WESTFIELD, Mass. – "They're the hardest working group I have ever had," says Westfield State women's basketball coach Andrea Bertini about her trio of seniors.
For guard Lucy Barrett (Mt. Greylock/Williamstown, Mass.), guard Allison Hester (Sutton, Mass.) and guard/forward Kierra McCarthy (Ludlow, Mass.) the hard work has paid off in coach Bertini's "System" style of play, which has led the Owls to three straight MASCAC titles and three NCAA tournament bids, as the group guns for a fourth straight this season.
"Opponents can match their intensity for five minutes, or 10 minutes or maybe a half, but rarely can they match them for an entire game," said Bertini. "Their ability to run around with their hair on fire, for a whole game, as long as needed – there are very few that are willing to go to that point."
The Owls trio has been an uber-productive one, tallying nearly 3,000 points between them to date.
Barrett and McCarthy each passed the 1,000 career-point barrier earlier this season, and Hester is closing in on 600 points despite missing a large portion of her sophomore season with injuries.
"They were originally part of a group of nine recruits," said Bertini, and I had to figure out how to get as many of them on the floor as possible," which figured into her decision to adopt the 'System' style of play, where groups of players sub into the game in five-for-five ways, and ratchet up the defensive intensity by playing harder in shorter bursts. Athletically, they all brought something, especially on the defensive end, but they also bring a lot of passion and enthusiasm, and a lot of fun to the game."
"As freshmen, there were nine of us in the class, but I think right from the start the three of us shared work ethic and drive," said Hester. "We didn't even know what we were getting into with the system, but we got playing time right away and embraced it, and even played as a group of 5 freshman as the second unit, and we wanted to get better, make each other better ,and compete with the upperclassmen," said Hester.
"Since we were freshman we always had a level of hard work, and I never question that we will get maximum effort from Kierra and Ally," said Barrett. "When we were younger, we didn't want to get outworked by the older players, and now that we're the veterans we don't want to let ourselves get out worked by the underclassmen," said Barrett.
"Kierra and Ally hold themselves accountable to doing the work, and you get the same high level of effort from them every day," she added.
Barrett is the headline scorer in the Owls attack, closing in on 1,300 points in her career, and is one of the top ten scorers in program history.
"We've seen her growth and maturity over four years," said Bertini. "She came back to school better each year. She improved, her passing, her ball handling, her scoring ability and her defense, and her fitness is second to none. It's a credit to how hard she works, both in season and out that sets her apart," said Bertini.
Barrett is a movement science major at Westfield, with a concentration in exercise science and a minor in coaching, who plans to intern in strength and conditioning at Alabama next fall.
"The system made me want to be a more all-around player," said Barrett, who came in as a 1000-point scorer in high school with a reputation as a shooter. "I pride myself more on defense than offense now. You know you are going to get a lot of shots, but you want to be able to play more, maximize the minutes you are in the game, and go as hard as you can. Never be complacent."
"Lucy is always thinking about how to get better. She's improved or evolved in every aspect of her game as a shooter, a driver, and a distributor." said Hester.
"I have played a lot more with Ally than Lucy," said McCarthy, who for the last two years has anchored the the Owls 'white', or 'second unit' with Hester. "But when Lucy missed the Salem game, you don't realize how big of an asset she is to our team and that her presence on the floor makes a huge difference to our team."
"It's not just 'plug and play' with the System," said Bertini. "We saw that when Lucy was out (against Salem State, when the Vikings rattled off 17 straight points before the Owls scored – and eventually rAllyd to a comfortable win). But younger players do get experience, and stay engaged and ready because they get in, and do get experience and confidence early on."
Barrett has had five games of 24+ points this season. She has been at her best against the best opponents, scoring 24 points against #5 ranked Amherst College and getting 31 against #25 Middlebury.
"Lucy's mentality is unbreakable," said Hester. "She is a spark of energy all the time."
Hester is considered a key defender for the Owls, who helps turn up the pressure in the Owls press. But advanced metrics tell more of the story as her per-40 minute averages show that Hester averages 20.4 points, 8.2 rebounds, and 4.5 steals per 40 minutes.
"I had always played point guard in high school," said Hester. "As a freshman, Alyssa Darling '18 was the point guard for the first group, and she was always on me to get better. When she got hurt early in the season, I was next, and got a lot of experience really quickly. The speed of playing in college is completely different than high school, and I knew I could do it, but I wanted to see what I could do at this level."
"Ally was unlucky with injuries as a sophomore, but she's grown and matured at the same time, and sometimes after injuries you don't take things for granted afterwards. She'd be closing in on 800 points for her career," said Bertini.
Hester moved to the off guard as a junior, and plays a variety of roles for the Owls, that sometimes includes posting up at a height of just 5-6.
