Littletonís Julia Winn drives against Groveton last season. The Crusaders are favored to reach the Division IV state championship game. Charlie Lentz/The Courier. (click for larger version)
December 07, 2011LITTLETON — Don't tell Littleton coach Dale Prior he's got five returning starters poised to make a run for the state crown.
Don't listen to the whispers about the Crusaders steamrolling to the Division IV state championship game — although it appears they might flatten every team in their path.
Don't dream about the raucous postseason pep rally — the one where the team hoists the maroon-and-white championship banner on Littleton High's gymnasium wall.
Prior doesn't want to hear any of it.
"Our slogan this year is it's one game at time," Prior said. "All the talk about people thinking that we're the team to beat in Division IV because we return everybody — we don't want to look at it that way. Until somebody beats (defending champion) Groveton, it doesn't matter."
Listen to the coach — then apply for a membership in the Flat Earth Society. Or ignore Prior — most of the other basketball coaches in the North Country aren't paying much attention either.
"Littleton is the measuring stick," said Woodsville High coach Jim Kinder.
Coach Prior doesn't want to hear it but listen anyway: After two consecutive trips to the final four of the state tournament and with five starters returning — led by First Team All-State point guard Julia Winn — Littleton High appears to be a lock for a berth in the Division IV Tournament championship game.
They Crusaders reached the state semifinals at Plymouth State University twice over the last two years — knocked out by Groveton both times — and courtside pundits might say the third trip could be the proverbial charm. Even Prior admits they're battle-tested in the D-IV Tournament.
"The more experience that you have — and out of everything that we bring back that's the one word that would describe everybody that's here — is experience, because they've been there," Prior said. "They know what the atmosphere is like. The senior group was there as sophomores and they all played valuable minutes down there (in Plymouth) so they all know what it's like. Last year they got another taste of it."
It was a bitter taste last season as Littleton fell to Groveton 37-30 in the D-IV tourney semifinals and then Groveton went on to claim the state crown. Littleton finished 17-4 overall last season and was seeded third in the state tourney.
Groveton has won four consecutive state championships and has reached the finals the last six years. But the Eagles lost 1,000-point scorer Kelley Collins to graduation along with power forward/enforcer Jessica McKenzie and appear vulnerable. Littleton will get an early look at the Eagles because the Crusaders host Groveton on Friday night at Littleton High.
Prior said the Crusaders simply have their sights set on 18 regular season games and then they'll think about the tourney. But it's hard to ignore Littleton's championship-caliber lineup that includes a trio of All-Staters.
Four senior starters return including Winn — center Alyssa Keefe, shooting guard Taylor Glidden and forward Lindsey Glines. Junior starting forward Dori Horne is back as well.
"Those four seniors, in general, they just complement each other so well," Prior said. "And they've been together so long. You add Dori, who's a returning starter, she's very versatile because she can play inside — she can play at forward or she can play at guard."
Winn made First Team All-State last season and directs the show. She also led Littleton in scoring the last two seasons.
"Julia runs our offense very well. She's a good scorer too, which is a bonus for a point guard," said coach Prior. "A lot of times a point guard is just somebody that just runs an offense and we don't look to them for scoring. She's our leading scorer for the last two years, so to return her at that position and then Taylor (Glidden) as well at the guard position, who's (D-IV All-State) Honorable Mention from last year."
Winn can drive or pull up and shoot the three-pointer and Glidden can knock down the trey as well.
"I think our girls complement each other well. You've got Julia who can drive and dish. You've got Taylor who's a good spot-up shooter, she can also get to the basket, she's got some size," Prior said.
Keefe can command the lane from the low post.
"Alyssa (Keefe), who's Second Team All-State last year, she's a good inside scorer but she's also extended her range this year as well," Prior said.
Glines scraps inside and picked up a lot of buckets off the offensive board last season.
"(Glines) is the kid that offensively, that's got to be her role. That is her role of rebound putbacks, running the floor, getting transition — because she is athletic," Prior said "She does have speed. She can get up and down the floor."
Prior said Horne adds to the mix with her defense and can shut down the opposition's top scorer.
"(Horne) is a defensive specialist first. She's got to expand her scoring and shooting ability this year," Prior said. "But I would put her up against anybody in the state to shut down another team's best player and she buys into that."
Sophomore guard Maggie Hadlock got some playing time last year and will get more minutes this season.
"(Hadlock) is definitely going to be in the rotation, whether it's going to be coming off the bench or starting," Prior said. "She's going to have to give Julia a break here and there but she's in the mix anyway. She'll either play the point and we'd move Julia to an off guard. Or Julia would still run the point and Maggie would play the off-guard position."
Littleton's trademark last season was demoralizing opponents with a full-court press to fuel offensive runs.
"We're going to definitely mix it up this year but the press is something we've definitely been successful with," Prior said. "We spent a lot of time this summer, with the summer league that we played in, kind of fine tuning some different things with (the press). But a couple different wrinkles with it here and there. But overall, that's our bread and butter if we're going to be successful."
Also on the varsity are sophomores Bianca Verret, Ali MacKay, Hannah Lavoie, Chynna Lowe and freshmen Meagan Bircher and Madi McNamara.
"We have a full jayvee schedule so they're going to get a lot of playing time there but we're definitely going to have some times where I'm sure we can put the younger kids in to get some varsity experience," Prior said.
While coach Prior isn't thinking ahead, he knows a top-four seeding in the state tournament assures two home playoff games — assuming a victory in the opening round.
"We don't just want to make the playoffs, we want that top-four seed," Prior said. "It's a huge advantage to play on your home floor twice."
Littleton is the odds-on favorite to reach the D-IV championship game at Plymouth State University — but 18 regular season games come first. Groveton was Littleton's roadblock in the last two state tournaments. But five returning Littleton starters are looking to bust down that barrier. Last season's 37-30 loss to the Eagles in the final four still rankles.
"Last year was kind of a bitter ending," Prior said. "Last year we didn't go (to Plymouth) just to show up. We went to actually compete and win and get to the next level — and that's our goal. We've got to the final four twice and that's great, that's a great accomplishment. But ultimately, we're not here for that."