The Salem High girls basketball team had its back against the wall seven days ago heading into their game against arch rival Beverly. Needing wins in their final three games to qualify for the state playoffs, things didn’t look good for the Witches.
But Salem made it happen, beating the Panthers as well as non-league foes Everett and Malden -- all within a span of six days -- to finish the regular season 10-10 and earn themselves a playoff bid.
Now in the postseason for the third consecutive season, this fairly young Witches squad fought tooth and nail to earn this reward.
”I said to the girls ‘If you want to stay alive, you have to win these games’,” said Salem coach John Fortunato. “They never got overwhelmed; they just won one game at a time.”
Salem has been plagued with injuries all season; in Wednesday’s game against Malden, it only had a six players dress. Despite the small numbers, the Witches managed to pull off a convincing 57-27 victory on the road.
”With an already small group, we’ve become even thinner,” noted Fortunato. “I realized the game was going to be a tough task with the group we had, but they expanded their roles and learned some new things — I’m just so proud of them.”
With the tournament seeding scheduled to come out today, Fortunato is more than happy to give his girls some much-needed rest. Though the month of February hasn’t been too kind to the Witches injury-wise, they’ve played some of their best basketball, including an overtime loss to Northeastern Conference champion Lynn English.
Rachael Zipper has been out of the lineup since suffering an ankle in practice prior to the Lynn Classical game. The sophomore point guard has been the floor general for the Witches all season long, and her presence on the court is most definitely missed.
“We spent two days game planning for Classical and then in the final drill of practice, Rachael came down wrong on her ankle,” explained Fortunato. “You don’t really have time to adjust. She’s such a tremendous leader on the floor for us, but we had to get by without her.”
In the following game against Beverly, Salem played without senior Shanteliz Nunez and freshman Martiza Scott.
But where they lack in numbers, the Witches more than make up for in determination.
Sophomore Arianna Gaffney has seen her minutes increase as the season has worn on, picking up the slack in the absence of her injured teammates. Gaffney, who averages 7.5 points per game, leads the team in three-pointers made with 36.
“Arianna is such a special girl who prides herself on defense,” said Fortunato. “She’s worked so hard and stays late after practice to work on her shooting. She’s always going to find herself undersized, but she’s really been then unsung hero of this team. It’s been more than just shooting; she also leads the team in steals and is so tough on defense.”
Each girl seems to fit into their role perfectly as sophomore Jaclyn Panneton is the quintessential post player. Panneton, who leads the Witches in scoring (11.9 ppg.), draws a lot of attention down low. By doing so, she’s often able to find her teammates wide open on the perimeter.
“Rebounding-wise she’s incredible, with 18 and 19 rebounds in the final two games for us,” added Fortunato. “Even when the other team is concentrated on Jaclyn in the paint, she manages to get those points. She’s our security blanket down low.”
Salem may have flown under the radar for most of the season, but veteran Peabody head coach Jane Heil realizes just what type of team the Witches really are.
“What John has been able to do with that team is unbelievable,” said Heil. “With the number of kids he has to work with and to have them work that hard for 32 minutes, in my mind he’s the best coach in the league.”
The Witches are looking to make some noise in the tournament after being ousted by Reading in the Division 2 quarterfinals last year. “We’re gonna use this time off and come back healthier and ready for our new season,” said Fortunato.
Here’s something you might not know: St. Mary’s freshman guard Kayla Carter has family ties to Ipswich. Carter is the niece of Ipswich head coach Mandy Carter-Zegarowski and first cousin of starting point guard Masey Zegarowski.
Carter, who squared off against the Tigers on Monday night, made an exceptional three-point play in the final quarter to tie the game at 50-all. St. Mary’s went on to win the contest by claiming the Spartan Classic crown, 59-53.
Former Bishop Fenwick star and Salem News Player of the Year Amy Pelletier is lighting it up in her sophomore season at Stonehill College. Pelletier has logged significant minutes off the bench and is averaging 10.4 points per game. The Beverly native started in 26 out of 27 games for the Skyhawks as a freshman, but has found her niche as a sixth man this season.
Pelletier, a two-time Catholic Central League All-Star, averaged 19.1 points, 6 assists and 3.9 steals during her senior season for Fenwick.
Stonehill (21-3) closes out the regular season at Saint Anselm College next Tuesday and is ranked No. 2 in the first NCAA Division II East Regional Rankings.
Be sure to check tomorrow’s edition of The Salem News in print and online for a full rundown of the girls basketball state tournament pairings.
Bounce Passes, a column on North Shore girls basketball, runs in The Salem News every Friday during the winter season. Contact Gianna Addario at GAddario@salemnews.com, 978-338-2615 and follow her on Twitter @GiannaAddarioSN.