swingman Seth Altman driving for two of his 12 points in the season opener with Watertown.

At the end of the first quarter, the score in the opening game of the 2014-15 Belmont High Boys’ basketball season: Watertown, 16; Adam Kleckner, 8.

Without the talented senior center and co-captain playing is “A” game in the first eight minutes of the game, Belmont – which many sports observers believe the team could have a long run in the playoffs in March – was not prepared for a hustling and cocky Raiders’ team playing at home.

“Kleckner (a game-high 23 points and about the same number of rebounds) is a very talented player who can shot threes and play the outside but he’s very tough under the basket and the free throws proved it,” said Belmont’s long-time Head Coach Adam Pritchard.

In fact, Belmont clearly stumbled out to the gate, missing shots and not quite handling the Watertown defense.

“Watertown has a good basketball team with two kids who can really shoot the ball,” said Pritchard of junior guard Brendan Hoban (13 points) and senior Mike Hagopian (18 points).

“We were a little bit tentative offensively,” he said, as Belmont seemingly couldn’t find an open shot in the first 10 minutes of the game as Watertown twice took an 11 point lead (20-9 and 22-11) two minutes into the second quarter.

Seeking to spark up the offense, Pritchard substituted in senior Seth Altman (12 points) and junior Cole Bartels (6 points) which paid off when Altman swept in on a drive to score his first varsity hoop to cut the deficit to seven (22-15). And despite back-to-back sequences where Belmont players couldn’t put in four under-the-basket “bunnies,” the tide began turning in the Marauders’ favor with the Marauders

“I have to say, having [Seth] Altman coming into the game and knocking down threes and Cole [Bartels] to hit shots makes us a very potent team,” he said as the team trailed by three at the half, 26-23.

With a shaky first half in the rearview mirror, Belmont’s starters stepped up the pressure on Watertown while some old friends, the backcourt duo of co-captains senior Ben Lazenby (4 points) and junior Matt Kerans (15 points), returned to their “slash and burn” ways – quick moves to the basket or long-range shots – as they partnered for four and nine points respectively.

A 39-38 deficit flipped to a two-point lead after Kerans buried three free throws (he was fouled throwing up a trey) with 56 seconds remaining and then saw his bomb hit the front of the rim before falling in to give him six points in the final 50 seconds and Belmont the lead for good at 44-39.

“We did a much better job defensively in the second half. It just took a little bit to lock down our defense on them,” said Pritchard.

When Watertown crept close at 47-44, Altman banged in the first of two threes that Bartels matched in the final quarter as Belmont outscored the Raiders 43 to 23 to win the opener, 66-49.

“We got off to a slow start, but we had a great comeback,” said Altman who Pritchard views as the team’s “swing” man.

“It’s the other guys that make it easy. I’m just doing the simple job taking the shots,” he said.

Belmont Baseball, Softball Sweep Watertown in League Openers

The wind was howling out of the northwest Wednesday, April 9; it was not a day that a home run was going to decide the games at the softball and at Brendan Grant Field at Belmont High School as the school’s softball and baseball teams got their Middlesex League seasons underway against arch rivals Watertown High.

But the Belmont teams didn’t need the long ball as both squads saw their lead pitchers make opening day statements as the Marauders swept the visiting Raiders.

Senior co-captain Brendan Shea gave up a single run to the Raiders as his teammates made Watertown pay for some sloppy early season play to win 7-1. The southpaw, who has signed a letter of intent to play for Div. 1 UMass-Lowell next year, struck out 11 while limiting Watertown to a handful of hits.

“[Shea]’s our number one and pitched out of a couple of tight spots. He’s a gamer and that’s why he’s a scholarship player,” said Head Coach Jim Brown.

Belmont scored four runs in the first three innings on a single hit – a single by sophomore shortstop Cole Bartels –  capitalizing on four miscues by the Raiders. That was more than enough support for Shea who got out of a fifth-inning bases loaded, no out jam with a strike out and a double play created by a base-running mistake by a Watertown player.

“We did some small ball stuff but could have done a little better in our execution. That’s how we are going to win this year, with bunting players over and sac flies,” said Brown.

Over at softball, a very familiar athlete was having her way with the Raiders; senior pitcher Kendel Brown – the stellar defender on both field hockey and Girls’ ice hockey – simply kept Watertown batters off balance while the Marauders’ batters had a field day as Belmont swamped the visitors, 22-4, in a shortened five-inning game.

“We had played one non-league game before this (a 16-2 loss to Cambridge Rindge and Latin) and we weren’t ready having only been outside twice before that game,” said first-year coach Steve Price.

“But I had a good feeling coming into this game after a week of practice and we had our line up ready to go today,” he said.

On the offensive end, sophomore shortstop Julia Rifkin had an inside-the-park home run and batted strongly during each at bat as did senior Micaela McKay and sophomore Lia Muckjian had a pair of hits.

“Really, the entire line up swung the bat very well today as evident by the score,” said Price.

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