GROTON -- Athletes can leave their mark on programs by littering record books with their names and accomplishing things rarely seen. Then there are athletes who do all of that while also leaving a lasting impression not only as a player but as a person.
Bring up the name Rachel McCarron to an opposing coach that had to game-plan to stop her and chances are they will be happy to see her go. Say that same name at Groton-Dunstable and people will talk about how no one wants her to leave.
Over the past four years, McCarron has left a legacy that few in the school's history can match. While her career numbers are outstanding, they do not tell the whole story. McCarron has played the game with passion, honor and a grace few possess, but it is the way she has carried herself that has made her revered by friends and foes alike. Her four-year varsity career was a chronicle in how hard work and dedication can turn a fresh faced freshman into a senior superstar.
As a freshman, McCarron joined a team that had enjoyed the best three-year run in school history. Three consecutive District title game appearances and a solid returning class made the Lady Crusaders one of the favorites in Division II coming into the 2009-10 season. In addition to the talent returning, Coach Mark Hennelly knew that McCarron was going to be a key contributor.
"We had a really talented team that year with Heather Moody, Kasey Pelletier and Kat Falco as our senior leaders," said Hennelly. "You could tell right away that Rachel was going to be special. She was one of the most athletic players I had ever had as a freshman and her success would be dictated on how quickly she picked up our system."
After spending half of the season as the first player off the bench, McCarron finally forced Hennelly's hand. "As the season went on, Rachel earned more playing time, and I eventually decided to move her into the starting lineup," said Hennelly. "Her role was much different back then, where I wanted her to concentrate more on rebounding, but you could see she had the ability to score, especially in one-on-one situations."
Going into the postseason of her freshman season, McCarron had yet to hit double digits in points in any game. She took care of that in the opener against Auburn, scoring a team-high 13 points in a victory. McCarron followed that up with 12 points, including 10 in the decisive third quarter of a road-win over Oakmont to set up a semifinal showdown against St. Bernard's.
"I remember bits and pieces of the first of the Auburn and Oakmont games and know she was a major reason we moved on," said Hennelly. "But the St. Bernard's game sticks out in my mind as her coming-out party because she did a little bit of everything."
To be honest, it seemed like the semifinals were going to be as far as Groton-Dunstable was going to go. Twice they had played the Lady Bernardians in the regular season and twice they were defeated handedly. But that Sunday night at WPI was different, and McCarron was in the middle of it all.
"She scored eight points, which was big in and of itself, but it was her rebounding that was the key," said Hennelly. "It seemed like possession after possession Rachel would come up with a big offensive rebound to keep us alive. We won 50-49 and could not have done it without her consistent effort on the boards."
While the season would come to an end at the hands of Millbury in the District final, the transition from middle to school to high school basketball went smoothly for McCarron.
"I was very excited to be able to play on a team with girls like Heather, Kasey and Kat because I always watched their games in middle school, so being able to play with them was a great experience," said McCarron. "All of the seniors were so helpful and made me feel like a part of the team right away. I never felt out of place, and I was happy that my teammates and coach had enough faith in me to allow me to contribute to the success of the team."
If her freshman year was a slow buildup to become a consistent scorer, she announced her presence quickly her sophomore year. After opening with a 13-point effort against Central Springfield, McCarron went for a season-high 21 points in a 50-46 win over a Tyngsboro team on the cusp of becoming dominant.
"Rachel took ownership of being the offensive leader her sophomore year and her game really grew over the previous summer," said Hennelly. "I could tell she was in for a big year and that Tyngsboro game really showed what she was capable of as a scorer. She went 9-for-12 from the field and scored in a variety of ways and she closed the game out with nine of her 21 in the final quarter. It came against a quality opponent that was young, talented and went onto the State Final the next year."
Later in the season, McCarron would match that season-high in a game surrounded by awkward circumstances. A scheduling issue caused a game at Westboro to be moved to a 10:30 a.m. start on a Saturday morning. This was on the heels of a 7 p.m. Friday night game in Quabbin in which the Lady Crusaders had squeaked out a 52-49 win. In what proved to be the only morning game of her career, McCarron single-handedly kept her team in the game.
