Last year, the Vineyard girls’ eighth grade travel team ended their season just shy of qualifying for the state tournament. Though the team placed third in the Cape Hoops League, it wasn’t enough for the playoffs.
This year things were different.
The team closed their regular season with a perfect 17-0 league record. They snapped up a spot in the state tournament and lost just two games during postseason play. And they finished the year second in the state, after a defensive battle against Hopkinton in the division two tournament finals ultimately led to a 36-26 loss.
At the state tournament, head coach Maureen Hill said, one coach told her the Vineyard had “raised some eyebrows,” particularly after their 42-34 semifinal win over Brockton.
“It’s seeing them achieve what they — what I didn’t think possible and then having them go out and do it,” Coach Hill said. “I didn’t think we were going to beat Brockton — it’s fulfilling. [You] believe in them and have them come through.”
“The girls are just so tough,” assistant coach Kevin Pigott said. “They never let it up.”
The team pours hours of effort into shaping their game. Practices begin a month before the season starts in December. Every girl on the team also plays for her school team; during the Island middle school season the girls practice for their school team and twice a week put in two more hours of practice with travel ball.
Then there is the travel itself, which can get hectic. On some days, the team has one game on Island and another on the mainland. Late-night boat rides are frequent — but so are team dinners and lunches on the Cape.
And when you’re playing with your friends, the time commitment isn’t necessarily a bad thing. This year, the girls agree, team chemistry was at its peak. There are 13 players on the team, representing all four Island middle schools, but they’ve been in travel basketball together for years.
“We were playing together more, we became more of a family,” said Meghan Sawyer, who attends the Edgartown School.
“I really think the best of part of being on the team was how close of friends we were,” said Rose Engler of Oak Bluffs. “Every single person one the team, we’re actually friends — it’s amazing.”
“I like that it’s a smaller group; it’s not such a big team,” Tisbury player Lily Pigott said.
Most of the team has been playing together since fifth grade (or third grade, in the case of sixth-grader Devin Hill, who is Coach Hill’s daughter). This year saw the return of leading scorer Molly deBettencourt, who played a level up last season and brought the expertise back to her team this year. Molly and Devin helped spark the offense, but the stifling man-to-man defense and the team’s endurance, ground out during running drills in practice, allowed the Vineyard to challenge teams at both ends of the court.
During the regular season, the team averaged 43 points per game while holding their opponents to about 19. When the team took its first loss of the year, to Sandwich, it was the first time they had run into a team as speedy and physical as they were.
“You just stay positive,” Kiana Casey said of the loss.
“I was sad at first, but then I was thinking the car it was actually good to lose,” Lily said. “You can’t just learn how to win, you have to learn how to lose.”
For all the successes this year, the travel program will be noticeably depleted once the eighth graders move on to high school.
“After we leave there’s no team,” Kiana said. There was no sixth or seventh grade team in the travel program this year. Devin, returning as a seventh-grader, will be the lone veteran.
But Kiana also remembered that her first year on the team, in fifth grade, only three people showed up to tryouts. The team had just eight players that season, but that was enough to build this year’s foundation.
This year, Coach Hill said, “I just wanted to go and compete with these teams at the tournament — and they did.”
And the eighth graders are ready for their next challenge: high school.