LEE -- Winning an eighth state title won't be easy for the Lee girls basketball team.
Standing in the Wildcats' way is three-time state champion Archbishop Williams. The Braintree school has won two crowns since 2007 and enters Saturday's final at the DCU Center in Worcester having won 13 of its last 14 games. The Bishops (22-5) have lost to a Masschusetts school (Reading Memorial) just once this year.
"It's really the team's been playing together," said Archbishop Williams coach Jim Bancroft. "Each one of the players has improved on individual skills.
"Most importantly, defense and rebounding has gotten better as the season has gone on. Early in the season we weren't attacking the ball off the boards. It's been a combination of a whole lot of things. Mostly defense and rebounding and cutting down on the turnovers."
Those other four losses came earlier in the season to teams from Rhode Island, New York and New Jersey. The Bishops have a 12-game league schedule and Bancroft, in his 10th season, has become fond of filling his schedule with weekend tournaments early in the year to find tough competition.
It's a philosophy Lee (19-5) follows. The Wildcats suffered their own early season losses to Division I Chicopee, Central Mass. power Quaboag and the team they beat in the Western Mass. final, Sabis.
"It's nice to get out of town, play up," Wildcats coach Gary Wellington said. " I like to challenge our kids. Also, seeing new gyms, seeing
Lee has been comfortable down the stretch, winning its last nine after back-to-back losses to Division II sectional finalists Hoosac Valley and Drury at the end of January.
Both teams have had most of the week to prepare after Monday's semifinals. Each coach gave their kids a day off along with three practices. While Bancroft said the four-day intermission gave his kids a nice mental break, Wellington was worried about so much time away from the DCU Center.
"They know everything they need to know," Wellington said. "Just trying to stay sharp. We got two days here now. I'll push ‘em [Thursday]. We'll do our possessions and work our offenses and do a little bit more shooting. Just trying to get everyone back in game mode."
Bancroft said he's been trying to piece together information about Lee from articles and videos on the Internet. He said the up-tempo style Lee prefers works well for his team, too, led by 1,000-point scorer and captain Sara Ryan. The Bishops also have significant height, with three starters over six feet and two taller than 6-foot-3. Sophomore Alana Gilmer, who had a double-double in the Bishops' state semifinal win over Pentucket, stands 6-foot-4.
Lee seniors Stephanie Young and Eileen Dooley, who will be in Archbishop Williams' crosshairs, said they will try to counter that height with speed.
"All I've really heard is that they've got a lot of six-foot girls. They're tall," Dooley said. "That's the opposite of us. It's a little intimidating, but I think we can handle it. Nothing we haven't seen before."
Bancroft knows winning on Saturday won't be easy, though, regardless of the opponent.
"We play six games every year if you want to go all the way," Bancroft said. "It's very difficult to get the kids to understand, if you want to win it -- it's a cliche -- you do one game at a time, six times in a row and you're a champion.
"It's a tough thing to do."