A Class Unto Themselves

Seniors Queliz, Morgen, Preira lead St. Mary’s to State Basketball Championship

Champs: The St. Mary’s Spartans, MIAA Division 3 girls basketball state champions.

When the state championship and North Shore bragging rights against Bishop Fenwick High School were on the line, Coach Jeff Newhall’s St. Mary’s High School girls basketball team delivered in the clutch as it had done so often in the past. Led by its supremely talented senior captains, Yirsy Queliz, Niya Morgen, and Kellyn Preira, St. Mary’s pulled away from Bishop Fenwick in the fourth quarter to earn an awe-inspiring 45-41 victory in the Division 3 state championship game Saturday at the Tsongas Center in Lowell. It was St. Mary’s third consecutive state championship, cementing its status as one of the best programs in Massachusetts, if not all of New England.

Drive Time: Yirsy Queliz gets into top speed as she drives between Celia Kay and Kate McPhail (24) during the state championship game in Lowell.

It was the fifth Massachusetts crown during the Jeff Newhall Era. Can you say D-Y-N-A-S-T-Y? A large crowd witnessed another classic matchup with the Crusaders, who always seem to bring their best into the tournament against St. Mary’s, their Catholic Central League rival. Thanks to Fenwick’s 6-foot-2-inch junior star center Cecilia Kay (23 points), the Crusaders had climbed to within two points (32-30) at the end of the third quarter. Morgen (8 points) then proceeded to score the biggest five points of her amazing career, highlighted by a three-pointer from the near-left corner that raised the lead to 37-30. Queliz, St. Mary’s leading scorer in the game with 18 points, had a key steal and basket to maintain the margin at seven, 39-32. Kay answered for Fenwick with a basket and three-pointer to close the margin to 41-39 with 3:36 left. But freshman guard Jillian Roberts and sophomore center Reese Matela rose to the occasion and scored huge baskets to extend St. Mary’s lead to 45-39. The St. Mary’s defense, which had excelled in the shadow of its own prolific offensive performance throughout the MIAA Tournament, held Fenwick to one basket until the final buzzer. Matela, sister of former St. Mary’s star and current Emmanuel College All-Conference player Olivia Matela, was an unsung hero in the tournament. Matela had 15 points and 12 rebounds in the Spartans’ 70-43 victory over Rockland in the state semifinal. The 6-foot-2-inch center scored eight points and was 2-of-2 from the line in the title-clincher over Fenwick. Kellyn Preira scored nine points in the first half as St. Mary’s led 30-18 at the break. Preira, whose game skyrocketed under Newhall’s tutelage and motivation, will always be remembered for her last-second block of a shot in the 2022 state championship game that locked up a 46-44 victory over Rockland. A 5-foot-10-inch forward with total game, Preira is headed to Division 1 Monmouth University. It should be noted that Queliz, a Northeastern University scholarship player, had the winning basket in that memorable victory over Rockland. Meanwhile, Bella Owumi, a phenomenal eighth grader who is already attracting the attention of college basketball programs, showed again this season that she could thrive in varsity basketball against older, more experienced players. The three captains talked about their immensely successful experiences in the St. Mary’s program and playing for a coaching staff – head coach Jeff Newhall and assistant coaches Jim Foley, Tim Spinney, Victoria Ault, Alison McCarthy, Sharell Sanders, and Brianna Rudolph – that brought basketball joy into their lives over the past few years, especially during the annual state championship quests. Queliz, who began her varsity career as an eighth grader after growing up in the Dominican Republic, had the honor of jubilantly throwing the basketball into the air as the buzzer sounded – at the suggestion of assistant coach and past state championship guard  Sharell Sanders. Queliz told reporters, “It felt like I was in the WNBA, winning the state championship at the end. It was so amazing. I’ve been at this school for five years, and we’ve made it to the state final four times (the state tournament was canceled due to COVID-19 in 2021), so it feels good to win three out of those four years. It’s been great playing basketball with Kellyn and Niya. The connection on the court is there every time. Everybody on this team is part of a family.” Said Kellyn Preira, “I love Coach Newhall. I’ve been with him for four years now. I think coming to St. Mary’s High School was the best decision I’ve made. Being with all the coaches, you wouldn’t want anyone else being your coaches.” “He [Coach Newhall] is definitely a great coach,” said Morgen. “He pushes every player on the team to be their best. He cracks jokes during practice, but when we need to be serious, he makes us lock in and if it weren’t for him, we definitely wouldn’t be in this position of winning back-to-back titles. He’s a great guy and we love him.” Newhall, whose teams have now won 17 consecutive postseason games and compiled a 95-10 record over the past four years, credited his players for their mental toughness in the championship game, especially during the fourth quarter. “I told the girls, ‘You worked the whole year to get to this point, you’re playing not to lose – go play to win, just go play free and easy, have fun – play the game we’ve played for the last four months and good things will happen,’” related Newhall. The team took Newhall’s message to the mountaintop. “That’s where having three seniors playing in the games that they have for the last few seasons – I can sit on the sidelines and call out plays and call timeouts and everyone can say, ‘oh, he’s great.’ “But it’s not me, you win with seniors, and we had a couple more than they did, and that’s probably the difference.”

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