EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

March 24, 2013

Column:

Matthew T. May
The Eagle-Tribune

---- — In Central Catholic girls’ basketball coach Sue Downer’s trade, coaches do not stomp up and down the sidelines wearing baseball caps and sunglasses. But her program can be summed up by a speech to his players once given on the concept of team by the late University of Michigan football coach Bo Schembechler. It is easy to imagine his words echoing through the minds of each Central player during every play of every game:

“No man is more important than The Team. No coach is more important than The Team. The Team, The Team, The Team! And if we think that way, all of us, everything that you do, you take into consideration what effect does it have on my Team?

That attitude materialized most clearly during a single play during the March 16 state final in Worcester against Holy Name.

It was not a signature drive and score by captain and all-everything Casey McLaughlin. Nor was it a sweetly soft mid-range jumper by Courtney Walsh, a rainbow three-pointer by Caitlin Dell’Orfano, or an elegant low-post move by Amanda Williams. It was a turnover – committed by Central Catholic.

After being arm-barred, hand-checked, and jostled by her Holy Name defender, Central guard Alexandra Nagri lost possession of the basketball. Holy Name started to break the other way, and looked to have the advantage to convert the error into two quick points.

Nagri could have pouted about the lack of a foul that should have been assessed to Holy Name. She could have visibly chided a teammate for not coming toward her more quickly to receive a pass. She could have slowly jogged back the other way at the tail end of a Holy Name lay-up. She did none of those things.

Nagri knew that her primary responsibility was to stop the basketball – immediately. She sprinted back to defend the rim, positioned herself perfectly between the goal and the Holy Name player dribbling in toward the basket at full speed. Nagri stood her ground, took a brutal charge, and negated the turnover by drawing an offensive foul on Holy Name. It was a great individual effort. If you have ever sacrificed yourself to take a charge, you know that it was also a great team play and what a great impact it can have on an entire team.

Everyone preaches the team concept, but Central consistently put it into practice during the Division 1 playoffs. They constantly moved on offense and ran their sets efficiently, the product of being drilled by Downer and her staff to do so the right way, every time, all the time. Each player on the floor knew her role and did not deviate from it. That is the yield of great coaching and a commitment to the team concept on the part of the players, a commitment to prepare. Everyone has the will to win? The will to prepare to win is as rare as it is vital, and Central had it.

Central played the best team defense in the Division 1 tournament. Just as importantly, they never let up. It is a truism in basketball that even the best players can have off-nights on offense. Sometimes the shots just don’t fall. But every player can give maximum effort on defense. More often than not, Central Catholic did that during the regular season and always did so in the post-season. That dedication is what allowed them to frustrate and mow down teams that had individual players already committed to playing at schools like Boston College and Providence College, or tipped off against Central with gaudy records during the tournament only to go home with a final blemish.

Now this Central Catholic team has an experience that everyone associated with it will treasure forever – not just the starting five, not just an all-state player, but the team.

“... and think what a great thing it is to be a part of something that is ‘The Team,’” the old football coach said, in words that now apply to Central Catholic’s run to the title. “We’re gonna win it. We’re gonna win the championship again because we’re gonna play as a team, better than anybody else ... We’re gonna believe in each other, we’re not gonna criticize each other, we’re not gonna talk about each other, we’re gonna encourage each other. And when we play as a team, when the old season is over, you and I know, it’s gonna be Michigan again. Michigan.”

Throughout the Division 1 girls’ state basketball tournament, one squad played solely as a team better than anybody else. The old season is over and everybody knows it’s Central.

Matthew May welcomes comments at may.matthew.t@gmail.com