High school notebook: Sizing up the league title races as the season reaches a fever pitch

Franklin Tech’s Lea Chapman, left, and Pioneer’s Natalie Rios battle for possession of the ball earlier this season in Northfield.

Franklin Tech’s Lea Chapman, left, and Pioneer’s Natalie Rios battle for possession of the ball earlier this season in Northfield. STAFF PHOTO/JEFF LAJOIE

By THOMAS JOHNSTON

Staff Writer

Published: 01-31-2024 6:46 PM

We’ve hit the home stretch of the winter season and Recorder area schools will be spending the next few weeks trying to lock up league championships before the postseason begins. 

One squad that is one victory away from an outright league title is the Franklin Tech girls basketball team.

Entering the season, it looked like it would be a two-way battle for the Franklin County League South between the Eagles and Pioneer, and it’s played out exactly that way. In its six FCL South games against opponents not named Pioneer, Franklin Tech is 6-0. Ditto for the Panthers. 

The difference has been the Eagles’ success in their two games against Pioneer. The first meeting of the season saw Franklin Tech earn a 41-36 victory on Dec. 29, giving the Eagles a leg-up in the league title race. The two squads met for a second time last Thursday, a game Pioneer needed to try to earn a share of the title. 

Tech didn’t let that happen. The Eagles fell behind at the half but outscored the Panthers 21-14 in the final two quarters, with Hannah Gilbert leading the way with 25 points to help Franklin Tech walk away with a 42-37 triumph. 

With a two-game lead for the league title, the Eagles need to win one of their two remaining league games to clinch the title outright. It can do that on Thursday when it travels to Ware to face the Indians and if that fails, they’d clinch with a win over Putnam on Monday. 

Franklin Tech beat both Ware (52-25) and Putnam (64-38) handily in their other meetings this season. 

Hampshire League North

Another local team is one win away from clinching an outright league title. 

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After knocking off Hampshire on Tuesday, the Athol boys basketball team moved to 10-0 in the Hampshire League North. With the HL North playing a 12-game schedule, the lone team that can potentially catch the Bears is Smith Academy, which sits with an 8-2 league record. So, like the Franklin Tech girls, Athol needs to win just one of its remaining two league games to clinch the title outright. 

The Bears will have the first chance to do that on Tuesday, when it takes the journey to Williamstown to face off against Mount Greylock. The Mounties — which didn’t lose an HL North game in either the 2021-22 or 2022-23 seasons — is just 5-4 in the league this season. Athol beat Greylock, 65-41, on Jan. 10. 

If the Mounties are able to pull off the upset, it would mean the Bears would need a win over Smith Academy on Feb. 9 to take the league title outright, assuming the Falcons don’t slip up against Hampshire next Tuesday (Smith Academy beat the Raiders 46-42 earlier in the season). Athol played one of its more complete games of the season the first time around against the Falcons, running away with a 51-26 victory. 

In the meantime, the Bears will take on rival Mahar on Friday, looking to avenge their only loss of the season to the Sens from earlier in the season. 

Hampshire League South

The title race is a lot murkier in the Hampshire League South. 

Pioneer — the defending league champs — were the favorites going into the season. After starting with seven straight wins, including HL South victories over Greenfield, Lenox and Mahar, the Panthers looked like the team to beat. 

Then on the road in North Adams, Drury handed Pioneer its first loss of the season on Jan. 4. The Panthers followed it up with wins over Lenox and Greenfield in the league but in the past week, lost to Mahar on Friday and the Blue Devils again on Tuesday, dropping them to 5-3 in the league. 

Those two losses opened the door back up for the Green Wave. Greenfield has won seven league games this season and suffered just two losses, both to Pioneer. Outside of the Panthers game, the Green Wave have been at their best against the top teams in the league, beating Drury by nine to open the season, pulling off a 28-point triumph over Mahar while also walking away with a pair of wins over rival Frontier. 

At 7-2, Greenfield sits in a tie with Drury for first place in the league. The Blue Devils have also registered seven league wins, including a pair against Pioneer and wins over Mahar and Frontier. 

The Senators are catching fire at the right time and have positioned themselves well to take the league. Mahar started 3-0 in the league, including a win over Drury, but suffered big defeats to Pioneer (66-39) and Greenfield (71-43) before scoring 34 points in a loss to Drury. 

Senators coach Chad Softic got things turned back in the right direction, pulling off a victory over Pioneer on Friday and defeating Lenox on Tuesday, putting Mahar at 7-3 in the league and just half a game back of first place.

Frontier is currently 4-4 in the league, having taken care of business against both Hopkins and Lenox twice, but it was unable to pull off an upset over any of the top four teams in the league thus far. Lenox and Hopkins each have just one win in the league, splitting their season series. 

What’s all that mean? It’s a long way of saying that every HL South game going forward will have a major impact on the title race.

Here’s what each team is looking at the rest of the way: Pioneer finishes with Hopkins, Lenox and two games against Frontier. Greenfield faces Drury, Mahar and Lenox. Mahar closes with Greenfield and Frontier. Drury squares off with Greenfield, Frontier and Hopkins while Frontier ends with Drury, Pioneer twice and Mahar. 

Buckle up. Greenfield and Drury, the game that looks like it will have the biggest impact on the title race, is on Monday at 7 p.m. at Nichols Gymnasium. 

Franklin County League North

The schedule makers in the Franklin County League North couldn’t have asked for a more dramatic close to the regular season. 

The Lenox girls basketball team sits at 8-1 in the league, putting them in first place with three games to go. Frontier and Easthampton are both just one game back, each currently 7-2 in the league. Palmer has played one less game than those three and is 5-3 in the league. 

Just as it happens, Lenox, Frontier, Easthampton and Palmer all still have one game left against each other to close out the season. Lenox, Frontier and Easthampton’s final three games are the mixture of the three while Palmer plays Lenox, Frontier, Easthampton and Greenfield. 

How did each team do against each other the first time around? Frontier beat Palmer (45-43) but fell to Lenox (28-27) and Easthampton (54-51). Lenox beat the Redhawks and Easthampton (41-33) but fell to Palmer (38-33). Easthampton owns wins over Frontier and Palmer (50-46) but fell to Lenox and was upset by Mahar for its second league loss. Palmer beat Lenox but has lost to Easthampton, Frontier and Greenfield. 

Simply put, there’s not much separating the four teams at the top. Like the Hampshire League South, every game moving forward will have major championship implications. 

Wright Division (hockey)

The Greenfield hockey team shared the Wright Division title with Belchertown last season. It has a chance to win the league outright this winter. 

The Green Wave are an unblemished 7-0 in the Wright Division this winter. Easthampton, which sits at 5-1, is the lone team with a shot of catching Greenfield. 

If the Eagles can beat McCann Tech next Wednesday (Easthampton won 10-1 in the first matchup), it sets up a title game showdown against the Green Wave to close out the regular season on Feb. 17. 

If Greenfield won that game, it’d take the league outright. If the Eagles win, it would be a shared title. If the game is anything like the first matchup, one that featured numerous lead changes before the Green Wave pulled out a 6-5 overtime victory, the final game for the title will be a must watch game at Collins-Moylan Arena.