Classic examples of how hard work can pay off would be two basketball players from Ipswich – Ryan O’Connell and Amber Smith.
At early morning hours when others were sleeping during the regular season, Ryan and Amber were at places where they could improve in basketball. In the off-season when others were playing other sports or relaxing, these two were training and traveling with AAU teams all over the East Coast.
One common training spot for both has been the Ipswich YMCA. “I used to work out with Ryan and others there,” recalled Amber. “We’d lift and shoot and do drills.”
Ryan left the Ipswich school system after 8th grade for the Division 1 competition available at St. John’s Prep in Danvers. He thrived among the best players in the state and became St. John’s all-time leading scorer near the end of the 2007-08 season. He is now a freshman in a very successful D3 basketball program at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine.
Amber has chosen to remain in Ipswich and enters her senior year as the school’s 2nd highest career scorer with 1341 points. She is 301 points behind current leader (Justin Woodworth – senior at Salve Regina) and more than likely will claim the top spot before this season is over.
After Ipswich, Amber heads north to D1 UMaine in Orono thanks to a full, four-year scholarship to play basketball for the Black Bears. “I think that it is the perfect place for me,” she said.
Amber is currently trying to recover from a stress fracture (she had the cast off last week) that has slowed her down for the past four months. “There will be some pain but I’m used to it,” she reported after practice. “In a couple of weeks I should be at 100%.”
That will be bad news for Cape Ann League opponents. Amber was the CAL Small Player-of-the-Year last season, averaging a nice 22 point/12 rebounds double/double per game while surrounded by multiple defenders.
“I saw her in 7th grade and knew she was going to be a good one,” recalled IHS coach Mandy Zegarowski. “She was already 5-9 and strong. On top of her size, she could already shoot a jump shot. There are kids playing at the high school level that still can’t do that.”
Amber went the AAU route to improve her game during each off-season. “My intent in playing AAU was to match up against higher level competition,” she explained. “It you want to get better you have to play against better people.”
The AAU season generally runs from March-July. Amber’s most recent team (Mass Thundercats from Lynn) added 32 games to her 20-game CAL schedule. “We traveled to DC for the Nationals this past year and played a lot of games in New York City. I have seen and played against some of the best players on the East Coast.”
However, one of the best players she’s faced recently may be her younger brother, Colin. The 6-2, 8th grader would appear to have as bright a basketball future as his older sister. “I play against him all the time,” said Amber. “He’s already on an AAU team. He dunked for the first time the other day. Lately when we’re playing, I (at 5-10) am starting to have trouble getting shots off against him. I am stronger than him, though.”
Amber realizes that her defense needs improving. “I’m not as quick as I need to be right now but maybe if I got to the gym an hour earlier I could speed up fixing that problem,” she joked.
Don’t bet against her doing whatever it takes to be the best.