Category: Jam Session

Great Bay CC hoop climbs into national spotlight

By Mike Whaley

Alex Burt has proven beyond doubt that you can get there from here. When Burt took over the Great Bay Community College men’s basketball program in December of 2018, he inherited a team that had never won more than five games and was in the midst of a second canceled season in which he used to recruit players for the 2019-20 season.

Things got better, but it took some time and some patience.

The Herons went 9-13 in 2019-20, setting a program-record for most wins. After the Covid-19 pandemic forced GBCC to miss its third season in four years in 2020-21, the team came back the following year to go 13-12, the first winning season, and win the program’s first playoff game in the Yankee Small College Conference (YSCC).

After a breakout 2022-23 season, Dover’s Kinglsley Breen will play a key role this year as the GBCC hoop team looks to return to the USCAA Division II National Tournament. [Mike Whaley photo]

The Herons took a huge step forward last year as the addition of Dover’s Kingsley Breen and former UMaine-Machias standout Theo Wolfe sparked a 22-9 record, a trip to the conference championship and an at-large berth in the United States Collegiate Athletic Association (USCAA) Division II National Tournament in Richmond, Virginia. GBCC came in as the 10th and final seed, upsetting the number seven and two seeds en route to the USCAA final four. Their Cinderella run ended with a 69-61 loss to Miami-Hamilton. Burt was named USCAA D-II Coach of the Year.

Great Bay is officially on the basketball map now, made even more apparent with its recent ranking as the number three D-II team in the nation in the USCAA preseason poll. The USCAA is a national college organization, like the NCAA, that caters to both two-year and four-year schools. While Great Bay is a two-year school, athletes there do have the option of playing a sport for four years in the USCAA for GB.

“Last year we were the sleeper school,” said Burt, a Dover-native who starred at Dover High School and Plymouth State University. “People kind of knew what we were up to, but no one gave it respect. We always felt we had to do more just to get seen by somebody throughout the league. This year it’s going to be a totally new experience for me, a totally new experience for all of our guys. We’ve kind of got a target on us.”

Breen, who earned All-American honors, feels the Herons still have a point to make. “We’re trying to still stay the underdog,” he said. “Historically we haven’t been up there with everybody. We still have to prove ‘OK, we’re here. This is not just a fluke.’”

GBCC’s Theo Wolfe was a key part of last season, averaging a double double. [Mike Whaley photo]

The Herons certainly have what it takes to make another run, led by three returning starters: Breen, Wolfe and senior Bryce Gibson from Auburn, Maine. The trio are the team’s top returning scorers: Breen (16.7 ppg, 5.0 rpg), Gibson (16.2 ppg, 42.5 3-point pct.) and Wolfe (15.4 ppg, 12.2 rpg).

The big void to fill will be that of two-year standout and defensive stopper Alex Taveras of Portsmouth, who is now a preferred walk-on at the University of New Hampshire. Taveras led the YSCC in 3-point shooting (45.9 pct.), while averaging 12.8 ppg and 5.5 rpg.

GBCC has a good crop of incoming players, while returning role players like former Kingswood Regional HS star Ethan Arnold and Dover’s Cam O’Brien could expand their parts in support of the starters. 


Before Burt took the job, there had been three seasons with three different coaches resulting in the following: 4-19, 5-18, no season. Nothing to write home about.

In fact the Herons had already canceled a second straight season when Burt took the job in 2018, which eventually turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

It wasn’t, however, pretty right out of the gate. “That year the idea was just to fill a roster,” Burt said. “The early going was difficult.” In talking to players and parents he had to, of course, tell them there was no team at the moment. “But I’m here to create one,” he said. “The selling point wasn’t really there.”

But Burt persevered and it wasn’t long before he was able to get a half dozen players on board, including N.H. Division IV Player of the Year, Hunter Bullock from Epping, Londonderry’s Ethan May, a N.H. Division I All-State player, and another all-state player from Epping in Dylan Desrosier, who had been on a previous GB team, and who hung around for four years and was part of last year’s final four squad. Another recruit was Jordan Williams, an all-state player from Maryland. The biggest pick-up turned out to be George Mortimer, a former Traip Academy star, an older player who had played a year at the University of Southern Maine in 2011-12 and went on to be GBCC’s leading scorer.

“Once I got some kids in the door, I started getting all-state kids in the door. It snowballed from there,” Burt said. “I was able to put together a roster that would at least somewhat compete in the YSCC.”

The Herons turned a massive question mark into success, going 9-13.

But then Covid hit, and the following season was canceled, the third time in four years that the Herons did not have a season. 

GBCC guard Bryce Gibson had a breakout season last year, averaging 16.2 ppg and finishing second in the YSCC in 3-point shooting. [Mike Whaley photo]

But GBCC made the best of it, as difficult as it was. The big positive for Burt was that he was able to double down on recruiting. If not for that Covid year, it’s unlikely that the Herons would have been able to get Gibson and Tavares.

Tavares was a big high school star in Portsmouth, scoring over 1,000 points and playing on several state championship teams. He went to Plymouth State, but never played a game. Several weeks into his fall semester he broke his leg. He missed the entire 2019-20 season, which led him to consider new options.

Burt had heavily recruited Tavares in high school, so he was on his radar. When Tavares decided to make a change, he contacted Burt.

Gibson, meanwhile, had played a year at UMaine-Augusta. They had a coaching change and he decided he wanted some change himself. He contacted Burt about the GBCC program. “I saw that it was a newer school, a newer program,” Gibson said. “I reached out.”

“That whole year allowed me to put some stronger pieces together going into 21-22,” Burt said. 

The Herons in turn took another step forward. They went 13-12 to achieve the program’s first winning season, which also included capturing a playoff win for the first time.

That brings us to last year. GBCC continued to forge forward. Burt added two more key pieces in Wolfe and Breen. Wolfe had played one year at UMaine-Augusta, but Covid and financial woes led to the school suspending its athletic programs in July of 2020. Wolfe eventually found his way to Great Bay.

Breen was a Dover HS star, who left Dover after his junior season for Malden Catholic, a private high school in Massachusetts. He reclassified and spent two years there, “trying to get a better education and better focus.”

Breen had some college plans, but they didn’t work out. “I didn’t have the grades I wanted to, if I’m being honest,” he said.

Breen and Burt had a connection, which made Burt laugh a little. It was 2016, and Burt was preparing for his first of two years playing professionally in Europe. He was working out at the Dover Rec. Breen was a seventh-grader. “I remember that kid would be trying to shoot at the hoop I was working out on and totally getting in my way,” Burt said. 

So when Breen finished up at Malden Catholic and was trying to figure out what to do next, he already had this unusual dynamic with Burt dating back to the Dover Rec when Burt was a young adult and Breen was a child.

Breen visited the campus and liked what he saw. “It was really family-oriented – a good vibe,” he said. “It was a second chance I felt like.” It also didn’t hurt that the team had several Dover players – O’Brien and Jackson Rutland.

With the addition of Breen and Wolfe, Burt saw the potential. “Those two players pushed us over the top,” Burt said. “We had a solid group with that 13-12 year and Alex being our leading scorer. We had some other decent pieces to keep us competitive. It pushed us into a whole other category.”


It didn’t immediately take off. The Herons went 5-4 in November, including three straight conference losses, but after that they started to come together. By mid January, Burt said they were all on the same page. “Everybody woke up on the right side of the bed one day,” he said. “We just took off. Something totally clicked.”

At one stretch, they won seven of eight games, including signature victories over Central Maine CC and Southern Maine CC, the defending national champion. They ended the regular season with an 18-7 record, and a so-so 7-7 YSCC record. In the first round of the conference tournament, they played Maine-Augusta at CMCC and pulled out an 86-78 win. They had four players in double figures, led by Tavares with 22 points; Wolfe had 18 and 13 rebounds, while Breen (12) and Gibson (10) also chipped in.

They sent them to the conference semis against Paul Smith College, upset winners over NHTI. They rolled, 96-67, led by Wolfe’s 20 points, 16 apiece from Breen and Tavares, and 12 from Gibson.

In the final, they met SMCC, but the run ended there, 59-47. Only Wolfe (14 points) reached double figures as the Herons shot just 31 percent from the field. “We did not play good offense in that game,” Gibson said. “I don’t think we expected the physical part of the game when we got to that one.”

“It was a defensive battle,” Burt said. “We held them in the 50s. They held us to 47 and we averaged in the 80s. It was my first conference final and all my guys. The gym was rocking. It was pretty fun.”

Losing, however, was tough. SMCC as the conference winner earned the automatic bid to the USCAA Division II national tournament. Great Bay’s season seemed to be over.

“We’re in the locker room’ we’ve got guys crying thinking their season is over,” Burt said. “We’ve got guys who are graduating unsure if their competitive careers are over.”

The thing is, Burt knew in the back of his mind that there was a chance they could make the national tournament field of 10. It is not a reach for the YSCC to get three or even four teams, so why not Great Bay?

Burt knew on the bus ride back to New Hampshire from CMCC that the selection show would be going on. “Part of me did n’t even want them to pull out their phones,” he said. “We weren’t guaranteed a frickin’ thing. We were a dark horse, a sleeper school.”

Burt was thinking to himself that they’re on their way home and he’d about to have his players pull out their phones and maybe be upset again. Then he said, “Let’s have a little faith here.”

So they pull out their phones, and the teams are picked – 1-2-3, right up to nine, and no Great Bay. “I’m going ‘come on please, this would be horrible,’” said Burt. “Then they shouted us out with an at-large bid. They mentioned our record, some of the guys, and our seed, and said ‘we’ll see you guys in Virginia.’”

The bus blew up. “”Everyone was just absolutely fired up,” Burt said. “Now it wasn’t over. All year long we were the school that was winning some games, but not being talked about. And finally we’re being talked about.”

The players’ responses were predictable. “It was nerve-wracking,” Breen said. “We were like ‘oh man.’ Obviously they’re going through the numbers and it’s no way, no way. It’s the last one. We finally got in.”

“We’re on our phones just watching the teams get picked,” recalled Gibson. “We’re sitting there for the 10th pick with our fingers crossed, hoping we get picked. Then it happened. It was crazy.”

Ethan Arnold was sleeping in the bus when GBCC got picked. “I got woken up by the guys on the bus,” he said. “That was a pleasant wake-up surprise.”

As the 10th and final seed in the tournament, there wasn’t a lot of expectation. However, the Herons felt good about themselves. SMCC and NHTI were also in the tournament, and they knew they could play with those teams.

“As a whole group, we believed that’s where we’re supposed to be,” coach Burt said. “It wasn’t the luck of the draw. We’re there.”

The 2022-23 Great Bay CC squad advanced to the USCAA Division II Final Four. This year they have been picked third in the preseason poll. [Courtesy photo]

The Herons made a statement. In their first game vs. seventh-seeded Villa Maria, they fell behind four points at the half. But sparked by Breen, they dominated the second half to win 79-67. Breen led the way with 27 points and eight rebounds, while Gibson added 22 points, five rebounds and five assists. Wolfe had 16 points and 13 boards, while Tavares added five points and 10 rebounds.

In the second round vs. No. 2 Penn State Mont Alto, GBCC jumped out to a 45-30 lead at the break en route to a convincing 75-58 win. Breen again led the way with 20 points and five boards. Tavares (12 points, 16 rebs.) and Wolfe (12 pts., 11 rebs) had solid supporting games, while Desrosier and Gibson combined for 17 points.

Now they were off to the final four against Miami Hamilton. The run ended. Great Bay trailed by six at the half, 32-26, and twice tied the game in the second half, but could not pull ahead. Their season ended with a 69-61 loss.

Breen had another big game with 22 points, while Gibson added 11 and Wolfe had a double-double with 10 points and 10 boards. Breen was named to the all-tournament team. “It was a turning point for me personally,” Breen said. “I just saw a chance to play against some great competition and really try to dial in. I thought it was great.”


Once an afterthought in the YSCC, Great Bay will begin this season as a team to beat. It’s a new look. “We’ve always felt like we’ve had to do more to get seen by somebody throughout the league,” said Burt. “This year is going to be a totally new experience for me, a totally new experience for all our guys. We’re going into this year, we’ve kind of got a target on us.”

Nine players return and seven new players join the roster. Burt is excited about the possibilities. “We’ve got a lot in the preseason to do,” he said. “We have things to adjust, things to fix to get us stronger and sharper. We’re making those progressions that we can.”

Breen, Gibson and Wolfe will be at the forefront of what the Herons do. Breen knows this season will help open the door for his final two college years. “I definitely feel like the Division II, Division I conversation isn’t out the door with the talks I’ve been able to have,” he said. 