"Moving over was pretty difficult," said Hester. "I was always of a mindset to create, so when I drove I was always looking to kick it out. Last year was more about zoning in on my defense, coach talked about creating chaos for the other team. This year has been more of a scoring component. It depends on the day. It was a hard shift to go from playmaker to green light to shoot, but the team has really been behind me and makes me confident in myself. Both coach and the team let me know my role is important."
"Ally is one of the best defenders we've had," said Bertini. "She has the ability to physically impose her will down the stretch in games. Against the player of the year in our league, she matched up 1-on-1 down the stretch, nearly stole the ball twice, and generally created havoc so that they couldn't run their offense and get the shot they wanted (in an Owls 11-point fourth quarter comeback win, in which McCarthy hit a buzzer beating drive with 2 seconds left for the game winner).
"Ally sees the floor really well," said Barrett. "She played the point in high school and sees the floor, and her basketball IQ keeps improving."
Hester also has the flair for the dramatic, hitting a pair of clutch three pointers late in the conference championship game as a freshman, and knocking down two free throws in the closing seconds vs. #25 Middlebury that sealed the Owls win.
Against Framingham earlier this season, her corner three tied the game as the Owls rallied for the win.
"I couldn't believe it went in. There was a timeout right after and Lucy told me she trusted me to shoot that shot every time. I had just shot a wide open brick a couple possessions before, but you have to instantly refocus. There's no time to sulk on something. Lucy had driven it so deep I knew I had to shoot it if it come to me," said Hester, a sports medicine major who plans to go to into a physician's assistant graduate program.
McCarthy may be the silent partner in this trio, somehow flying under the radar while being named the MASCAC Tournament MVP in 2018 and night in and night out is one of the most efficient players in the league.
"Kierra doesn't expect anything, she's very humble," said Hester. "I think she's gained confidence and come out of her shell more through the years. But she was National Player of the Week and she was completely in shock because she'd never expect that. She really loves the game, and I think she uses it more as something that's an anti-stressor for her."
"I was a little overwhelmed at times this fall," said McCarthy, a movement science major who plans to teach elementary physical education. 'I was doing my student teaching and couldn't always get to practice."
Several opposing coaches told Bertini that they 'were surprised' to learn that McCarthy was a 1,000 point scorer – though she's had games of 33, 28, and 26 points so far this season, and was named the National Player of the Week by the US Basketball Writers Association after averaging 27 points per game in a week where she also hit the game winning drive in the come back over Framingham.
"We certainly understand Kierra's value," chuckled Bertini.
McCarthy is getting 13 points, 4.5 rebounds and nearly two steals per night – which translates to 30 points and 10 rebounds per 40 minutes.
"Kierra is very consistent, you know what you are going to get, as a shooter, on the boards. She's a very well-rounded player," said Barrett.
"It's been awesome playing with her, but she's also my best friend, so I am pretty biased," said Hester.
McCarthy notes that her senior night will only be the second time she has ever "started" a game at Westfield.
"We don't think of it as starters and reserves," said Bertini. "We just want to go at you in waves. We want the two groups to be equal. They have different strengths, but they're equal and it's competitive in practice as well. We have to be good in both groups."
"It's kind of funny," she said with a grin. "For a while I thought, this is kind of messed up, we have cool introductions with a spotlight, and I never get introduced. But it doesn't matter, we all play the same amount, and now it's almost superstition that I belong in the second group. It's my home and it's where I'm going to stay."
"Kierra has had the perfect personality for it," said Bertini. "Not many players could do what she has done. At no point has she or her family complained about 'not starting' or shots, or playing time. She may only start two games in her career, but she's been on the court for us at the end of every close game for four years."
"YOU CAN NEVER COUNT THEM OUT ... THEY ARE WILLING TO BATTLE ALL THE WAY"
The trio continues to push each other and the Owls (12-8, 6-1 MASCAC) towards a fourth straight league title, an accomplishment that would be unprecedented in school history.
"We have different strengths and weaknesses, and I think we do a good job capitalizing on our strength, and in practice we harp on each other's weaknesses to improve," said Hester.
"We're hard on ourselves and need to be leaders to get things started for the team, especially as seniors," said McCarthy.
"They have different personas, but leaders lead in different ways," said Barrett of her classmates. "Both of them are effective, and I think it helps the younger players to relate that they may identify more with one or the other. You don't always have to be vocal to be a good leader."
"As a group they are remarkable," said Bertini of her senior class. "They play harder than most other people do," said Bertini. "That's the one thing they can control. Sometimes, shots fall, sometimes they don't, but whether we are up 20 or down 20 they play incredibly hard, and you can never count them out in any drill or any game, they are willing to battle all the way."