History will show Merrimack High survived the 16-team Division I boys' basketball bracket to win the 2011-12 tournament title as a 7-seed.
But these Tomahawks were hardly a Cinderella squad.
“We knew we were better than a 7-seed,” said coach Tim Goodridge, whose team overcame a season-long rash of injuries to key contributors, and rattled off four postseason wins, the last one a 65-56 decision over No. 4 seed Manchester Central High that clinched the state crown March 17.
Goodridge's group was a preseason pick to reach the University of New Hampshire's Lundholm Gym for the Final Four. Cutting down the nets was a distinct possibility.
Yet the injury bug bit early –- and often. Kyle Richardson, the 6-foot 4-inch starting center, suffered a nasty knee injury in the preseason.
Dimitri Floras, early on offered a scholarship by UNH, missed a bulk of the regular season. The star junior broke his right wrist in late-January. Days later, 6-foot-3 senior Jared Peabody was sidelined with arm trouble.
Football standout Jackson King, a suffocating defender for the hoop team, also dealt with a freak injury. The senior, landing awkwardly after making a game-winning block in mid-February, broke his wrist. Classmate Bryan Courtemanche suffered a concussion.
“It felt like I was running a M.A.S.H. Unit for a while,” said Goodridge, who led Merrimack to its third Division I title this millennium, and first crown since 2004. “The last game was probably the first time we had everyone in uniform – and we had no excuses.”
Floras was a definite difference-maker. He made a cameo just before the tourney, but tweaked his ankle in the regular season's final week. Goodridge opted to sit Merrimack's maestro until “win or go home” became the slogan for every squad.
Goodridge made a good call.
The 6-foot-2 star scored 76 points in tourney wins over defending champ and 10-seed Bishop Guertin High of Nashua (62-51 overtime), 15-seed and surprise quarterfinalist Dover High (74-54), 6-seed Spaulding High of Rochester (53-39), and Central.
Merrimack's resilience, however, was truly tested during the regular season. Out of necessity, roles changed.
As a result, though, lesser-known talents were called upon to play key minutes. Dylan O'Brien, Brad Jarry, Connor Whelan and, before his concussion, Courtemanche took advantage of the opportunity.
Meanwhile, Jeff Giannelli, a towering 6-foot-7 presence in the post, and brothers Tyler and Eric Gendron assumed additional responsibilities.
The trio didn't disappoint, particularly Tyler, a 6-foot-5 senior, who filled in at point guard, and continued to score when needed. Gatorade, in turn, named him the Granite State's Player of the Year.
“I'm going to really miss this group. Eight seniors, 15 on the roster,” Goodridge said. “For them to adapt all season long was tremendous.”
TITLE NO. 18
The best part about a season concluding? Coaches whose teams win a title finally tell you what they really think.
Take Jim Mulvey, Portsmouth High's six-year coach. His second-seeded Clippers overwhelmed 5-seed Bedford High, 58-33, for the Division II boys' basketball title March 17 at UNH.
“I always told them we were the best team. We were the hardest working team,” said Mulvey, whose star senior guard Kamahl Walker, erupted for 22 points, six steals, four rebounds and three assists. “Pressure usually gets to you, when you get to Durham, if you're not prepared. We were prepared.”
Portsmouth's 25-point pasting earned the program its 18th state title dating to 1923. The championship erased back-to-back frustrating finishes for the team's 11 players, seven of whom were seniors.
A year earlier, Portsmouth lost the final by six points to defending champion Milford High. Two years earlier, the Clippers were KO'd by those same Spartans in overtime of the semifinals.
Fair to say Portsmouth (20-2 Div. II) was motivated?
“From Day 1,” the Clippers coach said. “It's much easier to win with seniors. They're more prepared. They understand it. They get it.”
Mulvey said his team really hit high gear midway through the season. Kyle DiCesare, also a standout football player, returned from a broken ankle that sidelined him in the fall.
DiCesare's return gave Portsmouth yet another offensive weapon, and further strengthened a defense that rarely allowed easy buckets.
Undersized big men Charlie Duprey (6-foot-4) and Gregg Tsougranis (6-foot-2) stood tall, especially in the final. Portsmouth's “bigs,” plus DiCesare at 6-foot-2, matched up with Bedford's giant front line.
The Bulldogs boasted three players at least two inches taller than Duprey: Colin McManus (6-foot-10), Trevor Fahmy (6-foot-8) and Roger Larrivee (6-foot-6).
The mismatch never materialized.
“This team felt so much like 2009 to me,” said Mulvey, referring to Portsmouth's previous title-winning team. “It just came together. It felt right. Unselfishness and commitment from all the kids. You just knew the kids were in it for one reason.”
Marc Thaler is a reporter for the New Hampshire Union Leader & Sunday News. He co-hosts the “N.H. High School Sports Show” on Manchester's WGIR-AM 610 and the Seacoast's 96.7 FM every Saturday from 7-9 a.m. Read his “New Hampshire GameDay” blog and follow him on Twitter: @marc_thaler.