By Conor Walsh
---- — EVERETT — Playing a schedule that consists largely of Division 2 and 3 opponents, the Manchester Essex girls basketball’s team’s record is rarely indicative of how dangerous a team the Hornets are when the Division 4 North tournament rolls around.
What it also does, though, is stick the Hornets with a low seed in the tournament, making each postseason an uphill climb.
Ultimately, the Hornets’ No. 15 seed did them in this season, as they drew No. 2 Pope John in the tournament’s opening round.
And while Manchester Essex, as always, was not an easy out, Pope John was able to capitalize on its length and athleticism to wear the Hornets down and advance with a 53-45 win in last night’s opening round matchup at Pope John High School in Everett. The loss ends the Hornets’ season.
“I think we had nerves early on and we turned the ball over more than we wanted early in the game,” Manchester Essex coach Lauren Dubois said after the game. “But then we started handling the pressure and we took it to the hoop. We did what we wanted to do, we got good looks but shots weren’t falling. But, again, they fought the whole way through. They gave it their all, they’re all heart, these kids.”
From the opening tip-off, it was clear that the Hornets were in for a fight. Pope John (19-2) was hugely athletic across the board and looked to capitalize on that athleticism with full-court defensive pressure and a fast-break attack.
Despite that, though, the Hornets hung around, trading baskets in a back-and-forth first quarter riddled by turnovers that ended with Pope John leading, 15-14.
The next eight minutes were what ultimately sealed Manchester Essex’s fate. Pope John’s relentless pressure started to pay dividends as the Hornets turned the ball over on possession after possession to pad an 11-0 run for the Tigers to start the second quarter.
Fraley Morton’s bucket with 2:49 left in the half was the Hornets’ first points of the second quarter, and the 15-5 second quarter run by Pope John was the difference.
To Manchester Essex’s credit, it didn’t cave after halftime. The Hornets fought the whole way, cutting the Pope John lead down to as few as six points in the second half.
The Tigers were simply too athletic. Behind the dominant post play of Dana Jackson (17 points, 10 rebounds) and Amanda Reis (10 points, 10 rebounds) and quick freshman point guard Gianni Hill (11 points), the Tigers were able to hold off the Hornets’ desperate second-half push.
“They’re great offensive rebounders and they’re just aggressive on the boards,” Dubois said of Jackson and Reis. “They got rebounds and made the baskets after. It’s tough.”
There was plenty for the Hornets to take from last night’s loss, as well as the season. While they’ll have to deal with the graduation of Carolyn Heslop, Evy Weihs, Ella and Ivy Silag-Stearns and Ally Conway, the Hornets made strides this season after a tough start to the year.
Moreover, last night’s game gave the Hornets’ faithful a glimpse of what the future may bring. While the seniors — with the exception of the injured Weihs — made their usual contributions, the team’s underclassmen really showed their talent.
Sophomore Maya Heath led the team with 17 points and was impressive in defending Hill. Sophomore forward Eliza Logue was a steadying presence in the paint despite the work of her dominant opponents, and chipped in four points and seven rebounds.
With four and two points, respectively, freshman Sydney Christopher and Fraley Morton also showed flashes of brilliance — with some young mistakes sprinkled in.
The positives, though, were moot for the Hornets last night. At the end of the day, the season was over.
No team likes that.
“We play a tough season and it’s easy to get down along the way, and they didn’t,” Dubois glowed. “They came every day ready to go, ready to work, ready for the next opponent, and that’s all I can ask of them. It’s a great group of girls. They get along well with each other. They’re fun to be around and they work hard. They want to play, they want to win and they want to learn to be better basketball players. That was evident every day we went out.”