The Great Bay CC men’s hoop team set a school record by winning 22 games last year and advancing to the USCAA D-II Final Four. [Mike Whaley photo]

Breen talked about some of his teammates, noting that Wolfe “definitely has that old-school feel. The haircut helps,” he added with a laugh, referring to Wolfe’s afro that is reminiscent of NBA Hall of Famer Wes Unseld. “He’s a great guy to play with. You get him the ball in the offense we play and he knows how to make plays. He draws a huge amount of attention on offense and defense.”

As for Gibson, Breen said, “him a the two (guard) that’s a 1-2 punch in the backcourt. He’s just a pure scorer.” Gibson has also hit the weight room to add some muscle to his frame

Arnold is another player who hopes to step up his role, filling the shoes, as he sees it, of Tavares. “I’m definitely going to play more of a leadership role,” Arnold said. “I’ll be one of the key defenders with Alex Tavares going to UNH. He’d guard the best player on the other team. I’m looking forward to getting into that role. I’m looking to be more of a lethal scorer.”

The seven new players include four freshmen: Joe Gutwein (ConVal), Stephen Gitau (Dover), Jordan Berko (Farmington) and Jared Biaya (Portland, Maine). Gutwein (6-1) and Gitau (6-2) are guards, while Berko is a 6-foot-6 forward and Biaya is 6-8. The rest of the newbies include 6-4 Mpore Semuhoza (a CMCC transfer), 6-4 Sean Murphy of Exeter (back after missing last year) and 5-5 guard Antoine Bailey from New Orleans. “I’m super excited about our new group,” Burt said.

Gutwein was an all-state guard at ConVal, and he is hoping he can help the team out anyway possible. “The guys are great,” he said. “Our chemistry is strong . This is a group that wants to be in the gym everyday. Kingsley, Theo, and Bryce, that’s our big three right there. They’re so dominant defensively and offensively. And that goes for everyone on our team as well. We are loaded with talent.”

Breen likes what he’s seen with Gutwein in the early going. “You can tell he can really play the game,” Breen said. “He’s smart, he fills the lanes. He’s just always in the right spot.” Gutwein has some personal physical adversity he must deal with every day – he was born profoundly deaf in both ears, accessing sound with a cochlear implant. “Honestly, in a noisy gym, it is difficult to hear,” he said. “My teammates and coaches use hand signals to communicate plays. I’m also super visual and always checking.”

The Herons open the season Saturday at home with a non-conference game against Quinsigamond Community College.

“Ultimately I took the job to build something special and create something special for these guys to take with them to whatever their chapter may be,” Burt said. “Now we’ve got to stay there.”

Jen Robinson Watson: Former Coe-Brown star finds masters niche in England

By Mike Whaley

No one is as astonished as Jen Robinson Watson to be playing competitive basketball at age 45. But here she is.

Once a New Hampshire schoolgirl star at Coe-Brown Northwood Academy from 1992 to 1996, the 6-foot-3 Deerfield native played college ball at New Hampshire College (now Southern New Hampshire University) before embarking on a career and a life that has kept basketball close at hand.

She currently lives in northern England in Yorkshire with her husband, James, and two children, Elizabeth and Harry. James and her run the family canal boat tourism business, Skipton Boat Trips.

Watson recently tried out for and made Great Britain’s top-flight masters women’s basketball team – the O40’s GB Maxiballers. Last month she was chosen as team captain as the team prepares for the world championships next month in Mar Del Plata, Argentina.

“Trust me, no one is more surprised than I am,” Watson said during a recent phone interview. “I’m just trying to stretch it out as long as I can. I’m hoping I’ve got another five years. I don’t envision playing on the (over) 50 team, but we’ll see how it goes. I feel really grateful for everything I have so far. It’s alright if it finishes. I feel like I’ve had a great career.”

Which is true.

Watson grew up in Deerfield, a small N.H. town that is a 30- to 40-minute drive to many destinations in the southern half of the state. Presented with multiple choices for high school at Concord HS, Manchester Central, Manchester Memorial, Oyster River and Coe-Brown, Watson dug her heels in against Coe-Brown, where her three older sisters had gone. “I didn’t particularly want to go there,” she said. “It was kind of my last choice because it was probably my best choice for me as a teenager. I rebelled against it and definitely wanted to go to Oyster River.”

Then Coe-Brown girls hoop coach Tom Hall started planting the seed of coming to and playing at the Northwood school. “I thought he was a great coach and we got along well,” Watson said. “I ended up going there and absolutely loved it. It was a great experience.”

There was plenty of success. Coe-Brown lost three games during Watson’s four years, won two Class M state championships, and lost in a third. She scored over 1,000 career points. In 2021, Watson was inducted into the school’s Hall of Fame.

Watson played in college, but that experience was not the same. She was heavily recruited by the University of Maine, an NCAA Division I program. “Everything was great, and then the night before I was going to sign my scholarship, they called me and said ‘actually our first choice called and decided she wanted to come, so we don’t have room for you anymore. Thank you for everything and best of luck,’” recalled Watson.

At the time, Watson was devastated. She did not have a backup plan, and was suddenly in panic mode. Fortunately, a former UMaine assistant coach, Deb Reardon, had taken the head job at New Hampshire College. She invited Watson to join the team, which she did.

It was a great academic experience. But basketball was difficult. Used to winning at Coe-Brown, there was a lot of losing at NHC. The team won 11 games in her first three years, including an 0-27 mark during Watson’s junior season. “Basically I thought that was the end of my playing career,” she said. “I didn’t want to play any more after my junior year. I was thinking about giving up.”

The school made a coaching change just before Watson’s senior year. The new head coach was Dennis Masi and his assistant was Chris Wood. Ready to give up the game, the two convinced her not to. “I loved them,” she said. “They completely changed my whole attitude towards basketball; made me fall in love with it again.”

Watson had a decent senior year, the team won eight games, and she ended her career three points short of 1,000 points.

Masi talked with Watson after the season, noting she had some unfinished business. He felt she could play at the next level. She briefly considered pro basketball in the U.S., but figured that level was too much. Then she thought about playing in Europe.

Here the story takes an interesting turn. Already planning to vacation in Scotland thanks to a plane ticket purchased by her sister, Watson reached out to a team in Edinburgh. She was invited to their training camp, which she fit in during her vacation. The coach suggested she’d be better off playing in England – better money and more opportunity. There was one problem: it was already July and English teams were allowed just one American on their roster. Still, the coach was able to put Watson, who had returned to N.H., in contact with two teams. The Doncaster Panthers, located in Yorkshire, showed interest and offered her a contract. “I took a chance, got on a plane and came over,” she said.

Watson played one season with them, but was cut after the season. The coach was honest. It came down to Watson not scoring enough points. During that time, she had met her husband. “I left England thinking that was fun. One and done,” she recalled. “I met this great guy. I thought that was that.” Except it wasn’t.

She got a call from a team called Stockport, near Manchester, England. They had heard she had been cut, so they reached out. They couldn’t pay as much, but they were willing to piece together some other jobs coaching and working at area elementary schools to make it work. She played with the Lapwings for three seasons.

“Some of those girls are my current teammates,” Watson said. “I made some great friendships and am still quite close to the club.”

But after three years the Watsons needed a change. Her husband was in the British Army and decided to leave. There wasn’t much money. “We had to grow up and get some real jobs,” she said. “We went back to America.”

Watson stepped back from playing basketball while in the U.S., but she still stayed close to the sport. She coached the women’s team at Bard College, an NCAA Division 3 school in upstate New York, for five years; was the athletic director and  head girls hoop coach at St. Francis High School in Watsonville, California, also for five years; was an assistant principal at a California elementary school for one year, and then spent three years as an assistant commissioner for the California’s high school sports governing body running large-scale athletic events.

In 2018, the Watsons bought the family canal boat business in England, moved overseas and have been there ever since.

Both of Watson’s children are athletic. Elizabeth, 12, is a soccer goalie, while Harry, 10, is a basketball player. Both are big for their age and are projected to be tall like their mom when they get older – Elizabeth (6-4) and Harry (6-9). Mom calls Elizabeth a “tough little cookie,” while she describes Harry as “long and lean and athletic.”

Back in England, competitive basketball was not on her radar. Watson was playing with a local league team, but had not heard about masters basketball. An old teammate contacted her to say there was an ad online looking for women 40 and older to play for a FIMBA masters team to represent Great Britain.

“We both stewed on it for a while and then thought ‘why not?’” Watson said. “‘Let’s go for it.’ We jumped in the car and decided to give it a go. It was brilliant.”

Watson made the team. It started from there with six women. Today, the team has a roster of 21. The team ended up representing Great Britain last summer in the European Championships in Malaga, Spain. “It’s grown from there and there have been more opportunities from that,” Watson said.

Watson was already on a local league team, which is essentially neighboring towns playing each other. She joined the FIMBA club team with friends. Both are social teams. 

This past January, Watson attended a tryout for the top-level over-40 team, the GB Maxiballers. She made the team and started training for the world championships in Argentina, to be held Aug. 25 to Sept. 3. In June, she was picked as the team captain.

Although she is on three teams, the commitment is hardly overwhelming. The Maxiballers require one weekend every other month for a weekend of training. The FIMBA club team is a one weekend a month commitment, and her local league squad plays once a week. The Maxiballers are very competitive, but the other two teams have a fun factor that she enjoys. To illustrate that, her club team recently played in a tournament in Venice, Italy. “It’s very social,” she said. “Equal parts basketball and beer drinking.”

Staying in shape at her age is a challenge. “Being older and a big inside player, I have to work harder at things like fitness and endurance,” Watson said. “I do work out a lot on my own. I have a trainer I work with to get me ready.”

Watson had had no traumatic injuries, but there has been wear and tear on her knees. “They feel like they’re 85,” she said. “That’s a challenge. When you’re playing masters, you’re playing against other people your age. Everyone’s got little bumps and bruises.”

She laughs. “When you get to the tournaments on Saturday, everybody looks like LeBron James. When you go home on Sunday you definitely feel your age. … My knees struggle a little bit,” she added. “I’ve learned how to stretch out properly. I have to put in a little more time to get ready before and I have to take care after.”

Watson continues to embrace her New Hampshire roots. She still wears her reversible Coe-Brown warmup top when she practices. In fact, she left it behind after a recent Maxiballers training session. “I thought I had lost it,” she said. “I got pretty emotional, and then it turned up with a guy at the front desk.”

After her playing days, Watson sees herself getting into coaching. “It kind of naturally happens anyway,” she said. “I boss people around and people tend to listen.”

Player/coach anyone?

Ball 603’s Whaley publishes book

Longtime NH sportswriter and Ball 603 contributor Mike Whaley has released a book – “A Pen For All Seasons: Dispatches From a Rural New England Life in Sports.” It contains 65 of Whaley’s favorite stories and columns with photos from 35 years in the newspaper business.


Rochester and Farmington figure most prominently in the book, which includes stories Whaley has written since the late 1980s from the Rochester Courier, Rochester Times, Foster’s Daily Democrat and Portsmouth Herald.

There’s plenty on basketball. Here’s a list: Spaulding boys and girls basketball, including long-time former SHS coach Tim Cronin; Holy Rosary HS of Rochester, 1955 Class C boys champs; Nute’s David Burrows; Farmington’s 1970 state championship boys team and the 1967-68 Tiger Tigers, who were undefeated that season in volleyball, basketball and softball; Portsmouth’s Dan Parr and Sox great Carlton Fisk; Newmarket’s Ron Weitzell and Bert McGloughlin; UNH coach Gerry Friel; Oyster River girls coach Cathy Coakley; Whaley’s old college hoop teammates and friends, Bill Fitzgerald and John LeMieux, and the Austin-Cate Wildcats, 1971 NH Class S boys champs.

The book will be available (for $22) at the following book events: Collins Sports Center, Rochester, Saturday, May 20, 10 a.m. to 12 p.m.; Farmington House of Pizza, Sunday, May 21, 5 to 7 p.m.; Rochester Public Library, Wednesday, June 7, 6 to 7:30 p.m., and Goodwin Library in Farmington, Thursday, June 22, 5 to 6:30 p.m. 

The book may also be purchased at Collins during regular business hours (closed Sundays) starting May 22.

Whaley was a full-time area sportswriter from 1987 until his semi-retirement in 2019. He still writes occasionally for Foster’s and the Herald, as well as Ball603. A two-time New Hampshire Sportswriter of the Year, Whaley lives in Portland, Maine, with his wife, Jill.

Lofty expectations: No bar is too high for Ava Winterburn

By Mike Whaley

Ava Winterburn sets her bar high because that’s who she is. The Goffstown High School basketball star expects more from herself, not less.

