By Nick Curcuru
---- — The Gloucester and Manchester Essex girls basketball teams don’t need any extra motivation entering its respective state tournament games.
But if there is any extra motivation to be had, the Fishermen and Hornets drew the teams that will bring it out of them.
Gloucester (10-10) is the No. 12 seed in Division 2 North and will face off with its biggest rival in the first round of the state tournament in No. 5 Danvers (12-8) on Thursday, (7:00 p.m., Danvers High School). The teams split a pair of evenly played, closely contested regular season meetings and Thursday’s game will be the much anticipated rubber match between the Northeastern Conference enemies.
Manchester Essex, on the other hand, will get a chance to avenge last season’s first round tournament loss. No. 15 Manchester Essex (7-13) will travel to No. 2 Pope John (18-2) on Tuesday (7:00 p.m., Pope John High School). The Tigers bounced the Hornets in the first round last year 42-31 in a closely contested game.
“You couldn’t have drawn it up any better,” Gloucester girls head coach Brandon Lewis said. “The team is really excited. I think everyone is excited because it was such a great game last time.”
“We know how they play and what they do well, and they know the same things about us,” Manchester Essex head coach Lauren Dubois said. “I think it should be a good game, we are ready and excited to get going.”
If it weren’t for the vastly different colored uniforms Gloucester and Danvers sport, Gloucester’s maroon and Danvers’ bright blue, one may not be able to tell the two teams apart. The Fishermen and Falcons are alike in just about every way which makes Thursday’s first round matchup all the more intriguing.
For starters both teams are successful because of their work on the defensive end. Both the Fishermen and Falcons get after it when they don’t have the ball with aggressive, in your face and suffocating defense. Both teams have a top of the line scorer in Sophie Black for Gloucester and Kasey Sherry for Danvers.
The teams split two regular season matchups with Danvers earning a 40-33 win in the first meeting and Gloucester coming away with a 38-37 overtime win in the second meeting. In both of those contests it was evident that each team shares the same strengths and style of play.
“It’s scary how similar we are,” Lewis said. “I think that’s what makes it such a great matchup. It’s anyones game, whoever comes out more focused and gets their shots to fall will win.”
Gloucester enters the postseason playing its best basketball of the season having won four straight contests just to qualify. Lewis’ squad flipped the switch into desperation mode two weeks ago, and that desperation helped Gloucester run the table over the last two weeks of the season.
Lewis hopes the team can maintain that momentum in the postseason, but at the same time put the end of the regular season in the past.
“Honestly we have to forget all that,” Lewis said. “It’s excellent that we’re playing well right now and that we’re confident but we can’t rely on that. We’re 0-0 right now, that’s the way we need to look at it. We achieved our first goal, but now we have to achieve the next goal, which is to have a successful run in the tournament.”
The winner of Gloucester vs. Danvers on Thursday will move on to the Quarterfinals to take on the winner of No. 4 Wilmington and No. 13 Chelsea. No. 1 Reading (20-0) is also on Gloucester’s side of the bracket and looks to be the runaway favorite in Division 2 North.
At 7-13 Manchester Essex may look like a gigantic underdog in the first round against 18-2 Pope John, but that is simply not the case. Just look to last season’s close game and it is evident that the Hornets can hang with the best in the Division despite their regular season record.
During the regular season the Hornets posted a 4-0 record against Division 4 foes and frequently finds postseason success while entering the postseason with a low seed. In fact Manchester Essex made it all the way to the state finals in 2010 with an 8-12 regular season record.
Dubois and company have their brutally tough Cape Ann League schedule to thank for that playoff success. The Hornets frequently play Division 3 and Division 2 powers in the regular season, meaning they are battle tested and ready come postseason time.
“All the teams we play help us at this point in the season,” Dubois said. “We gave this team trouble last year and we feel that we have just as good a chance as anybody in the section.”
The Hornets may be battle tested in the regular season, but the core of this team has yet to experience the state tournament success of years past as the team hasn’t won a postseason game since 2010.
Still, Manchester Essex brings an extremely balanced team on both ends of the floor into the tournament. Defensively the Hornets are tough to crack as always. On the offensive end the team doesn’t have a star scorer that it relies on, but everybody chips in with points. The Hornets have also had past success in the postseason while sporting a similar regular season record.
“We made it to the tournament last year but this group hasn’t had the full effect of being successful in the tournament,” Dubois said. “But they are hungry and want to go further and know what it feels like to have success in the tournament. They are going to come ready to play and with confidence on Tuesday.”
The Manchester Essex vs. Pope John winner will move on to the quarterfinals to face the winner of No. 7 Notre Dame and No. 10 Fenway. Shawsheen and New Mission are two more threats to take the section that reside on the same side of the bracket as Manchester Essex.
State Tournament Schedule Tuesday, February 26 Girls Basketball: No. 15 Manchester Essex (7-13) at No. 2 Pope John (18-2), Division 4 North First Round, 7:00 p.m. Wednesday, February 27 Boys Basketball: No. 5 Manchester Essex (13-7) at No. 4 Lynnfield (13-7), Division 4 North Quarterfinals, 7:00 p.m. Thursday, February 28 Girls Basketball: No. 12 Gloucester (10-10) at No. 5 Danvers (12-8), Division 2 North First Round, 7:00 p.m.