Senior guard Michelle Brayboy (44) will help lead the Woonsocket High girls' basketball team into battle this season.
Two years ago, a very-loaded Woonsocket High squad captured the Division I title just a year after doing the same in Div. II.
Consistently, though, it's been teams like La Salle Academy and Bay View that have ruled the state's top division for the simple reason that talented athletes often gravitate to the powerhouse parochial schools. Since the 2001-02 season, the defending champion Rams have won seven state crowns. The Bengals have only claimed one title but have been in three other finals during that 10-year span.
The upcoming winter campaign should be no different, according to Woonsocket coach George Coderre.
â€śI think if you look in Division I, La Salle and Bay View are at the head of the class,â€ť said Coderre, now in his fifth year as the Villa Novans' bench boss. â€śBoth teams are every deep, which nobody can match. Westerly will be good, Barrington will be good. But Bay View and La Salle have a tremendous amount of depth and talent.â€ť
Among area teams that compete in Div. I-North, Woonsocket, East Providence, Cumberland, St. Raphael Academy and Ponaganset earned berths in the postseason, occupying the fourth through eighth slots.
The Villa Novans, who were 11-7 in the league, have lost standout center Ashley Dubois to graduation, but return several key players mixed in with some promising newcomers.
â€śI think we are going to look pretty much the same (as last year),â€ť Coderre said. â€śWe lost Ashley. It's tough to replace those points. But the surrounding cast is a lot more experienced this year.â€ť
The strongest returnees for the Villa Novans are four-year varsity players Kailey Fugere and Michelle Brayboy. Fugere will occupy the forward or center position, while Brayboy will once again control the offense as a point guard.
â€śKailey and Michelle were on our two state championship teams and integral parts,â€ť said Coderre, about the seniors. â€śThey were definitely among the best players in the division last year. I expect a lot of good things from them again.â€ť
Woonsocket has four seniors with quality playing time among its varsity contingent, including classmates Allyson Cartier and Caitlyn Marcoux. Junior Amanda Sloan will also provide some strength on the court.
â€śI think we have a chance to compete with the upper half of the division,â€ť Coderre stated. â€śI think we can surprise some people. We have a good spirited group. I think they are going to compete.â€ť
Another squad that has a chance to compete with the best in Div. I is East Providence. The Townies finished 9-9 and came on strong at the end of the year.
E.P. will be minus all-everything Michaela Wiggins, a 2011 graduate who had more than a 1,000 points and rebounds during her career. But the Townies return some solid players in junior Mary Monagle, junior Taylor Wiggins and senior Alyssa Dias.
East Providence won its preliminary game in the playoffs last February by upsetting higher-seed North Kingstown, 61-50. The Townies were ousted in the quarterfinals, falling to undefeated Barrington by a respectable 51-43 score.
â€śI think East Providence is going to give some teams a go this year,â€ť Coderre said. â€śThey lost their leading scorer, Michaela Wiggins, but have some really good ball players. They came on strong at the end of the year. Their coach (Mike Solitro) has done a nice job with the program. They have size and quickness.â€ť
Cumberland, which made the playoffs last winter for the first time in several years with its 8-10 mark, will be challenged somewhat this year. The Clippers lost three of their top players with Kelsey Cahill, Ali deHertogh and Carlynn Smith all graduating.
â€śWe have absolutely no seniors. That's the first time since I have been here, and I have been here 11 years,â€ť said seven-year head coach Deb Engels, who was also an assistant coach for four years. â€śWe could actually have a freshman, a sophomore and three juniors in the starting lineup.â€ť
Junior guard Sam Bertherman, junior guard/forward Bridget Hollenbeck and the coach's daughter, sophomore point guard Kaitlyn Engels, will lead the way for the Clippers. Junior forward Caylyn Legare and junior guard Bridget Connors could also make an impact.
â€śI got a couple of other sophomores and three freshmen players as well,â€ť Engels said. â€śI am just looking to get the inexperienced players some experience as quick as we can. I am shooting at a .500 season and the playoffs. We don't have a lot of height. Hopefully, we'll be quick and play smart basketball and do all the fundamentals.â€ť
St. Raphael (7-11), which has Lauren Gaj and Emily Millar back, Ponaganset (6-12), and Lincoln (3-15) will be looking on their sub-.500 mark from last year in the always-competitive I-North.
In last year's finals, top-seeded Mount St. Charles was upset by the Prout School, 40-24. It will be slightly more difficult for the Mounties to make it to the championship tilt this winter.
Head coach Nina Morey lost seven seniors from last year's team and has just two returning players in sophomore Noreen Mulledy and senior Taylor Messier.
â€śIt will absolutely be a rebuilding year,â€ť said Morey, whose first-place squad posted a 17-1 in II-North in 2010-11. â€śI lost seven seniors from last year. We will definitely be starting from scratch. My goal is for us to just improve every game. We are going to have a lot of kids that are brand new playing together.â€ť
The Mounties have just 13 players on their entire roster (JV and varsity).
â€śThe numbers are down, not just here but everywhere,â€ť said Morey, who has been at MSC for two decades. â€śWe are a very young squad. We have one senior, one junior. This is the first time it's been like this in the years I have been here.â€ť
Another squad that is low in number and took a hit from graduation is Tolman. The Tigers lost 10 seniors from last year's team that finished an even 9-9 in II-North. This year's team has only 16 players and three returning starters.
â€śThe goal for this team is to make the playoffs,â€ť said Tiger coach Tammy Drape. â€śWith hard work and dedication, this team will be successful. But they have to be committed.â€ť
With the graduation of Jenna Ayala, the Tigers lost one of their top players and rebounders from last year.
â€śRight now we will try to assess the players we have and see who will fill the roles,â€ť Drape said.
Returning this season for Tolman is junior guard Jasmine Almeida and senior guard Danai Porter. Drape will also be counting on valuable minutes from senior Sara Summerly, junior small forward Brittany Vilodeau and junior center Ariana Wood as well.
â€śI would say one of my strengths is we are going to be fast and quick,â€ť Drape said. 'But we are predominately small. We are going to have to beat teams with our quickness.â€ť
The Tolman coach feels Central Falls and Burrillville, both 6-12 last year, could be among the stronger teams in the division. The Warriors are led by Brianna and Anjelique Cooley.
â€śIt seems like it's going to be a rebuilding year for us,â€ť Drape said. â€śI definitely would look at Burrillville this year. They have size and some good guards. The Cooley sisters, they'll be tough. I always have to be prepared when I play them (and Central Falls). In my opinion, I think the league is wide open.â€ť
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North Smithfield, which copped a state title in the 2009-10 season, is among the top school's in the state's lowest division. The Northmen finished 15-3 in the league last year and lost to Central in the quarterfinals with a 43-39 overtime decision.
The Northmen should be among the mix again this winter, losing just one senior (Anissa Robitaille) to graduation. Some key players from last year that should make an impact are junior Tara Larson, senior Sidra Ethier and senior Amanda Guillemette.
The other two area teams, Shea and Davies Tech, could also finish high. The Raiders are minus two players from last year's fourth-place squad that was 12-6 in the league. The Patriots, who are led this year by former Central Falls coach Joe Handy, also lost just two seniors. They were fifth in the league in 2010-11 with a 9-9 mark and have returnees like junior guard Kaitlin Flynn back.