By Gianna Addario
---- — There’s nothing like a preseason prophecy to really get a team going. Call it intuition or just plain luck, but most people had the Peabody girls basketball team of 1985, and the Masconomet team of 1996 pegged to be in the state finals at the beginning of their respective seasons.
For the Tanners, it was almost a known fact that they were going deep into the tournament that year. They came ever so close to the championship the year before. After 20-0 regular season finish, they knocked off perennial power Cambridge Rindge and Latin for the Division 1 North title, before being eliminated by Madison Park in the state semis.
Likewise for the Chieftains, they returned 10 players in the 1995-’96 season including their five starters. In ‘93 season, Masconomet lost the championship game to Oxford and was bounced by Westford Academy in the North finals in 1995.
Both teams had the idea of winning a championships embedded in their heads from the get-go and dominated their respective decades. These teams had undeniable raw talent and it wasn’t a fluke that they were crowned champions. They were the ‘it’ teams on the North Shore, with star-studded rosters.
Aside from the titles themselves, what made these two teams the ones to beat and more importantly, why? Was it the star power of Masco’s wiz kid, Brianne Stepherson? And on the other side, was it Kim Foley’s raw talent that did it for Peabody?
An even more interesting question — How would these two championship teams fare against one another?
Right from the start
Peabody head coach Jane Heil has had an illustrious career with the Tanners. Beginning in the late 1970’s, Heil led her teams to 17 Greater Boston League titles, 27 tournament appearances and even earned her 500th career win this winter. But her favorite season of all? That has to be the 1985 state title team, of course.
“I was taught by a professor in college that you get what you expect,” Heil noted. “You can create a positive atmosphere. My bar was always set incredibly high. From the scouting we had done that year to the players we had, it all played a part.”
Heil’s Tanners had gone 117-25 in her first seven years and 94-10 in the GBL. They were a favorite to win it all right from the start. All of the papers had them pegged as the next title team. Each year one of their goals would be to go further in the tournament than the previous season. That winter of ‘84, Heil said that her goal for that season was the sky.
“If you don’t think that’s pressure,” said Heil. “We had never won a championship before. It wasn’t like we were Central Catholic or Andover.”
The Tanners were a little wary of what would become of returning point guard Diane McGovern who had mono in the fall, but had the 6-foot-1 Foley returning as their prized possession and the GBL’s leading scorer (20 ppg). Tracey Spencer (5-foot-10) was also back and by the team the first game against Cambridge rolled around, so was McGovern.
Division 2 Masco on the other hand just wrapped up its first season under new head coach Bob Cleary. The past three years for the Chieftains had consisted of three Cape Ann League titles, an Eastern Mass. championship and made two North sectional appearances— to say they were due for a state title was an understatement.
So, the Chieftains went out and strengthened their regular season schedule in order to be ready for tougher opponents come tournament time. They added Division 1 powers Methuen and Fontbonnee.
Senior Catey Peters, who finished her career at Masco with 1,359 points and over 1,000 rebounds, was back as was Heather Hover, Cari MacGregor, Stephanie McArdle and Brianne Stepherson. Though only in her sophomore year, Stepherson began her fourth season as a starter with the Chieftains that winter, having played on varsity since seventh grade — which was unheard of.
“I think we were expecting to do well,” Cleary said. “We knew we had a great shot and solid team that had been successful. You look at the maturation of players like Catey and Cari, who were both so athletic. And at that point in time, everybody was expecting Brianne to do great things.”
Heil will tell you that the best thing that could’ve happened to Peabody that year was the loss against Boston English. It was the second game of the season and the Bulldogs walked away with a 44-37 victory.
“Every team wants to go undefeated,” explained Heil. “We just had that one loss to Boston English. But if you can’t learn from your losses than you’re done. I remember walking into the locker room and asking the girls what did they learn and they told me that ‘we can beat them,’ and I turned around and said ‘then don’t you forget it,’ and they didn’t.”
And just to make sure they didn’t forget, Heil cut out the article from the loss and hung it in the PE office as a constant reminder for the girls every time they walked by.
The Tanners finished the regular season at off at 19-1 to earn the No. 3 seed in the Division 1 state tournament. They got by Billerica, Methuen and top-seeded Burlington. Peabody made its way to the Eastern finals against Boston English, as both teams went in with identical 22-1 records.
The Eastern Mass. finals games were always played in the Boston Garden and most recently played at TD Garden now. For some reason the however, the MIAA wasn’t allowed at the Garden that year and the girls instead had to play at Bentley.
“Sometimes the girls just amazed me,” Heil said. “They had this air of confidence that night that I couldn’t describe. They were so zoned it. They so wanted another chance to play Boston English.”
Peabody would go on to top Boston English, 58-44. The season-long goal was made complete only a few short days later as the Tanners took down their third undefeated team of the tournament, St. Peter-Marian by just three points, 47-44.
“This story is the greatest win in Peabody basketball history,” Foley told The News after the championship game. “We beat four giant killers. It was an amazing feat, but this was our year.”
Masco had a similar road to the finals, with a couple of speed bumps along the way. The Chieftains went 11 straight game without a loss, while beating their opponents by 19 points or more— but Milton’s Fontbonne handed them their first of the season.