"It was a real strange feeling tipping off so early and we kind of all slept-walked through that game with the exception of Rachel," said Hennelly. "She scored 21 of our 37 points and grabbed 18 of our 36 rebounds. We lost by 15, but I couldn't even imagine what it would have been like without her effort that day."
Another person who was aware of the effort put forth by McCarron that day and every time they met is Westboro coach Scott Kittredge.
"It's pretty simple really when it comes down to Rachel," said Kittredge. "We tried to cover her with at least a person and a half at all times, if not a full double team, and she still got 20-plus points every time we played her. In my opinion, Rachel is one of the most complete offensive players in Central Massachusetts."
While her role expanded as a scorer, McCarron proved that she was multidimensional.
Not only did she lead the team in points as a sophomore, but she also led Groton-Dunstable in rebounds and steals while shooting 50.5 percent from the field.
This all-around effort led to the first of many honors to come when McCarron was named Mid-Wach B Most Valuable Player.
"I really wasn't expecting that at all," said McCarron. "It was a great honor to be named MVP."
For McCarron and the Lady Crusaders, the 2011-12 season didn't start as planned.
They dropped their first three games en route to a 3-5 start entering a must-win game against North Middlesex. Earlier in the season, the Lady Patriots had pulled out a miraculous 49-46 overtime win in the Pete Trainor Memorial Tournament.
In the re-match, Groton-Dunstable relied on McCarron to produce and, as usual, she did.
"We had some high expectations coming into the season, but we didn't get off to the start we had hoped for and this was a huge game," said Hennelly. "Rachel went for 16 points, using a nice inside-outside game and also controlled the boards, grabbing 13 rebounds. With the win, we got to 4-5 and it prevented us from falling to 0-2 in league, which would have been a killer."
After falling to Nashoba to go to 1-2 in Mid-Wach B, the Lady Crusaders faced another big test, having to hit the road to take on Westboro.
History had not been kind to Groton-Dunstable when traveling to take on the Lady Rangers, but they came away with a 49-38 win that kickstarted a 9-1 run to close the regular season.
"I believe in my 11 years as the head coach, we have won in Westboro maybe three times, and this was probably the biggest one," said Hennelly. "We fell behind by seven after a quarter, but Rachel didn't panic. We got 16 points, 12 rebounds and five steals from her and got a win that got something started for us a team."
The Lady Crusaders got a chance at revenge against Nashoba two weeks later in a game they had to win to keep hope alive for the Mid-Wach B crown. At 15-0 and owners of an easier-than-it-looked 64-42 win in the first meeting, the Lady Chieftains were huge favorites, but McCarron saved her best game of the season for when her team needed it the most.
"Rachel was all over the place that night and scored a season-high 24 points," said Hennelly. "It was one of the most well-rounded offensive efforts I have ever seen as a coach. She hit jumpers, drove to the basket, got to the line and hit tough shot after tough shot. It was a big-pressure game and she was completely fearless. Every time they hit a shot she had an answer, and she carried us down the stretch. Because of this game, we were able to come away co-league champions."
For McCarron, it was, as it always is, about the team. "I remember our team worked extra hard at the practices leading up to that game because we wanted to beat them so badly," said McCarron. "We were all so determined to win and our energy and excitement pumping each other is the main reason we won that game."
It is also a game that Nashoba coach Beth McNamara remembers, along with many others against McCarron. "Rachel is tough to guard because she is such a complete player," said McNamara. "She can shoot the three, take it to hoop and post up, which makes her tough to stop."
Late in the season, McCarron did face some adversity as a bad ankle kept her out of a game, but she gutted it out and closed the season with three big performances.
"Her ankle was really bothering her, but with the season coming to the end, she played through it and played well," said Hennelly. "Rachel had 13 in a six-point win against NDA of Worcester and then came up with 19 and nine in a one-point win at Bishop Fenwick. We got into the Districts and fell to Oakmont, but Rachel was great once again with 18 and nine. It just shows her heart and why she was named Mid-Wach B MVP for a second season in a row."