“I always told people I wanted to be in the NBA when I was little,” she said with a laugh. When people told her there were no women in the NBA, she’d respond: “I know, but I want to be the first.”

That’s how Ava Winterburn rolls.

Led by Winterburn, Goffstown entered the Division I tournament Tuesday as the No. 4 seed. The Grizzlies improved to 16-3 with a big second half to claim a convincing 58-30 win over No. 13 Salem, paced by Winterburn’s 25 points and 19 from junior guard Maggie Sasso. Goffstown will host No. 5 Pinkerton in the quarterfinals on Friday.

It’s been quite a journey for Winterburn, a senior 6-foot-1 forward/guard, who will attend Southern New Hampshire University on scholarship. A four-year member of the Goffstown varsity, she has grown into one of the best players in the state. A returning first-team all-state player, Winterburn leads D-I in scoring, averaging 26 points per game.

Winterburn growth and maturity has been evident this season to her coach, Steve Largy. “It’s been fun to watch,” he said. “I get to go back and relive how she’s progressed and developed. She’s had a lot of the tools in the bag for a long, long time. She’s developed so much mentally and emotionally. She’s leading the break. She’s leading us in rebounds. She has an extremely high motor in practice. When you combine that level of skill that she’s developed in her work in the off-season and during the season, it’s pretty amazing.”

Watching Winterburn playing these days, one sees a 6-1 player with a great overall game. “One through four is where she can play,” Largy said. “And she can guard one through four. She’s a really big commodity at the college level.”

That wasn’t lost on SNHU coach Karen Pinkos when she recruited Winterburn. “What I love the most about her is that she’s basically a versatile player,” Pinkos said. “She can play inside, outside. She can handle the ball at her height. She can shoot the 3. She’s got a lot to her game.”

Winterburn’s maturity development was also something that resonated with Pinkos. She has known Winterburn since she was in grade school coming to SNHU summer camps, so she has seen the Goffstown player develop over time. “I went to see her play her junior year in high school,” Pinkos recalled. “She struggled a little bit with maturity in terms of getting frustrated and then fouling out all the time.”

When Pinkos saw Winterburn over the summer playing with her AAU team and HS squad, she could see a change. “I felt like she matured as a player, as a person. She just kept getting better,” said Pinkos, who believes Winterburn’s versatility could make her a special player in SNHU’s league – the Northeast-10 Conference.

This has been a breakout year for Winterburn, who has been good in previous years. This year, however, she has embraced all facets of her game, improved on defense (a necessity in college) and become an even better team player, and thus a much better overall player.

The Grizzlies success comes from the trust Winterburn has for her teammates, a very good group that includes classmates Ava Vaughan, Ava Ruggiero and Caroline Foreman, Sasso, and Winterburn’s sophomore sister, Meredith.

In past years, Winterburn felt compelled to check out the scorebook after games to see how many points she had scored. This year, there has been far less of that.

Late in the season she had a string of 20-plus games including back-to-back 41-point games. “It came naturally,” Largy said. “It’s not like she has to check the book after the game. It’s very organic. It’s very few shots. It’s happening in context of the flow of the offense or she’s getting rebounds or loose balls. She’s constantly up there in rebounds and assists. People are impressed with the score lines, but if you’re watching it happen, it’s way more impressive because it’s happening the right way.”

Winterburn can see the change. “This year I’m more comfortable on the floor than I’ve ever felt,” she said. “I think I’ve come with the mentality that I know my points are going to come. What else do I have to do to pull out a win?”

She recalls her second 41-point game, a win over Londonderry. She played the whole game. When the team manager told Winterburn that she had scored 41 points, she was surprised. “I wasn’t even thinking about it,” she said. “I just wanted to win the game. It was a pretty tight game until the end. That was my entire focus. That just shows how much I have grown since my underclassman years.”

It’s been a process with plenty of growing pains. In her first year, Winterburn was the only freshman on a team with nine seniors. Largy could see she was going to be good. Still, she didn’t play very much, which did not sit well with her. 

“Honestly, it sucked,” Winterburn said. “I’ve never been a kid who sat on the bench.”

She recalls going home and crying because at one stretch she sat three games in a row. “Now, looking back on it, I wasn’t ready mentally,” she said. “I wasn’t as good as I thought I was. I really learned my place. That experience with so many seniors, I got to figure out the right way to do it. It was a long, long lesson.”

As frustrating as her freshman season was, Winterburn did get a chance to shine. In the first round playoff game against Portsmouth, she came off the bench to score nine points to spark a 44-32 win. 

“I probably wasn’t expecting to go in,” she said. “Once I stepped on the court it was like ‘OK, how do I not go back to the bench? Because I don’t want to sit on the bench again.’”

It was a big boost for the freshman. “Being a big part of the playoff game, I think it said something about my persistence,” Winterburn recalled. “It wasn’t like I just sat on the bench and said ‘Whoa, I’m just a bench player.’ Here I am. I continued to work for it. I wanted minutes and when I finally got them, I showed why I deserved them.”

No. 6 Goffstown advanced to the quarters, upsetting No. 3 Manchester Memorial, 53-50. Next up was the semifinals against No. 10 Londonderry, but it never happened. The tournament was canceled due to Covid-19. No. 1 Bishop Guertin was awarded the state championship.

What should have been an exciting moment turned painful. “They shut us down,” Largy said. “We didn’t get to get on a bus and go to that for the nine seniors, who were set to do that. It was extremely disruptive. A lot of them were robbed of that first experience to go play at a neutral site and do that whole tournament experience thing.”

It was a good learning experience for Winterburn. She didn’t like sitting on the bench, but that didn’t stop her from soaking up every scrap of knowledge she could. On bus rides, she sat up front with the coaches and talked basketball, seeking ways to improve her game. At games, she had a designated spot beside assistant coach Nate Bracy. “We were always talking about the game,” she said. “Bracy loves to talk basketball and so do I. During the game we’d be talking and I was always ready to go in because I was seeing the game and what we could do (to win).”

As bad as it was sitting, Winterburn made the best of it. “I wouldn’t say I was having a pity party for myself,” she said.

Things changed in a big way when she was a sophomore. The nine seniors were gone, and she quickly found herself cast as the team’s leader and leading scorer. It was a strange season because there were Covid protocols in place that hampered playing (wearing masks), reduced the schedule and generally wreaked havoc with the season.

“It feels like it didn’t exist,” Winterburn said. “I feel like I went from freshman to junior year.”

There was a shorter regional schedule that culminated with an open tournament. Goffstown hosted Trinity in the first round, a team they had beaten late in the season. The Pioneers rallied from a 15-point halftime deficit to pull off a 39-38 win, sparked by 26 points from senior Colby Guinta. She hit the game-winning 3-pointer with 16 seconds to play.

Winterburn remembers after the game coach Largy saying, “That’s a senior. That’s what you play like when you’re a senior. That’s your last shot.” It didn’t resonate as much with a bunch of sophomores as it did to a senior who was used to being in that position.

“It was painful at the time,” Largy said. “But you learn so much from it. They got it. They see the progression from sophomore year to last year, taking the next step in the playoffs and winning that first game.”

There was some frustration for Winterburn early in her junior season. Opposing teams were focusing on her. She suddenly found herself dealing with defenses designed to stop her – and some of it was working. In addition, she had this bad habit of worrying about how many points she had scored. “It was frustrating. (She kept asking herself) ‘how many points did I get? Did I have enough points? Is my average going to go up?’”

Winterburn pauses for a second. “If we’re being honest, sometimes I still think like that,” she said. “But last year it was pretty bad. It was in the back of my mind ‘how many points did I get?’” 

While she was navigating the scoring piece, she was also introducing guard skills to expand her game. Before she had been a back-to-the-basket player because she was the tallest kid. “That wasn’t going to work for long,” she said. “I had to develop guard skills and I really got to put them into play.”

About half way through the season, Winterburn experienced a change for the better. She talked about the frustration of being face guarded and scoring six points. While that wasn’t fun, Goffstown did win the game. “I think that brings everything full circle,” she said. “I have great teammates surrounding me and even if I’m not having my best game, we can still pull out a win. I think that was an important switch that flipped for me.”

Largy saw the change as well. “She really became not just rim focused,” he said. “She started to see the floor somewhere in that year. Now she’s able to pick out open teammates and kick to open shooters in the corner. She was using her teammates in a way she hadn’t before because she was attracting so much defensive attention.”

Looking back it was a humbling experience for Winterburn. “‘There’s no I in team,’ the classic saying,” she said. “I really started to figure that out. I started to become a more selfless player. I always knew I had the people surrounding me who were good. I love all of my teammates. But I feel like at the end of the day I just needed to have more trust in them.”

The Grizzlies ended up winning in the 2022 tournament first round over Alvirne, before losing in the quarterfinals to Bedford, a team they have never beaten. Bedford has always presented a mental challenge for Goffstown. As Winterburn noted, it’s a constant loop where Goffstown players hear that Bedford is so much better than Goffstown. “You always have that in the back of your mind whenever you play Bedford,” she said. “Everybody is always saying ‘we have Bedford. We’re going to lose.’”

The Bedford loss did not sit well with Winterburn, who ended up in tears. “I’ve never seen anyone take a loss as hard as she did last year,” Largy said. “The big part is how she responded. She took that one to heart and did everything in the offseason to prevent that from happening again.”

This has been a great season for Winterburn and the Grizzlies. She has cemented her college plans at SNHU, and recently eclipsed 1,000 career points – an impressive feat given how little she played as a freshman and Goffstown’s shortened Covid season during her sophomore year. The SNHU decision, as it turned out, was pretty easy. “SNHU is the first college that believed in me,” she said. “You have to believe in someone to give them money to go to school.”

Everything felt right about SNHU, which is currently 20-6 and playing in the NE-10 tournament semifinals on Thursday. “I felt I could see myself there,” Winterburn said. “The coaching staff really made me feel welcome and wanted.” She also wants to stay involved with the Goffstown program, with its coaches and players. She has sisters playing now, and she wants the Goffstown players to come to her games. “The pieces all fit,” she said. “I chose SNHU because I’m going to play great basketball and still be involved with the community.”

But, for now, Winterburn and her teammates will focus on the matter at hand – to go as deep as they can in the D-I tournament. Which, in this case, comes back to defense, an aspect of her game that has improved by leaps and bounds. “You want to be on offense as much as possible, so you better play good defense,” she said. “There’s another saying – ‘offense wins games, defense wins championships.’ I want a championship.”

Aiming High: Laconia boys looking to make history

By Mike Whaley

LACONIA – Kayden Roberts and Keaton Beck like the view from the top. They both know they’ll like it even better if they can be there on the podium accepting the Division II boys basketball state championship plaque on March 12 in Durham.

Roberts and Beck are the main guys for the Laconia High School team that is 17-1 and the top seed in the D-II tournament – a first for the Sachems. Their goal is to do something no other Laconia squad has done, which is to win a state title.

“We’ve dipped our toes in the water,” said Beck, a 6-foot-6 junior forward/center who is averaging 19.6 points per game. “Now it’s time to fully submerge. It’s like game mode.”

Laconia has for sure had a taste of the tournament. When Roberts was a freshman, the Sachems lost on the road at Hollis-Brookline in the final seconds. In 2021, a senior-dominated team with Roberts and Beck providing support advanced to the semis, losing to eventual champion, Lebanon, 58-46. Last year, they won a first-round playoff game over Coe-Brown before No. 1 Souhegan rolled over them in the quarters.

“We got a taste of it a couple years ago,” said Roberts, a 5-7 all-state scoring point guard (21.6 ppg). “Now we really want to be the last one standing and put a banner up for the first time.”

Indeed, while Laconia feels good about its basketball tradition, it doesn’t include a state title (boys or girls). The Sachem boys last made a championship appearance in 1978 (57-46 loss to Pembroke in Class I), one of just two in program history.

“To me, how do you define tradition?” asked coach Steve McDonough, who is in his 12th year as coach. “For me, I teach (mathematics) in the building as well. Just because we don’t have the tradition of being a final four or championship team, there is a lot of tradition of being a Sachem in Laconia. There’s a lot of alumni that are very invested; former coaches that are very invested in keeping tabs on where these kids are.

McDonough added: “Kayden scored his 1,000th point a couple of games ago – one of five Sachem players now in the history of Laconia High School. The amount of alumni that reached out is special – former coaches – even Red Charland who coached Jim Swormstedt to his 1,000 points in (1987). I do think there is tradition. I would say ‘yes’ we don’t have a long tradition of winning in basketball.”

Which is something Roberts, Beck and their Laconia teammates are working hard to change.

