A new look for Saugerties girls’ basketball team

Saugerties High School player Aliyan Feeney moves the ball down court with teammate Renee Baldwin guarding and teammate Ava Cooper looking on. (Photos by Phyllis McCabe)

The 2019-20 Saugerties High School varsity girls’ basketball team may be virtually unrecognizable to fans who followed last year’s run through the postseason, which ended one win shy of a repeat performance as Section IX, Class A champions. The new-look Sawyers and their new Head Coach Heather Fanelli will make their debut with a home tournament during the first week of December. 

The Sawyers are coming off a 13-9 season that saw them come together late in the season, just in time to make a playoff splash. Head Coach Mike Melville retired after last season, and eight varsity players from the 2018-19 are no longer on the roster, all but one due to graduation. 

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“We basically have a brand new team,” said Fanelli, who was offered the varsity job after previously coaching the JV squad. “We have five returning players, um, three seniors, a junior and a sophomore, and then the other seven girls are brand new to varsity. So in that, it’s a big learning curve for our new kids.”

On the 12-player roster are seniors Erin Dudzic, Julia Quinlan and Aliyah Feeney; juniors Vaiden Ferraro, Mady Bucci, Christie Collins and Kaylie Quinn round out the squad’s upperclassmen. The remaining five include sophomores Sage Fanelli, Ava Cooper, Renee Baldwin and Madilyn Green; and freshman Molly Boek. 

“We are very young,” said Fanelli. “But many of these girls have been with me since probably the second grade or third grade when I started with Sage, who’s my daughter. And so I’m optimistic that with some time we can then put some quality play together.”

The quality play may have to come together quickly for the Sawyers, who face two tough opponents to open the season, Marlboro and Hudson, on December 5th and 6th respectively. The tournament’s consolation and championship games will be played on Saturday, December 7. Fanelli said she deliberately invited very good teams to the tournament to give her own squad an early challenge. 

Saugerties High School player Erin Dudzic, being guarded by a Hunter-Tannersville player, looks for a team member to pass the ball.

“That’s a good thing,” she said. “Knowing that we are going to match up with these two very strong teams is really a huge motivating factor for the kids right now. And I’ve used that as a coaching strategy that we really don’t have any time to waste. We’ve got to get down to business.”

The Sawyers have just one road game between the start of the season and Tuesday, January 7 when they visit Class AA rival Kingston. But even their home slate, which includes a battle against Section IX, Class A champ FDR, may provide little in the way of comfort. To prepare for the rigors of the season, Fanelli has had the Sawyers practicing six days a week, their only non-Sunday days off prior to their opener against Marlboro, an unexpected snow day over a week ago, and Thanksgiving Day. Saugerties has also managed a pair of scrimmages, which gave both the team and its head coach a chance to see what they’re made of. 

“I’d have to say the first thing that I’m probably the most pleased with is the way they’re getting along, the chemistry,” Fanelli said. “Because that to me is super important. They’re acting like teammates. They look like a team that could make it for the next three and a half months. And I think secondly, they’re really working hard to implement a system that I want to put in, which in many ways is different than what they’ve done before. They’re changing habits and program structure and they’ve been really receptive to it.”

Fanelli said the philosophy has changed on both ends of the court in part due to the loss of three former varsity players who stood at or over six feet. 

“We have to really change how we score,” said Fanelli. “And so the kids are embracing the fact that they may have new roles, and there are girls that were there last year who are doing different things than they expected.”

Which is why the team is practicing so often, and taking it seriously when they do: They have to come together quickly, even as the long season leads to inevitable adjustments regardless of how well they fare early on. 

“Our days are numbered until the tournament,” Fanelli said. “We’re working on the offensive side, making sure that we can execute and making sure that they understand their roles and what we need them to do. We have kids that can score from different spots on the court, and this is a great thing. But we need to know where the people that do certain things are when you’re out there on the court. There’s a lot of preparation for that, and a lot of defensive preparation too.”

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