Natick High’s Girls Hoop Team Will Embrace March Madness

Ken Hamwey, Staff Sports Writer
Issue Date: 
March, 2019
Article Body: 

March madness is a phrase linked to the frenzy that accompanies college basketball when its post-season tournament gets underway in large arenas in bustling cities where 64 teams battle to become the national champion.
On a smaller stage, the unbeaten Natick High girls team wouldn’t mind a healthy dose of March Madness as it embarks on a journey aimed at capturing the Division 1 Central Sectional title and advancing to the State playoffs. The Redhawks’ 14-2 record at Local Town Pages deadline will give them a high seed in the tournament and home-court advantage in the early matchups.
“Our goals at the start of the season were to qualify for the tourney and to go deeper than last year,’’ said coach Dan Hinnenkamp. “Other goals included improving our defense and winning the Carey Division title of the Bay State Conference.’’
The Redhawks have delivered on several of those objectives — they’ve sharpened their defensive ability and qualified for the playoffs. As for winning the Carey Division, that depended on beating Wellesley, a matchup that came after the paper’s deadline.
To win the Sectional crown and to compete for a State title, however, are realistic goals.
“When we defeated Braintree earlier in the season, that gave us a glimpse of our potential and a realistic belief that we can go deep in the playoffs,’’ Hinnenkamp said. “We held Braintree to 35 points and beat the defending State champions, 45-35. At one point, they were ranked No. 2 in the State this year. That victory left the girls feeling that they’re a legitimate contender for the tourney title.’’
The Redhawks are no strangers to post-season playoff encounters. Last year, after rolling to a 16-4 record, they downed Franklin in the first round, then lost to Wachusett. The 2015-16 season, however, was one for the record books. Hinnenkamp guided the Redhawks to the State finals where they lost to Bishop Feehan. Getting to the State final was the farthest that any Natick girls basketball team has gone in the program’s history.
The strengths of this year’s contingent are notable and the coach is quick to list them. “We’re a veteran team with experience,’’ Hinnenkamp emphasized. “We’ve got seven seniors and six juniors. We’re also a deep squad with quality players coming off the bench. Our players are athletic, skilled and have high basketball IQs.’’
Natick’s senior captains are not only veteran leaders, but they’re also all-around talents. Claire Gaziano plays guard and averages 10 points a game; Mia Grundberg alternates between forward and guard and has an eight-point average; and Hailey Murphy is an off-guard who averages seven points.
“Claire can drive and shoot,’’ Hinnenkamp said. “Her court awareness is good, she’s mentally tough and her offense is strong. Against Braintree, she had one of her best games, scoring 21 points. Mia is our best defensive player. She’s a six-footer who’s athletic and has good footwork. She’s quick, smart and very instinctive. Hailey is very effective on defense, often drawing a top-notch opponent. She also can drive and shoot threes.’’
Junior Brenna McDonald, a 6-2 center, dominates the paint and averages 13 points and 12 rebounds. “Brenna controls situations down low,’’ Hinnenkamp said. “Although she often draws double and triple teams, she’s developed a fade-away jumper and is effective at passing to open teammates. She’s athletic, competitive and has a high hoop IQ.’’
Junior point guard Laney Ross rounds out the starting five. “She’s a pass-first point guard but can also hit double digits as a scorer,’’ Hinnenkamp noted. “Laney is like the energizer bunny, defending her opponent full court. Her passing and court awareness are outstanding.’’
Madison Schmid, the first player off the bench, is a senior who can play guard or forward. “Madison is tenacious on defense, can drive to the hoop and grabs key rebounds,’’ Hinnenkamp said. “She gets her share of steals and deflections, the little things that matter.’’
Another key reserve is sophomore Jenna Forman, a 6-foot forward whose size makes her a solid rebounder. “Jenna has savvy at the basket,’’ Hinnenkamp said. “She played a solid game against Braintree and is gaining experience. We’re hoping her ceiling will be high.’’
Seniors Ashley Siaba, a guard, and Elizabeth Marston, a guard-forward, give the Redhawks added depth. “They get minutes, have good skills and work hard in practice and games,’’ Hinnenkamp said.
Three juniors — guard-forward Paige Ghilani and guards Mackenzie Burgoyne and Cara McDonald — and sophomore forward Maya Stopka provide more depth. “They’ve been playing at a high level,’’ Hinnenkamp said. “Our hope next year is that their roles will include more minutes.’’
As the season progressed, Hinnenkamp, who’s in his 10th year as Natick’s coach, knew his squad’s three-point shooting and its free-throw ability needed to improve. “Those are two areas we’ve focused on,’’ he said. “We lost two of our three-point shooters to injury — Makenna Range and Emily Gustus. Our free-throw shooting is okay now but it’s down from past years.’’
The Redhawks, however, will be relying heavily on their defense and their veteran experience to propel them in what now is “crunch’’ time. Two of their captains — Gaziano and Grundberg — were freshman on the 2015-16 team that lost to Bishop Feehan in the State final.
A return trip to the State final for that duo would be memorable, and if it resulted in a triumph, it would put the 2018-19 girls basketball team at Natick High in a class by itself.