Getting to Be Best in the Nest: Whitcomb Fortunes On the Rise
Whitcomb junior Nicole Begin passes over the head of West Rutland junior Mikayla Dambrackas during the Hornets’ girls basketball game against the Golden Horde in Bethel on Saturday. Three years after a winless season, Whitcomb finds itself in the race for a Vermont Division IV tournament home seed. (Valley News - Libby March) Purchase photo reprints »
Whitcomb senior Reba Hart (10) struggles to maintain possession. (Valley News - Libby March) Purchase photo reprints »
Whitcomb coach Dennis Wood discusses strategy with his Hornets during Saturday’s home game with West Rutland. (Valley News - Libby March) Purchase photo reprints »
Whitcomb freshman Lindsey LaPerle (34) leaps up for a jump shot during Saturday’s home game with West Rutland. LaPerle is one of five Hornets to score in double figures at least once this season. (Valley News - Libby March) Purchase photo reprints »
Bethel — When Cambry Zullick and Reba Hart played for the Whitcomb High girls basketball team as freshmen, the Hornets went 0-20 to miss the playoffs and capped a two-year stretch in which the program earned just one win.
Since then, the pair has learned that persistence can lead to fruitful results.
At 8-4 and in fifth place in Vermont Division IV, the Hornets are on pace for their first winning season in eight years and appear poised to host a first-round playoff game in the upcoming state tournament.
Whitcomb has gotten better each year under third-year mentor Dennis Wood. In his first year, the program jumped from no wins to six, then went 10-10 last year to earn the No. 10 seed before a first-round tournament exit.
This season, Whitcomb has its eye on a deep run in the playoffs, with a trip to the semifinals at Barre Auditorium a real possibility. The Hornets haven’t been to the final four since 1997.
“It’s been a process of steady improvement,” said Wood, who’d previously coached the Hornets’ boys team from 1982-94. “We have a core group of players who’ve been through a lot and stuck with the team. … When those teams went 1-39 (over two years), the numbers were way down and it probably should have been a jayvee-only team during that time. It was difficult for the program, but we’ve moved past it.”
The Hornets’ offense has been remarkably better, scoring 49.2 points per game, an increase of nearly 15 ppg from last year and nearly double the average offensive output from two years ago. Their aggregate 590 points through 12 games are more than what they amassed all of last season, and Tuesday’s 77-32 win at Cabot marked their highest point total in a single game in 10 years.
“We score a lot of our points on the run in transition, and we have a lot of players who aren’t afraid to score,” Wood said. “We have five different players who (reached) double figures in at least one game.”
Leading the way is junior small forward Ashley Stearns, whose 13.4 ppg is among the leaders in the Upper Valley. Stearns — who’d been averaging 14.5 ppg before flu symptoms held her to limited minutes and a season-low two points against West Rutland on Saturday — uses excellent accuracy to be most effective off the dribble.
“She just has a really sweet jumper,” said Wood. “She’s playing with a lot more confidence this year.”
The Hornets have also been bolstered by the addition of Lindsey LaPerle, a freshman sparkplug who’s assumed the starting point guard position after swinging between jayvee and varsity as an eighth-grader last season. LaPerle’s 11.3 ppg are second on the team, above Hart’s 9.4.
“She’s not afraid to take it to the hole,” Wood said of LaPerle. “She knows when to distribute, but she plays with a lot of heart and no fear. The other girls have fed off of that, and it’s made a big difference.”
LaPerle’s emergence at the point has allowed junior Nicole Begin to shift to a more natural forward position, where’s she’s netted 7.5 ppg after scoring 4.9 per game as the starting point guard last year. Shooting guard Hart’s production has also increased, up from 6.8 ppg a year ago, and first-off-the-bench Mackenzie Delia (4.0 ppg) has played a significant role as well.
The Hornets have also been strong defensively, holding opponents to just over 36 points per game operating primarily out of a 1-3-1 zone.
Stearns expects Whitcomb’s defense to only get better as the playoffs approach.
“We’ve had some tough opponents like (D-III) Rivendell (a 43-22 home loss Jan. 19) and West Rutland, who play physical and have tested our defense,” Stearns said. “Games like that are going to help us.”
Perhaps the most significant improvement for the Hornets has been their sense of solidarity. As the program has learned how get better with each other on the court, so too have their relationships as individuals enhanced.
“We’re having a lot more fun this year, we’re passing better and communicating better,” Zullick said. “We’re picking each other up more as a team. If one of us is in a bad mood or something is going on, we’re doing a better job supporting each other this year, and that’s leading to confidence on the court.”
Jared Pendak can be reached at email@example.com or 603-727-3306.