The D-II regular season wraps up this week with the tournament set to open on Tuesday with first-round games. Because the Sachems are one of the top two seeds, they will get a bye to the second round. They will host a quarterfinal game on March 3, possibly vs. the Merrimack Valley-Lebanon winner.

Laconia ended the season with some big wins, including a wild one-point victory over Pelham, an 84-67 win over a very good ConVal squad with the division’s leading scorer in Joe Gutwein, and then a gutsy 65-52 decision at Oyster River to sew up the top seed. “I told the guys yesterday when they got off the bus (after the OR win) you have until midnight tonight to be as pumped as you want,” coach McDonough said. “We just did something special. But come tomorrow that doesn’t matter anymore. Today is tomorrow.”

Roberts and Beck feel like the groundwork has been laid to get Laconia to the ultimate level. All the Sachems, for the most part, grew up playing together – from LAYBL (Lou Athanas Youth Basketball League) to middle school to high school.

Roberts highlights how important it was his sophomore year to experience the trip to the semifinals with an experienced group of seniors led by Logan Paronto and DeMarco McKissic, Beck’s older brother. “They showed us what it’s like to win and play at that high level,” Roberts said. 

Now Roberts and Beck wear the leadership mantle, and have worn it well as the Sachems have successfully navigated their regular season to earn the top seed. Along the way they have had some big wins over quality squads, including Manchester West, Coe-Brown, Pelham, ConVal, Kennett, and Lebanon. The one hiccup was a 50-42 loss at Souhegan on Jan. 6.

“That loss hurt us,” Roberts said. “Souhegan is a really tough team. They defend the ball really well and they’ve got a lot of guys who play really hard. They’ve got a deep team. As a program, I know we all feel the same way – we wish we could get that game back.”

“That game kind of shot us down a bit,” Beck said. “We are still looking to go higher; the ceiling isn’t high enough.”

Coach McDonough thinks the Sachems weren’t ready for Souhegan. “They’ve been there before and we haven’t,” he said. “It was a playoff atmosphere in their gym. … They jumped out early on us. We clawed back and had a three- or five-point lead with three minutes to go. Their composure and their experience got them the timely buckets they needed and we reverted to some bad habits. The ball stopped moving and we forced a few shots. The next thing we know we look up and we’re down five when we have to start playing the foul game down the stretch.”

Until Laconia can prove otherwise, McDonough feels Souhegan is the team to beat. “Peter (Pierce) does such a good job of having those kids dialed in and ready to execute in those tight situations,” McDonough said. “They’re the better team. We hope to have the opportunity (to see them in the postseason) because that would mean we’ve won some playoff games. If we’re going to see them again, it’ll be a tremendous test to see if these guys have learned what they need to learn and I’ve taught them what I need to teach. Hopefully I’m right in my assessment that they’ve played with a composure to execute down the stretch that you need when you get to these games.”

Kayden Roberts is at the head of what Laconia does because he is the point guard and a main scorer. He is expected to do a lot. McDonough said the senior’s game has evolved over time. He came in as a freshman, started for a bit, but settled into a role as a contributor off the bench. As a sophomore, he was the primary point guard, while last year he had to score more for a team that struggled on offense.

“This year I challenged him to take the game from last year and be 15-20 percent less selfish and get other guys involved,” McDonough said. “We have a lot of great athletes on this team. We have some good shooters and that will open the floor up for him and Keaton. I think he’s done a phenomenal job with that.”

McDonough has pushed Roberts harder than most of his players because the senior is motivated when you tell him he can’t do something. After his freshman year, McDonough told him he couldn’t shoot. Roberts came back as a sophomore and was the team’s best shooter. After his sophomore year, his coach told him he couldn’t defend. Roberts came back as a junior as a better defender.

“After last year I told him he couldn’t be a playmaker for other people and he couldn’t defend at an elite level and he’s come back this year and he’s probably the most well-rounded player that I’ve had in my time here,” the coach said. “It’s all a testament to instead of him taking what I was offering and looking for a way out, looking for motivation out of it. He’s motivated by those types of things. He wants to prove me wrong and I’m happy to be proven wrong.”

As for Beck, McDonough said, “he’s a double-double off the bus. … To me, Keaton is a dominant force as a big man. He’s a match-up nightmare for most teams in that he can run the floor. He’s athletic. If he needs to put the ball on the floor a little bit, he can. It’s really kind of impossible to body him up with just one body. He’s just massively strong. He rebounds the ball extremely well. He has hands around the hoop that are phenomenal. He does a great job of keeping his hands high and finishing high.”

Beck is referred to as a “cheat code” in practice by his teammates because there are some drills where it’s too easy to just throw the ball over the top to him.

“You get the combo of those two for us as captains and leaders, it’s special,” McDonough said.

It’s what has allowed Laconia to have success. Roberts and Beck know their roles and realize the value of their teammates. “We’ve got a lot of players like Carson Tucker, Rowan Jones, Sam Knowlton, Logan Sanchez,” Roberts said. “They’re all really good basketball players. They play well within our system. They know that me and Keaton are the main guys. They’re really good role players. They get us the ball when they need to. They can also hit the open shots and work the ball around when they need to.”

Junior Carson Tucker is another guard, who can play point to take pressure off Roberts. “He’s an absolutely tremendous all-around athlete,” coach McDonough said, referring to Tucker’s ability as an all-state lacrosse player, who has also played football and soccer. “He usually defends the toughest matchup on the other team. It may be a guard; he may defend a big wing. He can defend any position on the floor because of his strength.

McDonough calls Jones the team’s “Swiss Army Knife” because he doesn’t care about stats. “He cares about winning,” the coach said. “He just goes out there and makes those quality gutsy plays whether it’s taking a charge at an opportune time or getting on the floor for a loose ball to get the energy going.”

Knowlton is a 6-3 senior forward with, according to McDonough, phenomenal footwork and a good sense for the game. “He’s come into his own shooting the ball lately,” his coach said. “We have lots of opportunities for drives and kicks and post touches and kicks when you have players like Kayden and Keaton. He’s been capitalizing there. He’s just another tremendous senior leader for us. … He’s hungry to win and wants to push these guys.

Caden Tucker is a 6-2 sophomore forward and Carson’s younger brother. Off the bench he gives Laconia size and length, shoots the ball really well and has a great sense for the game, according to McDonough.

Sanchez, a 6-2 junior forward, is an all-state quarterback “who learned in football quickly to give the ball to Keaton and get out of the way,” McDonough said. “He does a good job of that in basketball. He plays really good defense for us and has great length around the basket.”

Finn Mousseau is a 5-9 senior, who is the combo guard off the bench if there is foul trouble. He rounds out the rotation of eight that see the lion’s share of the playing time.

Two sophomores who swing up from the JV team and will figure in next year’s conversation are Brady Stevens and Matt Robinson. Senior Alex Marcano is playing high school hoop for the first time. He has an enviable task in practice to challenge and toughen up Beck to make him better.

“It’s been a full-team effort all year,” McDonough said. “It will continue to be for us to have any chance of being successful.”

As for style of play, the Sachems play an uptempo game on offense that relies on what McDonough calls “pace and space.” It’s not necessarily running at all times, but it does rely on keeping the ball and the players moving to maximize flow and rhythm.

On defense, Laconia plays strictly man to man; mostly in the halfcourt, but they will go full court man if need be. “For us in defense, it’s really simple,” McDonough said. “We want to keep guys in front of us. We want to see both (our player and the ball).” 

The second season is here. Laconia is right where it wants to be, riding a 13-game winning streak into the tournament and playing its best basketball. 

Being the No. 1 seed is a program first. There is some belief that the 1955 Class L finalist team was a regional No. 1, but this is the first time that the Sachems are sitting atop the standings across the division going into the tournament.”

“That’s something to be proud of and I think the guys are pumped in all that entails in getting a home playoff game,” coach McDonough said. “I think they also know that that happened yesterday. And really the task at hand now is to go defend home court next Friday night. We now know that there’s a bigger bull’s eye on our back than there has been possibly forever. We relish that opportunity. We’re not going to take it lightly.”

Game ready! Banghart handles challenges at UNC, Princeton

By Mike Whaley

Although basketball has been a life-long passion for Courtney Banghart, she wasn’t always sure it would be her vocation.

Once she realized it could be, she grabbed on firmly with both hands. She has developed into one of the finest college basketball coaches in the nation.

The New Hampshire native is now in her fourth year resurrecting the scandal-plagued women’s team at the University of North Carolina. Banghart’s current UNC squad is 18-7 and ranked 19th in the two most recent national polls. Before UNC, she transformed Princeton University into a top Ivy League program. In 2015, after leading the Tigers to a 30-0 regular season, she was recognized as the Naismith National Coach of the Year. Between the two schools she has over 300 wins in 16 seasons.

But there was a time when Banghart felt soccer would be her sport in college and that her future was likely in the sciences or maybe as a school head.

Banghart grew up in rural Amherst, New Hampshire, a town of nearly 11,000 people located in the south central section of the state, somewhat between Manchester and Nashua. She attended Souhegan High School from 1992 to 1996 where she was one of the state’s most decorated three-sport athletes. She excelled in soccer, basketball and tennis, leading Souhegan teams to eight state championships in those three sports. Individually, she set the state record – that’s been since broken – for most career goals in soccer (147), eclipsed the 1,000-point mark in basketball, and in tennis captured a state singles title (1995) and two in doubles (1994, 1995).

University of North Carolina women’s basketball head coach Courtney Banghart confers with junior guard Deja Kelly. A native of New Hampshire, Banghart is in her fourth year at UNC. [Photo courtesy of UNC Athletic Communications]

Banghart said she was lucky she was born in a state where at the time it was OK to play three sports. “We really specialize early now at this stage,” she said. “If I had had to specialize that early, it probably would have been soccer. I was more talented, more decorated, obviously.”

She added, “Athletics has been my thing. It’s what I’ve been best at. It’s what I’ve enjoyed the most. My first word was ‘ball’ not ‘mom’ or ‘dad’. That’s just been my life.”

Banghart said that when she went to Dartmouth College in the Ivy League because her dad was pretty sure that sports were not going to be in her future. She was heavily recruited for soccer, receiving offers from schools like Boston College and Notre Dame. She chose Dartmouth who was coached by current Virginia coach, Steve Swanson. Her feeling was that if soccer was going to pay her way, then that was the path she needed to take. But before she entered the Hanover school, Swanson took the job at Stanford. That left Banghart with two choices – follow Swanson to Stanford or stay as a Dartmouth recruit.

Well, actually there were three choices. Basketball was still her favorite sport and, frankly, Banghart was looking for any excuse to play it. She called the basketball coach.

Banghart hammers home her love for basketball. Yes, she was good at multiple sports, and she was best at soccer, but basketball was her passion. “My dad would always say, I’d finish a soccer game and have on my shin guards and go out and shoot hoops for an hour,” she said. “It was like a made-for-TV movie. I just loved hoop. I watched it. I used to watch the Celtics every Friday night. I just loved it. I still do.”

Growing up, Banghart did not get the exposure in basketball that you need to gain the attention of college coaches. “I didn’t do the whole AAU thing,” she said. “My parents weren’t financially prepared to spend that much money, They didn’t see the value in that.”

New Hampshire native Courtney Banghart played basketball at Dartmouth College where she was a two-time All-Ivy League pick and led the Big Green to a pair of Ivy League championships. [Photo courtesy of Dartmouth College Athletics]

Serendipity came into play when Banghart decided to play college basketball. Then Dartmouth coach, Chris Wielgus, was actually familiar with her and knew she was a good player. She had seen Banghart play for Souhegan against Hanover High School in the 1996 Class I state final because at the time her son was dating one of the Hanover players. Banghart had a great game, scoring 30-plus points in a 60-57 win.

“She knew who I was because she watched me play in high school,” Banghart recalled. “It’s kind of weird and strange now in this day and age, but being from a small town, your exposure is different than being in a more urban environment.”

Banghart laughs about it now, but at the time she chose Dartmouth and soccer because her parents wanted her to go to an Ivy League school, and soccer was the ticket to help pay for that. “Even if Steve (Swanson) had stayed, I can guarantee I would have found myself over to the basketball team,” she said.

Banghart played four years for the Big Green, leading them to a pair of Ivy League titles and twice earning first-team All-Ivy honors. She owned the Ivy League record with 273 career 3-pointers until it was broken in 2019 by Harvard’s Katie Benzan (287). In 1999, she earned the Ed Seitz Award as the top 3-point specialist in the nation after connecting on a program-best 97 three-pointers.

It was during her first job at Episcopal High School, a boarding school, in Alexandria, Virginia, that Banghart realized that maybe sports could be a vocation. She was the school’s assistant athletic director and then girls’ AD while coaching tennis and basketball during a three-year stint.

