Hoops: ‘It’s my passion’ — Former all star set to rebuild FA girls’ basketball program

New Fryeburg Academy varsity girls' basketball coach Coreen (Hennessy) Eccleston.

By Wayne E. Rivet

Staff Writer

As players dove to the floor for a loose ball, Coach Coreen Eccleston applauded the hustle of her young Raiders.

Moments later, the rookie coach grimaced as a hard-thrown ball escaped the grasp of a Raider, who had a chance to score an easy bucket.

Youthful, energetic, inexperienced.

Three words that certainly apply to this year’s Fryeburg Academy varsity girls’ basketball team.

And, words that somewhat can be tagged to their new head coach.

Eccleston takes over the helm from Sean Watson, who guided the Raiders to consecutive playoff appearances and left to be able to see his son play as a member of the FA boys’ junior varsity team. Not only will he see each game, Watson will work with his son as the JV coach.

Meanwhile, Eccleston is excited about her chance to teach and build a contending program — much like the one she was part of in 2007 and 2008 when the Raiders chased the Class B South crown.

“I did know that Sean was thinking about leaving the past couple of seasons because his son was coming up and he wanted to watch him play. I was preparing myself for what I wanted to do. Was I ready for it? My first year, I was an assistant. Then, I was JV coach for two years. I loved it. I loved coaching at that level, seeing the progress the girls made from the beginning of the season to the end,” she said. “Basketball has been part of my life since I was little. It still needs to be there. It’s my passion. The decision was pretty simple for me. There’s my opening and I took it.”

A 2008 FA graduate, Eccleston — her maiden name is Hennessy — was a force for the Raiders. She was the last Raider to join the 1,000-point club. Her signature move — a quick first step and blazing speed in the open court that resulted in strong drives and finishes at the rim.

Eccleston continued her hoop career at Saint Michael’s College, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology and cultural anthropology, graduating in 2012.

She returned to the area, married and is in her fourth year working as an Ed Tech in the special education department at Fryeburg Academy.

Now, add varsity coach to the resume.

“When I was playing, the idea of coaching some day was always in the back of my mind. I knew college would be it, as far as my playing days, but I knew I needed to stay connected to basketball. I found coaching at the JV level lit that coaching fire inside of me,” she said. “Fryeburg Academy has meant a lot to me. There, I had the best four years of my life. I loved the coach I had, and the experiences I had with my teammates. We had a really tight bond and great team chemistry, having played together since we were in the third grade. I love the school itself, I teach there now. It’s ideal to be able to coach here.”

Like many coaches, Eccleston started at the lower level — junior varsity.

“The biggest focus at the JV level was teaching fundamentals. I was surprised, at times, the skill level that I had to deal with. Obviously, the fundamentals were huge, but also the team first aspect was also important to instill in our players,” she said. “I am the type of person who really works on the coach-player relationship. If you don’t have that relationship with your players, you’re not going to get them to buy into what you are selling them. It’s important to establish trust and rapport with players, and then build on the Xs and Os.”

Current players know that “coach” was a big time performer in her day.

“Most know. The assistant coaches tell them. It’s funny when they ask me, ‘Did you do this when you played?’ or ‘How did you do this when you played?’ In practice, I get in there on drills and defense. They like it. You can say all you want, but if you can get in there and show it, I think the girls get a better understanding,” Coach Eccleston said.

They also quickly discover she truly loves the game of basketball.

“I love the team aspect of it. I’ve been fortunate to be on teams that have had incredible bonds. Also, I love the speed of it. There are so many things that can happen. The competition. One-on-one moments. Hustle. Aggressiveness. It’s the best sport,” she said.

After two strong runs, the Raiders will sport a lineup with two seniors that saw limited varsity action a year ago, and a handful of promising rookies. While the word “rebuild” might temper some coaches’ excitement, the opposite is true for Coach Eccleston. She strongly believes she arrives at the right time, having already worked with this cast of Raiders and knowing what they are capable of doing and what they need to work on to reach their true potential.

She will have some help. Stacy McConkey is her assistant, while former teammate Ariel McConkey is the new JV coach.

“They were the first people on my mind when I accepted the position. Stacy was an assistant coach when I played, and I played with Ariel for a couple of years. They know the style of play that I like, we have similar philosophies — hard work, aggressive defense — Stacy has coached at all levels for a long time, so she has great instincts and isn’t afraid to tell me what she thinks,” Coach Eccleston said.

She feels confident about her approach and strategy thanks to former Coach Watson’s mentoring and drawing upon experiences during her high school days coached by Mike Hart.

“Sean was a great mentor, and he still is. I still go to him for advice. I like how he ran things the past couple of years, especially defensively. We’ve kept some of the things he did because we have similar philosophies — getting the ball up quickly and defense-first mindset,” she said. “I also look back to my high school days with Coach (Mike) Hart. He had a huge influence on my basketball career. Some things he taught I’ve drawn upon, for sure.”

So what can fans expect to see from the Raiders under Coach Eccleston’s tutoring?

“A team first mentality, being sure they understand what it is and how it has to be our approach all of the time. And then, defense, defense, defense. Defense is easier to teach than offense. Everybody can learn to play defense, especially a team defender. It requires work and effort. If I can get the girls to play defense, we will be okay,” she said. “Offensively, it’s about pushing the ball. When we push it, players rely on their instincts, unlike when we have to set things up and think about what has to be done.”

The “to do” list is a little lengthy, but one the FA coaching staff is ready to tackle.

“Seeing the first practice, I realized we have a long way to go to where we want to be. I think it’s a perfect year for me to come in, taking over a young group of dedicated and hardworking girls and trying to create a program that I envision,” she said. “What I’ve seen already is that we need to be better passing the ball. We’ve spent a lot of time in practice on passing drills and passing in transition. We need to be able to make good decisions once we get the ball up the floor. It will come with experience. They are young.”

Confidence, or the lack of, is something all young teams wrestle with. Coach Eccleston saw players pass up “good shots” during Saturday’s round-robin game against rival Lake Region. Building confidence and trust takes time.

“I try to keep a positive atmosphere, especially coaching girls. I had teammates that struggled with confidence. It requires constant communication back and forth. It also has to come with teammates. If they see someone with their head down or didn’t put up a shot, they need to encourage them,” Coach Eccleston said. “We had a team meeting and talked about the fact that we are young and inexperienced. We talked about how can we turn that into a strength? One of the girls said, ‘Well, we don’t have anything to lose.’ I loved that. We’ll use that as our theme this year, we’re just going to go for it.”

The vision is to build an uptempo offense and stingy defense.

“It’s exciting to watch and play. We need to stay intense for all 32 minutes. We have spurts of aggressiveness, but then it lulls down. Defense is where it starts for us. In the third quarter (against Lake Region), we made some big stops and it gave us some confidence at the other end,” Coach Eccleston added. “We also want to instill a sense of pride in the school and the program. It would be nice to fill the stands.”

Just like her high school days.

So, how will Coach Eccleston feel when she toes the coach’s box in her first varsity game at Poland this Friday night?

“A lot of excitement, and definitely some nerves,” she said. “I’m excited for these girls because they have been working really hard. I know what that feels like. Practice after practice after practice. You just want that hard work to pay off.”

Watching from the back row of the bleachers, Coach Eccleston jotted down notes as Poland and Winthrop played. The quick bullet points: Stop them defensively. Strong point guard, need to shut her down. Take care of the ball. Good choices.

Friday, the coach will see if her players can check those boxes and leave Poland with a 1-0 record.

 

 

 

 

 

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