The payoff for McCarron's hard work came in-between her junior and senior seasons. After extensive talks, McCarron signed a letter of intent to attend UMass-Lowell in the fall of 2013, easing some pressure that might have been felt going into her senior season.
"Knowing where I would be playing next year definitely took a lot of pressure off me going into my senior season," said McCarron. "Stressing about college would have distracted me throughout the season, so I'm glad I did not have to worry about something like that. It all worked out very well."
With a college choice out of the way, McCarron was free to focus completely on basketball, and it led to one of the best seasons in the history of Groton-Dunstable.
It is tough to imagine that a reigning two-time MVP can get much better, but McCarron did, and it is something she attributes to a summer of playing top-notch competition.
"During the off-season, I played for the Rivals AAU team, which was a great experience," said McCarron. "It allowed me to play with and against many Division I players, which helped improve my game drastically."
Going into the season, Hennelly knew that he needed more out of McCarron. "We had lost a lot of points from the previous year and I wanted Rachel to shoulder the load offensively," said Hennelly. "The girls all knew that in order for us to be successful, Rachel was going to be the go-to player. I expected her to have a good year, but her output against the consistent double- and triple-teams even surprised me."
While sometimes a situation where one girl is keyed can become an issue, the Lady Crusaders embraced it. "Rachel is the most unselfish person I have ever played with," said Groton-Dunstable tri-captain Cate Cullen. "I've been on her team since the third grade and she has never once boasted about her natural talent. She has always only cared about the team even as her personal successes have accumulated."
For McCarron, she was ready to take on the leadership role and be counted upon the key to the offense.
"It wasn't too much pressure for me because I had played with these girls for a number of years, so I knew we would play together as a team," said McCarron. "The girls supported me from the start and that meant a lot."
It was obvious from the start of the season to Hennelly that McCarron was in for big things. "We opened with Shrewsbury, who is a quality Division I squad, and they threw just about every type of defense at Rachel that could be imagined," said Hennelly. "She handled it well and put up 16 points to go with 17 rebounds and six steals, and you could see that she was prepared for what she was going to face all year long."
McCarron saved her best for Quabbin, who she terrorized in their two meetings. At Groton-Dunstable, she put up a career-high 30 points to go with 19 rebounds in a 56-31 win.
On the road against the Lady Panthers, McCarron scored 28 points to go with nine boards in a 52-34 victory.
"I am pretty sure that Quabbin might have created new defenses to try to contain Rachel," said Hennelly. "They threw players at her from all kinds of angles. She would be doubled- and sometimes triple-teamed. Occasionally they would even sink the entire zone in her area, but it wouldn't matter. In the two games, Rachel was 19 of 30 from the floor and 17 of 19 from the line. It was two of the best games she has put together in her career and it was impressive to watch."
On the other side of those two games was Quabbin coach Gene Rich, who tried everything to keep McCarron in check. "Rachel has a very high basketball IQ to go along with her skill set," said Rich. "She is a very tough cover. If you put a bigger defender on her, then she can beat them off the dribble. If you put a smaller defender on her, she will post them up. Rachel is really good at recognizing what the situation is calling for and then taking advantage of it."
Midway through the season, the Lady Crusaders almost pulled off an upset at home against state finalist Nashoba.
Groton-Dunstable held a three-point halftime lead before falling late. McCarron was the key again with another big night against the Lady Chieftains.
"We put together a pretty solid effort against a great team and Rachel was at her best in this game," said Hennelly. "She had 15 of our 25 first-half points and put us in the lead and finished with 25 and 10. Throughout the game she was constantly matched up against all-stars, but found ways to score."
All of the hard work led up to Monday, Feb. 18, in a game versus St. Bernard's. McCarron entered the contest needing just four points to become the second female to score 1,000 points in school history. She didn't wait long to do it, sinking a free-throw in the first quarter to push herself into four-digit territory as part of a 27-point, 13-rebound effort on the night.
