On different days this week, veteran Northampton girls coach Tom Parent and Andover's Jim Tildsley, who will face each other at the DCU Center in Worcester in the Division 1 state finals at 5:45 p.m. tomorrow, had exactly the same feeling.
"They're a lot like us in just about every way," said Parent, who was at TD Banknorth Garden Tuesday to watch the Golden Warriors (23-3) manhandle New Bedford, 61-34, in the Eastern Massachusetts final. "We're both solid on defense and have kids who can shoot the three."
The next night, Tildsley was on hand at the Mullins Center in Amherst to watch the Blue Devils (23-2) take apart Westboro, 56-38, and his impression was almost identical.
"They're very similar to us," said Tildsley. "All of their starters can score, they play well together as a team and they play good defense."
When asked if he could compare Northampton to any of Andover's opponents, Tildsley thought for a moment and then replied, "I can only compare them to us."
There are definitely a lot of similarities.
Northampton, like Andover, generally goes with a six-player rotation, it boasts balanced scoring (each team has three players averaging in double figures) and it prides itself on defense.
Thanks to a stifling man-to-man defense, Northampton has allowed only one team all year to reach 50 points against it and only two have scored in the 40s. Everyone else has been in the 30s.
"I think our strong point is defense," said Parent. "We're very athletic and teams have had trouble getting to the basket against us."
Hampshire Gazette sports writer Jim Pignatello, who has seen a number of Northampton's games, agrees that the Blue Devils excel on defense.
"It's more of a defensive team, but a really good one," said Pignatello. "Their point guard, Jenny Bell, is really quick and it all revolves around her."
Bell, a 5-foot-9 junior, averages 12.8 points a game, the same as 5-11 junior forward Alannah Driscoll-Sbar. The other starters are all seniors who plan to continue their basketball careers in college. They are 6-foot center Brighid Courtney (10.6), 5-6 guard Iris Santoni (7.5) and 5-8 guard Jamie Messer (8.1), the latter of whom is the team's top 3-point threat.
The three seniors are headed to Brandeis, St. Lawrence and Rollins, respectively.
This will be the second trip to the state final for Parent (363-178 in 27 years) and the third overall for Northampton. The last trip for the Blue Devils came in 1992, when they fell by three points to Haverhill, another Merrimack Valley Conference team.
Over the years, however, Northampton has always been among the elite in the western part of the state. But Parent believes that this year's squad is superior to any of his others, including the 1992 team.
"This team has six kids who are outstanding basketball players," said Parent, who puts top reserve Casey Sicard, on the same level as his starters. "We've had three or four very good players before, but never six."
The Blue Devils return virtually the entire team from last year (20-2), when their only two losses were by a combined seven points to eventual state champion Springfield Central.
"But the kids have matured this year and they got stronger," said Parent. "That was the one thing we felt we needed to get and all the girls worked hard at it."
This is a season the Northampton seniors have pointed toward for three years. As freshmen they were 16-6, but they've gone 63-6 since then. Still, Parent knows that Andover, with seniors Meghan Thomann, Laura Renfro and Lauren Hughes leading the way, are in the same position, hoping to go out with a title.
"The team that shoots the ball the best is probably going to win," said Parent. "We've been pretty consistent (shooting) but I know they've got some great shooters."
Andover coach Jim Tildsley believes his club is ready for a championship effort and is hoping that the shots are falling like they did against New Bedford.
"If we play like we have the last three games, I like our chances," said Tildsley, whose 2003 team captured Andover's first state title when the current group of seniors were seventh graders.