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.
“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.