Team: Franklin girls basketball
2020 Kelley-Rex Division Champions
2020 Division 1 State Champions
It may still have been the regular season and there was a lot of basketball standing between the teams and a trophy, but there was a distinct sense of anticipation when Franklin and Bridgewater-Raynham met up in the first round of the Comcast Classic at Woburn High. A lot of people in the stands were wondering if the Panthers, who had been widely-considered the top team in the state since preseason, were as good as advertised.
Franklin made a statement, leading from the opening tip and pulling out a comfortable 58-41 victory over the eventual Div. 1 South champion. It was a turning point, where the 2020 Franklin girls basketball team recognized that it could play at another level, one that even the top teams in the state would struggle against. It was a confidence boost that carried the Panthers to a second straight D1 Central crown, a perfect season, and the program’s first state championship.
“That’s when we started to realize, and that was in February, that maybe it’s even beyond what we originally thought,” said Franklin coach John Leighton. “Some of the kids said they wanted to go undefeated from day one, and that’s a great goal, but seeing it become a reality is a different thing.”
Senior center Ali Brigham, who was named league MVP and HockomockSports.com Player of the Year for the second season in a row, added, “We didn’t want the rankings to do the talking. We actually wanted to go out and do it ourselves. I think every single person, when we stepped on that court, and even days before when we knew we were playing B-R, it was time to lock in and play how Franklin basketball played. We did the talking in our play.”
While there was plenty of attention on Franklin coming into the season, after reaching the state semifinal the year before and with Brigham, a George Washington-commit, returning in the middle, the Panthers had some questions. Two starters from 2018-19, Shannon Gray and Bea Bondhus, graduated and it wasn’t obvious who would emerge as an offensive threat to take the pressure off Brigham.
Those questions were answered in the first week of play. Juniors Kaleigh Houlihan and Elizabeth Wilson added outside shooting, senior Megan O’Connell and sophomore Emma Sousa added athleticism and versatility at forward, and junior point guard Erin Quaile continued to be a rock on both ends of the court. Meanwhile sophomore Olivia Quinn scored 20-plus points in two of the first three games and became one of the league’s top players this season.
“It made me and Ali’s lives super easy,” said O’Connell. “Instead of trying to find people to step up and take those roles, people were gunning for them. Olivia Quinn is tremendous. No one worked harder than her in the offseason and that was clearly visible by all of her accomplishments.”
The Panthers dominated from game one. The only team that managed to keep it close against Franklin was Holy Name, which lost by four and by nine in the two regular season meetings. It seemed that Franklin could flip a switch and take over games on both ends of the court.
Against King Philip, the Panthers jumped out to a 17-0 lead in the first quarter. On the road at title rival Oliver Ames, Brigham and Quinn combined for 37 points in the second half and they won by 30. Davenport (and D2) champion Foxboro was down by single digits in the fourth quarter until a 17-0 run broke the game wide open.
“To go undefeated, and any team that gets to do it will say the same thing, you just need that consistency that the players are able to bring,” Leighton explained. “You need to bring that every day and if you have kids who aren’t feeling well or working on an injury, it doesn’t matter. You need to bring that same level day.”
O’Connell said the team was aware of the rankings and the hype surrounding the team but added, “The coaches did a great job of keeping us level-headed and not letting that go to our heads. They said that means absolutely nothing unless you go out and show everyone that is true.”
The Comcast Tournament, which also included a 17-point win against D4 state champion Cathedral, came at the perfect time. Along with a one-point win against New Hampshire power Bishop Guertin, the Panthers closed out the regular season by overcoming tough challenges, a good warm-up for the state tournament and additional confidence for a team that was already riding high.
“There is a fake confidence, fake bravado,” said Leighton, “but then you have that real confidence when you look at each other in the huddle and you just know that we can come back and do what we need to do. You know you can get that look, you know you can make that stop, and you can count on the kid next to you to make that play.”
In the playoff opener, Brigham achieved an important personal milestone, solidifying her place in program history. With a free throw late in a big win against Framingham, she passed Kelly Meredith to become the school’s all-time leading scorer (male or female). She finished her career with 1,692 points (and also with a school record 1,276 rebounds).
