Katelyn Pickunka energized Hampshire girls basketball in postseason run

  • Hampshire Regional senior center Katelyn Pickunka splits Wahconah defenders Maria Gamberoni, in background, and Kelly McMahon in the second half of the Raiders Western Mass championship win. GAZETTE STAFF / FILE

  • Hampshire Regional senior center Katelyn Pickunka smiles on the way to the foul line in the second half of the Raiders’ Western Mass championship win over Wahconah. GAZETTE STAFF / FILE

Published: 3/16/2018 10:17:29 PM

WESTHAMPTON — Katelyn Pickunka grew up losing to her brother Jordan in one-on-one basketball games in their Westhampton driveway.

He was always bigger, stronger and two years older. She kept asking to go out and play.

Near the end her sophomore season in 2016, her persistence paid off. Katelyn crossed up Jordan, a Hampshire Regional senior at the time, and hit a step-back jump shot over his outstretched arm to beat him for the first time.

“I was so excited, it was like I won Western Mass,” she said.

That victory sparked a realization.

“If I can beat a boy who’s two years older than me, why not (win Western Mass)?” Pickunka said. “I’ll keep working hard.”

Pickunka asked Hampshire coach Amy Cyr for workouts and drills so she could improve after the Raiders lost in the Western Mass semifinals. That season she was Hampshire’s third option behind senior point guard Chelsea Moussette and junior center Katy O’Connor.

“I’ve loved basketball for so long,” Pickunka said. “It’s been a lot of determination and dedication. I’ve had some great role models.”

In her junior season, she moved up the scouting report to No. 2 behind O’Connor and displayed a more refined game. The Raiders lost in the sectional semifinals to South Hadley. She still made an impression.

“Everyone slept on her at first. She was capable of going off at any second,” said Sophie Gatzounas, the Tigers star who now plays for Navy. “She was kind of in the shadow for a bit, silent but deadly.”

Pickunka showed the result of her effort as a senior. She torched opponents scoring 26 points per game to lead Western Mass. Pickunka had a career-high 38 points twice.

She’s been a dominant rebounder and grabbed 16 boards in Hampshire’s state semifinal win over Sutton. Pickunka led the Raiders to the Division 3 state championship game, where they’ll play Archbishop Williams at 5:45 p.m. Saturday at Springfield College. Hampshire won its first Western Mass title since 2007 along the way.

“This season doesn’t feel real yet,” Pickunka said.

While she didn’t play AAU like most top players, Pickunka’s preparation didn’t only come on her driveway.

Cyr watched Pickunka hone her game through the years in area summer and fall leagues. She worked out on her own, bulking up in the spring through strength training then refining individual skills. Her improvement didn’t surprise Cyr.

“I did see it coming,” Cyr said.

Pickunka plays with an infectious energy and swagger. She blocked a shot during the Raiders’ Western Mass championship win over Wahconah and subtly wagged her finger like Dikembe Mutombo down by her waist.

“She gets these and 1s and she’s out screaming at the foul line,” Hampshire sophomore Maddie Pond said. “It gets us pumped up.”

Her energy sparks the Raiders. They follow her example.

“When she takes a charge or gets a block she screams out like ‘woo lets go’ and everyone’s like ‘yeah let’s go,’” Hampshire junior Caroline O’Connor said.

Pickunka, the Raiders’ only senior, sharpened her leadership skills along with her jump shot and box out positioning.

“I want to be a good leader to these kids,” Pickunka said. “If I can make my four teammates as good as they can be because I’m leading them well, I think that’s something not a lot of players can do.”

College coaches noticed. Pickunka will play at Smith College next season.

“We felt like Katelyn was a great combo of someone who has the great makeup of a leader and also is a self-motivated, determined basketball player,” Pioneers coach Lynn Hersey said. “It was easy once we got to know her to see how she could fit into our program.”

Pickunka will major in neuroscience on the pre-med track. Playing for the Pioneers will allow her to pursue basketball and academics while staying close to home.

“I’m definitely a homebody,” she said. “I love my family, I love all my teammates. I wanted to be close.”

But before Pickunka undertakes that challenge, she still has unfinished business. She’ll attack Archbishop Williams just like she did her brother.

“I’m super competitive,” Pickunka said. “I’m going to work my butt off until I can beat you.”

Kyle Grabowski can be reached at kgrabowski@gazettenet.com.
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