Masco took just four free throw attempts, while Fontbonne took as many as 31. Luckily for Masco though, it was the worst shooting game of the season and it wouldn’t be repeated.
“As a the year went on we continued to grow,” said Cleary. “Even the losses were against some strong Div. 1 teams. We learned from them and the excitement of the season continued.”
The Chieftains won another eight games in the regular season, before falling to Methuen, 64-52 in the final game. The Rangers did everything they could to shut down Stepherson offensively.
Despite the two blemishes to their record, the Cheiftains went on to the earn the No. 2 seed in the tourney. They breezed by Reading (62-42), Lincoln-Sudbury(59-40) and Concord-Carlisle (67-43), while Davis helped them beat Burlington by two points.
It was off to Boston, for a rematch against Fontbonne in the Eastern Mass. finals at the then brand new Fleet Center. The Chieftains were seasoned vets when it came to playing at the Garden, but they were in awe of the shiny parquet floor in the new building.
“I remember during pregame they couldn’t stop talking about how nice the Fleet Center was and how new the locker rooms were,” Cleary joked. “They were excited to be back in the Eastern Mass. finals and I was focused on keeping them in tuned to the game and not the locker rooms.”
McArdle played stellar defense against one of Fontbonne’s top scorers, Lauren Myers. Myers was limited to just a single point in the first half, due in large part to McArdle’s attention to detail. Stepherson (17 points) and Peters (14) took over on the offensive end and helped provide a trip to the state finals.
“I think it was the best Catey and I have played together because of the way we communicated,” Stepherson said after the game in Boston. “If we saw something go wrong we’d talk about it.”
Four days later, behind a complete team effort the Chieftains beat Monument Mountain by 20 points, capturing the Division 2 crown for the first time.
“Going to states for them was an amazing thing,” said Stepherson’s mother, Kathy. “It was a group of girls who really jelled. I’ve never seen that much chemistry, as I did in that team. They were all unselfish players, they had a purpose — to win it.”
Beating three undefeated teams to win a state title is no easy task, but the Tanners’ clearly had the star talent to do so. Foley, who started every game since her freshman year and netted over 1,000 in her career, became one of the most talented athletes at Peabody High. She averaged 21 points, 12 rebounds, four blocks, three steals and three assists per game in ‘85.
Along with being named Team MVP, Foley earned her second straight Great Boston League Player of the Year honor. After graduating as the program’s leading scorer (1474 points), Foley continued her career at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia.
Spencer, who along with Foley, led Peabody all season long sprained her ankle badly at practice the day before the state championship game. But you would’ve never known about the injury, unless someone told you. She scored seven points and pulled down 12 rebounds in the title game and made the key foul shots, that proved to be invaluable in the 47-44 win.
“We had special trainers come in to make sure she was OK to play,” Heil explained. “Tracy was the type of player you didn’t push around, she was fierce. So she went out and played as if nothing was wrong.”
McGovern, Sherry Cove and Nancy Weisman rounded out Peabody’s starting five. McGovern was a fast ball handler and was a pro at finding her Foley and Spencer down low. The Tanners’ bench Natalie Loiacono, Linda Delivorias, Kristen Smerczynski, Marie Brurke, Kelly McGovern and Beth Fabiano also played integral roles that season, each making contributions.
The title team was ranked 23rd in the country that season and was even inducted into the New England Basketball Hall of Fame of few years back.
Heil, who had stopped coaching when Masconomet won its championship, was still well aware of Stepherson.
“You’d have to be totally clueless not to know her,” joked Heil. “She handled fame with class and never flaunted her greatness.”
Stepherson graduated as Masco’s leading scorer with 2,137 and went on to play at Boston College. She was unlike any other player on the court and was a valued leader, even as a sophomore that year.
One of the best things about the Masco team, was the level of talent throughout the starting five. While Stepherson and Peters were in the forefront of most peoples minds. Hover, MacGregor and McArdle were just as important to the Chieftains.
“Most teams were aware Catey, Brianne and Heather,” noted Cleary. “You had a superstar point guard in Brianne, a tenacious defender in Catey, there was just no weakness in our lineup. We were a well balanced team. In my years at coaching, I would probably say it was one of the hardest working teams I’ve ever had. Not only a talented group, but made the effort to get better every day. When you have starters working that hard, it makes the bench players work hard as well.”
Hover was labeled the unsung hero of the team that year, averaging 10.2 points per game and eight rebounds. She was a tremendous athlete all around, setting records in the shot put (34-10 1/2) and the discus (109-8) her junior years.
Nikki Davis was a six-footer coming off the bench for Masco. Julie Oullette was another contributor and as Cleary recalls he had a bench filled girls who could no doubt start on another team.
Cleary went on to coach the Chieftains for another seven years. Heil, meanwhile took some time off in the ‘90’s to watch her daughter play in high school, and remains the Peabody girls coach til this day.
Despite being separated by more than a decade, these two teams would make a perfect fantasy matchup on a local level. The game itself would be played at the old Boston Garden, since Peabody never had the chance to do so in ‘85 and neither did the Masco team, which ended up playing at the Fleet Center in 1996.
Masconomet will most certainly win out in guard play with Stepherson, but it would be hard for the Chieftains to top Foley’s natural athleticism at center.
The best part about this hypothetical matchup is that these are two of the best girls basketball teams in our coverage area over the past three decades.