Holyoke native Callie Cavanaugh, Fairfield set to open season against UMass

  • Holyoke native Callie Cavanaugh makes a play for Fairfield during a game against Dartmouth last season. Fairfield opens the 2020-2021 season on Thursday at home against UMass. COURTESY FAIRFIELD ATHLETICS

  • Holyoke native Callie Cavanaugh makes a play for Fairfield during a game against Dartmouth last season. Fairfield opens the 2020-2021 season on Thursday at home against UMass. COURTESY FAIRFIELD ATHLETICS

  • Holyoke native Callie Cavanaugh makes a play for Fairfield during a game against Dartmouth last season. Fairfield opens the 2020-2021 season on Thursday at home against UMass. COURTESY FAIRFIELD ATHLETICS

  • Holyoke native Callie Cavanaugh makes a play for Fairfield during a game against Dartmouth last season. Fairfield opens the 2020-2021 season on Thursday at home against UMass. COURTESY FAIRFIELD ATHLETICS

Sports Editor
Published: 12/2/2020 7:09:49 PM

The Fairfield women’s basketball team was supposed to have started its season by now.

The Stags were scheduled to open with Sacred Heart on Thanksgiving eve. That game was eventually postponed to Saturday, but never happened. A positive COVID test within Sacred Heart’s program canceled the contest.

Fairfield had a game with Seton Hall on Monday, but that game was canceled nearly two weeks ago when the Pirates reported a positive test.

UMass came calling and the two schools agreed to play on Thursday (5 p.m., ESPN+). It was announced on Monday, much to the delight of Callie Cavanaugh.

“It’s really special,” said Cavanaugh, a redshirt junior for the Stags. “As a kid, me and my family used to go to the women’s and men’s basketball games when (former men’s coach Derek) Kellogg was there. Just playing UMass gives me a sense of home since I haven’t been home in a while. We can’t go home because of COVID but just playing them makes me feel at home a little bit.”

Cavanaugh had a stellar career at Holyoke High School. She finished as the city’s all-time leading scorer with 1,773 career points, easily surpassing former Holyoke Catholic standout Ray Witkos (1,578). She became the first Holyoke player to win the Vi Goodnow Award, presented to the best female player in western Massachusetts.

Cavanaugh said she had no expectations of playing or competing at the next level when she entered high school.

“Now that I’m playing against the hometown college it’s going to be a special moment,” she said.

The 6-foot-1 forward didn’t start out at the small, private Jesuit university in Connecticut. She signed out of high school to play at Florida International. Cavanaugh started all 29 games her freshman year for the Panthers and averaged 5.6 points and 4.8 rebounds.

While she grew and enjoyed her time in the Sunshine State, it wasn’t perfect. She said she struggled academically with the bigger classes and didn’t quite connect with the coaches. She transferred after one year and found a place at Fairfield.

“I was able to find myself academically with the smaller classrooms and definitely my teammates,” Cavanaugh said. “We’re one big family. That’s what really drew me in the most.”

Fairfield played at UMass in a Turkey Tip-Off game during her first year. Ineligible to play and travel with the team due to transfer rules, Cavanaugh drove to Amherst to watch the game from the stands. UMass won 59-49.

She’s looking forward to being able to be on the floor this time.

“This is a great opportunity,” Cavanaugh said. “We’re looking to get a couple games before we start in-conference games. In-conference games are very important to us, so are nonconference, but this game will prepare us, allow us to see what we have, what players work well together, allow us to build chemistry between us and the new players on the team.”

The Stags tied for second in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference preseason poll. They earned 108 points (four first-place votes) along with Quinnipiac (two first-place votes). Manhattan was first (109, five).

Fairfield (16-14 overall, 12-8 MAAC) beat Siena in the MAAC Tournament quarterfinals before the season was shut down due to the pandemic. With four starters returning from a team that finished third in the conference, Cavanaugh said the expectations are high.

“We’ve been able to build chemistry as a team this past two years and are really looking to win a MAAC championship this year,” Cavanaugh said. “I think we have the right pieces to do that.”

Junior forward Lou Lopez-Senechal (15.5 ppg) led the Stags in scoring the last season and was named the preseason conference player of the year. Forward Katie Armstrong (graduate student) averaged 14.0 points and 7.0 rebounds and was named to the preseason first team. Junior point guard Rachel Hakes (3.2 assists) returns to the starting lineup, along with Cavanaugh, who started 28 of 30 games last season and averaged 7.2 points and 4.2 rebounds per game.

“She’s a big, physical post. Does a nice job of really stepping out short, or picking and pop and trying to shoot from 15 feet out. She has some versatility to her game,” UMass coach Tory Verdi said of Cavanaugh. “We’ve got to do a great job of boxing her out and not allowing her to get second-chance opportunity points. We have to be there on catches because she can knock down those jumpers.”

The Minutewomen (1-1) are coming off a 90-82 overtime loss at Boston College on Sunday. UMass trailed for most of the game and missed Sam Breen for stretches due to foul trouble. Still, it had a chance to win at the end of regulation but a Ber’Nyah Mayo 3-pointer from the corner missed.

“UMass is great. They have great guards, great post players,” Cavanaugh said. “They have a lot of transfers on the team. Really we’re looking to stop the drive. We don’t want them to drive the ball to the middle. They have a lot of good 3-point shooters, so hopefully stop that as well.”

DEALING WITH COVID — Cavanaugh said the Stags are excited to finally start the season.

“We’ve been preparing for a long time,” she said. “We’ve been practicing day in and day out for like the past two months. We’ve been scrimmaging against each other for a while now so we’re ready to get some competition now.”

Cavanaugh said she has followed Holyoke’s progress despite being away from the program. She had some advice for players as they prepare for a potential high school season next month.

“It’s going to be a rough road,” she said. “There’s not going to be an everyday routine. Things are going to change every day. One day you’re thinking you have a game the next day, the next day you won’t. You have to have the right mindset, you have to stay positive through times like this because COVID is going to test you. ... It’s going to impact you a lot, but just have the right mindset. That’s really important.”

For the second time this season UMass has added an opponent to its schedule within a week of the game. It’s not likely to be the last time either, as teams drop and add games due to the nature of the pandemic.

Verdi said they scan schedules when teams shut down and try to fill holes with the teams that lose games.

“That’s kind of how all that evolves,” Verdi said. “We want to make sure we’re contacting those schools before other schools are locking in and stealing that game from us.”

While it doesn’t allow for good routines, the Minutewomen are making do with the situation.

“We play in practice every day like we have a game tomorrow because we never know what to expect,” UMass sophomore guard Sydney Taylor said. “A game could get canceled, there could be another game. We’re just going day by day and it’s definitely a roller coaster.”

Added redshirt junior guard Desiree Oliver, “Coach Verdi has been telling us and trying to get us to understand that the situation is fluid. Just always have that in the back of our minds. It is difficult not knowing what’s going to happen or when it’s going to happen.”

DONNELLY DAY TO DAY — UMass sophomore center Maeve Donnelly is day-to-day, according to Verdi. Donnelly, who has been in concussion protocol, missed the first two games.

“We’re hoping Maeve will be back sooner than later but you have to let these things play out,” Verdi said. “Our No. 1 goal is to make sure that we put our players in the best situation and they are taken care of.”

Mike Moran can be reached at mmoran@gazettenet.com. Follow on Twitter @mikemoranDHG.




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