Olivia Valente, a senior captain, has led the Saugus Sachems to a 14-5 record this season.
By KATIE MORRISON
The Saugus girls basketball team is making huge strides.
Two seasons ago, the Sachems were in rough shape, winning just one game. A year later, Saugus turned things around, going .500 (11-11) and sneaking into the tournament before falling to Georgetown, 42-34, in the first round.
This season, the final three games on the schedule won’t be nearly as stressful as they were last year. The Sachems locked up a tournament berth long ago, and sit at 14-5 with the season winding down.
Fourth-year coach Mark Schruender says that his team is taking things not just one game at a time, but one practice at a time.
“We’re trying not to look ahead to the tournament, just to the next practice,” Schruender said. “The girls can’t wait for the next day’s practice, it’s fun. Every day is our biggest of the season. It sums up our day-to-day mentality that every game and every practice is so important.”
Saugus’ group of upperclassmen knows better than anyone not to take any game for granted. Four of the current five starters for Saugus played with that one-win team in 2014-15. Playing through that adversity has helped shape the senior group, and the team’s veterans pass the lessons they’ve learned down to the underclassmen.
“It starts with the seniors,” Schruender said. “We have great leadership. Nothing is taken for granted. They know every team we play against is good, and we’ve played nothing but competitive games. The kids understand that, and the younger kids start to fall in line behind them.”
One of those seniors is team captain Olivia Valente, who is arguably the group’s most talented offensive player. Valente leads the team in scoring and rebounding, averaging a double-double this season.
“She works hard every single day,” said Schruender of Valente, who has played with the varsity squad since her freshman year. “She’s a very humble kid, too. She doesn’t worry about the stats; I’ll have to tell her she scored 19 points the other night, she doesn’t talk about herself.”
Another key piece on the floor is point guard Alessia Salzillo. The sophomore “knows defense is the most important thing for her,” said Schruender.
Then there’s the twins, senior captains Krissy and Katie Italiano. Krissy Italiano has more of an impact on the court; Schruender says the team calls her the “madman” on the full court press. Krissy brings energy and hustle to the squad, and Schruender says he doesn’t think anyone takes more steps than her during a game.
Katie Italiano is more of a vocal leader, serving as one of three captains and one of the five seniors who lead the group.
The underclassmen, on the other hand, also have a natural chemistry. Schruender says that the majority of the freshmen and sophomores have been playing together since sixth grade, at least.
“They put a lot of hours in, and that’s huge,” Schruender said.
“They’re a close group of kids,” the coach added, speaking of the team as a whole. “They like each other, they hang out outside of basketball.”
The collective positive attitude of the Saugus squad helped propel it to a 5-0 start this season. The Sachems’ first loss came against perennial Catholic Central League power St. Mary’s, a 61-37 rout. But Schruender didn’t need to worry about building his team back up after a tough defeat.
“They came out of that game even hungrier,” he said. “They were saying how they wanted to work in the offseason to get better. The way we’ve handled losses and things outside our control is very mature. It speaks to them as people and who they are off the court. You can’t grow as a player unless you grow mentally as well.”
Even scheduling St. Mary’s, a team that plays in a tougher league and has seen big success over recent seasons, speaks to just how far the Saugus program has come in three short years. However, Schruender reiterates that his players are keeping things in perspective.
“At least around me, they don’t (get ahead of themselves),” he said. “I hope it continues that way, because we’re doing a disservice to ourselves if we’re thinking too far down the road.”
As a coach, it seems like Schruender is heeding that same advice. He said the key to the steady progress has been reinforcing the basics of the game.
“We’re just continuing to grow, every game is an opportunity to get better,” Schruender said. “We’re making a whole lot less mistakes and understanding our plays and our philosophy better.
“We’re getting better at fundamentals, just things like layup form, dribbling, basic things,” Schruender added.
That mentality extends to preaching communication on the floor, defensive structure and even just getting energy from each player, including the bench.
“That energy shows even at practice, with girls cheering from the bench,” Schruender said.
One of the Sachems even brought in pictures of the Saugus bench and one of an opponent’s bench to show the impact made when the bench is into the game.
With the tournament on the horizon, the Sachems’ focus is still on their next game, which is Friday at home against Malden. Saugus will honor its five seniors: the Italiano twins, Valente, Alexandria Lembo and Angellina Nou.