NEWTON — Moments before the Braintree High girls tapped off against host Newton North on Tuesday night, Taylor Russell stood on the baseline and cheered on her Wamp teammates during a shooting drill.
The 5-foot-9 senior captain clapped her hands and shouted out words of encouragement, trying to pump up her teammates for their Bay State Conference Carey Division matchup against North.
But Russell was not decked out in the blue-and-white Braintree colors like her teammates. She did not suit up against the Tigers, and she did not practice the next day. No matter how deep a playoff run Braintree makes, Russell will not suit up for a single game.
She suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament on the volleyball court in late October, ending her senior season on the hardwood before it even began.
“It’s definitely been tough because she’s an awesome player, so we miss her on the court,” said her fellow captain, senior Rachel Norton .
“She’s one of my best friends so it’s tough to watch her go through that, but she’s still a huge part of the team and we definitely wouldn’t be where we are without her.”
Donning a knee brace and walking with a limp, Russell has been to every practice and every game for the 11-2 Wamps, serving as part-time cheerleader, part-time coach and — when it comes to Braintree’s sophomore point guard — full-time sister.
Ashley Russell has stepped up in a big way this season with last year’s floor general, Paige Marshall , now playing at Stonehill. Standing 5-foot-9, the younger Russell has done a little bit of everything: Her 11 points and eight rebounds per game are tied for the team lead, mixing nicely with her average of four assists.
“She’s like having another coach on the floor,” said Braintree coach Kristen McDonnell . “She knows what decisions to make, and her skill development has grown exponentially. You can see from practice to practice just how much she improves.”
Braintree hit a bit of a snag, suffering back-to-back losses to Springfield, Ore., (51-42, at the Hoophall Classic in Springfield) and Newton North (54-46), but has outscored foes by an average of 30 points per game in its 11 wins.
McDonnell said the Wamps’ success is simple: simplify on offense, complicate on defense.
On offense the Wamps are mostly finesse, tossing up soft, easy passes for 6-2 sophomore Molly Reagan , 6-2 sophomore Bridget Herlihy , and 6-foot freshman Brianna Herlihy . And it works: The Wamps are averaging nearly 55 points per game.
Defense is a different story. Braintree’s tight, gritty, in-your-face defensive tactics, led by Norton, have limited opponents to 29.7 points per game, just under the team’s goal of 30.
McDonnell said the team came into the season with a reemphasis on defense, and she has implemented more and more presses, traps, and half-court defenses.
Count Norton as one of those buying into it.
“I really, genuinely think defense is so much more important than offense,” said the 5-9 Norton, who dove for loose balls more than a few times against Newton North.
“Hopefully if we’re excited and we’re talking and our hands our up, we can deflect a couple passes. I’m a little bit of an energizer out there.”
The offense has been explosive and the defense stout, but the most bizarre Braintree statistic has nothing to do with games. McDonnell’s crew has suffered five major injuries, four of which were torn ACLs, Taylor Russell, along with junior Jenn Whyte and senior Kelsey Dillon . A fourth, junior Jenn Guen , just returned from her torn ACL, and a fifth, senior Katie Casey , is out with a sore shoulder.
“Any time you’re passionate about something and you have it taken away from you and you have to watch from the sidelines, it’s always something that’s frustrating or disappointing at first,” said McDonnell, who tore her ACL three times while playing at Boston Latin and later, Stonehill. “But . . . it builds a lot of character. You can see it in these kids going through it right now.”
Fortunately for the Wamps, the injuries have not tested their depth too much, and they are well positioned to make another deep postseason run after last year’s trip to the Division 1 state semifinals.
That goes for the next couple of years, too. The sophomore trio of Russell, Bridget Herlihy (11 points per game), and Reagan (10.5), plus the freshman Herlihy, are not going anywhere any time soon.
“It’s hard to imagine how much better these kids can get and how much better this team can get,” McDonnell said.
“There’s definitely a ton of potential. And I think playing together more and more on a regular basis is going to bring this team to new heights.”Continued...