"It was a big night overall because we needed to win to keep our playoff hopes alive, and Rachel was chasing history," said Hennelly. "While it was disappointing not to get the win, it in no way takes away what Rachel accomplished. What impressed me the most about Rachel, was how unfazed she was by the moment.
She got to 1,000, celebrated and then was able to focus on the task at hand and had one of the best games of the season."
In a career of many accomplishments, this one was the biggest for McCarron.
"It was overwhelming because it was a dream of mine for such a long time and having it come true felt so amazing," said McCarron. "Also, the amount of support for me at the game was incredible and it made that moment even more special. It was a night I'll never forget."
Providing support as they had all career long were McCarron's parents, who had been there for every game over the past four years. "My husband and I enjoyed every minute of watching Rachel play at the varsity level," said Rachel's mother Maureen.
"When it came to her 1,000th-point night, we were excited for her because it was a goal she set for herself and we knew that she worked very hard to reach it. What we couldn't have imagined is the amount of support that she got not only from friends and family but also the school and community. It was really heartwarming."
One of the most enduring memories of the evening was the way that McCarron's teammates celebrated the moment with her. "Such a great accomplishment could not have been earned by a more deserving person," said Cullen. "Her positive attitude and hilarious personality made it so every single person on our team was genuinely thrilled to see her get this achievement."
McCarron's march to history also drew crowds, the size of which the Lady Crusaders had rarely ever seen. It seemed that the entire school and community were drawn to the team and McCarron as she went for 1,000 points.
Among the near-capacity crowd that Monday night was Groton-Dunstable's Michael Mastrullo.
"Rachel has been a joy to watch on the basketball court and she plays with a toughness and intensity that truly belies the sweet and kind persona that she is very well known for," said Mastrullo.
"I thought the team's reaction to her 1,000th point is not only a testament to the character of her and her teammates, but it also speaks volumes about how her teammates view her as a captain and a person. Rachel embodies all that is great about team sports and individual achievements. We wish her well, but will miss watching her play."
Athletic Director Mike McCaffrey also has nothing but praise to heap upon McCarron as a player and a person. "When thinking about Rachel, I can easily associate the following words: selfless, hardworking, focused, determined, humble and gracious," said McCaffrey. "Her attitude towards life is reflected in her demeanor on the basketball court, which bodes well for her once she moves on from Groton-Dunstable."
The numbers and accolades that McCarron has piled up for the Lady Crusaders are outstanding: three-time All-Star; three-time MVP; 1,044 points; 669 rebounds; honoree in Girls and Women in Sports Night; but Hennelly stands firm in his belief that while McCarron's numbers are impressive, McCarron the person is even better.
"I truly enjoy when good things happen to good people and her milestones and accomplishments are proof of that," said Hennelly. "Not once did Rachel try to make this about herself. On the night she scored her 1,000th point, she made sure that everyone was involved. Rachel wanted it to be a team celebration and not just about her. That just shows how amazing she is as a person. And her teammates wanted this for her just as badly as she wanted it. There was never any jealousy; they invested in this process, which shows how much respect they had for her."
A lot of people have helped McCarron both on the court and off in becoming the player and person she has become.
"I have had a lot of great coaches throughout my years of playing that have helped me become the player I am today," said McCarron. "I've been lucky enough to have Coach Hennelly as a coach and guidance counselor for the past four years, and he helped my game and confidence as a player. Also, my AAU coach Scott Hazelton has helped prepare me for the collegiate level.
"My parents have been extremely supportive of me. I appreciate everything from my dad videotaping all of my games, allowing me to improve my game, to all of the out-of-state travel they've done with me for my AAU team. I could not have done it without their love and support every step of the way. I'm looking forward to playing the next four years for Coach Sarah Behn at UMass-Lowell but will never forget my time at Groton-Dunstable."
The problem with high school careers is that they eventually have to come to an end.
While McCarron has provided a number of great memories for fans, teammates and coaches, her time on the courts for the Lady Crusaders is done.
And while she will never suit up again, her legacy will live on as a great person and one of the greatest players in Groton-Dunstable history.