Missy Dougherty (@missyingyou)
(Ed. Note: This story is the latest in CoBL’s “Prepping for Preps” series, which will take a look at many of the top high school programs in the region as part of our 2021-22 season preview coverage. As we publish more, the complete list of schools previewed will be found here.)
Annie Aspesi (above) and Harriton reached the District 1 5A championship game last season. (Photo: Missy Dougherty/CoBL)
Step inside Harriton High School’s expansive gym and the banners immortalizing the championships of the school’s respective athletic programs that adorn the walls definitely make an impression.
The girls basketball banner, which currently solely commemorates a 1971 league title, caught the collective eye of seniors Annie Aspesi and Maretta Smith, in particular, as they entered the school as freshmen in the fall of 2018.
What did they notice?
“Lots of space for additions,” said Aspesi as she reflected back to the beginning of what has been a memorable scholastic journey.
Aspesi and Smith made a pact, then and there, to help “get some stuff up there” over the course of their careers.
Playing major roles on the team throughout their four years, the duo almost saw their banner dreams come to fruition last year as second-seeded Harriton fell in the PIAA District 1 5A championship game to top seed Springfield (Delco.), 46-39.
“We came oh-so-close,” Aspesi said. “I can still remember that feeling of sitting in the locker room after we lost. The disappointment after that game served as motivation. It fueled us to work hard all summer.”
Smith recalls how fast it seemed the whole season went. “It was crazy. We had a week of practice and then they shut it down until January,” the 5-9 forward said. “We played so many games in a short time that it passed quickly. We didn’t even have time to think about what was happening.”
What was happening was a standout season for the Rams as they persevered through a year that was anything but ordinary on their way to making lasting memories.
“Last year there was an enormous amount of joy in the gym for just the chance to play together at all,” coach Chris Wielgus said as she reminisced about the unforgettable 2020-21 campaign that was surrounded with uncertainty due to the COVID virus. “They were just so excited to be playing and that resulted in a renewed enthusiasm each and every game to compete.”
Four of the major contributors — Lexi Calhoun (playing basketball at Penn), Sydney Kasner, Alexia Louca (playing lacrosse at Drexel) , and Mady Calhoun (moved out of state) — from that squad are gone, but Wielgus is grateful that Aspesi and Smith will be in Harriton uniforms for one more season as the squad seeks to give another testimonial this season about the flourishing state of Harriton girls basketball.
Marietta Smith (above) is the Rams' other returning senior starter from last year's squad. (Photo: Missy Dougherty/CoBL)
“They are such a joy to coach,” Wielgus said as she tried to put into words what it has meant to have Aspesi and Smith as members of the program the last four years, which has coincided with her own coaching tenure at Harriton. “They love the game and it shows in their play, demeanor, and leadership.”
It’s that chance to be the unquestionable leaders of the team that has Smith excited for the season that awaits. “There were times where Annie and I didn’t know if we could step in and lead, but it’s definitely our time now,” Smith said.
The leadership from Aspesi and Smith exudes from their play. Aspesi, a Tufts University commit, is a 5-7 hard-nose guard who can score at will. Serving as the perfect complement is Smith, a rugged, athletic forward, who is crafty around the goal while playing bigger than her size. Their high-level on-court decision-making speaks to the value of both year-round play, and their commitment to improving their respective games.
The supporting cast includes a sister act in 5-7 sophomore Felicity McFillin and 5-6 freshman Maddie McFillin. Gaining valuable big-game experience, Felicity provided quality minutes off the bench during the Rams’ district run. “The McFillin sisters are fearless, tenacious competitors, who have a knack of getting to the rim,” Wielgus said.
Sophomore Alexis Kanzinger, a 5-2 guard, will be another valuable piece of the rotation, along with 5-11 freshman Anna Chimento, who has been working hard on her skill development to pair with her natural athleticism, according to Wielgus.
Count 5-5 junior Sophie Kasmer and 5-6 classmate Nora Dionne among the expected contributors off the bench. Point guard Kelly Finegan rounds out the senior class.
The Rams’ strengths include team speed and ability to score. Size is a question mark but that could spell opportunity for several younger players on the roster.
Wielgus saw a level of dedication this summer that hasn’t been seen before at Harriton. “The core has been playing all summer,” said Wielgus, the longtime head coach at Dartmouth before coming down to the Main Line. “The work ethic is trickling down to the younger kids.”
Success brings heightened expectations, and Wielgus expects her squad to be very competitive. “We have a lot of respect for our Central League opponents,” emphasized Wielgus, “but as long we stay healthy, we anticipate being in the mix at the top.”
As the season quickly approaches, Aspesi is looking forward to one last run in the gym in a Harriton uniform with the players and coaches. “I am eager to see what we can accomplish,” Aspesi said.
Smith vows to appreciate the journey as the season unfolds: “I want to cherish the moments and not get stuck on little stuff.”
Both Aspesi and Smith are reveling in the opportunity to do something special at Harriton in their final season, including hopefully making a long-awaited cherished addition to that stark banner.
“We’ve created great relationships with players and the coaching staff and now we have the chance to hand down the legacy of the program to the younger players,” Aspesi said. “We get to convey to them the importance of our core values.”
“Coach always talks about leaving things better than you found it,” Smith echoed. “Whether it’s the condition of a bus we are traveling on for an away game, or really any situation you find in life. We want to leave the Harriton basketball program better than when we got here.”