By Conor Walsh
---- — After being hit hard by graduation following last season’s trip to the Division 2 North quarterfinals, Gloucester girls basketball coach Lori Sanborn knew she’d be faced with the trying task of reloading this winter.
Fortunately for the second-year coach, that reloading process will be bolstered by senior Kali Cook’s return to the hardwood. Cook, a star on the Fishermen’s soccer team, had been a touted basketball player growing up, but stepped away from the game when she started high school.
That is, until this season. And while it’ll surely be a difficult transition back into the game after her hiatus, Cook’s speed and athleticism are just what Sanborn was looking for.
With Cook in the mix with returners like senior captains Katie Ciaramitaro and Sophie Black and fellow seniors Sammy Oliver and Marlee Melvin, the Fishermen look to have successfully pulled off their reload.
“We’re psyched,” Sanborn said. “We’re thrilled to have (Cook) back. I’d never met her before the beginning of the season, but she’s just a great athlete. Her speed’s going to help us. With her and Katie, their speed’s really going to help us out.”
Still, the departures of last season’s NEC Small MVP, guard Heather Cain, and fellow NEC all-star Audrey Knowlton have left gaping holes in the Fishermen’s lineup.
A grueling preseason, Sanborn hopes, will season the new-look Fishermen to the point that they can move past the loss of those two stars.
Since tryouts opened up last Monday, the Fishermen have already scrimmaged Cape Ann League powerhouses Ipswich and Masconomet and will square-off with Rockport this afternoon.
“I like to come right out of the gates with two tough scrimmages because you’ve got to get them prepared,” Sanborn said. “We’ve had two scrimmages so far and we have a third one on Friday. We have an almost brand new team this year and the dynamic of the team is very different. But I think in just two days, we’ve had a lot of growth from the two different scrimmages.”
While the Fishermen will depend on their speed, Sanborn admitted she’s worried about the squad’s size.
With what she’s seen to this point, though, Sanborn’s confident her team will be able to overcome any height disadvantages it might encounter.
“They’re a good, good group of girls, in terms of their attitude and their work ethic,” Sanborn said. “If they keep that up, then we’ll be able to do some things.”
Down the road, Manchester Essex is looking for a similar turnaround after an early exit from the Division 4 North tournament last season.
Only, as usual for the Hornets, they’ll be going into their regular season with a different approach than most teams.
Playing in the powerful Cape Ann League, which is largely comprised of Division 2 and Division 3 teams, the Hornets generally have to claw their way through conference play each season.
But thanks to the MIAA’s Sullivan Rule, which establishes state tournament eligibility based only on a team’s record against opponents from their own division, the Hornets simply need to stay above .500 against Division 4 opponents to get in.
Once there, Manchester Essex tends to leave a mark.
And with the talent coach Lauren Dubois has coming back from last season, Division 4 opponents across the state are likely keeping their fingers crossed that the Hornets’ Division 4 slate holds them up.
Behind the play of captains Evy Weihs and Carolyn Heslop, the Hornets will look to capitalize on their speed and push the pace of each game, hopefully negating their relative lack of size.
“I’m feeling very good,” Dubois said. “I think we have a high level of talent across the board, and I think we’ll be competitive. I think our speed is going to be the key for us.”
And while the Hornets’ CAL record may be largely irrelevant, Dubois expects them to hold their own against the conference’s larger schools.
“The Cape Ann League is always very competitive,” Dubois said. “There’s some huge schools that always have great squads, but I think we’ll be able to compete better this year than maybe in years past.”
It used to be that Rockport followed the same path as Manchester Essex: Compete in the CAL, but depend on the Sullivan rule for tournament entry.
Last season, the Vikings started to move away from that model, playing a hybrid schedule -- some CAL games supplemented with many nonconference games.
For the first time this season, Rockport will be considered an independent. They’ll still play a home-and-home series with the two Division 4 CAL teams, Manchester Essex and Georgetown, but the rest of their schedule will consist of Division 4 teams from across the region.
“Last year, we kind of did it, but we’re playing an independent schedule this season,” coach Steve O’Connor said. “From what we saw last year, it was much more competitive. We only won five games, but more importantly, we competed in most of them. I just think we can compete so much better with this schedule. We’re in all the games.”
The road may still be a tough one for the young Vikings, whose roster has no seniors. They do, however, have a strong scorer in junior captain Heather MacArthur returning, and it’s O’Connor’s hope that MacArthur’s contributions will be supplemented by the play of fellow returning starters, forwards Sarah Rowand (Jr.) and Kalya Parisi (Soph.).
Sprinkle in eighth-grader Rachel Haselgard, who projects as the team’s starting point guard despite her age, and O’Connor’s confident that things are looking up for the Vikings.
“Things have gone well for us so far,” O’Connor said. “We have a young team, but most of these kids played last year, and Rachel can make us a better team. You always need a good point guard, and I’m confident Rachel can handle the ball and handle the presses.
“I feel like we’re going to be able to compete in all the games and have an opportunity to win all of them, and that’s what we plan to do.”