The year before Haley Lightbody joined the Reading High girls’ basketball team as a freshman, the Lady Rockets went 2-20. Since then they have won five games her freshman year, 15 her sophomore year, 12 her junior year, and now Reading is 13-4 heading into Thursday night’s game with Arlington.
In that time, Lightbody has gone from a great young athlete, still learning the game, to becoming the Lady Rockets’ second all-time leading scorer with 1,239 points.
And to think basketball is not even the 5-foot-7 guard’s No. 1 sport. Lightbody is a state champion pole vaulter (following in her mother’s footsteps in the sport), and she has already earned a track scholarship to attend Stonehill College in the fall.
When your team is struggling through one like Reading did in the 2014-15 season, coaches begin to wonder if there is somebody coming through middle school that might give the varsity a boost. Reading coach Jim DeBenedictis says he actually first heard about her as a seventh-grader, but it was more about how good an athlete she was as opposed to being a basketball player.
“She was a great athlete back then,” said DeBenedictis, “but we didn’t know she would turn into such a great basketball player.”
As a freshman, Lightbody showed potential but she was very raw, and needed to learn the game and how to become a better player.
“She was one-dimensional,” said DeBenedictis. “She was fast but she could be stopped. Now she has control of her body as she goes to the basket, and she even has good post moves.”
One of the amazing things about Lightbody accumulating so many points in her career is that she did it almost entirely without hitting shots from beyond the arc. Lightbody has 12 3-pointers in her four-year career and DeBenedictis says she can recall each one of them with pride.
While the trey may not be part of her game, the ability to drive to the basket with her off hand has played a huge role. Lightbody is a right-hander but because so many defenders have tried to get her to go left, she has become proficient from that side as well, so much so it is hard to distinguish which hand is stronger.
The Reading girls’ team as it is currently constituted began coming into its own during Lightbody’s sophomore season. The Lady Rockets had young talent and senior leadership at point guard and up front, which led to the 15-win season, including a home win over ML Liberty champion Woburn.
Reading took a slight step backwards last year (12-9) but have come back with a vengeance this year. The Lady Rockets have overtaken the Tanners for second place in the division, and are setting their sights on the MIAA Div. 1 North tournament, of which the Lady Rockets have yet to win a game in the Lightbody era.
“We realized how special she was her sophomore season,” said DeBenedictis. “She’s a scorer who just has a knack for it.”
Another thing the coach admires about Lightbody is her durability. She has never missed a game due to injury or illness.
“We feel confident with Haley and her tenacity,” said DeBenedictis. “She empties the tank every game she plays.”
In addition to her points, where she is averaging 18.6 this year, Lightbody is averaging close to 10 rebounds a game, leads the team in assists, and has 95 steals in 17 games. Basically, she leads in every category but 3-pointers.
“She goes to the rim and she can’t be stopped,” said DeBenedictis. “She goes non-stop, and is emotionally and mentally strong.”
Lightbody’s star will continue to shine into the spring track season, where she is out to reclaim the state pole vaulting title she won sophomore year. Lightbody was second last spring. She can probably help the Lady Rockets out in another event or two as well…
It all comes down to Thursday afternoon (5:30 p.m.) for the Reading boys, who have a virtual “play-in” game for the tournament.
The Rockets (9-10) still need one more win to get into the tournament. Having it come down to Arlington at home was always a distinct possibility after the Rockets got their last-second win over Watertown last Tuesday.
The five-game win streak did fall, as expected at Belmont, which clinched the ML Liberty title with the victory. Reading then played an excellent game at home against a good Lexington team before losing by three points.
The Rockets can take heart in two other local teams saw their tournament fortunes trend in a positive direction with wins over the Spy Ponders. Burlington is one win away with two to play, and Winchester is two wins away with three (that count toward the tourney) to play. The Sachems are at St. John’s Prep on Friday in an exclusion game…
The Woburn boys are out of the tournament picture, but they are still trying to make the most of what’s left now that the Tanners finally have Ryan Ludwig back in the lineup. Woburn nearly pulled off what would have been a stunning upset of Lexington, when you consider the Tanners lost the first meeting by 45 points (83-38).
Watching the game, one got the impression the Minutemen were not taking Woburn seriously, which might have been expected. Lexington did fight back from a 12-point first-quarter deficit, then appeared to take control as the game reached halftime.
But the Tanners were not done yet, and they led by a modest margin for much of the second half until Jazin Ayala tore their hearts out with his fifth 3-pointer in the last minute.
Woburn is getting great motivation from coach Tom Sullivan, who won’t let his team give less than its all despite the season circumstances. Frustration was the feeling, however, after Friday night and Monday night’s overtime loss to Winchester.
Burlington won its makeup game against Melrose on Wednesday to clinch a tournament berth. The Red Devils had to win five of their last six for qualification. Having Ryan Culhane (14.7 ppg) return was a big boost to go along with the consistent play of Al Wong (15.9). And the team can really shoot the three-ball, something coach Phil Conners was known for during his successful run previously at Tewksbury High… Congratulations to former Belmont High boys’ coach Paul Lyons on having the home court officially named after him, inside Wenner Field House, in a special ceremony, Friday night.
(Mark Nadeau’s “Around the Rim” column appears during the high school basketball season.)