By Christopher Smith
---- — Watching Andover girls basketball team’s win over Salem in the first round of the Commonwealth Motors Christmas Classic should have excited local fans for the Golden Warriors’ first game against defending state champion Central Catholic on Jan. 9.
Many thought this would be a major rebuilding year, but Andover (4-0 as of Dec. 27) is one of the area’s surprise teams.
The Golden Warriors had averaged 67.5 points per game, including 85 points against Dracut and 76 points against Methuen, before they took on Lawrence in the Christmas tourney’s Hyde Division final last Saturday, Dec. 28.
The team displays quickness, plays Andover’s typical brand of pressure defense and can put the ball in the basket. The Blue and Gold, who admittedly have had a favorable early schedule, are averaging 7.5 3-pointers a game.
Andover has several reliable scorers, including 5-7 junior Colleen Caveney (16.8 points per game), 5-8 senior Jessica Witten (14.8 ppg), 5-10 freshman Alyssa Casey (10.3 ppg), 5-5 junior Rachael Cormier (8.3 ppg), 5-9 senior Rebecca Alois (7.5 ppg) and 5-5 junior Carissa Reming (5.0 ppg).
“We’re a lot better than people thought we’d be,” Caveney said.
With the departure of longtime coach Jim Tildsley — who led Andover to three straight state championships from 2010 to 2012 — some of the girls were leery when they heard that head football coach E.J. Perry was the new sheriff in town.
You know the perception of football coaches ... yell, yell, get a little impatient and then yell some more.
“Everyone was a little afraid we were going to have a football coach as our basketball coach,” Cormier said. “But no, I’ve been pleasantly surprised. I love Mr. Perry. He’s taught us so much in just the first couple of weeks we’ve been with him. So I’m really excited to see where he can take us.”
Perry, of course, has plenty of experience coaching boys basketball, including two New Hampshire Class L state titles at Salem, N.H.
As in past years when Andover won its state championships, this year’s team looks primed to score a lot of points off turnovers and its quick transition game.
“Defense is a huge part,” Cormier said. “Without our defense, we wouldn’t have an offense.”
Most local onlookers no longer view Andover as a juggernaut, but that might be a mistake.
“Everyone thinks we’re the underdog,” Cormier said. “No one expects us to be as good as we’re playing. And we’ve shocked every single team. Everyone comes in saying, ‘Oh, Andover, they’re not that good anymore.’ We show them that we are.”
Freshman starter Casey has taken over as an immediate impact player.
While in middle school, Casey looked up to Nicole Boudreau, who is now starring at Boston College. When her AAU team moved her from forward to guard, she focused on how Boudreau played guard to make herself a better player.
Now, she has returned to more of a post player role.
“Just the transition coming back (to forward) was tough, because I’m thinking, ‘Shoot, shoot’ when (Perry) is saying, ‘Post up, post up,’” she said.
A 16-point, nine-rebound effort in a win over Methuen was her best game so far.
“I expect great things,” Casey said. “I push myself to my hardest. I am really hard on myself. ... As a freshman, when I first came in here, I was really intimidated and nervous, but as I’ve gone on, I was like, ‘OK, I belong. This is a good feeling and I know I can prove myself.’”
Perry added: “Alyssa has Division I talent. And her ability to go inside and to go outside is going to be what separates her from the norm.”
Perry, whose daughter is a reserve guard, attended almost every game last year. So he had a good sense of the team’s strengths and weaknesses going into the season.
“But it’s a different team,” Perry said. “Witten played sparingly and Alois played, but she had a different role than I want (from) her. I want her going to the basket.”