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Local girls capture state title and head to nationals

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The impact play of guards Cailey Mastrangelo, of Shirley, Lindsay Werner, of Groton, and Ashlyn Krygowski, of Dunstable, helped the North Central Blaze ninth-grade Girls’ NEAAU Basketball Team to soar to the championship of the 2012 Massachusetts AAU D II State Tournament posting a 6-0 record and outscoring their opponents 301-209.

The three-day event was held at the Mass Premier Complex in Foxboro.

This year’s event was particularly competitive with the increased interest in girls’ basketball locally and nationally. The state of Rhode Island canceled its own state tournament for 2012 and was allowed to compete in the Massachusetts event.

This year was perhaps the best field in the 35-year history of the event. The Blaze entered the competition with the goal of attaining the same success they realized in 2010 as seventh-grade state champions. The team also fell short last year losing in the quarterfinals to the eventual winner of the crown. Such a disappointment only inspired this special group of players to take on a team challenge to show that they could have done better and now was the time to prove it.

There is an old saying in athletics that it is a game of commitment individually and collectively which results in victory. Perhaps few teams demonstrated that to the same degree as did this ninth-grade NC Blaze Team while in its state pool and bracket games. The team established a goal to be the best it could be. The coaching staff headed by Donna Mastrangelo, who serves as head basketball coach at Lawrence Academy in Groton, and assisted by her brother Joe Bibbo of Pepperell, and John Burke of Londonderry, N.H., has worked with the team members within the NC Blaze system of building community among themselves. They demonstrated it to one another at practices as they were clearly motivated to work hard, to hone their basketball skills and to come together as a supportive unit in their quest for a state title.

With the concept that a strong team defense will create a successful offense, the team went to work and played against some more experienced teams in local tournaments as a part of the process of checking its capacity to compete at a higher level. A couple of vacancies were filled on the team roster, which has bolstered a diverse inside game and really has given this squad unique depth. This was an exceptional learning process for the team members as well as the coaches. The results showed steady team improvement throughout the spring leading up to the state championships.

The Blaze found itself in a tight first pool game on Friday evening with a surprisingly talented Rising Stars squad. Although victorious with a 52-to-42 win, the Blaze knew it had not played its best basketball. The second pool game on Saturday morning was not quite as tight as it defeated the Bay State Jaguars 47-29, but the Blaze girls still knew that could step up their game even more, which was going to be crucial to achieve their goal. Their third pool game on Saturday afternoon vs. the Mass Blue Devils saw a much stronger team effort as they topped another formidable opponent and now earned a spot as they advanced to the Elite Eight.

It was not just the competition, yet the endurance it took to play in this tournament. The challenge would be even greater on Sunday as the competition included those that had survived the pool play and therefore were supposedly more competitive. The swarming defense of the Blaze vs. Mass Frenzy in the quarterfinals kept hopes alive . Continued intense defense and some good shooting earned a well-deserved semifinal victory vs. the Visionary Basketball Group.

In the championship game, the Blaze girls bolted ahead quickly and quiet conversations were heard in the stands about the team going to the National Championships. Things were really looking in their favor as they battled for every loose ball, played a tight defense, and took advantage of a height differential down low by focusing on the inside game.

The opposition representing Providence, Rhode Island, included a quick, powerful squad that liked to run. Their defense featured quickness, patience and sound basketball acumen, which began to wear on the Blaze as it crept back into this contest. In one of the most dramatic displays of three-point shooting by any girls’ team at any level, Team Providence stormed back from a nine-point deficit to tie the game in the final quarter. Both teams were now in a slugfest.

The cheering by the crowd was deafening while the trademark of the Blaze showed itself. Every team member on the bench stood and implored their team members to push. It was an exhibition where the team just refused to lose. Each time Team Providence drilled a basket, the Blaze would answer and vice versa. Two teams that each had fought hard to win five games prior in three days now were battling and demonstrating strong team defense while running the floor in a frantic offensive charge.

The cheering by the crowd was deafening while the trademark of the Blaze showed itself. Every team member on the bench stood and implored their team members to push. It was an exhibition where the team just refused to lose. Each time Team Providence drilled a basket, the Blaze would answer and vice versa. Two teams that each had fought hard to win five games prior in three days now were battling and demonstrating strong team defense while running the floor in a frantic offensive charge.

Perhaps the defining moment of the contest was the last five minutes as the Blaze moved the ball in its patented way toward the basket in an organized fashion looking for the open player. With a six-point lead as the clock ran down, the Blaze team full of respect for its opposition ran a weave as the buzzer sounded.

Fourteen players contributed to the weekend challenge, which brings the triumphant ninth-grade girls to the national championships at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at Disney World in Orlando, Florida on July 5-10. They will play the top squads from the north, south, east and west of the USA for the title as Division 2 AAU National Champions. It should be noted that this will be the second trip to the Nationals for three of the girls and the third for Coach Mastrangelo, who was a member of the first NEAAU Girls’ Basketball Team in 1977 and now participates as the team’s coach.

In assessing her team’s performance overall, Coach Mastrangelo commented that this was certainly a unique group of girls. They worked as a team throughout. Their work ethic was outstanding and they truly cared for one another. Individual statistics was not a goal for any one player. They played as a team and won as a team, capturing the coveted state championship.

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