How did Nia Irving follow up an outstanding freshman season, one in which she was named Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference Class A North Player of Year?
By having an even better season.
As a sophomore at Lawrence this season, Irving averaged 20.6 points and 19.4 rebounds per game, leading the Bulldogs to a 16-3 overall record. That makes her the choice as the Morning Sentinel Girls Basketball Player of the Year. Waterville’s Colleen O’Donnell was also considered.
Irving, a 5-foot-11 center, missed most of her freshman field hockey season when she tore the meniscus in her knee. This past fall, she was sidelined for much of the season with an ankle injury.
“When I got to basketball season, I felt like I was at full strength,” Irving said. “By the end of field hockey season, I was back in the gym running and weightlifting, and doing everything I could to strengthen my leg. I felt that by the time basketball season rolled around, I was all healed up.”
“Don’t forget, she was player of the year this year, and really didn’t play all summer,” Lawrence coach John Donato said.
The Bulldogs lost in the Eastern A semifinals in Irving’s freshman year, and as they went into this season, Irving said they wanted to improve both their record and their team defense. Lawrence led the KVAC North in both points per game and points allowed per game this winter. The Bulldogs lost two games during the regular season, both by two points on the road.
“We knew coming into the season that there were a lot of overlooked teams,” Irving said. “But we knew as long as we kept working hard and we stuck together, then obviously we would be able to make something happen.”
Irving has things about her own game she works on as well, like a pull-up jumper she often practices in her driveway. She plays on an offseason team called the Maine Maniacs with fellow Lawrence player Dominique Lewis, Mt. Blue’s Caitlin Kane, and players from the southern part of the state.
“In the offseason, I worked a lot on foot speed — like working with the track coaches to improve my running,” Irving said. “I did a lot of ball-handling. Right now, in the offseason, I’m playing a wing. I’m trying to broaden my horizon position-wise, so when it comes to next season and on to college, I’m able to play more than just a post.”
Donato said he also noticed Irving stepping up her game this winter.
“She’s a little bit stronger than she was last season,” Donato said. “Her outside shot is a lot better. She’s now a more consistent shooter from 10-15 feet.”
Teams tried unusual defenses against Lawrence — Donato said Cony employed a triangle and two, with the two players guarding Irving — but the Bulldogs defeated Edward Little for the KVAC title and were seen as one of the favorites in the Eastern A bracket.
Lawrence played Messalonskee in the quarterfinals, and the schedule for that day was up in the air because of the weather. The Bulldogs had defeated Messalonskee by only four points in the season finale, and were ready to practice the day before the quarterfinal game. But a snowstorm and different school policies meant Lawrence’s practice was canceled, and Messalonskee was still able to have a practice.
“Our school has a policy of if it’s a snow day, or a half day because of snow, then you can’t practice,” Irving said. “That didn’t work out quite well. We tried to get our team together, and we went to Colby. But of course, none of us have a membership, so we all got kicked out of Colby. But we can’t really use that as an excuse. It fuels it more for next season, but it’s hard to know that every single one of us could have done better. But Messalonskee played better than we did, and we can’t get around that.”
Lawrence led late in the fourth quarter, but Messalonskee ended up winning 46-42 in overtime. Irving had 23 points in the loss.
“Messalonskee just played a perfect game against us,” Donato said. “But we could have lost the next game. Who knows?”
The astonishing end to the season overshadowed what had been a dominant winter for the Bulldogs, and for their go-to player.
“It was definitely a good season,” Irving said. “I mean, I love my team so much. We all get along so well. I think if there was an award for closest team, we’d definitely get it.
“We did great things. Instead of just focusing on how we lost that last playoff game, we can think of how we won KVACs, and we were top-rated defense, and top-rated offense, and all the great wins we had in the season, and all the fun we had.”