Boys Basketball

There were stops, starts, cancellations and reschedules aplenty this winter, due to both weather and COVID-related concerns. Even with unique challenges in place and changes to how games are both prepared for and played, local high school teams were able to put a bow on the winter season this month. Some got to extend their seasons, and some had their seasons cut short, but all of the winter sports featuring Manchester Essex athletes got some time on the court, on the ice or in the pool.

The Manchester Essex basketball teams were lucky enough to not only get in a full season, but to also get to play in an abbreviated postseason featuring Cape Ann League teams. While both were knocked out in the first round against Ipswich, both Hornet teams finished up a pair of successful seasons last week.

The playoff loss to Ipswich dropped the girls’ team under .500 to 5-6 to finish the season, but Hornets coach Lauren DuBois was only looking at the positives with this one.

“It was fun to have a Cape Ann League playoff to end the season,” says DuBois. “It gave us some closure. Despite the loss, the team never quit and kept playing until the final whistle. It was a great chance for the seniors to play together one last time.”

While Manchester Essex loses seven of those seniors to graduation—Lily Athanas, Bradlee Brooks, GG Huet, Madeline Lai, Sylvie Oldeman, Emily Schuh and Hattie Wilson will all graduate in the spring—six varsity players will return next winter, and any gaps in the roster will be filled by junior varsity players who completed an undefeated season in 2021.

“I am just glad we got the chance to have a season and have the opportunity to play together,” DuBois says of the season. “The team took the rules and regulations very seriously, and having basketball gave us a sense of normalcy in a very abnormal time. There were certainly some things that were challenging like not having a space for a pregame talk and not really being able to huddle together as a team during time outs, but we made it work and I think everyone improved their game and had fun.”

That sense of accomplishment was echoed by coach Timothy St. Laurent and the boys basketball team, a group that finished 7-4 overall, earning a share of the Cape Ann League Baker Division title with Hamilton-Wenham and Georgetown. The Hornets lost to Ipswich in the first round of the CAL-only playoffs – ME was shorthanded with starting center Will Larson out with a broken hand, and Frank Wood suffering an injury before halftime—but the experience was worth it according to the coach.

“Having an additional game versus Ipswich was a nice addition to the season,” explains St. Laurent. “Any chance the team can play games and be together is always great.”

Manchester Essex loses captains Wood and Jack Shaw—both were second-team All-CAL selections—along with Larson and Gavin Glass to graduation this spring. Key returnees included all-league point guard AJ Pallazola and guard Cade Furse, giving the Hornets an experienced, talented backcourt to lean on next winter.

“Being able to give the student athletes something to do this winter was spectacular,” says St. Laurent. “We had a great group of players that had fun every day in practice and competed hard on game days.  Our goal at the beginning of the season was to put a 2021 Cape Ann League Title up on the wall at the gym. The players worked hard, had fun together and achieved that goal.  The team will miss the seniors that are graduating; they were great mentors to the underclassmen.”

While there were no league, regional or statewide tournaments in ice hockey, both co-op teams featuring Manchester Essex student athletes came away from the 2021 season with some positives.

The Rockport boys team struggled to get onto the ice, and then struggled a bit when they could play, finishing the winter with a 0-6 record. Numerous challenges and cancellations led to the end of the Vikings’ season at the end of January.

“As far as reflection goes, this was one of the hardest things I’ve had to do,” says Rockport coach Kyle Nelson. “Optics were such a huge part of this season, and everything we did was under a microscope. The social distancing piece of this season took away from what makes high school sports so memorable. No team dinners, no bus rides where making memories was the priority and—more importantly—no locker room. Hockey locker rooms is where players make the most memories.”

While those memories were brief, the hope is that some of those players returning next winter will be looking to turn things around in what is hoped to be a return to standard operating procedure for the sport. The good news? The Vikings return 15 of 19 players from this year’s squad, so chemistry and familiarity will already be in place for this group.

