One of the better feel-good stories of the 2012-13 MIAA basketball season will live another few days.
Haverhill High has been fledgling the past few years, combining for 13 wins the past three campaigns coming into this season. Even with other-worldly talent Noah Vonleh in the ranks, the Hillies never managed to win more than seven games (Vonleh earned a spot on ESPNBoston.com's All-State Team in 2011, his sophomore year, before moving on to New Hampton and signing with Indiana).
By all accounts, this has been a breakthrough season for the Hillies. They finished 11-9, won the Merrimack Valley Conference's second division outright, earned a No. 14 seed in the MIAA Division 1 North tournament, and saw senior Anthony Dion take home the division's MVP honors.
But tonight's 62-59 upset of No. 3 seed Westford Academy, in tonight's first round action of the Division 1 North tournament, is the piece de resistance. The Hillies maintained the lead for most of the game, but held on for dear life all the while, getting a few crucial free throws late from freshman sensation Saul Phiri to seal it.
"It really goes down to kids we have, and we have some great kids," said coach Mike Trovato, who is enduring his best season in his five-year tenure with Haverhill. "Obviously in games like this, anything can happen. But the focus and effort, it takes certain types of kids to put in the effort like that to beat a top seed.
"The story tonight is how hard the kids fought. We’re undersized against them, and we just made play after play, man. And it was different kids steppping up tonight."
Dion poured in 14 in the win, while fellow seniors Tommy Morgan and Sean Wrenn added 11 and eight, respectively. But it was the young freshman Phiri who put in the most production at the offensive end, leading the way with 19 points. The Grey Ghosts showed zone most of the night, and Phiri broke it from deep, tallying five of the Hillies' nine 3-pointers. The 6-foot-3 guard came into the season with some hype, already being billed as one of the state's top froshes, and he has done little to disappoint. His ceiling is high, and if his freshman campaign is a sign of things to come, the Hillies could be a force the next few years.
"The one thing the kid can do is score points, and everyone knows it," Trovato said. "He's a kid that’s great to coach. If you know my personality, I tend to demand a lot of effort out of our kids, and he's responded. He's young, throughout the year he's gotten better and better."
The Hillies move on to Friday's quarterfinals, where they'll await the winner of tomorrow night's tussle between Somerville and red-hot Lynn English. If the road stops on Friday, the Hillies have at least seen the light, and carry momentum going forward into 2014 and beyond.
"Our goal was to get into the tournament," Trovato said. "We got in and as far as, these things that can turn schools around -- especially public schools, where kids are leaving all the time -- these could be the types of things where kids just turn around and get kids stay, and say 'I want to play for Haverhill High'."