Doing what she did at Episcopal was a grind. “I’m not afraid of the grind,” she said. “I’m wired that way. I also saw the income. It didn’t match the grind. I thought if I want to do this, I should probably do this at the college level.”

It still wasn’t necessarily coaching, but Banghart was definitely thinking about sports; maybe as an athletic director or something similar.

She applied to graduate schools, getting accepted at the Harvard School of Education. When she told her dad, he asked who was footing the bill. She went to Dartmouth instead because they paid for it. She got her master’s degree while working with the Dartmouth women’s basketball team as an assistant coach from 2003-07, which included a pair of Ivy League championships.

Courtney Banghart holds Dartmouth College’s record for career 3-pointers made with 273. [Photo courtesy of Dartmouth College Athletics]

Where Banghart is in her life as a coach may have come down to one week in 2007. She turned 29, defended her graduate thesis and was offered the head job at Princeton.

“I always say about (Princeton athletic director) Gary Walters, he saw it before I did,” Banghart said of that coaching break, one she did not expect. She recalls showing up for the interview with a single piece of paper. “Here, this is me,” she said. “I’m almost embarrassed about how I interviewed for that job. But he saw it in me before I did.”

So there it was. Banghart was 29 and a head coaching job was on the table. It wasn’t something she was necessarily seeking. “Honestly, it kind of happened more so than I had made a conscious decision that coaching was going to be my life,” she said. “Once I hit the ground running at Princeton, I found my thing, as they say.”

Without a doubt.

In her 12 years at Princeton, she led the team to a lengthy list of league and Princeton firsts and bests. They won seven Ivy League titles and made it to the NCAA tournament eight times. Before she arrived, the Tigers had never made the NCAA tournament, and only once in their previous eight seasons had they had a winning record.

“It’s all about people,” Banghart said. “The program I inherited, we play them twice every year in the Ivy League. At Dartmouth I played them eight times as a player and eight times as an assistant and went 16-0 against them. So I knew what I was getting myself into.”

There were good players in place when Banghart got there. Though they hadn’t had success, they could speak positively about the school and the new coach. “They really helped me to recruit the next group,” she said.

One thing Banghart found was that she was very good at recruiting. “There are two types of coaches in our line of work,” she said. “Those who can recruit and those who get fired. I knew that recruiting was going to be important. I really got lucky. I got a lot of talented kids those first few years and the rest took care of itself.”

Because she was good at recruiting, of course, didn’t mean it was easy. “I think in coaching because it’s a journey of people, you’re constantly making decisions,” Banghart said. “You’re talking about that from a recruiting space; everybody has strengths, weaknesses and holes. You kind of have to build your team where you connect the strengths and the holes are complementary. Maybe it’s just dumb luck that I’m good at it.”

New Hampshire native Courtney Banghart has been a women’s college head basketball coach since 2007, the last four years at the University of North Carolina. [Photo courtesy of UNC Athletic Communications]

But she feels she can actually pick up beyond scoring, rebounding and defending on people that she thinks are really talented. “That proved me well at Princeton because you’re splitting hairs a little bit,” Banghart said.

At North Carolina, of course, you’re trying to get All-Americans. “But it’s the same idea,” she said. “Who are the kids to be the ones to help you win a national championship? I don’t have a very good answer for that. My mom has asked me that many times. ‘How do you know so-and-so is going to be good?’ I watch closely. I do the whole circle of recruiting. I talk to everyone in their circle. I talk to them a lot. Then I trust my evaluation. When they get here, I coach the hell out of them.”

Banghart coached the hell out of her Princeton players for 12 years until she felt she was ready for a new challenge. “We were literally hammering everybody,” she said. “I think partly I was 39 or 40 and I thought there was one more challenge in me in this industry. It didn’t feel OK to me that I’d give this much of my life to women’s basketball and I’d spend all of it in the Ivy League. What’s the next challenge?”

At Princeton, she’d been spoiled. “Princeton has a world-wide brand,” she said. “You recruit nationally. It’s a beautiful campus. It’s a wonderful place to live.” Banghart had also started a family there with her wife, Michele DeJuliis.

She had all these “non-negotiables” trying to find the next place. “The list was very, very small,” Banghart said. “My decision kind of came to a place like Carolina, will it be available? Am I going to be able to get that job? Or am I going to try a totally different thing? I kind of made up my mind that I wasn’t going to be an Ivy League coach that much longer.”

What happened next, Banghart will never forget. “I actually stepped down on a Thursday night, very, very late,” she recalled. “I got a call from (North Carolina athletic director) Bubba Cunningham Friday morning. Everything moved very quickly there.”

Then it became easier. “Because I had wrapped my head around the fact that there was going to be another challenge, I think that allowed some of the really hard things that come with moving and relocating your family to become less hard,” she said. “I knew there was going to be something else.”

New Hampshire native Courtney Banghart has been a women’s college head basketball coach since 2007, the last four years at the University of North Carolina. [Photo courtesy of UNC Athletic Communications]

Something else that was, indeed, a huge challenge. Banghart was taking over a North Carolina program with a rich tradition that had soured. The Tar Heels had won the 1994 NCAA national championship and been to the Final Four in 2006 and 2007 under Hall of Fame coach Sylvia Hatchell. But the recent history with Hatchell had regrettably deteriorated. There had been three consecutive losing seasons and then an 18-15 record in 2018-19 in which Hatchell ended up resigning under a cloud highlighted by accusations of racially insensitive remarks and forcing players to play while injured. Hatchell resigned on April 19, 2019. Banghart was officially hired before the end of the month on April 30.

In her first year, without the benefit of a recruiting season, Banghart came in and guided the team to a 16-14 record. That included a season-ending eight-game losing streak in a year that was canceled on the eve of the national tournament due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Covid affected her second year, as well, reducing the schedule to 22 games. The Heels went 13-11 overall, losing in both the first round of the ACC and NCAA tournaments. 

“It was really, really hard,” said Banghart coaching in those first two years, especially the second Covid season. “I’m very positive by nature. Looking back it was really hard. There were plenty of days I would ask myself ‘how long am I going to do this? What value is this?’”

She added: “Because you left something that you built fully functioning and you had to rebuild something that wasn’t fully functioning and needed a lot of changes. That is hard because that is peoples’ lives that you’re impacting. Of course, the league is really strong. Everything in this business is really finicky. If you don’t get a great class your first year, how do you get one your second year? You’re kind of wearing that all the time. It has to go well and it has to go well immediately. That’s stressful and hard.”

Banghart recalls at some point sitting in her car in her driveway and having a heart to heart with herself. “I’ve got to stop wanting to end here,” she told herself. “This isn’t helping anything. I’ve got to stop. You either finish what you started or if you don’t like it, do something else. I was at that point where I didn’t know if I liked doing this.”

Then it hit her that she had to cease asking for it to be easier. “You knew this was going to be hard,” she recalled telling herself. “That’s actually why you left Princeton. You wanted a new challenge. So now you ask your players every day to embrace challenges, and you’re disappointed that this is such a challenge. Stop. I was telling myself to grow up and see what it actually looks like.”

Her mind-set got better. That first class had arrived, so there was a talent influx. Some of the people who were there before moved on. “The people situation started to clean out and clean up,” Banghart said. “That was very helpful.”

The worm turned last year. UNC went 25-7 overall, winning two NCAA Tournament games before falling to eventual national champion South Carolina by eight points in the Sweet 16. The Heels were ranked 17th in the final AP poll.

This year, led by Banghart’s first recruiting class – now juniors – consisting of Deja Kelly, Anya Poole, Alyssa Ustby and Kennedy Todd-Williams, the Tar Heels are again nationally ranked.  “For a small-town New Hampshire kid, I won’t get tired of recognizing how hard that is,” Banghart said of being nationally ranked. “It’s hard to win at any level. We started the ACC season 0-3, but we also played three really good teams. We either had a small lead or it was tied or so in the fourth quarter. Those were all possession games. In coaching if you hang on every result defining you, you’re going to miss out on the journey. I felt the same then as I do now, I have a really good team. We just have to continue to get better, stay the course and you have to get some lucky breaks to get to a Final Four. We’re building to that, that we have a legitimate opportunity to do that every year with the talent we’ve been able to amass.”

It’s been a journey with this particular squad. “This team has matured, “ Banghart said. “At the time, I wished it had matured a little bit earlier. It wasn’t the organic nature of this group. We sort of had to go through some vulnerabilities. So far we’re doing pretty good.”

After some dark days, North Carolina and Banghart find themselves in a better basketball place that still has plenty of upside. “It’s been the sport that I watched and loved,” she said. “It’s really worked out.”

Banghart laughs because she often refers to herself as the “most expensively educated coach in the country.” But she adds on a more serious note, “had I not been given that (Dartmouth) opportunity – my parents had to take on some significant loans – I would have played soccer. That would have been fine, too.”

Fine, but clearly not the same.

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NHIAA to the NBA: O’Connor embraces NBA coaching life

By Mike Whaley

Brendan O’Connor always had a feeling that basketball would be his career path. He just never expected it to lead to the professional ranks.

The New Hampshire native is in his 10th season as an assistant coach with the Los Angeles Clippers – an odyssey that started in New England and, for now, has him in a good place on the West Coast.

O’Connor has been in the NBA since 2000, which includes stops with the Detroit Pistons, New York Knicks, Sacramento Kings, Charlotte Hornets, Brooklyn Nets and the Clippers. He was part of the staff when the Pistons won the 2004 NBA championship.

“To be honest, to start, I was probably thinking I wanted to be a college coach,” O’Connor said. “But then I got into the pro game right out of college and I’ve been doing it ever since.”

Brendan O’Connor’s dad, John “Jack” O’Connor, left, was the first basketball coach at St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Dover. Jack is pictured with his captains circa the early 1960s. [Photo courtesy of Brendan O’Connor]

O’Connor grew up in Manchester and Gilford the son of a former high school basketball coach. John “Jack” O’Connor coached in the late 1950s and early 1960s at St. Patrick’s in Berlin, New Boston High School and St. Thomas Aquinas HS in Dover where he was a founding member of the faculty while coaching basketball, golf and track. He died in 2020.

“He was a basketball guy,” O’Connor said. “I have three older brothers who were basketball players. I had a love for the game. I kind of knew that was the road I wanted to take.”

O’Connor’s family moved to Gilford when he was 12 where he starred on teams at Gilford High School. He led the Golden Eagles to the 1989 Class M championship game, the 1990 semifinals, and was selected to play in the Alhambra Game – the annual contest that pitted New Hampshire’s top senior players against those from Vermont. It was discontinued after the 2016 games.

He spent a year at prep school with the idea to play in college, but that never panned out. He enrolled at Saint Anselm College in Manchester. “I really wasn’t that good, to be honest,” O’Connor said. “I got hurt. It was the end of my career.”

One door closed and another opened.

Because the O’Connors had roots in Manchester – three of O’Connor’s siblings attended Trinity HS – they knew a lot of people. Pat O’Neil hired him to coach the Trinity freshman team with his cousin.

O’Connor did that for one full season and part of another. He graduated from Saint Anselm in December of 1995 with the thought he would finish out the second Trinity season and then maybe find a college position.

New Hampshire-native Brendan O’Connor always knew he wanted to make basketball his life. Since 2000, he has worked in the NBA as an assistant coach and advance scout. [Courtesy photo]


That changed when – sight unseen – he got in contact over the phone with the Florida Sharks of the United States Basketball League (USBL). The head coach was Eric Mussleman. They hired him, gave him some housing, and had him come down to help out.

“That was my big break,” O’Connor said. “Pat O’Neil gave me my first one.”

Well, the Sharks were a summer league team, so when O’Connor arrived in January, Musselman directed him to recruit players in the old Continental Basketball League (CBA), essentially what the G-League is today.

Musselman would send O’Connor to a city where he knew there were players he wanted to recruit, and get their hotel phone number. “I’d call their room until I got an answer and see if they were interested,” he said. “And if they were, I’d get their number and their agent’s number. So it was really recruiting more than anything else. But we ended up getting some good players.”

Musselman elevated O’Connor from intern to assistant coach before the USBL season, making it clear that he could only hire one assistant, which he already had. But he needed a second assistant on the bench to do some of the charting.

O’Connor was in.

“He and I worked well together,” O’Connor said. “He was a huge part of me doing what I’m doing today.”

The Sharks won the USBL championship during the summer of 1995 and again in 1996. After that 1995 USBL season, Musselman recruited O’Connor to join his CBA staff with the Rapid City Thrillers. “I was the second assistant,” O’Connor said. “Same rule. Not a lot of money. They gave me a place to live and a car. By the end of the season I was his top assistant.”