The Marblehead girls hockey team, however, saw a bit more playing time and success this season than the Rockport boys, getting in 12 total games despite two pauses in the schedule due to COVID.

“The first shutdown did not affect our game schedule, but the second shutdown was right at the beginning of our game schedule which was unfortunate timing because we finally were getting our systems down and playing smart hockey,” explains Marblehead coach Brittany Smith. “Beating Beverly for the first time this season really sparked some energy for this team. It was the first time they beat Beverly in a while, so they were ecstatic.”

A key win over Masco shortly after that second shutdown helped spark the Magicians to a winning record. Smith lamented her team’s inability to keep that momentum going with a lack of postseason play due to the pandemic.

“Unfortunately, due to COVID, the MIAA has decided to not have a tournament,” says Smith. ”Our league also decided to not have a tournament within the league. It's unfortunate for the girls because we are having a pretty good season and I would love to see how far this team could go especially now that we are in a groove of playing games consistently.”

Manchester Essex student athletes were crucial to the Magicians’ success in 2021, with goaltender Lily Francouer being lauded by her coach as a standout throughout the season. She isn’t the only local who made their mark this season: Abigail Amigo, Elsa Wood, Amy Vytopilova and Jane Whitten all played well in 2021 for Marblehead. As underclassmen, all five should be back next season as well.

“Jane is one of our top defensemen,” says Smith.“She does her job on the ice and is always in great position. Amy, Elsa, and Abi are all forwards and are vital to our offense. They each have tallied points this season. Amy is great at setting up players in front of the net and has recorded a couple assists this season. Abi and Elsa have each recorded their first high school goals as well as others. Abi and Elsa are two powerhouses with speed and good hockey knowledge. All of our Manchester Essex players have been huge contributors to the success of our team this year.”

While changes were made for safety reasons in both sports, neither the hockey teams nor the basketball teams had to deal with the level of change that the ME swimming and diving teams faced in 2021. Meets were all virtual—in lieu of competing in the same pool against another opponent, meets were virtual, with each team swimming in its own pool and comparing times at the end to determine points and the winner. Team bonding was difficult as well, with swimmers forced to remain a good distance apart both inside and outside of the pool. Swimmers and divers didn’t even compete on the same days, often alternating times and dates in the pool for the same meet. The changes in format also kept roster numbers down in 2021, with the MIAA requiring high school swimmers to commit to either the high school sport or club team, whereas swimmers and divers could participate in both at the same time in years’ past.

With all that in mind, there were some positive takeaways included the boys team picking up one win in three meets this season, and some of the swimmers and divers finishing up with strong showings in the Cape Ann League Meet at the end of the season, especially considering some of the limitations placed on the squad.

“It was tough [to] compete,” explains Manchester Essex swim coach Amy Boyden. “We were a small team, so sometimes just one or two swimmers in a race, so there was no one to race. High school swim is about who scores the most points so at a regular season meet, kids are trying to out touch the other team. Virtually, it’s just one team.”

Highlights include Tyler Burke finishing sixth and Conor Burke finishing ninth in diving, while Isabelle Moruzzi finished 16th in the 50 Free and 10th in the 100 back and Greta Dickson finished 6th in the 100 breaststroke and 18th in the 100 free for the girls team. For the boys swimmers, Sean Phelan finished 3rd in both the 200 free and 100 fly, Sam Rice finished 2nd in the 50 free and 3rd in the 100 free, Aidan Cunningham was 3rd in the 50 free and 8th in the 100 free and Madoc Harden was 11th in the 50 free and 100 free. The 200-medley team finished in 4th, and the 200 free relay team finished 3rd. Of the team’s eight swimmers and three divers, three swimmers will graduate in the spring: Greta Dickson, Sean Phelan and Sam Rice.

Jason Brisbois has covered Cape Ann sports and features for more than 15 years. He would be happy to hear from you with comments or questions at jason@thecricket.com