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Basketball

Nerz wraps up stellar career as Cougar star

  • ConVal senior Jess Nerz will go down as one of the greatest girls basketball players in school history.
  • ConVal senior Jess Nerz will go down as one of the greatest girls basketball players in school history.
  • The ConVal girls basketball team picked up a 49-4 win over Manchester West on Dec. 11, 2012 at Great Brook School in Antrim<br/><br/>(Staff photo by Tim Goodwin)
  • The Conant girls basketball team defeated ConVal 46-24 on Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2013.<br/><br/>(Staff photo by Tim Goodwin)
  • The ConVal girls basketball team lost to Hanover 40-26 on Friday, Feb. 1, 2013.<br/><br/>(Staff photo by Tim Goodwin)
  • The ConVal girls basketball team participated in the Keene Holiday Tournament on Dec. 20-22, 2013.
  • The ConVal girls basketball team participated in the Keene Holiday Tournament on Dec. 20-22, 2013.
  • The ConVal girls basketball team lost to Milford 42-32 on Saturday, Jan. 18.
  • The ConVal girls basketball team lost to Milford 42-32 on Saturday, Jan. 18.
  • The ConVal girls basketball team lost to Milford 42-32 on Saturday, Jan. 18.
  • The ConVal girls basketball team lost to Milford 42-32 on Saturday, Jan. 18.
  • The ConVal girls basketball team lost to Milford 42-32 on Saturday, Jan. 18.
  • The ConVal girls basketball team beat Conant 42-30 on Tuesday, Jan. 28 as part of the Hoops for Hope doubleheader.
  • The ConVal girls basketball team beat Conant 42-30 on Tuesday, Jan. 28 as part of the Hoops for Hope doubleheader.
  • The ConVal girls basketball team beat Conant 42-30 on Tuesday, Jan. 28 as part of the Hoops for Hope doubleheader.

For ConVal senior Jess Nerz, communication is key. The four-year varsity athlete is a vocal leader both on and off the court, and for those who’ve seen her leadership in any setting over her high school career, it’s difficult to imagine she’d ever been anything but.

Back in 2011, however, when she had just made the cut for the varsity team in her first year, Nerz stepped onto the practice court intimidated by the older players like Mallory Sirois and Morgan Lowe.

“I remember I was the only freshman on varsity, and I was like 90 pounds and terrified of the seniors,” Nerz said.

As a frightened freshman, Nerz still believed in her game — it had gotten her this far, after all — and even while younger and smaller than her teammates, she still exuded a quiet confidence, to the point that some of the other Cougar girls, like then-sophomore Marena Brock, saw her as arrogant.

“I really tried to not have that freshman cocky attitude,” Nerz said. “I never said a word. I really tried not to.” Nerz found herself needing to prove herself to her elders and her coach to earn some playing time while not coming off as too brash.

It was a pivotal point in her journey — a journey that, of course, had begun much earlier. As a young child, Nerz remembers the seeds of her lifelong love of basketball being sown as she watched, fascinated, as her dad and older sister shot baskets in the driveway.

“It just looked so cool to me,” Nerz said. “People shooting — just the form to get the ball in the hoop was like ‘Oh my God, what is that?’ I just remember going around and dribbling my little ball and I just loved it.”

Nerz’s father, Greg, remembers a tireless Jess shooting for hours on their driveway hoop.

“I never got to shoot!” Greg recalled with a smile. “I was always rebounding for her.”

Jess wore out her share of sneakers and Spaldings as she honed her craft, relentlessly practicing the dribbling moves on her Steve Nash instructional DVD and playing in rec league and AAU against the likes of future high school stars like Katie Chadbourne, Madison Springfield and Nerz’s future ConVal teammate Brock, who was actually one of Nerz’s toughest rivals. The two grew up dueling each other, Nerz on Great Brook’s team and Brock, one year her elder, suiting up for South Meadow.

As Nerz moved up through the ranks, she kept improving, but so did the competition. Nerz still shows some traces of ire as she recalls a road trip tournament loss to a tough Long Island team back in her middle school days.

“You think you’re good around here,” Nerz reflected, “and then you go to Long Island and you realize ‘Oh, I’m not good. I could be so much better.’ So it’s a little humbling to play AAU.”

Nerz kept pushing herself to get better, and by the time she got to that pivotal preseason her freshman year, working to earn her spot on the court, she’d become good enough to step into the lineup.

“I could shoot,” Nerz said, “so they put me in at shooting guard.”

Nerz made a splash instantly, holding on to her starting spot for the entire season, and ingratiating herself to her teammates through her unselfish and outstanding play.

