By Tom Pedulla
To understand the success of the Irvington High School girls’ basketball team on the court, it is important to recognize the good work they do off it.
After learning that Shamoya McKenzie, a promising 13-year-old basketball player from Mount Vernon was killed by a stray bullet, the Bulldogs responded in a big way to help meet the needs of McKenzie’s grief-stricken family.
They made signs and appealed to administrators, teachers and fellow students to contribute whatever they could spare to honor McKenzie’s memory and to assist the family with funeral expenses. The Bulldogs raised more than $1,700 in response to a tragedy that shook coaches and athletes throughout the area.
“We’re really close and this has made us closer,” said Lindsay Halpin, Irvington’s lone senior starter. “We were really determined to help the family and do whatever we can.”
Gina Maher, in her 41st season as coach, has seen her players do their share of good deeds through the years. This effort was extraordinary.
“The spirit that they showed and the care that they showed for this girl was incredible,” Maher said. “I was as proud of them for that than any game we could ever win.”
The spirit the Bulldogs brought to fundraising, turning small bills, quarters and dimes into a substantial contribution, helps to explain their early-season success.
Maher said of the players’ off-court camaraderie and determination, “That carries over to the basketball floor and the way they treat each other and help each other become better basketball players.”
Irvington showed impressive scoring balance in sweeping 12 of its first 13 games. The run was highlighted by an 80-68 victory against Woodlands on January 5 in a rematch of last year’s Class B final. Halpin, Mary Brereton and Heather Hall connected for double figures.
That same trio paced Irvington to a 71-48 rout of Pelham in mid-January when the Bulldogs hosted the eighth annual Autism Classic to help combat autism. Halpin provided her typical steady hand with 20 points. Brereton and Hall finished with 19 and 16 points, respectively.
Kelly Degnan (5-8’ forward), Brereton (5-9’ forward), Hall (5-6’ guard) and speedy, ultra-athletic Olivia Valdes (5-6’ guard) comprise a tremendous junior class. They represent a rarity in that they have played together since third grade.
“They really know each other, and they know how to react to each other on the court,” Maher said. “That’s very helpful.”
Every Irvington starter represents a significant scoring threat. With the regular season more than halfway over, Halpin led the way with 15 points per game. Degnan also averaged in double figures at 12.5 points per game. Then come Brereton (9.6 points), Valdes (9.2) and Hall (7.4).
It helps, too, that Maher can tap into a deep bench. Sophomores Mia Mastone, Miranda Farman and Eda Gilbert bring a variety of skills. Mastone takes pride in her ability to thwart some of the opposition’s top offensive threats. Farman is very effective on the fast break while Gilbert possesses an excellent outside shot.
Abby Conklin is receiving a great deal of playing time as a freshman. She is playing so effectively that she is viewed as the successor to Halpin, an All-State performer. Nikki May is another member of the Bulldogs with a sweet outside shot.
The roster also features Grace Thybulle, a 5-11’ eighth grader who already possesses slick post moves and promises to be a force in years to come.
The Bulldogs suffered their lone defeat, 54-45, to Monroe-Woodbury in the Slam Dunk Tournament at the County Center after defeating Cardinal Spellman. Still, the pieces appear to be in place for them to again make noise after the regular season.
“I’m hoping we can go all the way,” Halpin said, “and I think we can if everyone keeps working and staying as determined as we are.”