By Russ Waterman
If there were any doubts before this season, there are few, if any, today. St. Mary Academy-Bay View, the No. 1-ranked team in Rhode Island, has earned the right to own property in the elite section of the Ocean State girls' basketball neighborhood.
As the regular season winds down, the 13-1 Bengals have already beaten their top two rivals, defending state champion La Salle Academy of Providence (No. 3) and second-ranked South Kingstown. But this season's success is an extension of their gradual climb up the basketball ladder.
In the past decade - and especially since Doug Haynes became head coach five years ago - this East Providence all-girls school of over 1,000 students has solidly placed itself on a state and region-wide basketball map of high-level competitiveness.
"I'm so fortunate to have such great athletes and great kids, as well as support from parents, teachers, administrators and the athletic department," Haynes stated, also praising his staff of Joel Ercolano, Melissa Fullerton and Lauren Jackson, the latter a former All-State and Gatorade Player of the Year.
Besides vanquishing all Ocean State foes this season, St. Mary just missed capturing its second straight state title last season before bowing to the always-dangerous Rams of La Salle Academy in the final. In 2006, the Bengals won the state title.
Their only loss this season came during Christmas vacation at the Mercy Classic in California, where they were edged out, 55-53, by Assumption of Louisville, Ky., currently No. 21 in the Bluegrass State. St. Mary went on to beat host Mercy of San Francisco, 60-45, and McAuley of Cincinnati, 63-50.
"That's the only way to get better," said Haynes, who had a distinguished athletic career as a junior college All-American basketball player, a running back for one year at the University of Rhode Island and at West Warwick High, where he played with former NBA pro Tommy Garrick on state championship teams.
"Traveling and playing against good teams also gets our kids noticed by college coaches."
Seniors Brittany Wilson and Kashaia Cannon, both committed to Division I Northeastern for next season, receive most of the attention and credit for the Bengals' success, though Haynes points out several other contributors.
"Brittany is a complete player," Haynes said of his 5-foot-10 guard/forward who is averaging 15 points, 11 rebounds, four assists, four blocks and two steals per game. "She's the total package. She can rebound, defend and block shots."
Wilson scored 17 points and had 14 rebounds, three blocks and four assists in the win over South Kingstown.
Cannon, a 5-9 shooting guard (14 ppg, 5 apg) is given a major assignment each game. "She has been a big plus in defending the other team's best guards," Haynes explained. "She gets right on top of you and is a good shooter and distributor, too."
Jess Baptista (10 ppg) has been a bright spot, too. In the Bengals' recent 56-45 win over South Kingstown in a battle between two then-unbeaten teams, Haynes says Baptista "was on fire." She scored 12 of her 15 points in helping her team soar to an immediate 24-9 advantage.
Other contributors are 5-11 junior forward Jill Woerner (8 ppg) and 6-1 sophomore Brittany Wilkerson (3 ppg).
"It's the best defensive team I've ever had," Haynes said of his "scrappy" Bengals squad that holds opponents to fewer than 40 points per game. And that defensive mindset works hand in hand with their athleticism and talent. "We're into pressing and running and going to the basket.
"We know we've got a bulls eye on us every time we play so we don't overlook anyone," Haynes continued, adding that Coventry, Cranston West and East Greenwich, among others, are very competitive, too.
Ocean State Girls Basketball Notes
On Thursday, Feb. 7, the biggest inter-state matchup of the southern New England season takes place when Stonington, Conn., travels to East Providence to play St. Mary Academy. Stonington features University of Connecticut recruit Heather Buck.
Alexa Monti of East Greenwich is averaging 25 points per game for the Avengers. An all-state selection in soccer (67 career goals), an all-state pick in track and a second-team Rhode Island Coaches Association all-state selection in basketball last season, the 5-3 senior guard will be attending Yale.
Prout School (Wakefield) of Division II South and No. 6 in the MaxPreps state rankings, is making waves this season. The 14-2 Crusaders, led by Piper Chapman (18.4 ppg) have lost just two games, to No. 2 South Kingstown and to league foe and No. 8 Westerly, and are holding opponents to just 38 points per outing.
In what could be a tantalizing preview of the Division II state final, Prout and fourth-ranked Tiverton have a home-and away series this week. Tiverton (12-4), which does not have a player over six feet tall and relies on quickness and solid perimeter play, travels to Wakefield on Friday to play Prout. Among the Tiverton leaders in a very balanced attack are Elizabeth DeMelo, Sydney Higginbottom, Rachel Motta and Kelly DeCosta.
Meredith Ward of Westerly recently had a rare triple-double in a win over Warwick. The Holy Cross-bound senior guard registered 30 points, 15 rebounds and 10 assists.
Two weeks ago, Kaitlyn Lambert of Cumberland passed the all-time school scoring mark of 1,477 points previously held by brother, Peter.Who knows what the new standard will be after Lambert scored 33 points in an overtime loss to St. Raphael last week.
Russ Waterman covers Massachusetts, Rhode Island and the New England Preps for MaxPreps.com. He may be reached at email@example.com