Aucoin: Underclassmen shine in girls basketball

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High school sports have long been an entity built upon seniority.

A young freshman works their way up until eventually during their junior or senior year, they truly get their chance to shine and take control of their team, while bringing the younger players up along the way.

That has been evident across sports we cover here at the Banner over the years and girls basketball has been no different in that regard.

Last year, it was senior stars who shined the brightest, en route to leading their teams to significant playoff success.

This year has been a bit of departure from that narrative of seniors being the sole leaders of their teams. Across the five girls basketball teams we cover, it has been the underclassman who have made the most waves.

Don't get me wrong, there are still some seniors who have shined bright.

Burr and Burton's Emily Bleakie is the clear catalyst of the Bulldogs offense and constantly commands attention from opposing defenses. Cambridge's Helen Mooney battled an ankle injury midseason, but when healthy, she has consistently scored in double figures and provided a strong presence down low for the Indians. Patriots' center Anna Iannotti has used her size to her advantage throughout the season and been a strong pivot on both ends for her team.

All of these girls, and others, have made major contributions to the success of their teams, but it's hard to ignore the impact of the talented freshman and sophomores around them.

As regular seasons start to wind down, let's take a look at some of the underclassman making the biggest mark.

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For Mount Anthony's Grace Mahar, last season was one to build herself up on the periphery of the talent of Madison Little, Brianna Legacy and Jordyn Burke, a trio who were the main threats on the Patriot team that went to the state semifinals.

With those three graduating, MAU needed someone to step and be the so-called "alpha" of the group. While her teammates have stepped up in larger roles this season, it has been the play of Mahar that has truly stood out.

The sophomore is averaging 16.4 points per game and in the last three games, she has scored more than 20 points each time. On top of her scoring prowess, she has been a major force on the boards, picking up numerous double-doubles along the way.

What has been most impressive about Mahar has been her versatility on the floor. She can run the point and facilitate the offense. She can step out on the wing and knock down a 3 and she can impose her will down low.

Jeff Mlinar, the proprietor of the Empire State Takeover (EST), which is a competitive summer girls basketball league that Mahar takes part in, has been nothing but impressed with the sophomore's development.

"She has to be 'the girl' so to speak. Her confidence is at another level right now," Mlinar said. "She knows she's got to be relied upon more heavily. She's always been able to shoot it, but now she's able to step out and handle the ball some and create for herself more."

Her talent has made a lot of the other people around her better. Players such as Cat Worthington and Kaity O'Brien have grown into larger roles alongside her in the lineup. Junior Caroline Musinski has developed into a threat from behind the arc. These improvements can't be solely attributed to Mahar, but her play has certainly made a difference on those around her.

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Hoosick Falls sophomore Logan Thayne may be the most transcendent basketball player we cover here at the Banner.

Like Mahar did at her school, Thayne developed alongside a star in Kelly Pine and this year she has shown her ability to lead her team.

Coming off a freshman season where she averaged 9.3 points per game, she has upped that to more than 20 points per game this year.

It's become a bit of a thing, where if Thayne can score 20, her team will have a chance to win and for the most part that has been the case. In seven of the 10 games where she has scored at least 20 points, Hoosick Falls has won.

The Panthers need Thayne to be successful and for the most part, she comes through in the clutch.

Thayne is a do-it-all player for Hoosick Falls. She can dominate in her natural habitat down low, but also has a silky smooth three-point shot that she can knock down out of nowhere. Her ability to block shots on the other end has been huge for the Panthers as well.

Thayne played in EST as well and Mlinar has seen her game grow immensely.

"Her improvement has been huge. Her confidence is probably the highest I've ever seen it," Mlinar said. "A big thing with Logan is that her conditioning has improved. She can get up and down the court better. She's able to cover a lot of ground for 32 minutes.

"Now she's able to take [physical play] from people because she's getting doubled and tripled by pretty much every team she plays and she's able to handle that physicality," Mlinar continued.

With the attention she commands from opposing defenses, players such as Eliza Whitman, Noreen McAuliffe and Lillian Hickey have all had more room to operate and it has helped the them all immensely.

***

There's only team that remains undefeated out of all of the teams we have covered this winter at the Banner.

That team is the Cambridge girls basketball team and for the most part, they have been led by a trio of freshman.

Take that into perspective for a minute. An undefeated team in the gauntlet of the Wasaren League that is led by a group of freshman. Impressive to say the least.

That trio is made up of guards Sophie Phillips and Lilly Phillips and forward Fiona Mooney and to every coach not named Tony Bochette in the Wasaren League, I wish you luck trying to stop them because it won't be easy.

All three saw time at the varsity level last year, but this year has truly been their coming out party.

The trio has accounted for 59 percent of their team's points this season. Sophie Phillips leads the team with 13.7 points per game, while Lilly Phillips isn't far behind at 12.3 per game. After battling pneumonia early in the season, Fiona Mooney has come on strong as of late, averaging 8.7 points per game so far. Over the last 12 contests, she is averaging more than 12 points per game.

Both Phillips sisters can facilitate the offense interchangeably and knock down jumpers, while also strong at driving to the basket. Fiona Mooney has shown herself to have post moves well past her years and when needed can step out and knock down a mid-range jumper for the Indians.

"They're just unflappable. You watch them play and you don't know if you're up 20, down 20, tied up," Mlinar said. "Mentally speaking, you just don't bump into kids like that too often. They don't get rattled."

"They've made the effort to get pushed. They've got a target on their back. They've been able to answer the bell. The composure and mental piece is huge with them," Mlinar continued.

What continues to be so impressive about them is that they always seem to pick each other up. When one is having a down game, the others will step up and pick up the slack.

I guess that's what happens on a team when you're undefeated.

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One look at the BBA girls basketball team and there's no question that Emily Bleakie is the leader of the squad. The senior commands the most attention and defenses seem to gravitate to her.

Playing beside Bleakie, though are underclassman who have shown to be able to handle the pressure in their own right.

Freshman forward Carol Herbert has shown the future of the Bulldogs is bright.

Herbert wasted no time showing her ability because on opening night she scored 16 points in a loss against Brattleboro. Throughout the season, she has remained consistent and figures to play a major role as a post player for BBA moving forward.

Sophomore guard Ashley Heaton is another player who figures to be a major piece in the Bulldogs plans. Heaton hasn't shown it consistently, but there have been flashes of the potential she possesses. The Bulldogs' overtime win against Mill River earlier in the season was the perfect example. Heaton paced BBA in that game and scored 22 points in the win.

***

The Arlington girls soccer team used a young core to lead it to an undefeated season and a state championship.

The Eagles' girls basketball team might not be having similar success, but they do have one of those younger soccer stars who has made an impact on the hardwood.

Sophomore Haley Mattison has stood out as someone Arlington can build around moving forward.

On a team with five seniors, Mattison has shown major flashes of being a great young piece. In the season-opener against Leland and Gray, she scored 16 points and then followed it up with 12-point outing against Brattleboro. She was also one of the major catalysts in the Eagles blowout win over Poultney.

Mattison has consistently been a maximum effort player for Arlington and she figures to most likely be the leader of the Eagles when those five seniors graduate this spring.

Adam Aucoin can be reached at aaucoin@benningtonbanner.com and followed at @AAucoin_Banner on Twitter.


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