“They were so awesome and they welcomed me in,” Nerz said. “It was really a community, a little family.”

Sophomore year arrived, and with it another transition: ConVal principal Brian Pickering took over the girls basketball program from head coach Kevin Ritter. The change wasn’t much of a shock, as Ritter had spent his college years playing under Pickering at Keene State College (“[Pickering] was like Coach Ritter in 30 years,” Nerz joked), and the new head coach and his hardest-working player quickly developed a rapport.

“She led by example,” Pickering said, “because of her work ethic. She was always the first one in the gym; she was the last one to leave. She was incredibly consistent, that’s one word that jumps into my mind. She probably didn’t always feel 100 percent throughout the four years, but she never missed a practice or a game that I’m aware of. I coached her for three years. Any time we took a day off, she was angry. She wanted to be in the gym, she wanted to get better.”

Nerz remembers that sophomore season as “a lot of fun.” The Cougars won their first game that year on Jan. 6, which happened to be Nerz’s 16th birthday. She celebrated by scoring a then-career high 25 points as she lead ConVal to a big win over Sanborn.

“It was just an all-around good school day and good game,” Nerz said, “and I’ll always remember my 16th birthday as one of the best.”

What was a fun year ended on a bit of a down note, as ConVal missed the postseason. During the offseason, Nerz worked hard to develop her game, and after a sophomore season where she felt “young and small” compared to her competition, she began to come into her own physically and headed into her junior year ready to step into a more dominant role.

“Junior year was when it really picked up the pace and got serious,” Nerz said. She’d developed a great relationship with Brock, now a senior captain, and the two shared a great chemistry on the court. But even as a junior, Nerz had developed into a leader; she was the team’s top scorer for the second straight year and was quite the floor general as well.

“I never realized how much I talk on the court until I watched myself on film,” Nerz said, “like ‘Oh my God, I never shut up!’ Saying like ‘Gotta get back on defense’ and other stuff — which I hope was never taken badly — but I’m just a very vocal player.”

“Jess was always very confident speaking,” Pickering remembered, “whether it be to teammates or to coaches. Specifically with basketball because she put so much time into it, she was very passionate about it.”

The Cougars missed the playoffs once again in the 2012-2013 season, and Nerz went into her senior year with two big milestones ahead of her. With her prodigious scoring output, the 1,000 career point mark seemed within reach; that hallmark would be a lot easier to achieve if ConVal could make the playoffs and extend Nerz’s career for a game or two.

Ever the team player, Nerz asked her coach to keep her in the dark on her career scoring, so as not to distract her from the task at hand — winning games. Still, she felt the pressure of that magic number weighing her down.

“People would ask me, ‘How close are you to 1,000 points?’ and I would say “I don’t know, I can’t think about it, ” Nerz said.

Nerz had a great senior year; she lead the Cougars in their first victory over Conant in recent memory, fought hard in a thrilling triple-overtime loss to Monadnock that Pickering called one of the most intense games he’s ever been a part of, and scored a career-high 31 points in an early-season matchup with Pelham. Along the way, she took firm control of her team as the undisputed senior leader.

“I was a little nervous about it, because for the last three years, I had had Marena as my go-to person, and she was just such a presence and she was such a great captain,” Nerz said. “I really wanted to be able to smoothly fill in that next captain role. I knew there was a lot of expectation and stuff riding on it, but I had coach Pickering constantly telling me “You know what, Jess? Just play your game, just like you’ve done for the last 12 years of your life.’ And once you get into the game and start playing, it’s like all the other stuff just melts away and you’re just playing.”

Pickering couldn’t have asked for more out of a senior captain.

“She pushed people,” Pickering said. “When she didn’t see effort or when she didn’t see people putting in the time, she let them know. That’s just the way she is. I knew that I wanted her to take the lead in certain situations, because the kids looked up to her because she had made herself into a really good player with hard work. There have been more gifted athletes than Jess, there’s been girls that run faster and jump higher, but she maximized her talent. She got the most out of the skills that she had by working incredibly hard at her game. If all of our athletes could put in the hours that she did into her favorite sport we’d be pretty good at a lot of sports because she was really passionate about getting better at her sport.”

As the season progressed, Nerz knew her time as a ConVal player was coming to an end, one way or another; she began working to pass on her years of acquired basketball knowledge by working one-on-one with talented younger players like sophomore Jordan Mills, hoping to pass on her legacy of hard work to future generations of Cougar players.

By the time the home stretch of her senior season arrived, Nerz and the Cougars found themselves on the playoff bubble, needing a win to push themselves into the postseason and give Nerz a chance to score the last 100 or so points she’d need to reach 1,000. But snow days and game postponements forced ConVal to play five games in one week’s time at the end of the season, and the workload took its toll.

