Olivia Valente and No. 3 Saugus will host No. 6 Bishop Fenwick on Thursday night.
By MIKE ALONGI
The Saugus girls basketball team battled its way to a 16-6 record this season, earning the No. 3 seed in the MIAA Division 3 North tournament and a home game in the first round. But that first round game will be anything but easy, as the Sachems will take on the defending Division 3 state champion Bishop Fenwick Crusaders.
“They’re a model team for sure,” Saugus coach Mark Schruender said of Fenwick. “We saw their run last year and when we watched them play, our coaching staff collectively said that we want to play like them. They played fast and aggressive every minute, and we modeled ourselves after that style.”
It appears that the Sachems have learned well from the Crusaders, at least according to Fenwick coach Adam DeBaggis.
“They’re a much-improved team this year,” he said. “They’re aggressive, quick and well-coached just to name a few things. They’re going to be a tough out this year.”
The Sachems have a solid group of players led by the likes of Olivia Valente and Alessia Salzillo. But if there’s one thing that Saugus lacks, it’s postseason experience.
“The experience factor is certainly in Fenwick’s favor, but we’ve been preparing for this all year,” Schruender said. “I think the big thing we need to push on the players is that it’s okay to make mistakes early from nerves or whatever, but we need to be able to settle down and execute. It’s still basketball, and we’ll be in our gym, so I think we can try to counter the experience factor.”
Fenwick may not be the powerhouse team that won it all last year when they went 23-4 and won the Div. 3 state title, but they’re still a force to be reckoned with. The Crusaders finished the year with a 14-8 record, good enough for a No. 6 seed on the bracket.
In terms of experience, the Crusaders may be more loaded than anyone despite losing multiple four-year starters to graduation. Senior captain Sam Mancinelli has played in 10 career postseason games, while juniors Fredi DeGuglielmo and Jennie Meagher have each played in eight career postseason games.
“Obviously the experience is a big factor because there are plenty of girls out there who will never play in that many postseason games,” said DeBaggis. “But at the end of the day we still have to execute against a really good team on the road.”
Adding to that veteran lineup is sophomore Jaxson Nadeau, who has emerged from a core of young players as a crucial cog in the machine.
“This has been a much different season for us,” DeBaggis said. “We lost several four-year players, two of them four-year starters, so we had a totally different look this year. But a lot of the younger girls have stepped up and our upperclassmen have provided the leadership we needed to have a successful regular season.”
Championship pedigree or not, DeBaggis knows his team will be in for a battle in Saugus.
“It won’t be easy,” he said. “They’re going to be fired up over there and the crowd will be going nuts. We anticipate that they’ll come out with plenty of energy, and we’re going to have to stay focused and execute our gameplan.”
The Crusaders and Sachems will meet on Thursday night at 7 p.m. at Saugus High.
Elsewhere around the NEC, a number of local teams are preparing for tournament runs of their own. The Revere Patriots nearly had an undefeated regular season, winning their first 18 games before dropping the final two to earn the No. 2 seed in the Division 1 North tournament.
A big part of the Patriots’ success this year has been the play of their two bigs inside, Valentina Pepic and Meaghan Gotham. The two have been able to score from the post and dominate the glass, perfectly complementing the play of guards Pamela Gonzalez and Tatiana Iacoviello.
Revere draws a home game against No. 15 Medford (10-10) in the first round on Monday night at 7 p.m.
Also in Division 1 North, the Peabody Tanners closed out the year with a 13-7 record and secured the No. 11 seed. Seniors Melissa Gray and Katie Wallace have paced the Peabody offense this year, while Nene Onwuogo has had a great season at the forward spot.
The Tanners travel on the road to take on No. 6 Waltham (14-6) on Tuesday night at 7 p.m.
Two teams from the NEC also made it into the Division 2 North bracket. The Swampscott Big Blue earned the No. 11 seed in Division 2 North after closing out the regular season with an even 10-10 record. The Big Blue will travel to take on No. 6 Hamilton-Wenham (12-8) on Tuesday night at 7 p.m.
The Danvers Falcons also closed out the year at 10-10 and earned the No. 12 seed. The Falcons will play No. 5 Arlington Catholic (14-6) on Monday night at 7 p.m.