BY MICHAEL KELLY
CLIFTON PARK — Nobody questions that the Shenendehowa girls’ basketball team is one of the favorites — if not the outright, clear favorite — to win this year’s Section II Class AA title.
At present, the Plainsmen are an undefeated 11-0. They’re ranked No. 4 in the state. Nobody has played them closer than 27 points.
The schedule, though, is about to get a lot tougher for head coach Joe Murphy’s squad.
He’s happy about that.
“It’s going to be fun to coach these games, to worry about Xs and Os, seeing the great talent in our league,” Murphy said.
“Since the beginning of this season, Coach has called this [group of games] ‘The Gauntlet,’” Shenendehowa senior forward Samira Sangare said.
Starting with Shenendehowa’s game tonight against Columbia, the Plainsmen’s league schedule calls for a five-game string against teams with winning records — plus, a pair of games in the Mecca High School Challenge, a hyper-competitive showcase tournament featuring teams from nine states.
Those Jan. 30-31 showcase games will take place in the Bronx, and perhaps provide the stiffest challenges for the Plainsmen this season short of games in the state playoffs. At the Mecca Challenge, Shenendehowa will take on St. Anthony’s and Capital Prep (Conn.), teams that regularly travel out of state for games; through its first nine games this season, Capital Prep has played teams from three separate states, including a four-point loss to New York’s Christ The King — the No. 3 ranked squad in the state.
Games closer to home, though, hold more significance for the Plainsmen, especially their contests against Albany (Jan. 22) and Shaker (Feb. 2) which offer Shenendehowa chances to measure itself against some of Section II’s best teams. Opportunities like that have been rare this season for the Plainsmen, who have often been ahead too much at halftime to make the second halves of games of much consequence.
“But this [coming up] is going to be a lot more intense, especially with everyone thinking of sectionals coming up,” Shenendehowa senior forward Sydney Quinn said.
Murphy said improving the team’s defense and free-throw shooting are a couple key moving forward for the Plainsmen, but most important for Shenendehowa is to keep up its level of play from its great start.
“We need to keep everything rolling toward sectionals,” Shenendehowa junior forward Sydney Brown said. “Toward our final goals.”
These games — and the postseason games coming up — are the ones Shenendehowa has been waiting to come around all season. While working margins will be smaller, the Plainsmen are not running from that.
“We live for these games,” Sangare said.