Woodstock Girls Basketball Begins Rebuilding Project at Jayvee Level
Woodstock freshman Ashley Johnson (20) dribbles past Green Mountain’s Reilly Knipes during the Wasps’ 53-31 junior varsity girls basketball win at Dailey Gym on Tuesday. (Valley News - Greg Fennell) Purchase photo reprints »
A longtime AAU coach, Roger St. Hilaire has taken on the challenge this year of rebuilding the Woodstock High girls basketball program, which consists of just 12 girls and is playing only a junior varsity schedule this winter. (Valley News - Greg Fennell) Purchase photo reprints »
Woodstock sophomore Schuyler Benoit (21) falls over Green Mountain's Emily Williams while battling for a loose ball during the Wasps' 53-29 junior varsity girls basketball win on Tuesday night. (Valley News -- Greg Fennell) Purchase photo reprints »
Woodstock senior Emma Blaiklock, right, and freshman Paitra Martin (25) follow the play as sophomore teammate Amber Barcomb (23) ties her hair during the Wasps' junior varsity girls basketball win over Green Mountain at Daily Gym on Tuesday night. Woodstock athletic director Jeff Thomas ran the notion of a junior varsity-only schedule past Blaiklock -- who missed Tuesday's game with a concussion -- last summer before committing to the plan, a decision Blaiklock has accepted even if she occasionally finds it upsetting. (Valley News - Greg Fennell) Purchase photo reprints »
Woodstock freshman forward Paitra Martin readies to pounce on the rebound of a first-half free throw during the Wasps' junior varsity girls basketball win over Green Mountain on Tuesday night. After going 0-40 the last two winters and facing a shortage of players, the Wasps are playing a junior varsity schedule this winter in hopes of returning to varsity play next year. (Valley News - Greg Fennell) Purchase photo reprints »
Woodstock — Through occasional tears, Emma Blaiklock believes it’s the best solution for the situation.
The Woodstock Union High School girls basketball program consists of just 12 players in grades 9-12. Part of that is the record: People don’t always turn out for a team that has lost its last 52 games. Part of that is circumstance: It’s difficult for a school of fewer than 200 students to win at everything given the volume of activities WUHS offers.
Knowing the low numbers and realizing the state of affairs wouldn’t improve for at least another year, Woodstock athletic director Jeff Thomas decided this winter’s girls hoop season would be played only at a junior varsity level.
The proof of Blaiklock’s belief now comes from sounds such as those that echoed down the hall from the locker room in the wake of the Wasps’ 53-31 win over Green Mountain on Tuesday night: exuberant, unadulterated joy. Woodstock is beginning to enjoy the sensation of victory again, and it’s worth the sacrifice for the program’s only senior.
“Regardless of the label that you put on it, it’s Woodstock girls basketball and we’re all proud to be here,” Blaiklock said. “It was hard figuring out what I wanted to do with the season: Being senior year, either drop back down to jayvee or just don’t play.
“But I love the sport and love the girls with all my heart. I wouldn’t give that up for anything.”
The challenge of rebuilding — really, of just plain building — falls upon a new coach fulfilling a longtime dream.
A veteran AAU coach, Lebanon’s Roger St. Hilaire assumed the Wasps’ reins knowing his first winter wouldn’t be played against Vermont varsities. In addition to improving the current Wasps’ fortunes, St. Hilaire is also looking for ways to boost basketball participation at the youth level so as to construct a brighter long-term future.
“I’ve always wanted to be a varsity coach, and this opportunity opened up,” St. Hilaire said. “I know they were going to make it jayvee level to begin with because they need to build the program, and it’s exactly the kind of program I wanted to do.
“I like to teach kids how to play basketball. … I jumped at it knowing I have a good group coming up next year and down the road a little ways. We’re going to go down and work with the rec department level and build a program that will feed the system properly.”
Woodstock last claimed a varsity girls basketball victory on Jan. 5, 2010, a 53-21 win over Bellows Falls at Dailey Gym. The Wasps closed that season with 11 straight losses to complete a 3-18 campaign. Woodstock went 0-21 in 2011-12, followed by last year’s 0-20 mark.
Gregg Nalette, the Wasps’ coach the past two years, saw the immediate future when his summer team was plagued by limited participation. Between losing Nalette to the Hartford High boys basketball program and the hiring of St. Hilaire, Thomas pulled the trigger on the jayvee-only plan.
“Our girls were getting kind of discouraged,” Thomas said. “I was reading off the announcements for the starting lineups for whatever team was at Woodstock, and it would be senior guard, senior forward, and I would introduce our team as freshman, freshman, freshman, with maybe two juniors. Our numbers have been terrible. … That’s really a jayvee team, with the numbers we have and the age that we have.”
Before Thomas committed to his plan, however, he sought Blaiklock’s input.
“It was one of the hardest discussions I’ve had in my life,” recalled Blaiklock, who missed Tuesday’s game with a concussion. “I love basketball more than anything, and having the early discussion of whether or not this team was going to be dropped down really was hard for me. …
“In the end, it’s about what builds the program. I’m leaving after this season. It was a hard conversation just because it hurt, but it was also not personal. It’s what the program needs, and I agree.”
St. Hilaire is no stranger to many of the Wasps. His Wilder-based AAU program, the Upper Valley Wolfpack, includes players from Woodstock, Hartford and Hartland, among other towns.
As with Blaiklock, St. Hilaire is making a sacrifice to improve the Wasps’ fortunes. The Vermont Principals Association prohibits paid AAU coaches from guiding their summer charges in high school programs, so St. Hilaire is coaching Woodstock as a volunteer this winter.
Thomas hopes girls basketball returns to varsity play in 2013-14. If it does, St. Hilaire said he’d give up coaching Woodstock girls in AAU play — he could still oversee athletes from other schools — in order to keep the Wasps moving forward. Alissa Giroux, the only other applicant for the job, was hired as St. Hilaire’s assistant, with the expectation of taking over the jayvee should Woodstock go back to varsity next year.
“I asked them to rate themselves before the season started, and we knew exactly that we were not at the high school level at this point,” said St. Hilaire, 54, whose daughter, Ashley, was a freshman on Lebanon High’s NHIAA Class I state championship team in 2001. “We spent a lot of time working on fundamental skills — passing, dribbling, shooting — and trying to build on those skills. We have not spent a lot of time working on our offense and defense as we should be at this level, but we are starting to get to that point.
“They are now understanding what it is I want from them in how to play the defense that I want. We seem to be able to set up our offense and run the offense effectively, so I think it’s only going to get better as we go.”
As she waits to return to game action, Blaiklock has become a combination cheerleader, coach and confidante for her younger partners. She’s excited for the future, even if it won’t include her after the current season’s end.
“The girls are a little more relaxed; we’re having fun winning games,” she said. “The girls are doing a great job of stepping up to the challenges and acting like they should be varsity team.”
After all, regardless of the level of play, the echoes of a victory cheer sound the same at the other end of the hall.
Greg Fennell can be reached at email@example.com or 603-727-3226.