ME Hornets Varsity Boys Basketball vs Hamilton

ME Hornets Varsity Boys Basketball v. Hamilton in the last week of January 2020.

During the usual winter season, making it through the calendar with everyone in good health and with little interruption to the schedule can be an accomplishment in itself.  That notion is even more important to embrace when playing basketball or swimming and diving competitively during a pandemic.

Local high school sports teams are on the precipice of achieving these goals – along with some other goals, set for on-the-court or in-the-pool performances – with the finish line for winter sports almost in sight.  The regular season wraps up next week for the Manchester Essex Regional High School basketball and swim teams, with the girls basketball team finishing up by hosting Rockport on Feb.9, the boys basketball team doing the same a day later on the road against the Vikings, and the swimming and diving teams competing in a season-closing Cape Ann League tournament on Feb. 10.

These teams have all looked pretty good so far as they head toward the end of the winter sports calendar.  The boys basketball team has been stellar so far, with the Hornets boasting a 5-2 record and sitting atop the CAL Baker Division in first place, with games against Rockport, Amesbury and Pentucket left on the schedule. At the start of this week, the girls basketball team was just under .500 with a 3-4 record and remaining contests against Rockport, Amesbury and North Reading.  The swim team has competed against Ipswich, Triton and North Reading, with the boys swim team picking up its lone victory of the season against Ipswich, with results due in early this week for the Lynnfield meet.  The swim team closes out the season with meets against Hamilton-Wenham and the aforementioned CAL meet.

The boys basketball team is a good candidate to keep playing into a drastically altered postseason.  While there will be no MIAA tournament this year, the top four teams in the CAL are slated to face off in a division-only tourney.  A 65-60 win over Hamilton-Wenham on Friday night gave the team first-place in the CAL Baker, and hopefully some momentum to keep things going into that postseason.

The secret to the Hornets’ success? Leaning on leadership.  Team captains Jack Shaw, AJ Pallazola, and Frank Wood have not only set the tone for ME, but also produced on the floor, with Pallazola and Shaw leading the team in scoring. Other key contributors this season include the sibling duo of Alex and Cade Furse – a senior and freshman, respectively – as well as Will Larson, Gavin Glass, Patrick Cronin and Luke Smith. 

“Alex Furse has been a defensive standout for the Hornets and had the game-winning shot versus Hamilton-Wenham,” says ME boys basketball coach Timothy St. Laurent.  “Will Larson has been a presence inside [for] the team. Freshman Cade Furse has been a pleasant surprise for the hornets. Cade Furse had five three pointers versus North Reading and has made big-time shots in most of all the Hornets game this season.”

He adds: “Gavin Glass has also been a great shooter for the hornets. Cronin and Smith have played great minutes for the team this year as well.”

While things aren’t quite as set in stone for the girls team – the Hornets have a shot at qualifying for a similar four-team CAL playoff if they perform well in their final three games – but it would be foolish to count this team out until the last minute of the season has ticked away.  This is a determined group that has hung in there during close games against Triton and Hamilton-Wenham to pull out big victories.  A number of Hornets have been key contributors for the team this winter.

“On the offensive end, GG Huet and Emma Fitzgerald have been leading our scoring,” says ME girls basketball coach Lauren DuBois. “Lily Athanas has been vital on both offense and defense, beating full court pressure and defending the other teams’ top guards. Madeline Lai has been great on the boards and Calista Lai and Kendall Newton have been solid additions to the varsity team.”

The CAL Meet on Feb. 10 should be a good way for the swim team to close out what has been an unusual season.  Similar to the regular season format, the lone postseason meet will be a “virtual meet” – swimmers and divers compete in their home pools solo, and then submit times to the league for comparison and results.

“There will be a virtual meet that we can send league meet results too, run by EMISCA,” says ME swim coach Amy Boyden.  “It is awesome to have something. There is also a state top time list.”

In spite of the change in format for the sport, Hornet swimmers have posted some noteworthy performances and times so far.  Boyden lauded the work that dive coach Erin Brahm has done with the team’s three divers – Noah Jurczak and Connor and Tyler Burke – along with the work of her charges swimming in the pool.

“Aidan Cunnungham cut almost a full second off his 50 free at the very first meet and is now down to 24, which is a surprise and awesome given the circumstances – meets are virtual, so [we] only can race team, and we have a tiny team,” says Boyden.  “The senior captains are all improving as well: Greta Dickson, Sean Phelan, and Sam Rice. Eighth-grader Caroline Chrzanowski is also improving, along with sophomore Izzy Morruzi and ninth grader Madoc Harden and a new seventh-grader, Luke Chrzanowski.”

The team has done well keeping spirits high and the competitive juices flowing despite the many changes to the sport. The practice schedule has been completely altered, divers and swimmers do not even see each other competing at different times and while the virtual meets have fostered competition, they haven’t helped with team building and chemistry.

“Team spirit is gone, no cheering allowed,” explains Boyden. “Trying to get clapping going during meets but [this is a] small team. Swimmers aren’t all on same wall, so they miss out on social interaction and team bonding. No pasta parties in person. It’s tough to have motivation. I love high school meets and I am having a tough time with the virtual meets, so I don’t know how all the swimmers are doing well. Given the circumstances and practice schedule, the swimmers are all doing amazing.”

The swim team is not the only one rising to the challenge of overcoming pandemic-related changes to the sport.

“The masks and keeping everyone socially distanced as much as possible are the biggest differences,” says DuBois.  “The games themselves have some minor changes, like where we inbound the ball from and no jump balls, but for the most part it’s been regular basketball. I have been very happy with how our team has handled the changes and rules. We take them very seriously because we want to keep everyone healthy and safe. And the team had had a great attitude overall.”

“The team is adopted well to the all the COVID guidelines,” says St. Laurent.  “We have worked closely with the administration of the school to make sure we adhere to all the guidelines. Basketball has been a success and we are thankful the administration accomplished this for the players.”

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