Musselman ended up getting an NBA job in 1998. O’Connor moved on to another CBA team, also in Grand Rapids, with player/coach Mark Hughes. Hughes had played briefly for Musselman with the Sharks. “He didn’t play for us for long, but we developed a great relationship.” O’Connor said.

O’Connor was an assistant, but when Hughes was on the court as a player, O’Connor became the head coach. “That was a great experience for me,” he said.

O’Connor was set to return for a second year, but the CBA was purchased by former NBA star Isaiah Thomas. He decided to take a job for one year in another league – the International Basketball League – with a team in Richmond, Va.


Through his relationship with Hughes, O’Connor met Joe Dumars, who became the president of basketball operations with the Detroit Pistons in 2000.

That led to his next breakthrough, joining the NBA.

O’Connor remembers it well. He was on his honeymoon with his wife, Marlene, on a cruise along Alaska’s Inside Passage.

It was the early days of cell phones, and his was “the size of my car,” O’Connor recalled. He got a call from Dumars, but the reception wasn’t good. He needed to use a pay phone to call Dumars back.

Dumars wanted O’Connor as an advance scout. “I was like ‘I’ll come right now,’” he said. “He said, ‘No rush. Take your time.” It was the end of June. Dumars told O’Connor just to give him a call when he returned home.

O’Connor was living in Massachusetts at the time. When he got home, he called Dumars who put him in touch with somebody else to help him get set up when he got to Detroit.

He flew out on July 4 and was to meet with Dumars the next day. O’Connor woke up that morning in a hotel in Detroit. The stunning headline in the newspaper announced that Detroit’s big star, Grant Hill, had signed with the Orlando Magic.

“I ended up sitting there for about three days without talking to anybody,” O’Connor said. “They were too busy; caught off guard with that one. They were shocked that it was happening. They needed a few days to get everything figured out about what they were going to do.”

Brendan O’Connor, right, is pictured with some members of his immediate family in 2004 with the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy after the Detroit Pistons won the 2004 NBA championship. Also pictured are Brendan’s dad, Jack; brother, Michael; mom, Eileen, and wife, Marlene. [Photo courtesy of Brendan O’Connor]

Believe it or not, O’Connor’s first morning in Detroit was the beginning of the Pistons’ NBA championship build. Hill’s departure actually worked out in Detroit’s favor. They got two players from the Magic – most notably Ben Wallace, who went on to become the NBA’s top defensive player of that era and one of its best rebounders.

In addition, injuries limited Hill to 47 games over the next four years.

“Part of the trade was Ben Wallace. That’s what started it,” O’Connor said. “It was a rough year the first year. It just kept building from there.”

Over the next couple years the championship team took shape. In 2001, Tayshaun Prince and Mehmet Okur were selected in the first two rounds of the NBA draft, and Corliss Williamson was added in a trade; in 2002, free agent Chauncey Billups was signed and Richard Hamilton came to Detroit in a trade for Jerry Stackhouse; in 2003, Lindsey Hunter was reacquired in a trade, and then in February of 2004 the final piece was added – Rasheed Wallace.

By that time, Detroit was on its third coach – Larry Brown. George Irvine had been there for O’Connor’s first year. He was replaced over the next two years by Rick Carlisle, and then Brown was brought in.

“It was a slow process,” O’Connor said. “But when you look back on it, it was pretty quick after that devastating first day.”

As an advance scout, O’Connor was on the road a lot, although by the time Brown took over, he was around the team a little more because Brown wanted that.

“I was in charge of the scouting report for every game,” O’Connor said. “I would send it to the assistant coaches and have conversations with them about our game plan. It was an incredible way to learn the league because you’re on a plane every day when you’re not with the team. You’re going to see teams play and you’re seeing a lot of NBA games each week.”

In 2004, Detroit entered the playoffs as the number three seed in the Eastern Conference. Their road to the NBA finals featured series wins over the Milwaukee Bucks (4-1), New Jersey Nets (4-3), and Indiana Pacers (4-2). In the NBA championship they rolled past the LA Lakers in five games.

“They set all kinds of (defensive) records,” O’Connor said of that team. “It’s a little bit different today. We had a lot of guys with that defensive mindset. At the end of the day it was all about winning.”

O’Connor has had debates with people over the years who claimed the Pistons didn’t have a star. “I thought we had five-plus stars,” he said. “I’d put Chauncey, Rick, Tayshaun, Ben and Rasheed against anyone. They might not be the guys to get 30 (points) every night. But on a given night anyone of them could.

“They all guarded their position and helped each other out,” added O’Connor, while also pointing to the key contributions of Hunter, Okur and Williamson off the bench.

The following year was another banner season, although they were unable to repeat, losing in the NBA finals in seven games to the San Antonio Spurs.

Brown left after that season, taking O’Connor with him to join his staff with the New York Knicks. It was his bounce-around time. Brown lasted one year in New York, so O’Connor joined Musselman in Sacramento for a season, and then back with Brown for several years in Charlotte, and then to Brooklyn with P.J. Carlesimo.

Brendan O’Connor, right, was hired by the LA Clippers by then head coach Doc Rivers in 2013. This is his 10th season with the franchise. [Photo courtesy of Brendan O’Connor]

In 2013, Doc Rivers hired him as an assistant with the LA Clippers and he’s been there ever since. Again, it was a case of building relationships. O’Connor recalls working with Mark Hughes in Grand Rapids in the CBA. Hughes and Rivers had the same agent when they played.

Rivers had retired as a player in 1996. He was doing some TV announcing in 1996-97, but he knew he wanted to get into coaching. He was going to do a second year with TV, but the NBA lockout ended that.

“We’re playing in the CBA, so he came and spent a month with us,” O’Connor said. “He was on the bus with us – six-hour rides. Great guy, great to be around. He and I were the two assistant coaches. We obviously developed a relationship.”

When Rivers was with the Celtics, he wanted O’Connor to join his staff, but it never quite worked out.

That changed, of course, when Rivers got the Clippers job. “He was trying to put a staff together,” O’Connor said. “He called me to see if I’d be interested. Of course, I was interested. It worked out.”

Like his first year with the Pistons, there was more craziness his first year in LA. At the time, the Clippers were owned by Donald Sterling, who was viewed as one of the worst owners in all of professional sports. In the midst of LA’s first-round series with the Golden State Warriors, a racist recording was released between Sterling and his mistress that referenced NBA Hall of Famer Magic Johnson.

“It is something I will never forget,” O’Connor said. The team was in San Francisco for Game 4 of the series. He recalls coming down to have breakfast at the hotel, and there was Rivers all by himself in this big banquet room. 

“He said ‘you’re not going to believe this,’” O’Connor recalled. “He told me the whole story.”

The story had not broken yet, but it would shortly. Rivers called the team together, told them without providing details. “It’s not going to be good,” Rivers said. “We’ve got to stick together.”

After a day of practice it came out that night around 10, remembered O’Connor. The team was leaving practice at the University of San Francisco for the bus ride back to the hotel. The media presence was suffocating. ABC, NBC and CNN were there with their big network trucks, in addition to waves of print and radio reporters. “It was nuts,” O’Connor said. “I’d never seen anything like it.”

The Clippers briefly considered boycotting Game 4, instead deciding to wear their team jerseys inside out to obscure the team logo during the pregame huddle.

When the Clippers got back to LA, the series even at 2-2, their general manager announced to them that NBA Commissioner Adam Silver had issued Sterling a life-time ban from the league.

Brendan O’Connor, left, celebrates a big playoff win in 2019 over the Golden State Warriors with JaMychal Green. [Photo courtesy of Brendan O’Connor]

The Clippers ended up winning the series, 4-3, but lost in the next round to Oklahoma City.

The silver lining, in O’Connor’s mind, was that the new owner, Steve Ballmer, was what the Clippers needed. “It was like winning the lottery, to be honest,” O’Connor said. “We didn’t know it at the time. Then Steve Ballmer took over. Talk about a good change at the top. That’s about as good as it gets.”

LA has had success, too, after many years as one of the NBA’s worst franchises. They’ve been to the playoffs nine times since 2011, including the conference finals in 2021.

Rivers was fired in 2020, and Tyronn Lue took over as head coach. O’Connor had worked with Lue during his first year with the Clippers in 2013-14. “He was running the defense for Doc that year,” O’Connor said. “I worked really closely with him.” 

Lue left for Cleveland for four years, winning an NBA championship in 2016 as the head coach after taking over at midseason. He was fired in 2018, worked informally with the Clippers for the remainder of the 2018-19 season, and then was hired as the lead assistant in 2019-20.

“If I had not met him, I probably would not still be here now,” O’Connor said.

Lue’s first year proved to be the best in franchise history. The Clippers advanced all the way to the conference finals, losing to the Phoenix Suns in six games. Last year they went 42-20 and missed the playoffs.


The Clippers are currently 31-26 and fourth in the Western Conference standings through Tuesday. They have won eight of their last 10 games. “We’ve had to battle through injuries with guys being in and out of the lineup,” O’Connor said. “Hopefully we can keep moving in the direction we are and have a chance to win at the end. We’ve got plenty of time left.”

LA is led by veteran all-stars Paul George and Kawhi Leonard.

These days, O’Connor’s job is working mostly with the defense. “It’s not like football where there’s an offensive coordinator and a defensive coordinator,” he said. “I do a lot of the defensive stuff. Tyronn does the offense. I’ll throw some ideas on the offensive side, but I mostly work on the defense.”

Brendan O’Connor’s sons, Desmond and Emmet, are pictured with NBA legend Jerry West, who works with the Clippers as a consultant. [Photo courtesy of Brendan O’Connor]

O’Connor lives with Marlene and their three sons just outside of LA in Manhattan Beach.

Being a head coach has crossed O’Connor’s mind. “I’ve had a few opportunities to leave with positions that might lead to that,” he said. “If you’re in this business you would like to run your own team.”

O’Connor, however, likes where he is. There is great ownership, Lue is an amazing head coach to work with. There’s plenty of upside. “It would have to be a really good situation for me to leave here,” he said. “It would be great to do all the things you want to try. But I love the position I am in right now.”

The subject of 2004 comes around again, and O’Connor says it seems like yesterday. “You look at the calendar. It isn’t,” he said. “I’m like, holy cow, next season will be 20 years.”

He feels that championship opportunity might come again with this current LA team, which some say is the deepest squad in the NBA (seven players averaging in double figures). “Having the group we have and having a chance to win a championship is really at the end of the day what it’s all about,” O’Connor said. “It was a special year – 2004. I’d love to experience that again.”

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They’re baaaack!! Tiger boys return to contender mode

By Mike Whaley

There was a time when Farmington High School boys basketball was held in high regard across New Hampshire. Those teams guided by Hall of Fame coach Mike Lee earned a reputation for being tough, fast-paced and relentless. Games in their steamy old gymnasium were a popular destination for coaches, players and fans from all corners of the state.

But Lee retired in 1998 after 21 seasons with over 300 wins and two state championships (1984, 1988). Since his departure there have been eight coaches and a pretty meager postseason haul: one trip to the semis (2001) and four to the quarterfinals. Not a sniff of a state championship.

The Tigers may be turning the corner under its current coach, Adam Thurston, whose patience is paying off in his ninth year. He is finally seeing some returns for his efforts.

Farmington is 11-2 in Division IV – ranked fourth with Profile behind Littleton, Concord Christian and Woodsville. It is one of the program’s best starts since the Lee era. The Tigers have done what they’ve done despite missing key players at different junctures due to injury and suspensions. That has only served to give other players more experience and make the team deeper than most in D-IV. They are just now getting everybody back.

Farmington’s 9th-year head coach Adam Thurston.

Farmington plays a withering man-to-man defense and features both size (three players 6-foot-4 or taller) and sound guard play with outside shooting range. There is good scoring balance with six players averaging six points or better a game.

The million dollar question is can this team advance deep into the tournament?

Last year most of this squad was on the floor when Farmington won its first playoff game under Thurston, a convincing 51-31 victory at Groveton in the 8-9 game. Their season ended in the quarters at No. 1 and unbeaten Woodsville, 60-47. It was a five-point game with two minutes to go, before the Engineers were finally able to pull away. Woodsville went on to win its second straight D-IV state title.

“It’s been a labor of love is kind of how I look at it,” said Thurston, a 2007 Farmington HS grad and former player. “When I first took over the program I was 25 at the time and, quite frankly, wasn’t ready to take over a varsity program.”

Because he was the eighth coach in 17 years, his immediate goal was to build continuity. “I was coaching JV at the time,” Thurston said. “I went through the program, so that was something I saw over the years.”

