Explosive breakthrough for Bardwell at North Andover

He’s gone from bench-warmer to one of the MIAA’s biggest stars.

It’s been a long journey for Chris Bardwell, but with his North Andover squad playing on Saturday against Brighton for the Division 2 North title, his long road has seen some late success.

Bardwell was a little-used reserve on Central Catholic’s hoops team last year as a junior, a team that lost to Charlestown in the Division 1 North semi-final. After a similar type of season on the baseball diamond, for a team that went 10-10 and got bounced in the first round of the tournament, Bardwell and his father began talking about the decision to transfer.

“It was tough to make the decision to leave, one that I needed to put a lot of thought into,” he said. “I loved Central academically, but I thought I could have played more and could have gotten more of a chance.”

Last summer, Bardwell and his father ultimately made the decision for Chris to transfer to North Andover. Their hope was that Chris would have the opportunity to start for the Knight’s hoops team, as well as he and his high-80’s fastball be a regular in the baseball team’s starting rotation.

The move resulted in the biggest surprise story in the state this season—Bardwell and captain Isaiah Nelsen have combined to form one of the state’s best frontcourt duos. After a summer spent in the weightroom, going to open gyms with his North Andover teammates, and throwing bullpens to prepare for the spring, he reflected on what made him put the extra time in.

“It definitely motivated me. I thought to myself: ‘I’m transferring, why not motivate myself and make something of myself’,” Bardwell said. “Summer, it was all basketball. We just kept playing pickup, it was awesome, we always got after it.”

The biggest challenge though, was ensuring that chemistry was developed between longtime North Andover coach Mike McVeigh and his new forward with the fiery personality. McVeigh admits it was a struggle at the beginning.

“The 31-year coach and the new kid to the program, that was the thing in December. We had to learn a little about each other. I’ll tell you right now, we’re pretty good, but we’re not perfect in terms of agreeing with everything,” McVeigh joked, just before Bardwell slammed the hallway door open -— screaming and shouting in celebration of beating Wakefield and qualifying for the Division 2 North title game.

“It was really tough, I didn’t really know him as a person,” Bardwell said. “Over the year we found each other’s personalities. It was easier during practice and everything. Off the court too, us getting to know each other helped us.”

The Knights haven’t lost too often this season, with their only losses coming to archrival Andover (twice), Westford Academy, and to Central Catholic -— in Bardwell’s first game back in Lawrence at his old school.

“Yeah it was tough, but it was awesome at the same time. I saw all the people I know and used to go to school with,” he said.

Before going into the locker room to prepare for the game, he spent time talking to former classmates, shaking hands of parents, and taking in the place that he used to call home. He of course anticipated the ribbing and taunting he took from some in the Central cheering section.

“Oh yeah I was expecting that, but it helped me,” he said.

Chris was the only consistent player on the floor for the Knights that evening, finishing with 19 points and 12 rebounds in a losing effort. It came just three days after his best game of the season—a blowout win over Andover where he scored 34 points. After the Central game, his former coach, Rick Nault, praised Bardwell on his improvement.

“That kid kills us man, he really does. I love the kid, I really, really do. I wish he was here and I miss him dearly. He has turned into one of the best players in the state,” Nault said. “You’ve got to give him all the credit. I’m glad he’s having success, we don’t want him to have success against us, but he’s having a tremendous year.”

Bardwell paid thanks to Nault, acknowledging that Central’s coach motivated him and taught him how to work hard.

“We’re still good now, we still talk," Bardwell said of Nault. "He’s been a great guy and a great mentor for me. Coach Nault changed me as a player, he made me so much smarter playing the game.”

A little over a week after North Andover lost the game to Central, he was named Merrimack Valley Conference MVP after averaging around 20 points per game in the regular season. Bardwell, though, chose to shift the attention onto his team as a whole.

“I didn’t expect this to happen, but, except for Izzy [Isaiah Nelsen], I’ve been playing with these kids my whole life," he said. "I’ve been playing with all of them. For us to make it this far, and we’re going to keep going far, it’s just been awesome. Right when I started off here they accepted me and I know they wanted me to figure out my role, and I found my role.”

He’s been the guy who does the dirty work, who attacks the rim, and does his duty to make sure that North Andover never gets outrebounded. Sometimes, McVeigh said, Bardwell’s role even involves calming down his coach.

“He was very jumpy early [in the season] and I would have to get him to calm down, and last Sunday against Concord-Carlisle I think the one who was the jumpiest was me,” McVeigh said with a laugh. “And Bardwell’s calming me down! How do you like that for a transformation?”

His plan at this point is to attend a prep school next year where he can do a postgraduate year, mainly so that he can have the opportunity to take another year to sharpen his skills on the mound. Despite that though, don’t expect him to pick a favorite sport anytime soon.

“I’m looking forward for the snow to stop and I’m really looking forward for baseball," he said. "But I’m pumped right now that we’re this far. I really, really want to go to states.”