Another new face

Another new season and there’s another new head coach for the Merrimack High School girls basketball team.

For the third season in a row, and fourth time in five years, the Tomahawks start the year with a different head coach from the season prior.

Courtney Cheetham sure hopes that trend doesn’t continue. The first-time varsity head coach has been coaching in the area for some time and knows what kind of girls basketball program Merrimack is capable of turning out.

“When I played in high school, in New Hampshire, we feared Merrimack because they were top four and a powerhouse,” Cheetham said. “I think that’s possible here, but it hasn’t been that way in a couple of years.”

A big reason for that has been the coaching stability. After missing the playoffs two years ago, Merrimack brought in Shawn Flynn, who had led Campbell to five straight Division III championship games.

The Tomahawks not only returned to the Division I playoffs, but went 8-10 and contended for a top eight spot for most of the year. Then in mid-October, Flynn decided not to return, putting athletic director Eric Sabean in a tough spot.

But when Cheetham, who coached at Bishop Guertin, Souhegan and Bedford before taking last year off, heard there was an opening at Merrimack, she jumped at it.

“When this opened up, not only are the kids part of a program that’s hungry to win games, but the feeder program is so strong, and I personally want to be in a place where I can build from the ground up,” Cheetham said. “I feel like Merrimack is a town for that. Every parent I know in town is intense and loves basketball, and every kid I see play in Merrimack loves it. But then you see the high school and you see a program that’s defeated.”

There were some players who decided not to return to the team this year because there was going to be another new coach. The ones who did return were eager to try something new, again.

“At first, I was angry because it’s frustrating,” senior Maddie Freed said. “This is our third coach in three years. It was annoying because you wonder, how many times are we going to go through introductions. But at the same time, it’s exciting because you’re going on a new adventure.”

Freed and junior Julianne Mayville met with Cheetham before she interview with Sabean and the new Merrimack coach was surprised by the response she got from the players.

“One of the things that was transparent with Maddie and Julianne was that they wanted to walk down the hallway and feel proud to be a Merrimack basketball player,” Cheetham said.

“Then other people would see how excited they were and want to be a part of it. That speaks to me a little bit.”

After getting to know Cheetham and see her in practice for a few weeks, Mayville believes Merrimack is in good hands.

“It’s good to know that she has a lot of experience and it makes me more comfortable with the fact that she knows exactly what she’s doing and knows what she expects of us,” Mayville said. “It makes me more excited. I think if she stays here, the program will definitely turn around. If we’re successful this year, I think more kids will want to join.”

While she believes her players are hungry to win, Cheetham knows there will be an adjustment period early in the season. The schedule certainly doesn’t do the Tomahawks any favors either, as they open against Nashua North on Wednesday.

That’s followed by games against Bedford, Timberlane, Alvirne and Londonderry, with three games at the Nashua Holiday Tournament sandwiched in between.

“They have surprised me with how much they are already a team and the excitement is already back,” Cheetham said. “That’s a testament to them.”