Healthy again after a serious injury, Northampton’s Bri Heafey feeling rejuvenated during MIAA tourney run

Northampton’s Bri Heafey (5) drives down the court defended by Mansfield’s Sophia Foley (25) in the fourth quarter of the MIAA Division 2 girls basketball round of 16 game Tuesday night in Northampton.

Northampton’s Bri Heafey (5) drives down the court defended by Mansfield’s Sophia Foley (25) in the fourth quarter of the MIAA Division 2 girls basketball round of 16 game Tuesday night in Northampton. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE


Staff Writer

Published: 03-07-2024 3:56 PM

NORTHAMPTON — A violent ‘pop’ feeling flowed through Bri Heafey’s right leg as she came to a jump stop – just like she had done hundreds of times in her life.

This one felt noticeably unlike the rest.

Heafey, freshman on the Northampton girls basketball team at the time, was in the middle of her first full varsity season with the Blue Devils. Coming to a jump stop wasn’t anything new to a girl who practically grew up with a ball in her hands, but it was the first time she performed the move with two defenders crashing into her leg as she tried to pivot.

“My knee just kind of blew out, Heafey said. “It twisted up, and that was it.”

The rest of Heafey’s year – a season she played exactly half of, scoring double digits in five of her 10 games – vanished like that, as she missed the entire latter portion of her freshman season with a torn ACL and meniscus.

A typical reaction for a 14-year old kid in that situation would be frustration, sadness, anger, fear – practically any other emotions that come with having their most beloved passion ripped from them. But Heafey’s brain is wired differently. The only thing on her mind was hopping back in a gym and hearing the ball rip through the net again.

Following surgery on her knee, which Heafey wasted no time getting after the injury, it was immediately back to business.

She had to learn how to walk properly again, and pushed herself to move side-to-side, complete small movements and light workouts.

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Wake up and make progress, by any means necessary, Heafey told herself.

“I got over the [initial emotion of it] and made little goals for myself,” she said. “I tried to do PT every day, even if it was just for 10 minutes. Once I understood that I wasn’t gonna get better in a week, those little goals really helped me. It helped me recover faster.”

Nine months of tiny victories trudged by, and at last sophomore year had arrived. Heafey was cleared to participate in all basketball activities just in time for the week of tryouts. Even simple basketball movements – like cutting to the hoop, or, a jump stop – were tough for her at first.

But none of that seemed relevant. The fact that Heafey was back, listening to the booming voice of her head coach, Perry Messer, and the satisfying squeaks of basketball sneakers on a hardwood floor made her feel right at home – regardless of whether or not she felt 100 percent.

Two weeks later, the season tipped off with perhaps Northampton’s most important game of the year. The Blue Devils not only faced rival Amherst, the game was also held at the Mullins Center on the campus of UMass.

Heafey was ready to put on a show in her return.

Northampton and Amherst went into halftime tied at 17, but Amherst cruised in the second half to a 22-point win. The ‘Canes shut down Heafey; her confidence alongside it.

“I couldn’t help but think it was my fault,” she said. “You know, if I had been back to where I was, we would’ve won this game. Seeing that I’m not where I was, that I was significantly worse as a player, was a reality check. I knew that version of me wasn’t good enough. I had to put in the work to get back to – to be better than – where I was.”


Messer had run his annual summer youth basketball clinic for years at Northampton High School. The week coincidentally always fell on the hottest stretch of days summer had to offer, so he split the camp into two groups – one training in the non-air conditioned gym while the other swam in his pool about a dozen houses down the street to cool off. Then they’d switch.

He may have done this routine for years, but nobody ever stood out like this one small second-grade girl nearly a decade ago.

She could run the three-man weave drill better than sixth and seventh graders. She caught passes no matter how hard they were thrown at her. And she most definitely could handle the ball better than half the kids in the gym despite being younger than all of them.

Her name? Bri Heafey. And Messer couldn’t wait for her to be the next star player for the Blue Devils.

“I knew back then, I said, ‘This kid is gonna be a really special player,’” Messer said. “You could tell her to run a drill, she’s half the size of everybody else, and she’s doing it at the same level. I’ve known her all along. She’s one of those kids that just works when nobody is looking.”

Heafey has played on Northampton’s varsity team since she was in eighth grade, and each practice since her first she’s stayed after to get more shots up and work on her game – even if for only 20 minutes. Between that, her daily workouts at Northampton Athletic Club for hours on end and her before-school shooting sessions, she was – and still is – always in the gym constantly grinding to improve her craft.

“When you do all that stuff, you’re gonna be a player,” Messer said. “It’s not for everybody.”


That unmatched work ethic paid off during No. 7 Northampton’s MIAA Division 2 Sweet 16 battle with No. 10 Mansfield on Tuesday night, as Heafey, now a junior and the second leading scorer for the Blue Devils, poured in a game-high 24 points to send Northampton into the Elite Eight.

After a clutch offensive rebound by senior Ava Azzaro with the Blue Devils ahead by two in the final minute, she dished it out to Heafey trying to kill some clock. A Mansfield defender pressured Heafey up near the half-court circle.

Making a split decision, Heafey planted on her heavily-braced right knee and wrapped the ball around her back to completely fake out the lunging opponent. Those dazzling handles – which Messer was plenty aware of when Heafey was in second grade – were on full display as she continued into the paint through two more defenders.

She put up a shot while absorbing contact, and as she fell to the floor, the ball kissed off the window and through for an and-one to put the game on ice.

For the first time in her high school career, Heafey has played every game on the schedule. And after hitting the two-year mark since surgery just last week, she feels as close to 100 percent as she ever has.

“It’s awesome,” Heafey said, referring to what it’s like playing a full year with no setbacks. “My freshman year was definitely disappointing, then sophomore year I was still coming back slow. I’m finally experiencing what I thought my high school career would look like.”

Those disheartening moments, like when she sobbed to her father for feeling she wasn’t the same player, were washed away with determination, and now she is one of the main reasons Northampton – along with some tough and rugged teammates – has advanced the furthest it ever has in the new statewide tournament format.

The Blue Devils head to No. 2 Walpole – the same team that knocked them out of the state tournament a year ago – on Friday night at 6 p.m.

Heafey, Messer and the mighty Blue Devils wouldn’t want it any other way.

“They thumped us pretty good last year, but I think we learned a lot from that game,” Messer said. “I think that’s what has kind of propelled us to our run this year. We looked at the bracket right at the beginning and we said, ‘That’s good. Let’s work to get a chance at a little redemption.’ We’re looking forward to the challenge. We’re gonna go out there and give it our all like we always do.”