Senior captain Reese O’Connell and the Raiders made history this season with a run to the state tournament’s round of eight.
By James Kinneen
Hometown Weekly Reporter
This season, the Dover-Sherborn girls basketball team finished the year with a record of 15-8, making the state tournament and beating both Boston Latin and Tantasqua before falling to Rockland, 46-44, in the round of eight. With some time to reflect on the historic season, we reached out to Coach Kanee Chlebda for comment on both Dover-Sherborn’s year and the future of Raider girls basketball.
To understand this season, Coach Chlebda felt the need to point out the history of Dover-Sherborn girls basketball. Before this season, the last time DS won a tournament game was in 2003 under Mark Nickerson, who now coaches perennial powerhouse Medfield. Much of what Coach Chlebda talked about in terms of this team’s success involved changing the narrative about the program, and getting to a place where making and succeeding in the tournament is no longer a huge, surprising achievement, but instead the expected standard for Raider girls basketball.
Chlebda said the team was very proud to host two tournament games this year, and that even though they didn’t end up advancing against Rockland, she was extremely proud of how her team fought back from a deficit and intensely clamped down on Rockland’s Bentley-bound thousand-point scorer, Julia Elie.
One of the team’s most impressive accomplishments on the season was an eight-game win streak. Chlebda explained this streak was sparked when, after losing to Medway in a game in which their young players were still a little unsure of things — like how to warm up or get themselves pumped up in the locker room — the team came away believing that if they’d just played a little better, they could beat the Mustangs in the rematch. That proved to be true. In Medway, in front of a larger crowd than they were used to, the Raiders played at an extremely high level.
“I think, during the regular season, it was definitely the second time we played Medway, in their gym,” Coach Chlebda explained when pressed on whether there was one game in which she was most proud of her team’s effort. “It was a boy-girl double header, where our boys team had played first. Medway had a packed gym like they always do, and my team just rose to the occasion. It was probably the best DS girls basketball I have ever seen played, and I think from that moment on, knowing they could hold their own against Medway was sort of the push for our success. After that, we won eight in a row.”
While Coach Chlebda pointed to a pair of Millis matchups as the games she would like to have back (and most often thinks about adjustments she could have made in), more so than most, this year’s team understood that there’s far more to life than basketball. Unfortunately, that lesson came about due to the tragic and sudden death of a classmate, Owen Bingham. But the coach noted how that brought her and the girls together, with the tragedy creating even more of a family feeling among this team than in years past. The team and coach shared personal stories, which Coach Chlebda thinks helped on the court, as “to really open up and be vulnerable there with each other was something I also think carried us forward.” When pressed as to what stood out about her team that she will likely remember in the future, Coach Chlebda explained it was this unique ability to persevere through tragedy; amidst the incredibly difficult moment, the heavy-hearted Raiders traveled to Norton and put in a great effort that will always stick out to her.
But there were also plenty of fun moments, too. Coach Chlebda explained that at the banquet, she told graduating senior captain Reese O’Connell that she’s been a huge part of turning around the program, and that had there been no COVID, she likely would have led the Raiders to the tournament for three of her four varsity seasons.
Coach Chlebda also pointed to O’Connell as the team’s most talented karaoke star, as the senior captain kept practices light and fun by singing throughout them (apparently, her rendition of Shawn Mendes’ “Stitches” was tough to beat).
While the team loses both O’Connell and fellow senior Riya Bahadur next season, Coach Chlebda said that after talking to the players who will return, she felt very good about next season’s prospects. With a roster including team MVP Erica Hills — who Coach Chlebda explained was really coming on at the end of the season with a thirty-point game against Tantasqua and a twenty-point game against Rockland — she believes next year, the team can hit the ground running and match the bar they set this season.
“I think we’re going to start off right where we left off this year,” she explained. “That’s my hope as I talked to the returning players I’ve met with so far. I think they truly believe we’re basically the same team returning, and we can continue to do the same sort of thing we were doing this year … I think we’re going to look the same, but with even more of a drive because they’ve been there, they know what it feels like, and they want to get back.”