“I wrote a letter to myself when I was in eighth grade to my 2020 self,” Brigham recalled. “My main goal was to make the varsity basketball team.”
“I’m just really glad that I was able to do it,” she continued. “I put in a lot of work, and especially having it be my last home game, which was pretty cool. It was almost like I wasn’t even the most excited in that video.”
Congratulations Ali !! Franklin’s all time scoring leader pic.twitter.com/UCbPdntV1s
— Ned Brigham (@NedBrigham) February 29, 2020
Leighton said, “At no point was Ali worried about Ali this year and that tells you so much about her. She’s a program-changing player. The young kids at Franklin playing at halftime to high-five Ali Brigham, those kids are going to remember that. Her legacy will last a very long time here.”
King Philip coach Dan Nagle said, “Ali is a real issue (obviously) because she not only is bigger than any kid in our league, but she is incredibly skilled and unselfish. If you double her, she finds a wide open shooter. If you don’t double her, she scores easily with a wide variety of moves/finishes. She even hit a three against us this year and I know we weren’t alone. She is a ridiculous talent.”
In the Central semifinal, Franklin faced Holy Name for the third time and the first quarter did not go as planned. The Panthers were held to just six points in the first and looked out of sorts. “They knew everything you wanted to do,” said O’Connell. “They knew I was going to pump fake and go to the left and whatever. It was super frustrating for all of us and we just had to turn it around.”
Franklin closed the gap to one at halftime and then dominated the second half to win by 17. That momentum carried into the Central final, as the Panthers jumped out to a 9-0 lead and never looked back. Even when the offense was struggling, as it did in the third quarter against Natick, the defense locked opponents down and different players stepped up each night with key plays to get the win.
“I honestly think they were far and away the best team in the state this year,” Nagle said. “Even the very best teams could hang with them for a quarter or two, but eventually their size/talent, coupled with extremely organized and effective coaching, really separated them from the rest of the pack. It was a group of kids that from an opposing coach/onlooker’s perspective really understood and embraced their roles, and simply executed them to perfection night-in and night-out all season long.”
When the final horn sounded in the state semifinal win against Minnechaug, the celebrations were muted. It was clear from the players and coaches that reaching the final wasn’t the ultimate goal and there was still work to be done. Unfortunately, the following night it was announced that the final would be canceled because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
“I’m so sad that it ended that way,” said O’Connell. “I was in my driveway and I was tagged in a Twitter post. I was like, holy crap, I would’ve stayed [at practice] all night if I had known they were going to cancel it.”
Brigham said, “The last practice we had we all got into a circle and were just talking about it. It was like an, ‘okay, we’ll see you tomorrow,’ thing. Driving home, I pulled into my garage and got the text that we’re not playing. We weren’t able to have that final goodbye together as a team, we still haven’t. It’s definitely unfortunate because we didn’t get to end it the way a team should.”
Weeks after that final practice, both players were able to reflect on the achievements of the season and the history that the team made this winter even if there is still disappointment about not having that moment in the spotlight. Brigham joked, “I’m really competitive so the fact that another team thinks they’re state champions too, that doesn’t go over very well with me.”
Leighton also took time to reflect on the perfect season and the first title in program history.
He said, “That banner will always be there and that’s a piece of history and they really bought into that. I don’t think it diminishes anything in the kids’ eyes. In the moment it did, it stunk, but now that you have a moment to step back and reflect and look at everything that happened, I’m so proud of them.
“Fairly quickly, the team attitude was obvious, how we were getting at it in practice, the maturity, our work approach. We saw that early, but seeing that you could be really good is different from winning every game or winning a state championship. It’s a whole different level.”
|King Philip||W, 80-50|
|Holy Name||W, 44-40|
|North Attleboro||W, 53-33|
|Oliver Ames||W, 71-41 (Recap)|
|Foxboro||W, 61-40 (Recap)|
|King Philip||W, 65-39|
|Holy Name||W, 52-43|
|Oliver Ames||W, 76-30|
|Bridgewater-Raynham||W, 58-41 (Recap)|
|Bishop Guertin (NH)||W, 47-46|
|Holy Name||W, 59-42 (Recap)|
|Natick||W, 53-38 (Recap)|
|Minnechaug||W, 55-43 (Recap)|