John Stark girls’ basketball team looks to complete Cinderella run with state title

  • John Stark guard Autumn Nelson goes up for a layup as Bishop Brady center Sam Will goes up to defend in second half action at the D2 semi-finals at SNHU on Tuesday, March 6, 2018. GEOFF FORESTER

  • John Stark guard Laura Martin leads the celebration with her teammates after the Generals upset Bishop Brady on Tuesday in the Division II semifinals at Southern New Hampshire University. Stark plays Hollis-Brookline on Friday for the title. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Friday, March 09, 2018

Bruce Johnson was a stranger when he arrived at John Stark High School this winter for his first season as the girls’ basketball coach. The style of offense he brought with him, though, was well known.

It worked wonders for Timberlane during his long tenure with the Owls, it did the same during his stint at Hopkinton and it has helped countless players from various AAU teams he’s coached grasp a better understanding of the game.

Now Johnson and that offense have the 13th-seeded Generals one win shy of their first state championship since 1991 when they travel to Southern New Hampshire University on Friday for a Division II title tilt against No. 3 Hollis-Brookline. Tip-off is slated for 7 p.m.

“I know Bruce from many years back and he runs the same type of offense year after year after year,” Hollis-Brookline coach Bob Murphy said. “It’s a flex offense, but he’s got these kids really believing in it. … I’ve been watching some film on these guys recently and they are a very, very good team. They’ve got a lot of things going for them as far as defense, they run a great offense, they’re a very patient team and they’ve got some good outside shooters. It’s a tough team to come up against.”

At the heart of Johnson’s structured flex offense is patience. It requires spacing, good ball movement, timely screens and cuts, but above all else, it demands diligence and composure from all five players on the floor.

It also required an adjustment period.

“It’s taken a while to get that,” Johnson said. “We tried to have them understand that if we continue the offensive pattern, the defense usually will have a breakdown. A lot of teams can usually play defense very well throughout the first time, maybe even the second, but if you run (the offensive sets) through four, five times effectively, it makes defenses have to make decisions and often there will be a breakdown and that’s what we try to capitalize on.”

And that’s the beauty of the John Stark team this season. There are no main scorers, there are no requirements to get a certain player a certain number of shots, and in a semi-predictable offense, the Generals are as unpredictable as ever.

Take their first three postseason games for example: In Stark’s 43-41 first-round win over No. 4 Pelham, senior guard Laura Martin and sophomore forward Chelsea Woodsum both led the Generals with 11 points apiece; when the Generals upset No. 5 Kennett, 48-36, in the quarterfinals, Woodsum finished with 16 and senior Emily Patten was the second-leading scorer with 10 points; and in the narrow 47-44 semifinal victory over No. 8 Bishop Brady, sophomore Arianna Maxwell led the charge with 12 points.

In that win over Brady, four of the five starters attempted at least one 3-pointer and all five starters recorded at least five shots.

“These guys, if you watch them, you’re not really sure where the points are coming from,” Murphy said. “They run a flex offense where they’re trying to attack under the basket and then they turn around and shoot a heck of a lot of 3s. … It’s going to be really tough for us and I’m not really sure myself at this point how to defend them.”

Stark’s success, though, goes beyond an effective offense. There’s no making it all the way to the final as a double-digit seed without some sound play on the defensive end, too. And they’ll need every bit of that defense against a dangerous Cavaliers team, which is making a return to the final after losing to Lebanon in last year’s championship game.

“I’ve known coach Murphy for years and so he always has a very well-prepared team, and he’s had some good teams the last few years, obviously,” Johnson said. “They have a nice combination of good size underneath, some quick guards and they like to get out and run so we’ve got our hands full.”

In Hollis-Brookline’s 52-37 win over No. 7 Hanover in the semifinals, junior guard Brodie Kelley scored a team-high 18 points to go along with seven steals and senior captain Joanna Balsamo added 14 points while pulling down 13 rebounds. That doesn’t even include the likes of Christina Balsamo (team-high 13 points in first-round win over Merrimack Valley), sharpshooter Liz Bonnete and the inside presence of Liz Atkinson.

But if past performance is any indication, the Generals should be confident in their defensive abilities, especially with a player the caliber of Woodsum on the floor.

At 5-foot-10, Woodsum has the size to bang with the bigger players inside and the speed to close out on perimeter shooters. She’s shut down her fair share of quality players over the season, most recently holding Bishop Brady forward and Cornell-bound Sam Will to 12 points on 4 of 14 shooting in the semifinals.

“She’s a sophomore that’s a very talented player,” Johnson said. “She’s accepted the challenge of trying to shut down a number of very good big girls in Division II this year. … She understands the game plan for her and she’s been executing extremely well defensively and scoring at a consistent pace. She’s had some very big games, but her defense has been huge for us against these teams.”

With the Generals on the doorstep of greatness, Johnson is no longer a stranger, and he has the entire Weare community rallying behind him. But it will take a true team effort to bring the title home.

“Lots of times you can prepare your defenses for certain situations, but when you’ve got to be able to figure out how to stop five different people, that makes it a little harder to prepare for,” Johnson said. “If we get the opportunity and find a weakness, hopefully we can direct our offense towards that weakness and put some baskets in.”

(Jay McAree can be reached at 369-3371, jmcaree@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @JayMcAree.)