by Tom Pedulla –
Seniors Mary Brereton, Kelly Degnan, Heather Hall and Olivia Valdes have won so many girls basketball games for Irvington High School that there is only one thing left to accomplish – win it all.
Their remarkable on- and off-court chemistry, developed since they started competing together in the third grade, has helped the Bulldogs earn six consecutive Gold Balls as Section 1 Class B champions. They fell short in the state championship game as freshmen and again last year, when they bowed to high-powered Seton Catholic for only their second defeat in 27 games.
They have been driven since that loss to complete their only unfinished business. “We’ve been playing together for so long,” said Degnan, a 5-8 forward. “We can’t imagine not going out with a bang. We were so close last year,” said Valdes. “This is our last shot, and we’re going to work our butts off for it.”
The earnestness with which the seniors are approaching their final season was readily apparent as they swept their first nine games before routing Hastings in the league opener. Their success is all the more impressive since they are adjusting to the absence of Lindsay Halpin, the stellar point guard who was their offensive catalyst. Halpin graduated and has been succeeded by Abby Conklin, a promising sophomore.
Gina Maher, in her 42nd season as coach, has overseen many teams that enjoyed good chemistry. But, the cohesion that Brereton, Degnan, Hall and Valdes enjoy is something special. “They absolutely complement each other and they know each other so well, it makes it a little easier to coach,” Maher said.
Learning the strengths and weaknesses of a teammate and how that player is most effective offensively can be challenging. Not for Irvington’s Core Four. “All of my basketball career, I’ve had that luxury of knowing where they are on the court, where my teammates want to be, and they know where I want to be,” said Hall. “It makes it fun.”
Hall, a 5-6 guard, knows that Valdes, her 5-6 backcourt mate, possesses abundant speed and often beats opponents downcourt on the fast break. Hall has a knack for finding Valdes in stride with long passes that lead to easy baskets. Passes to the long-armed 5-9 Brereton are typically thrown high to capitalize on her reach. Degnan prefers to receive the ball down low, where she is known for crisp post moves.
For Maher, the closeness the four players enjoy away from basketball counts at least as much, and probably more, than the winning they have done together. “They really are very, very close,” she said. “They are like sisters.” They are helping each other through a challenging time in their lives, a time of self-discovery as they learn who they are and what they want for themselves after high school.
“We’ve all had our share of personal stuff,” Brereton said, “and we’ve all helped each other pull through.”
They are keenly aware that their time together is running out. “It’s definitely starting to hit us,” Brereton said. “We’re spending as much time together as we can and doing everything we can to play together as long as we can.”Degnan plans to continue her basketball career in college. She will attend SUNY Plattsburgh. Valdes signed a letter of intent to play lacrosse at Merrimack College.
Maher constantly urges her players to take the season in stages and not look too far ahead. She said of a possible bid for a state championship, “We try not to look at that.” But for Brereton, Degnan, Hall and Valdes, it is the only way they want their incredible journey together to end.