He said he wasn’t concerned about wins and losses. “It was about taking a more consistent approach about things and getting my message across,” Thurston said. “It took a lot of years. Looking back, I thought it would take five to six years to get there, and that’s about what it took.”

There was always talent, but not the commitment. Over the years, Thurston had to deal with outside forces – losing kids to suspensions, grades, apathy. “It’s been a struggle,” he said. “Last year was the year we finally got over the hump.”

Most of that team returned. With several additions, it has turned the Tigers into a contender. 

Senior Jordan Berko.

“When we were freshmen, we had a lot of talent on the team,” said senior big man Jordan Berko, the Tigers’ tallest player at 6-foot-6. “We couldn’t mesh together as we do now. I feel like a lot of the guys on the team are really close friends outside of basketball. Everybody really knows each other. There were some guys my freshman year who weren’t as dedicated to the sport so they fooled around outside of school and got into trouble or skipped practice or just went through the motions at practice. But now everything is fast-paced. We are focused.”

Thurston saw it coming as early as 2019 when the short-handed Tigers lost at Pittsfield in the first round of the tournament, 61-49, but it was a two-point game with four minutes to go. In 2020, they made a playoff trip to Groveton, only to lose a tight battle in the final minutes. But it was the same old same old – Berko was injured and a suspended starter missed the game.

Senior Matt Savoy.

Last year’s respectable playoff showing has given the team confidence. “It was awesome to see that we could make it that far,” said senior guard Matt Savoy. “It gave us a dose of energy this year – wanting to get past that this year and going all the way; or at least trying.”

A big influence, in Thurston’s mind, is the commitment to play off season, particularly over the summer. “When I took over I was knocking on eighth-graders’ doors with waivers to get them to play summer league,” he said. “I didn’t have enough high school kids. Now I’m turning kids away because we don’t have enough summer league jerseys. So that’s the big difference right there. That’s been the last two to three years we’ve had consistent off-season numbers. We’ve had less kids coming and going; kids messing up from time to time.”

Even though there were early season troubles, Farmington was able to figure things out. Two rotation players missed some time in December and January, and valuable junior starter Shawn Murphy suffered an injury that caused him to miss three games. He’s currently working his way back into the lineup.

“It allowed for some younger guys to move up, some guys with lesser roles to get their shot at it,” Thurston said. “It’s paid dividends down the stretch.”

Farmington is deeper for it, able to realistically play as many as nine or 10 players. “We really haven’t shown what we truly can be yet,” Thurston said. “We’re still very much an unfinished product.”

Senior Brian Boisvert.

Berko and Savoy lead the way as senior co-captains, averaging 15.3 and 8.8 points per game, respectively. Junior point guard Aiden Place (10.0 ppg) and senior guard Brian Boisvert (11.2 ppg) are two pleasant surprises in the backcourt, while Murphy (6.1 ppg) at 6-0 is a key contributor and a potential No. 2 scorer when he is healthy. Senior Luke Cardinal and junior Dylan Zappala are the Tigers’ 6-4 guys off the bench, while junior Cody Brazee and sophomore Noah Elwell are two players who benefited – and delivered – from increased playing time when others were either injured or suspended.

What makes Farmington so difficult to defend is that their scoring comes at you from so many different directions. Berko is the leading scorer, but he is unselfish to a fault, willing to get the ball to an open man first. It’s not uncommon for the Tigers to have three or four scorers in double figures, and not always the same names.

Thurston knew coming into the season what he was getting from Berko, Savoy and Murphy. Berko provides great defense and a double-double, Savoy is that all-around Swiss Army Knife type guy, and Murphy, when healthy, is a player who can be a consistent double-figures scorer.

Junior Aiden Place.

The surprises have been Place, Bosivert and Brazee. Place has embraced the point guard position where he distributes the ball well, plays tough defense and is an above average 3-point shooter. He leads the team in steals and assists. “In my opinion he’s been our biggest surprise,” Thurston said.

When players were out, Boisvert added some much needed offense and Brazee has been a pleasant offensive revelation off the bench.

Thurston recently pulled each player aside individually to discuss their roles down the stretch with the team returning to full strength. “The first thing is that it’s made things in practice very competitive, which is great,” he said. “The starters versus the bench are playing each other within one or two possessions. That’s great. We have unreal depth. I feel comfortable on any given night going 10 deep. I don’t think other teams in the division can do that.”

The schedule beefs up in February, which is where the Tigers will find out what they are made of. Thurston figures they need to run the table to have a shot at a top-four spot, which will allow them home court until the tournament moves to a neutral site for the semis and final.

That took a hit on Tuesday with a 69-56 loss at Concord Christian, a game that was tied at 38-all late in the third quarter before CCA pulled away.

Actually two losses may keep them in the top four with some of the top northern teams beating each other up down the wire. Littleton (13-0), Woodsville (9-1), Profile and Groveton (9-3) play each other at least once before the season ends next week. Woodsville and Groveton meet twice. Last year as the No. 9 seed, Farmington had to make two three-hour trips in the same week to Groveton and Woodsville. That is something Thurston would like to avoid.

Junior Shawn Murphy.

“We didn’t take care of business early on in the year, which we were certainly capable of,” Thurston said of last year. “We didn’t win those 50/50 games that we needed to. In Division IV that matters a ton. That was a big lesson coming out of that; we need to start fast, which we’ve done this year, obviously.”

Looking ahead, the Tigers have big games with Portsmouth Christian (their first loss) on Saturday and Newmarket to end the regular season on Feb. 10.

The PCA loss was the one game where the normally relentless man-to-man defense went complacent at the wrong time. “We need to get that out of our system the rest of the way,” Thurston said. “Grooming those things on the defensive end is going to be huge for us.”

Now that Farmington is back in the contender conversation, the Tigers are feeling good about themselves and their potential.

“At the [Farmington] 500, [the youth program in town], they’re always talking about ‘oh, the high school team has a game. You should go and watch it with your parents,’” said Savoy.

“I like being in the conversation,” Berko said. “When we show up for games during warm-ups we look out in the crowd and it’s totally full – both sides of the gym. There’s people there to watch. With us playing well and getting more fans, I like that.”

Who wouldn’t?

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Flying high – again: Orioles right where they want to be

By Mike Whaley

That the Conant High School girls basketball team is at the top of the NHIAA Division III standings is no surprise. The Orioles expect to be there.

Having now ventured into the second half of the D-III season, Conant is the last undefeated team left in the division with an 11-0 record and one of five in the state. Led by seniors Brynn Rautiola and Emma Tenters, both four-year varsity players, the Orioles have something to prove this season.

Small wonder.

Last winter, the Orioles flew into the D-III championship riding the wave of two straight state championships and 58 consecutive wins (66 if you count holiday tournament wins). Monadnock pulled off the upset, stinging Conant with a 50-31 loss.

The 2022-23 Conant HS girls basketball team includes, from left, Adrienne Kennedy, Brynn Rautiola, Irelynd Aucoin, Lola Hayes, Amy Lucier, Emma Tenters, Graecen Kirby, Maicee Peard, Hannah Manley, Bella Hart and Violet Bennett. [Courtesy photo]

“I think there was a lot of pressure in that game,” said Tenters, who scored 23 points including  her 1,000th career point on Saturday in a 54-33 win over Gilford. “A lot of people were nervous. We just kind of played out of character. Everyone was like ‘three-peat, 50-something game win streak.’ All the pressure. All the talk. I think it just kind of got into our heads.”

Rautiola said it was heartbreaking, but the loss fueled Conant in the offseason. “We worked hard with a chip on our shoulders. Obviously it sucked losing,” she said. “We learned more from losing that game. Throughout the offseason we looked back at that game. It makes you mature in a way that you look at it as the best thing to happen. … It’s motivation to keep working with your foot on the gas to practice every day and give 100 percent.”

“You tip your hat to Monadnock last season,” said coach Brian Troy. “They earned that victory. I think maybe we felt the weight of expectations a little too much. That may have played a role in it.”

There are few New Hampshire communities that take their basketball as seriously as Conant – both boys and girls. Since the mid 1980s, the two Oriole programs have combined to win 21 state titles – all in Division III/Class M. No other D-III program comes close.

The girls teams have always been solid, but they really took off in the 21st century. Since 2004, the Orioles have appeared in 11 state championship games and won seven.

A native of nearby Keene, Troy played basketball at Keene High (2009 grad) and then Rivier University in Nashua. He was a co-head coach for the Keene HS boys for a year and then an assistant at Keene State University with the women’s team.

He had no master plan to get into coaching, other than wanting to somehow be involved with basketball. He certainly never thought he’d be coaching girls.

Conant won the state title in 2015. A year later the position opened up. “I felt pretty confident and wanted to be a head coach and run my own program,” Troy said. “Conant was always a storied program. I saw the opportunity and really wanted it. It’s been great ever since.”

This is Troy’s seventh year. In that time, the Orioles have been to five championship games with three wins.

“There were definitely high expectations from the beginning,” he said, although his first year there was a universal feeling that a down year was in store. Conant overachieved, making it to the 2017 final, losing by eight points to Monadnock.

“After that it just kind of took off,” Troy said.

The Orioles won the title in 2018, lost in the 2019 semis and then won back-to-back crowns in 2020 and 2021. Last year was another trip to the finals, albeit a heartbreaking loss.

“No. 1 is the culture we have in the whole community and the basketball programs, both boys and girls, they really just wear their hearts on their sleeves,” Troy said. “Basketball is the biggest thing around the community.”

After last year’s championship loss, one thing Troy wanted to do was to try to put the Orioles in a position to play in tighter games. With few exceptions, the previous three years had been a series of blowouts.

One thing he did is enter the team in the Manchester Central HS holiday tournament against bigger schools. The Orioles made it to the final with wins over D-I Central and Merrimack, losing to Bow (8-0 in Division II) by three points. “We wanted everything hard for this group,” the coach said.

Their regular season has been more competitive. They opened the season with three tough games vs. Stevens, Monadnock and Hopkinton, which they won by 13, 12 and 11 points, respectively.

On Jan. 5, the Orioles had an early-season showdown with Concord Christian, a team that had moved up to D-III after dominating D-IV last year en route to an undefeated state championship.

The Orioles led by as many as 15 points, but then had to hold on to win, 59-58.

“We knew going in how talented they were,” said Troy, a physical education teacher at Marlborough School (preschool through Grade 8). “That was a great game, even though it got too close at the end. We had a 15-point lead and almost blew it. … It was good to get a feel for that game and see and feel who they are as a team.”

Rautiola said, “We kind of lost our composure a little bit in that game. We have experience on our side. We kind of know what it takes to win.”

“That was another situational thing that was nice to have as an experience,” Tenters said. “We had to really focus and make shots at the end. We ended up holding them off and winning the game.”

[Courtesy photo]

The Orioles have some tough games ahead, including several difficult tests on the road at Stevens on Saturday and Concord Christian on Feb. 6.

Rautiola and Tenters are the heart and soul of the Orioles – Rautiola as the point guard and Tenters as the 5-foot-11 force inside with the ability to hit outside shots. Last year she was the D-III player of the year.

Both girls plan to play ball at the next level – Rautiola at Keene State and Tenters at Emmanuel College in Boston.

“She’s been great,” said Troy about Tenters. “Her outside shooting has come a long way, which has added a huge strength to our team. Her overall leadership has been phenomenal. … It’s huge to have a player like her. It makes things a little easier when things are tight.”

Troys believes Rautiola is one of the best guards in the state. “Just in terms of her being able to manage the flow of the game and dictate the tempo,” he said. The 5-foot-7 Rautiola has been called on to score more this year, a role she has embraced along with her point-guard duties.

“Those two are at the head of everything we do,” Troy said. “We’re riding their leadership. They’ve been phenomenal since the season started.”

The Conant girls basketball team is pictured last season at Keene State College where they advanced to the D-III state final, losing to Monadnock. [Courtesy photo]

The rest of the rotation includes another senior, guard Adrienne Kennedy. “She brings a lot of intensity and all-out hustle and scrappiness and toughness that this team needs,” Troy said. A bit undersized, Kennedy is a good shooter who helps the Orioles with her overall energy.

Junior guard Bella Hart “brings a great basketball IQ and skill set to the team” Troy said. She is a very good passer with great court vision. An adept ball handler, she can relieve Rautiola at the point when needed.

Rounding out the starting five is sophomore guard Hannah Manley, the team’s third-leading scorer (5.9 ppg). “Her overall intensity and energy level and shooting ability is a perfect fit for this team because we’re able to get into the paint and be more of a shooting team that maybe we weren’t last year,” Troy said.

The key reserves are junior forward Amy Lucier, the first inside player off the bench, and junior Ireyland Aucoin, the first guard to come in, bringing intensity, toughness and athleticism.

