Central Catholic Raiders Girls Basketball '07-'08

Freshmen Gabie Polce of Chelmsford, left, and Melissa Miller of North Andover have played big minutes for Central Catholic this season. Miller and Polce started the season with the JV team but now are combining for 11.5 points a game for the varsity. » Angie Beaulieu, Staff Photographer

Precocious freshmen playing key roles for Andover, Central

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Friday, March, 07 By Alan Siegel
Staff writer

At age 7, Gabie Polce belted out the Star Spangled Banner at a Lowell Spinners game.

She claims neither the tryout process nor the actual performance frayed her nerves.

"After, it was a huge rush," she said. "I ran to my mom crying."

"Singing in front of 5,000 people? I don't know how you do that," her father Nestore said. "She just seems to love the situation."

Pressure-packed situations have never fazed Polce. She isn't alone.

Polce, along with Central Catholic teammate Melissa Miller and Andover's Natalie Gomez-Martinez, are the area's most talented freshmen. The trio will likely make an impact when Central and Andover tangle in tonight's Division 1 North final.

So far, all three have been impervious to pressure. To Polce, basketball is like singing. It's a rush. "When I step on the court, nothing else seems to matter anymore," said Polce, a Chelmsford resident. "Once I touch that ball, everything disappears."

Her rookie status included.

Experience is overrated. Ask the New York Giants. Watch Gomez-Martinez play, you'll see.

She is as polished as any point guard in the Merrimack Valley Conference this side of back-to-back conference Division 1 MVP Ashley Rivera, Lowell's all-time leading scorer. And in time, Andover coach Jim Tildsley said, Gomez-Martinez will rise to that level.

"She's special," Tildsley said. "She's not even close to being a Rivera yet. Do I think she could be a Rivera? Absolutely. She could be better. She could be one of the best players ever to come out of here."

Gomez-Martinez (10.1 points a game) has played in 22 of 24 games this season. Miller (6.1 ppg) and Polce (5.4 ppg) started the season on the JV team, and have played in 15 and 17 varsity games, respectively. Their roles, however, are no less important.

"There definitely has been a steady progression of confidence," Central Catholic coach Sue Downer said. "There's no doubt in my mind. Obviously I'm thrilled to have them for the next three years."

Miller, 5-11, and Polce, 5-7, thrive in the Raiders' press and fast-break offense, pressuring the ball and pushing it up the floor with aplomb.

"Those two were the key to the win against Lexington (Monday)," said Tildsley, who scouted the game. "They played unbelievable when they went to the press."

Downer was no less complimentary of Gomez-Martinez, who she met last summer at Merrimack College's Academic Basketball Awareness (ABA) Camp.

"I knew she was a special little player," said Downer, who watched Gomez-Martinez score 26 points against her club on Jan. 31. "She has natural instinct, ability and she plays with a chip on her shoulder a little bit. She's definitely the real deal."

Leaving everything on the court

One day in December, while Nestore Polce was watching Gabie practice, Downer approached him.

"You know," she said, "I'm really thinking about bringing Gabie up. What are your thoughts? Is it something she can do?"

"Listen," he responded, "if you give her the opportunity to play, she's going to leave everything on the court." So far, she has.

The ability to perform just seems to run in both the Polce and Miller families.

Polce's grandfather Tom played low-level professional soccer in Italy. Her uncle | also named Tom | played the drums for Boston-based band Letters to Cleo in the late 1990s. (He's now a producer at CBS Records in Los Angeles).

Miller's father John, a basketball star at BC High (he's a member of their Hall of Fame) and Assumption College (903 career points, 600 career rebounds), is an assistant coach at Merrimack College. Her grandfather | also named John | played tackle for the Washington Redskins (1956, 1958-59) and the Green Bay Packers (1960).

So far, pressure hasn't cracked Polce and Miller.

"I feel fine now," said Miller, a North Andover resident. "It's not nerve-racking at all. I was nervous at first, but the team was always there for me."

Katie Zenevitch, Central's standout sophomore center, has been a big help. Last year, she had Eagle-Tribune Athlete of the Year Melissa Lucas to show her the ropes. Zenevitch, Downer said, wanted to do the same for Polce and Miller.

"Remember, you were there last year," Downer told Zenevitch earlier this season. "Remember how good it was to have somebody be there for you?"

Gomez-Martinez has received a similar education from the Andover seniors, who have doled out equal doses of criticism and praise.

"They're not afraid to lay into her," Tildsley said. "But they're positive, too."

Gomez-Martinez also sought out a slightly higher source for advice. Along with Tildsley, she attended a recent Sacred Heart University women's basketball game. Afterward, she talked to Andover's Maggie Cosgrove, now the Pioneers' starting point guard.

"I don't know what they said," Tildsley said. "Maggie knows Natalie. She's followed right along with Maggie's career. Hopefully she'll be in (Maggie's) category." As for their conversation, consider it an unofficial passing of the torch.

Round III

Today, each squad will try to impose its style of play on the other.

Central Catholic (16-7) will try to disrupt Andover's high-powered perimeter offense. The balanced Golden Warriors (21-3) will try to slow down the fast-breaking Raiders while keeping tabs on Zenevitch.

"We know we want to control the tempo," said Downer, whose team has been on fire the last third of the season. "They can't be throwing the ball around the perimeter, finding that open shot. We want them to play our game a little bit. We're deeper in terms of a bench. We want to throw as many guards at their guards as we can."

Andover defeated Central twice during the regular season, but is coming off a physically draining win over rival Lowell. Seniors Camille Fantini and Lauren Hughes, who did a spectacular job containing Lowell's Wilson twins, must do a similar job on Zenevitch.

"If we can play like we played Tuesday, I don't think we can lose," Tildsley said. "My question is, can they do it again? I watched the tape, I was in awe. (I said) 'Oh, my God, how did they do that?' They're only kids. Can they do it again?"

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