For the first time all season, the Champlain Valley Union girls basketball team hit a speedbump last week.
The unbeaten Redhawks fell to St. Johnsbury last Wednesday, suffering their first loss of the season, and a largely untested team faced its first test: How would it respond?
Three days later, halfway into Saturday’s game against Mount Anthony, CVU coach Ute Otley was not satisfied.
“She hasn’t really spoken to us in that tone this year,” said junior Meghan Gilwee of her coach’s halftime speech. “I think that is something we needed to get some fire in our bellies.”
The Redhawks got the message. CVU dropped the Patriots 55-20, getting back in the win column and sending a message that this team knows how to handle adversity.
“This team is growing up as we go,” Otley said after Saturday’s win over Mount Anthony. “We started this year with some real deficiencies. It’s also a year when we only had three seniors…They are learning on the fly.”
While a 15-1 record and current No. 1 spot in the Division I rankings is the envy of most teams, the expectations of CVU basketball mean this team is aiming for nothing short of their sixth straight state title.
But it took a trio of tough matchups – including the loss on the road to St. Johnsbury – for the pressure to mount. And just in time: only four games remain in the regular season.
That means the players who didn’t see action last year need to prove that they can handle the upcoming state championship pressure. And given that only four players on the roster saw significant post-season minutes last year, most of the team has a lot to prove.
They passed the first test with the win over Mount Anthony.
“They can make a name for themselves. They all have their own special thing that they are good at,” Meghan Gilwee said of her younger teammates. “They are becoming more confident as the season goes on.”
After cruising through the early part of the season, Otley wanted to see how some of these younger players – freshman Catherine Gilwee, sophomores Maryn Askew and Mekkena Boyd for example – would respond to some regular-season pressure.
“In the Essex game, the freshman – Catherine [Gilwee], my sister – hitting the three-pointer, that was surprising. They have owned up to the challenge,” said Meghan Gilwee. “They are becoming more confident as the season goes on.”
The St. Johnsbury loss was hardly the first test for the Redhawks. They needed and nailed an OT three-pointer to escape with a win over Essex at the end of January. They also held off a comeback bid from Rice just a week ago.
But CVU’s luck ran out last week against the St. J. Hilltoppers – the team they beat in the D-1 finals last year.
“We’re trying not to get in our own heads,” Meghan Gilwee said. “It’s been upbeat but we know what we have to work on.”
After the tests against three top Metro Division teams – and a slow offensive start against Mount Anthony – the Redhawks went back to their strength: defense.
CVU allowed Mount Anthony just 20 points – just eight in the second half. On Monday, they followed up with a 54-21 win over Spaulding to move to 15-1 and stay on top in the standings.
“As coach says, ‘offense wins games but defense wins championships,’” Meghan Gilwee said. “That’s our motto.”
Finding their groove
In addition to the defensive strength, the Redhawks have used the first three-quarters of the season getting comfortable with working as a team.
“This is not a group that has necessarily played a lot together,” Otley said. “It’s just been about them getting to know how each other plays and how to play to each other’s strengths.”
Time, combined with an illness that went through the team earlier in the season, has given coach Otley plenty of opportunity to mix and match combinations and find what works best for this group.
“That exposed some new stuff that I hadn’t tried before, some combinations that I hadn’t thought to try,” Outley said. “We made some lemonade out of lemons.”
One of the things that the team has discovered is its depth. On 10 separate occasions, a different player came in as top scorer this season. That reveals a strong, consistent offense that is very tough to defend.
“That’s how balanced this team is,” Otley said. “I really don’t feel like if you shut down one kid, that’s going to be the end of us.”
So, first loss? Check. Strong response to pressure? Check. Learning the team’s strengths and shoring up the weaknesses? Check.
With just four games remaining in the regular season, the Redhawks seem to be ticking all the right boxes as they gear up for another run at a state championship.
“Obviously, we want to win another state championship,” Meghan Gilwee said. “But we have to do the little things correctly, we have to relax, know what we are capable of, and accomplish it.”