By John Orrell, Contributing Writer
Marlborough – Not every high school athlete is afforded the opportunity to compete in an inaugural basketball tournament named after a local sports legend. The only thing better than simply participating would be to win it all, be presented post-game awards by the legend himself and know that history was made by your school and that you were indeed a part of it all.
Former Boston Celtic and Holy Cross Crusader legend Togo Palazzi was in the house to open up the first-ever girls high school basketball tournament in his name on Feb. 21 at Assabet Valley Regional Technical High School, where it was Advanced Math & Science Academy (AMSA) carving out a bit of history with a two-game sweep to clinch the title.
AMSA dispatched Ayer-Shirley High, 40-33, in the tournament’s opener one day prior to completing the sweep with a 59-43 walk-over of Maynard High in a matchup that was never close. Senior co-captain Arin Smalls was honored as Tournament MVP while fellow senior co-captain Allie McNamara was named to the all-tournament team.
“We were at the bottom of the league last year and I think we’ve all matured and are playing as a team,” said McNamara of this year’s resurgence. “On defense is where we excel. We have five girls playing defense. That strong defense wins us games.”
“We definitely got a confidence boost winning this tournament,” added Smalls. “All of us are feeling really good and looking forward to the playoffs.”
Eagle defense was stout in the opening minutes versus Maynard with the Tigers managing just six points in the first quarter and eight in the second for a 29-14 halftime advantage. Runs of 8-0 and 13-3 propelled AMSA to a lead they would never relinquish.
“We say each night that we’re never going to have a bad night on defense,” said sixth-year head coach Dennis Zilembo, who is assisted by Tracy Harpin. “This team comes out strong and plays tough defense and outside of a couple of baskets, we would have held them to under ten points in the first half.
“We’re young (three eighth-graders, one freshman) but we have great leaders in Arin and Allie. They lead the team in ball-handling, scoring defending, rebounding so they can do it all and really set a good example for the rest.”
AMSA’s reversal of fortune is noteworthy as the team managed just a 9-11 record one year ago but wins and losses can be deceiving, says Zilembo.
“Many of the games we lost last year were close ones. We weren’t being blown away. In my six years here we’ve been to the tournament three times and we’re 0-3 so hopefully we can turn that around.
“These kids come from a great academic situation. These girls are probably the smartest I’ve ever coached. You tell them something once and they know it. They’re very dedicated and have a lot going on in their lives but they’re great girls and the parents are terrific. AMSA’s a great school.”
Leading scorers versus Maynard in the title round were Smalls with 15 points, McNamara with 13 and Lauren Hailey with 12. Erin Gowaski, Diana Bibinski and Anna Ciolino each chipped in with six points apiece.
Members of the 2016-2017 Advanced Math & Science Academy (AMSA) girls’ varsity basketball team are seniors Arin Smalls, Mahimasri Kotamreddy, Allie McNamara, Danielle Newberry, Rosemary Karanja, Priyanka Santikary; juniors Lauren Hailey, Srinidhi Raghav; sophomores Allison Cash, Erin Gowaski; freshman Diana Bibinski along with eighth-graders Maddie Calderwood, Jess Popivchak and Anna Ciolino.