Shen seniors lead team off the court

MICHAEL KELLY/Gazette Sportswriter Alexa Knudsen, left, and Sarah Ricci are shown during a Shenendehowa girls’ basketball practice earlier this week. Knudsen and Ricci are the Plainsmen’s lone seniors.MICHAEL KELLY/Gazette Sportswriter Alexa Knudsen, left, and Sarah Ricci are shown during a Shenendehowa girls’ basketball practice earlier this week. Knudsen and Ricci are the Plainsmen’s lone seniors.

Gazette Sportswriter

CLIFTON PARK — One played JV hoops last season with no promise she’d make the varsity as a senior. The other one’s school basketball experience a year ago consisted of playing as one of the general-population students on a unified basketball team.

So, yes, it is a bit of a surprise seniors Alexa Knudsen and Sarah Ricci are suiting up today for a Shenendehowa girls’ basketball team set to play in the Class AA state semifinals. While it’s possible — perhaps, likely — neither Knudsen nor Ricci will play many minutes today against Baldwin (Section VIII, 19-1) in a game slated for a 6:15 p.m. tip at Hudson Valley Community College, their determined and team-first attitudes have already done their part for the youthful Plainsmen.

“When your seniors willingly accept their roles — and neither is a starter — and keep encouraging their teammates when they don’t get a ton of time,” Shenendehowa head coach Joe Murphy said, “that carries through to the rest of the team.”

Knudsen and Ricci are the Plainsmen’s lone seniors this season. While juniors Alexandra Tudor and Cam Tooley have been Shenendehowa’s co-captains and stars throughout the 2016-17 campaign, Knudsen and Ricci — who have combined to score 50 points this season — have offered a steadying presence for a program that had eight seniors graduate from last year’s team and saw would-be senior star Sydney Brown depart to play prep hoops.

“With the departure of eight seniors from last year, plus Syd leaving, we were obviously kind of beaten down a little bit from that,” Tooley said.

Enter Knudsen and Ricci, the former possessing boundless energy and the latter the one Tooley refers to as the Plainsmen’s “team mom.”

Last season, Knudsen tried out for the varsity and instead ended up as the lone junior on the Plainsmen’s JV team.

Juniors playing on JV teams are rare, and Murphy made clear there was no guarantee she’d make the varsity team as a senior. But Knudsen didn’t hesitate to accept the roster spot.

“It was a little embarrassing at first when I had to explain it to my friends, but I always knew I just wanted to keep playing basketball,” she said. “That was most important.”

Knudsen used last season to work on her game. A strong defender and a willing rebounder, Knudsen was able to use her second season of JV play to improve enough offensively to make this year’s varsity squad.

“I knew I had to work my butt off to keep playing,” she said, “so that’s what I did.”

“Her work ethic is really second to none,” Murphy said.

Like Knudsen, there was not a spot on last year’s Shenendehowa roster for Ricci. She didn’t try out, instead opting to find a job at a daycare to save money for college expenses. During the spring, she still played AAU basketball and took part in a season of unified basketball, a program which brings together players from special-education backgrounds and the general school population to play side-by-side in a competitive environment.

“Unified was the best experience,” Ricci said. “It was more competitive than I expected it to be, for sure, but helping other kids get better and seeing them improve was so amazing. It was an experience I’ll never forget.”

Her spring basketball participation helped convince Ricci she wanted to take a shot at playing varsity basketball as a senior. She contacted Murphy to see if she could take part in summer workouts and appreciated the chance.

“And she worked hard to get back into it,” Murphy said.

An early-season foot injury derailed a sizable portion of Ricci’s senior campaign, reducing her chance to carve out a more substantial playing role like the one Knudsen has developed. Instead, Ricci’s focused her energies around keeping up her teammates’ spirits.

“She brings leadership,” Murphy said. “She’s very vocal on and off the court. She’s taken some younger kids under her wing and she’s so supportive.”

“I’ve tried to do everything I could to be a senior leader for us,” Ricci said.

That goes for Knudsen, too.

“I feel like they’re the glue of our team,” Tooley said. “They bring out the best in everyone.”