Manchester West girls’ basketball coach Mario Pena, shown on the bench last season, has the Blue Knights playing strong, assertive defense and becoming a contender in Division II. (THOMAS ROY/UNION LEADER)
AN AWAKENING is taking place on the hardwood at Manchester West High these days.
Winning was not part of the West girls’ basketball team’s DNA when Mario Pena became head coach five years ago. The Blue Knights won just one game under Pena in his first two seasons and did not post many close losses.
The tides have begun to turn in favor of West these days, though, as its 3-3 start this season comes after Division II playoff berths in each of the last two seasons. The Blue Knights sneaked into the tournament as the No. 14 seed in 2015 and then as the No. 12 seed last winter. Some might downplay such modest success, but Pena never hides his pride in how far his club has come.
“I think we’ve really brought a change in expectations of the girls and just changing the culture of what it is to be an athlete at West,” said Pena, who added turnout for the program is not great but is made up for by the tireless dedication of the those who do come out. “They now know they are not just playing for themselves, but their school too. The pride, work ethic and offseason commitment are all little things that have added up to what we’re doing now.”
A prime example of how far West has come was its battle with defending D-II champion Hanover last Friday. The Blue Knights ended up on the wrong side of a 48-47 loss against the Marauders, but West led well into the fourth quarter before a Hanover surge late. The idea of competing with or even defeating a team of Hanover’s pedigree was a far-fetched scenario just a few years ago.
The base of the renaissance is a senior quartet that has been with the program since its one-win season in 2013. Emily Keefe, Taylor Ricard, Mikayla Kaul and Ayna Howard have each been proponents for harder coaching in an effort to mirror the success they’ve seen their male counterparts earn during their time at West. The seniors found a way to remain in the program through the tough times and are now reaping the benefits of their patience.
“It hasn’t always been a smooth ride and I think they remember those tough losses,” Pena said. “We’ve kind of always talked about it being us against the world though. A lot of people don’t really talk about the stuff that we’ve been doing, but we’ve managed to stay together and work year-round no matter what.”
Beyond team unity, the foundation for West’s rise has come on the defensive side of the ball. The Blue Knights have held an opponent to under 50 points in four of six games this season. Pena said a consistent, relentless four-quarter effort has been the goal of the defense each time out and the mentality has paid dividends.
West’s fortunes on offense have laid on the shoulders of Keefe, who not only runs the offense as point guard but is the Blue Knights’ leading scorer on most nights. The senior scored 27points of West’s 47 points in the tough loss to Hanover and is averaging nearly 22 a game while scoring no fewer than 15 in a contest to start the young season.
“She’s always been in the gym trying to find ways to get better, but the other piece is her maturity and confidence,” Pena said. “She’s been in the same situation on varsity since she was a freshman. There’s been a lot of pressure on her and her teammates have supported her through it because they need her to lead and be confident.”
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THE DIVISION I girls’ conversation has focused on Bedford and Bishop Guertin of Nashua so far this season, but there might be a spoiler in the making down in Hudson. The Alvirne girls join Bedford and Pinkerton of Derry as the only undefeated teams remaining in D-I and have won each of their six games by at least 11 points.
“We lost a couple senior scorers from last year, so my plan coming into this season was figuring out how to play better defense,” second-year Alvirne coach Scott Szuksta said. “That focus has really been the key that has allowed us to be competitive while getting some scoring from freshmen and other kids that weren’t in the program last year.”
The addition of complementary players has offered a jolt for the Broncos, but the tandem work of Marissa Sweeney and Amanda Wetmore is the root of Alvirne’s early-season accomplishments, which include a title run at the Chick-fil-A Girls’ Holiday Tournament in Nashua over the holiday break. Sweeney and Wetmore both stand 6-feet tall while offering well-rounded, versatile skillsets on both ends of the floor.
“Those two are not your traditional post players,” Szuksta said. “They can take the ball outside and shoot it a little bit while also being capable of bringing the ball up for us.
“The bigger thing with them is the stability and leadership they’ve brought. They carry great poise and composure, but they’ve done well in trying to bring up the younger kids to help build this team and keep our core strong.”
Alvirne has good had key wins against perennially solid teams like Winnacunnet of Hampton and Manchester Central, but the true tests will come against Pinkerton (Friday in Derry), Bedford (Jan. 24 in Hudson) and BG (Feb. 3 in Hudson).
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I KNOW I wrote about it at length in my season preview and again after Tuesday night’s game, but the depth that the Portsmouth boys hold is worth yammering about.
The Clippers (6-0) are a team that carries no true star, especially with 6-foot-5 center Joey Glynn sitting on the bench in street clothes for the last five games. They’ve utilized contributions from any combination of five players on the floor to maneuver through the start of their return to Division I.
On Tuesday against Pinkerton, it was the shooting of Mike Sanborn early before giving way to Cody Graham’s hot hand late to run the lead to 30 points at one point. Alex Tavares has filled in admirably in the post and now adds another weapon next to Glynn, who Clippers coach Jim Mulvey said is set to return to the lineup from his broken foot on Friday against Spaulding of Rochester. Shon Parham and Christian Peete have also offered exceptional play to lead the team at times.
The spread offense has been a mere luxury, though, as the Clippers’ philosophy on a winning formula starts with team defense. Some would say the success around the perimeter got Portsmouth the win on Tuesday, but Parham and his teammates know better.
“We just try to key in on defense and really step up the pressure at all times,” Parham said. “Coming out and making stops gives us the energy we need to produce offense. That defense starts everything and pushes us through an entire game.”
High School Basketball appears in Thursday’s New Hampshire Union Leader during the season. To reach Joe Duball, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org