When the Western Mass. Division III semifinals tip off at 4:30 p.m. tonight, two teams celebrating special seasons with first-year coaches will intersect at the Curry Hicks Cage in Amherst.
The stories for No. 4 Drury and No. 9 Mount Greylock this year are both unique. Drury, coming off a year's absence from the tournament, rides a senior-laden squad into UMass, sporting a 15-9 record and a defense that has already shut down Greylock twice this year.
The Mounties (15-7), meanwhile, are in the midst of a six-game winning streak, which includes road playoff wins at No. 8 Athol and No. 1 South Hadley to get to the semifinals.
But while the bright lights bouncing off the parquet might be unfamiliar for both sides, Drury coach Brian Flagg said there is a level of comfort with being so familiar with coach John Jacobbe's side.
"It's exciting to go down [to UMass]," Flagg said. "I think [playing each other] adds a comfort level for both teams because it's going to be such an intimidating atmosphere, that at least your opponent will be familiar."
Will the game be? Drury topped Greylock way back in the Gene Wein final, 42-39, then again on Jan. 26, 42-31. Drury's defense has been suffocating in wins, holding teams under 40 points in all but two this season.
Against the Mounties, Drury held Greylock center Jenna Benzinger to eight points in both games, and kept Ari Walden and Lauren Howard in single digits, as well. Slowing down the trio again will go a long way.
"You can't focus on one or two, you really have to clamp down all three," Flagg said. "If you just try to focus all your efforts on Jenna, Lauren and Ari are really going to beat you. Same goes for any of the other combinations."
Greylock, though, is a different team than the last time the two sides met. The loss started a three-game skid for the Mounties, but since then the team is on a six-game winning run and are averaging 58.6 points per game.
The biggest of the wins was over South Hadley. Playing a team that had wins over two other semifinalists, Drury and Hoosac Valley, Jacobbe noted the team's resiliency in seeing off the Tigers in the fourth quarter.
"Going into half tied helped us say 'Hey, we can play with this team,' " Jacobbe said. "We knew we had to face the No. 1 seed and a talented team. Our goal was to not just compete with them, but to pull it out and we found a way."
Drury's senior core will go a long way in the gameplan against Benzinger and the Mounties. Interior duo Liv Carlson and Katie Toomey will have to work in tandem to keep Benzinger off the glass on both ends of the court. Molly Moulton and Jenna Moulton, meanwhile, will help anchor the backcourt, and the former's ability at point guard will be key in Drury keeping the ball. For a team that has eclipsed 50 points just twice this season, Flagg said his team has to win the turnover battle to be successful.
"She's stepped up big for us all year," Flagg said of Molly. "She's just so strong, mentally tough, she really makes good decisions ... we're going to count on her leadership and experience in this game, for sure."
Both teams also want to see more points from different role players. While the success for Greylock has come through its Big Three, Sarah Stripp, Caroline Flynn and Hailey Reinhard can also score. Drury, meanwhile, could use points from Sarah Lamarre and Brooke Digennaro.
"They know where our scoring is and did their best to eliminate our top scorers," Jacobbe said of the two losses. "We are going to look for other people to contribute, and we are going to look for our top three scorers to find a way to get it done against a good defense."
The winner of this game will get either No. 2 Hoosac Valley or No. 3 Hampshire Regional in the championship game on Saturday.
Contact Geoff Smith at 413-496-6254.