By Russ Waterman
It is a difficult name to spell and pronounce, but Mary Nwachukwu of Dighton-Rehoboth Regional High School is simply one of the best juniors in the state of Massachusetts.
Her teammates aren't too bad, either.
Not that Nwachukwu could be kept a secret for very long, since as a freshman varsity player she was already exhibiting exquisite end-to-end court skills that a young lady of her age and size rarely displays.
Nor could she escape scrutiny by fans, opponents, media and colleges after the playoff splash she made last season as a sophomore. After all, she 'only' accounted for 23 points and 15 rebounds in two games to lead the squad into the MIAA Division 2 playoffs before losing a closely-fought, second-round game against Bishop Feehan (which would advance to the state semifinals).
This season, with a 30 points per game scoring average - best in the Bay State - along with 17 rebounds and more than three blocks per game, the 6-foot-2 junior forward Nwachukwu has already developed into one of the most talented pivot players around.
And her Division 2 Falcons squad is gaining recognition, too, not just by being in serious contention for a league title for the first time in six years, but by their rise to No. 100 among Bay State teams in the recent MaxPreps rankings.
Dighton-Rehoboth coach Jon Pacheco says he won't be specific, but acknowledges many colleges are seriously looking at his junior standout.
"Mary is an outstanding, well-rounded player and a very good leader," says Pacheco, who is in his second season as head coach after serving as an assistant for six years. "She has very good post moves, can handle the ball in the open court and can knock down a 17-footer."
While teams have ganged up on Nwachukwu with double and triple teams already this season, the graceful left-hander has responded. "She really understands the game of basketball," Pacheco says. "She knows that scoring 30 points or having 15 assists still translates into the same thing. She is willing to do what it takes for us to succeed."
What might be the most scary proposition of all for opponents next season isn't just the prospect of Mary's return, but of her three starting sophomore teammates as well: guard Sadie Gosselin, Robyn Catarius, a 5-11 forward-guard, and forward Kelsey Mikkelson. The only starting senior is point guard Aislynn Sherry, who masterfully directs the offense.
"I tell the other girls it's great to have a player like Mary, but it takes more than her to win," Pacheco emphasizes, noting that all the starters at one time or another have come through when Mary is surrounded, and by combining for over 50 points a contest "that is good enough to win a lot of games.
"It's all about executing offensive and defensive sets," Pacheco adds, "and doing the things you're supposed to do so you can be successful and pull out close games when you need to."
Proof that D-R deserves to be in the upper echelon of the South Coast Conference is the fierce battle it waged against defending league champion Fairhaven, which did pull out a 70-67 win. Only a late 37-19 run by the Blue Devils denied the Falcons a chance to be in first place by themselves. Nwachukwu scored 32 points and grabbed 19 boards in that narrow loss.
Nwachukwu also improved her stats with an overwhelming 41-point performance in an easy win over Case.
After she had 26 points, 18 rebounds and six blocked shots in a 58-47 win over Bourne, the Bourne coach, Bob Sullivan, said in a Jan. 11 Taunton Gazette article: "She (Mary) is the best post player in the state, there's no doubt in my mind. She's wonderful and I want her on my team. She's pretty special."
Meanwhile, from a home crowd that had consisted of a handful of fans a few years ago, the team has steadily gathered community and local support. "When we were at Bishop Feehan last year, you could have sworn it was our home game," Pacheco proudly notes. "And that has carried over to this year."
And it is Bishop Feehan that Pacheco says he'd love to confront again, a scenario that can only happen if D-R can advance in the playoffs. "I tell my team to be where Feehan is, you must beat Feehan and we have to go through them to do that."
Lepley, Fiola, Rossi and Mello Make an Impact in SE Mass
In southeastern Massachusetts, several other standouts are making their marks for their respective teams:
- Amy Lepley, a 6-1 Bishop Feehan junior guard, is averaging almost 23 points per game and has spearheaded the No. 24 Shamrocks to a 9-0 start.
- Alex Fiola, a 5-9 senior guard from Durfee, has already signed a national letter of intent to attend the University of New Haven. Alex and her sister, Lauren, with 27 points, recently combined for 50 points in a 64-41 win over Dartmouth.
- Fairhaven senior point guard Maggie Rossi garnered headlines this past week by going over the 1000-point mark. What a tandem she forms with senior shooting guard Erin Baldwin, who has verbally agreed to play for Southern New Hampshire University. Baldwin has 1,263 points and, according to Ed Collins of the New Bedford Standard Times, needs 53 points to surpass Nate Pickup (1,315) as Fairhaven's top scorer, boys or girls.
- Marissa Mello, a 5-3 senior point guard and the all-time assists leader at Somerset, surpassed the 1000-point mark recently, the third Raider player in school history to do so.
Russ Waterman covers Massachusetts, Rhode Island and the New England Preps for MaxPreps.com. He may be reached at email@example.com.