Offensively, the Orioles like to space the floor, dribble drive and kick. Troy feels they may shoot better than last year. “I think it’s been a huge weapon for us,” he said. “We’ve put a huge emphasis on it.”

Whereas past teams may have been more run and gun, this year’s edition of the Orioles will still do that, but they’re comfort level is in their halfcourt sets – strengthened by their shooting.

Conant primarily uses half court man-to-man on defense. “Conant basketball starts and finishes on the defensive end of the floor,” Troy said. “Just being able to shut down teams if we’re not scoring as much as we can. … We like to get in your face. We’re aggressive. It’s kind of what we’ve been ever since I got here from day one.”

The Orioles follow the lead of their two senior stars. Tenters (19.4 ppg) and Rautiola (18.3 ppg) pace the team in scoring, accounting for two-thirds of Conant’s offense. They’re as good a 1-2 scoring punch as there is in the state. Since they were freshmen, Conant has gone 79-2 overall, including holiday tournaments.

“She’s my point guard,” said Tenters of Rautiola. “Whether she’s making plays, sticking 3s or locking someone up on defense, she always is making an impact on the floor.”

Rautiola appreciates her teammate’s court presence. “She makes the game a lot easier for everyone,” Rautiola said. “A lot of teams have to put a lot of focus into her. Once they do that, I feel like the game opens up a lot for everyone else.”

When Tenters hit 1,000 points on Saturday, she joined a pretty select Conant group of girls on the banner in the high school gym; names like Stenberg, Hunt, Bellette, Oswalt, Neyens, Springfield and Gonyea.

While the milestone was a goal for Tenters, it was not an obsession. “I’m focused more on the game than the points,” she said. When Elizabeth Gonyea hit 1,000 during Tenters’ sophomore year, the senior made a point of telling her younger teammate, “I want to see your name up there next.”

Tenters laughs. “That kind of motivated me to actually get there.”

Of course, Tenters embraces the bigger picture as do all of the Orioles. “At the same time it’s more about winning games,” she said. “Not necessarily how many points I’m going to get.”

Conant forges ahead, eyeing the rest of its regular season and the playoffs beyond. The goal doesn’t change. Like past Oriole teams, they expect to be playing on the last day of the Division III season, which in this case is the state championship on Feb. 25, 5 p.m., at Keene State College.

“We just need to make sure we take every game seriously,” Tenters said. “We know that everybody is coming for us because we have that history of winning.”

Team Romps: Avery and her dad work to make her better

By Mike Whaley

Unlike most athletes, Avery Romps has a built-in trainer and coach in her dad, Mike. Pretty sweet deal if you can get it.

Avery attends Portsmouth High School where the 5-foot-11 junior stars on the Clipper girls basketball team, which is 6-1 in Division I. 

While Avery is helping Portsmouth to experience another strong season in D-I and work her way to college at the NCAA Division I or II level, her dad is helping her to be the best that she can be.

Mike is a Grade 2/kindergarten teacher in Dover, a life coach and personal trainer, and a former varsity boys basketball coach at Dover High School.

He played basketball in high school at Manchester Central and then at Plymouth State University. He got into coaching after college as an assistant at now defunct Daniel Webster College, followed by stops at Keene State, Central Missouri State (where he met his wife, Jackie) and the University New Hampshire. Mike was the head coach for one year at Tilton School, before he took the Dover job. Basketball has been a big part of his life, as it has for Avery.

When Mike was the head coach at Dover High for 15 years (2001 to 2016), his two daughters spent many hours in Dover’s old Ollie Adams Gymnasium. 

He recalls, at the time, having three job offers at Dover, Portsmouth and Berwick Academy. “I felt it was important to live, teach and coach in the same community,” he said. “The only place we could afford to live was Dover.”

Mike remembers a lot happening in 2001. It was his first year teaching and coaching in Dover, Jackie got pregnant with their older daughter, Samantha, and they got married. 

Samantha was born in 2002. “From then on, the girls were in the gym,” said Mike, who has taught in Dover for 23 years, the last 21 years at Garrison School. “People were babysitting them left and right. They were at all the games.”

Avery was born in 2006. She smiles about her early basketball memories with her dad. “We would always be in the gym running around,” she said. “I don’t remember the games, but it was fun being on the sidelines all the time. I was so young. It was a bunch of these tall guys. It was really nerve-wracking. It definitely made me interested in basketball a lot more; the game in general. How to play.”

Mike recalls Avery in her bouncy seat with her basketball with her name on it. “I can remember her running up and down the bleachers,” he said. “Listening in timeouts; getting snacks and candy during the games. From the jump, I don’t think there was a day when there wasn’t something like basketball in our lives.”

With Samantha, Romps said he was a little more “cautious and cerebral” because she was the eldest, the first child. He stayed at arm’s length as far as coaching her. Samantha went through the Dover school system, playing basketball as well. She graduated from Dover HS in 2019.

Mike felt Avery had more of an edge on her, and he felt she really liked the sport. There was also a very good group of similar aged Dover athletes – Tory Vitko, Payton Denning, Julia Rowley, Lanie Mourgenos.

By the time Avery was in second grade, she was not only playing Little Shots with the Dover Recreation Department, but also traveling to tournaments. Mike coached those teams, which did very well. “I would like to think they’re all reaping the rewards now,” he said.

Avery recalls the four-team rec league being fun. The travel ball allowed the girls to play against better competition. “That helped us improve at an early age,” she said.

If you know Mike Romps, he is an intense person. When he coaches, he has a lot of fire and energy. Avery is lower key. Early on she was not as receptive to his criticism as she is now. 

“When I was younger I was a little more sensitive,” Avery said. “He would critique me too much and I just couldn’t (take it).”

But then Avery got to the point where she could see that her dad’s suggestions were helpful. “Now I take them and try to improve my game and it obviously works,” she said.

Although he’s not so sure now, at the time he coached Avery and the girls hard. “We were very clear with the parents,” he said. “The Sue Vitkos of the world and people like her, they were just as into it as I was.”

Mike always kept in mind that they were young kids and he couldn’t treat him like high school players. But he felt strongly about accountability, defense and rebounding. “There was a lot of the time I would pull someone out of the game, “ he said. “I think that’s the hard part of being a parent-coach, that your first inclination is to be hardest on your kid because you know all the parents are watching and keeping track.”

Fortunately, there were few issues. Mike had this group of girls from Grade 2 until Grade 8, and they did very well. “It was just a situation where they were used to being coached like that,” he said. “Everyone was kind on the same page, which made it a special time for all of us.”

Avery laughs at some of those memories, which weren’t always rosy. “At times, it was not fun,” she said. “I improved a lot mentally. If a coach is going to yell at me, I’m that much mentally stronger now.”

The silver lining was that the team did very well and Avery got better as a player. “Two years we were undefeated,” she said. “It just made the game so much more fun to play, especially with these girls because we were all good friends.”

Things changed just before Avery went to high school. The family decided to move to Greenland. Several factors played a role in that move. Mike’s parents were now living with them. He was also looking to enhance his business as a life coach and personal trainer. The Greenland property provided space for a full basketball court and land to run camps.

The move meant a new start at a new school for Avery. Mike understood that. He just wanted to make sure she was surrounded by good people, like she had been in Dover. It also meant he needed to step away from his daughter as a coach.

As it turned out, Mike had coached some of the Portsmouth girls in a summer league in Danvers, Mass. “We were lucky to know most of the parents,” he said. “We had conversations and asked if they were open (to Avery coming to Portsmouth). They were welcoming and warm from the jump.”

It still wasn’t easy. Due to the pandemic, Avery did not attend classes in person until January of 2021. Basketball, which started in January due to the pandemic, made things easier.

“I remember going to the first couple of open gyms and I was so nervous,” she said. “I knew these girls from playing against them when I was younger. We always played against each other and it was competitive, but now we’re going to be on the same team. It was definitely different. But after a couple of open gyms, I got super close with a lot of them. It became so much more fun.”

Portsmouth’s Avery Romps, left, maneuvers against a Dover defender during her sophomore year. [Mike Whaley photo]

Plus the team had success. Avery was one of four freshmen who played significant minutes along with Maddie MacCannell, Margaret Montplaisir and Mackenzie Lombardi. The Clippers made a run to the D-I semis, which included an upset of a veteran Exeter club in the quarterfinals.

Last year as sophomores, they had another strong year, again making it as far as the semis. Avery was named to the D-I All-State Second team. “With that, there’s a target on their back this year,” Mike said.

Mike also appreciates how the Portsmouth program is handled. “Coach (Tim) Hopley runs the program the right way,” Mike said. “I respect the way he runs it. He is a defensive-minded coach. It’s made the transition much easier for everybody.”

For Hopley, the Romps situation had always been a good one. “There has never been a time when (Mike) overstepped his boundaries,” Hopley said. “He works with a lot of our players in the offseason. … He’s done a lot to certainly help Avery’s game, but also to help all of the players in our program or at least give them the opportunity to help them improve.

“It’s a situation for me where I know they’re being taught great fundamental skills when they’re with him,” Hopley said. “He’s respectful of what we try to do in our program. I never get the sense with Avery that she’s in conflict. It’s a great situation. There’s no other way to put it.”

Now that she’s a junior, Avery is starting to consider colleges. She has one offer from Saint Anselm College, a D-II school in Manchester. “I’m still waiting,” she said.

In the meantime, she plans to work on her game and do her best to help the Clippers advance as far as they can in the D-I tournament.

“The big thing I have worked on this year is my aggression,” Avery said. “Last year, I was a shooter and just attacked when I was open. This year I’m really trying to initiate the contact. I have way more intensity. I’ve improved in that way.”

Portsmouth’s Avery Romps (24) launches a shot from the corner during a game vs. Spaulding when she was a freshman. [Mike Whaley photo]

Mike said that improvement is clear in the numbers. Avery’s grandad keeps her statistics. Last year she took 50 free throws. Through five games this year she has already taken 39. “That’s a barometer that you are attacking the rim,” Mike said.

Similar to that point, Hopley weighs in on Avery’s need to be more physical. “She is starting to play the game in a more physical manner, which is what is required not only to play at a high level in high school but to play at the college level,” he said. “I think that’s one of those things she’s continuing to work on. She’s made huge strides in that part of her game.”

Hopley pointed to a game last week with Pinkerton (71-62 win) in which Avery took over in the second half. “She was willing to be physical, attacking the paint,” he said. “I think she drew two ‘and-ones’. Those are things she might not have done her first two years in our program.”

There have been some interesting Romps car rides where the conversation comes around to being more aggressive. “What we’re saying is there have been times throughout her career that she wasn’t,” Mike said. “I come back to her: ‘You’re putting in the time. Go out there and show people what you can do.’ There were times when it got intense and I was told by my wife to shut up, to leave it alone.”

Avery also feels she has improved defensively. “I have this non-stop motor on the court,” she said. “I’m always playing intensely, supporting my teammates. I’m not getting down on myself when I miss shots.”

Mike says the schools that have been looking at Avery have been clear about what they want to see. In their training sessions together, Avery has been very receptive to what Mike puts out there. She also uses the weight room in the family basement to improve her strength. “She’s learned that there are certain things outside of practice she has to do,’ Mike said. “Whether that’s getting up shots, lifting weights or going for runs.”

Portsmouth, in Mike’s opinion, is letting Avery create more, to be a facilitator on the court. “There are a lot of pieces to Avery’s game that the average Joe might not see,” Mike said. “But whether it’s covering the best player or bringing the ball up the court or making that extra pass or rebounding, I’m just proud of the basketball player that she is. She is definitely a coach’s kid in that regard.”

Mike Romps speaks to a youth group at the Farmington 500 back in 2019.

Mike believes the only thing holding her back is she needs to be a little more selfish. As an example, Mike points out that Avery is big on making that extra pass. It’s something she’s always done. “Sometimes, hey, you’re the one who just took 500 shots, you shoot it,” he said. “There’s that balance of selfishness and team play and being a coach. I’ve always taught her to make the right play. Now I’m turning around and telling her to shoot that shot. It can be confusing at times. We’re still working on it.”

Avery does see the wisdom in what her dad is saying. “Especially since I put in so much time,” she said. “I wasn’t showing anyone that. I was just being an average player. Just doing what was open. Now it’s clicked in the past couple months. I have all this skill. I can finally show people since I put all this work in.”

Mike regrets not putting enough time into his own game. That makes him more than ever want to help his daughter maximize her potential. “I’m going to do everything I can as long as Avery is open to it,” he said. “To make her as good a player as she can be.”

He pauses, adding: “When push comes to shove, I’m just the person rebounding and making suggestions. She’s the one that has to do the work.”

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