Heading into the 2010-2011 Division 2 Girls' Basketball State Tournament Wednesday night at home against Somerset, the sixth seeded Oliver Ames girls' basketball team is streaking. Having won eight straight games, including and in the last three games, the defending champion Tigers are poised to make a run at another state title.
This year's squad has been defined by its hustle, gutsy play and defense - a style that won't succeed without a high energy, passionate group of players.
And, for their inspiration, the Tigers don't need to look far.
Erin Malony, the team's water girl has been amping the team up for each and every game for the past three years. An student, Erin has down syndrome. Her special needs, though, have not stopped her from becoming an integral part of the Tigers' dynamic.
Erin took on the job before the 2008-2009 season. She wanted to play for the team, her mother, Rose, said. Because of her special needs, though, she got on board as the water girl.
"I wanted them to win the state championship," she said when asked why she wanted to become a part of the team.
The water girl didn't have to wait long.
Last year, Elaine Clement-Holbrook's squad marched through the regular season and postseason on their way to a state championship at the DCU Center in Worcester. Clement-Holbrook credited Erin for much of the team's success.
"She's been like our good luck charm," the coach said.
Erin plays several sports herself. On Saturdays she is in a candlepin bowling league in Brockton. She plays basketball and baseball in special needs leagues. She is also on a Special Olympic softball team and enjoys golfing with her family.
For Oliver Ames, Erin's duties don't just include distributing water. Before every game, the coach asks her for advice. Clement-Holbrook will often be told to watch out for a certain player or play a certain way. As the team comes out of the locker-room she gives high-fives to all of the players. The water girl said she is close with junior forward Candace Steadman and senior guard Jocelyn Paul.
Erin's mother, Rose, said she is very knowledgeable about the game - and has become very well-versed in basketball statistics. She is a die-hard NBA fan - especially when it comes to the Boston Celtics.
"If you ask her about a certain team, she could probably tell you how good they are and name a lot of the players," Rose said. "Every morning, the first thing she does is check stats on her iPad."
Rose said Erin was upset last week when Celtics center Kendrick Perkins was traded to the Oklahoma City Thunder, and if she could have her way she'd be an announcer or a referee. Last Halloween she dressed as a referee at a Special Needs Halloween Party.
Erin knows, though, that there is more to the game than just statistics. Poise, mental focus and energy are key factors. Erin's enthusiasm is never lost on the team when the players take the floor to begin the game, Clement-Holbrook said.
"I want them to win again, and I want them to concentrate with the ball," she said when asked what it will take for this year's team to repeat as state champions.
The water girl may be right. While this year's squad is filled with talent, youth and inexperience may be its biggest obstacle.
Erin, though, has been there before. And, as far as obstacles go, Erin has found a way to overcome many.
"We are so very proud of Erin and wish only the best for her and to have as few obstacles as possible in life," Rose said.