‘It was exhausting,” Nerz said. “Playing the whole game for five games within a week was just so hard on my body.” ConVal dropped its final five games and missed the playoffs; Nerz finished her career with 971 points, just short of the 1,000 point mark.

“I didn’t get it, but I know I couldn’t have tried any harder,” Nerz said. “That was a rough week because we were so close in so many ways. Getting even just two more points at Hollis-Brookline and we would have made playoffs. So many what-ifs just didn’t fall into place this season, and you just have to take those bumps in the road when they come.”

Pickering said he was disappointed that ConVal never made the playoffs throughout Nerz’s career.

“I wanted her to have that chance,” Pickering said. “Her falling short of 1,000 points — in four years, she never played in a tournament game. Can you imagine if she played an additional six, eight, ten games, over the course of her four years? She would have eclipsed 1,000 really easily, so that was disappointing. But yet she never let it stop her from getting better. Even in the last couple games, she was working just as hard then as she was two years ago, three years ago, four years ago, knowing that the end of her career was coming, which I think is a real credit to her as a person.”

Nonetheless, Nerz finished her career as the fourth all-time leading girls basketball scorer in ConVal history.

“She’s a top four scorer for girls basketball in the 40-plus year history of ConVal,” Pickering said. “There have only been three girls who scored more points. You think of the hundreds and hundred of girls basketball players that came through and to think that she’s one of the top four, she should be really proud.”

The always level-headed Nerz was understandably disappointed at first about not making it over the 1,000-point threshold, but with a little time came some perspective.

“That will be a cool thing to tell my kids someday,” Nerz said. “‘You see that high school? I was like fourth all-time.’ I wanted to be a scorer, but I didn’t want to be that ballhog. I didn’t want to be that person who every time I got the ball, I would just shoot it because I wanted to get 1,000. If I can be known as a good shooter and a great team player, that’s more important to me than like, my name somewhere.”

Nerz will indeed be known as one of the great shooters and team players in ConVal history, and she’s well aware that her journey was aided by the support system that was in place for her since day one.

“I’m just really thankful for everything that everyone has done for me,” Nerz said, “because you don’t get good at anything without some help along the way — parents, stepparents, coaches.”

Her high school career now over, Nerz will be moving on to the University of Maryland, opting for the “big college experience” over a smaller school where she could have continued to play varsity basketball.

“I didn’t want to wear myself thin or give up grades or the other things that are important in college,” Nerz said, opting instead to focus her singular drive and work ethic on her major. She’ll be pursuing a degree in Hearing and Speech Sciences; as the vocal player she was, she quickly recognized the importance of communication, and when it dawned on her that there are people out there who need help to communicate their thoughts to the world, she knew she wanted to devote herself to a career related to speech pathology.

“If I could help them,” Nerz said, “that’s something that they’ll need for the rest of their lives.”

This selfless attitude comes as no surprise to anyone who’s seen Nerz blossom over her high school career. Few have seen her impact as closely as Pickering; he took over as principal four years ago, and Nerz is one of the shining stars of the first senior class he’s presided over in its entirety.

“She’s one of the students in this class who has led a change in our culture in a good way,” Pickering said. “Our goal at the school has been respect for yourself, respect for your peers, respect for all the adults you work with and respect for our building. We have the four respects. Jess has modeled that. She leads us in more than just basketball — she was also a four-year soccer player. Even though basketball was clearly her favorite, she just contributed to the school in so many ways.”

Nerz was active in the Interact Club, the History Club, and the school’s Revolution and Ethics project, as well as contributing to the community at large by helping out at Sunday School classes at the United Methodist Church in Peterborough.

Even with her focus turned to her college academic career, Nerz still wants to the ConVal community a better place going forward. She wants to make a push for a local travel basketball team to serve the ConVal, Mascenic and Conant communities so that more girls can play travel hoops without the commuting and cost restrictions of playing AAU in places like Nashua or Bedford. And, she hopes to return to ConVal to help out with the basketball team during her winter breaks and summers off from school.

“I think the biggest thing I could leave behind,” Nerz said, “is to have other girls want to play basketball like I did and have it be their sport like it was my sport. To have ConVal be known for that, getting more girls involved, getting more recognition, Mr. Pickering getting more recognition for everything he’s done, and maybe ConVal winning a state championship — if I could be some small part of that it would make me really happy. Being a high school player seemed like the coolest thing in the world, and then working really hard and getting good and having those moments when you’re a high school player and you make a shot and the whole gym cheers for you — there’s no better feeling in the world.”

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