Barre, Vt. — Windsor High’s athletic department has been dealing with a shortage of female athletes since last summer. Apparently, its girls basketball program never got the memo.
The top-seeded Yellowjackets, powered by the chemistry between versatile senior Ashleay Wilcox and freshman phenom Olivia Rockwood, overran No. 4 Winooski, 61-47, in the VPA Division III semifinal game at Barre Auditorium on Thursday night, to send Windsor to its first D-III championship game since it won back-to-back titles in 2010-11.
“This is probably one of the better teams I’ve had where they reach their potential,” Windsor head coach Bruce Mackay said. “I’ve had other teams that, overall, there’s more depth. But this year they’ve played together, they’ve worked hard, they’ve bought in to what we’re doing.”
The Yellowjackets (20-3) will play No. 2 Thetford (18-5) in Saturday night’s D-III championship.
Windsor took a lead 56 seconds into the first quarter on a layup from Rockwood, and never gave it up. The freshman, who admitted she felt some nerves early in her first contest at the Aud, followed it up with a steal, two points and a free throw, taking advantage of a communication error between Winooski’s Lydia Nattress and Riley Corrigan.
Half a minute later, Rockwood was involved again. This time she blocked a pass upcourt in front of Winooski’s basket with Wilcox waiting close by to pick up the loose change. Wilcox found the ball and laid it in.
Winooski coach Tom Prim called a timeout just two minutes into the game, his team already down 7-0.
“We knew this game was important,” Rockwood said. “We just wanted to come out ready and give it our all because we knew that, if we didn’t come out ready, it would be a rough one ahead of us. By going out there and getting up big, that let us get into our comfort zone and we could just settle down the rest of the game.
“Once I first got here, the nerves started to kick in,” she added. “Everything was bigger than I thought it was. When we finally got into the game, that first, I knew it was just another game.”
The Yellowjackets stretched their lead to 22-12 headed to the second quarter and 38-22 by halftime. Windsor spent the first six minutes of the third quarter with a 20-point lead.
But Windsor got ahead of itself in the fourth quarter, settling for difficult outside shots after only a couple of passes and drives to the basket that, suddenly, did not fall. Winooski (15-8) took advantage, going on a 12-3 run that cut Windsor’s lead to nine.
Mackay called a timeout to remind his girls to use the clock. The Yellowjackets scored eight of the last 11 points.
“We started rushing our offense, taking quick shots when we didn’t need to,” Mackay said. “Their transition baskets for Winooski happened because we weren’t getting back. … They got it down to nine, I called a timeout and I said, ‘Easy, easy. We’re leading. The clock is our friend.’ ”
Added Wilcox: “We got ahead of ourselves. We thought we had it in the bag, just played lazy defense. We should have pushed it more. During the regular season, we could run anyone out of the gym. … We weren’t running our offense at all. We need to be more methodical.”
It took almost no time at all for Windsor’s dynamic duo to find chemistry; the two have known each other for years, their families are friends. Wilcox, who on Saturday could win a championship with two different schools in her senior year — she won a field hockey title with Springfield High — remembers attending basketball camps with the speedy Rockwood, dreaming of the day she would be old enough to play on the same team.
For Mackay, Rockwood’s emergence has completely changed the makeup of the program. In years past, he admitted, maybe he asked to much of the sharpshooter Wilcox, who missed much of the year last season with a knee injury. When she returned, the Yellowjackets used her to make up some ground.
Now healthy, and a true secondary scoring threat in tow, Windsor’s offense has opened up. Expectations for Wilcox have been cut in half, opening up her game. And Rockwood, who is the Upper Valley’s leading scorer averaging 17.5 points per game before Thursday’s win, has been given the room she needs to grow.
“Oh yeah, we’ve been to camps all over the place,” Wilcox said. “She’s awesome; she’s an amazing girl. She’s a great team player and I love playing with her. … I’ve never played with anyone like her in my life. … She’s my right hand man.”
Rockwood echoed the same sentiment. “We’ve known each other since I was born. Our families are friends. So we’ve had that chemistry. It’s just so fun to play with someone who is like a sister to me.”
Rockwood finished with a game-high 25 points, matching her second-highest individual point total of the season; she had 25 points on Dec. 16 vs. Thetford and had a season-high 29 points on Jan. 10 against Mount St. Joseph. Wilcox netted 20, including a 3-pointer, and amassed plenty of steals playing a stingy defense. Anika Abrahamsen added eight points.
“They’ve made this team better,” Mackay said of his dynamic duo, still smiling outside the Windsor locker room. “The good about it is, both players are good enough to make their other teammates better.”
Saturday’s championship game is set for 7:30 p.m. at the Barre Auditorium.
Josh Weinreb can be reached at email@example.com or 603-727-3306.