CHESHIRE >> Coming into the season, the biggest question facing the Hoosac Valley girls basketball team wasn't about the production the Hurricanes would get from its returners, it was about how the new faces would fit in on a championship-caliber team.
Fast forward to the playoffs, and it's apparent that the new girls for the Hurricanes have fit in nicely with the returning players.
"In the beginning it was kind of hard [fitting in]," sophomore Ellie Field, a swimmer last winter, said. "We knew that this team had three titles before and we knew that we could do better, and we could take the chemistry this team has had and take it to a new level.
"I think we have this year, and I think we have a good chance of competing on Saturday [for a state championship]."
Hoosac's ability to mix in the old with the new has been critical throughout the season. With Eastern Massachusetts champion Bishop Fenwick up next in the MIAA Division III state championship game, the Hurricanes have to trust that the chemistry built will continue to show when the ball tips at the MassMutual Center in Springfield.
Hoosac's returners this year were seniors Madi Ryan and Cassidy McMahon, and juniors Fallon Field and Kailynne Frederick. With the base four established, coach Ron Wojcik filled in the rest of his rotation with a pair of sophomores in Ellie Field — Fallon's sister — and Skylar Case, along with freshmen Alie Mendel and Lexi Mercier. Mendel has slid in as the fifth starter, while Ellie Field, Case and Mercier are the first three off the bench and typically enter the game at the same time.
"The major thing coach Ron [Wojcik] tells us is get your nerves out on defense," Case said of coming off the pine. "For us, coming off the bench and going in, it's just play our defense and then everything else will rotate through."
The foursome have had their feet thrown directly in the fire this year, with Hoosac's difficult regular-season slate forcing the quartet into important minutes early. It was nervy for everyone involved, but all four of the new rotation members credited the four returning players for getting them up to speed.
"The upperclassmen helped me get settled in," Mendel said. "They just walked us through things [to get us comfortable]."
The maturation process has also been aided through the fact that every player on the team has a defined role. With the rigidity of the system in place, each player is asked to do a singular job for the collective effort.
"It really comes down to focus and being able to cooperate with everybody," Case said. "It takes a lot of time to understand. Everything's always mixed up and we are running through a million things. ... It's just focus and cooperation — major teamwork gets us through everything."
Mendel has stepped up as a capable scorer this year and as an alternative point guard to Ryan. With three double-digit efforts in the postseason, including a 15-point outing against Littleton in the state semifinals, Mendel has developed into a reliable option for the Hurricanes.
"Her role is huge now, she does a lot for us," Wojcik said. "She's another point guard on the court, as is Skylar when she comes in. It allows me to move Madi to the off-guard.
"It gives us a lot of flexibility, and then on the offensive standpoint she's able to get out on the break, she's able to finish. The big games don't seem to phase her."
On the bench unit, Ellie Field is Hoosac's backup center, Case is another deputy ballhandler, and Mercier is a knock-down shooter. Mercier has knocked down 40 3-pointers this season for Hoosac, while Case has provided another 21 triples and the ability to swipe passes on defense.
Against Littleton in the state semifinals, both Mercier and Case knocked down a pair of 3-pointers to get the Hoosac offense flowing in the first half.
"In the state semfinal game Lexi came in without nerves and nailed a couple threes," Ryan said. "Alie, I couldn't imagine starting in my freshman year in the state title game. They've stepped up a lot and helped us on our run."
Mercier is a question mark going into the game as she nurses an ankle injury picked up against Littleton. The hope, though, is Mercier will be able to suit up on Saturday.
While the points can only aid Hoosac against Bishop Fenwick, Wojcik stressed another important aspect that his new four has to bring — intensity.
"If the younger kids don't match that, then you can get a little tentative, a little slow or sluggish with your passes," Wojcik said. "That's one of the things that concerns me. ... None of those kids are afraid of anybody as far as I'm concerned, but you get into that environment and see these other kids being really physical with you, they have to understand you can't allow that to happen, you just have to match it."
If Mendel, Case, Mercier and Ellie Field can bring the intensity, Hoosac stands a better chance than ever of getting over the state championship hump.
Contact Geoff Smith at 413-496-6254.