Growing pains, but early returns for Central, O'Brien

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. -– Jack O’Brien won’t sugarcoat the facts. This is a brutal routine for him, even by his own famously hardy standards.

As early as 5:30 a.m. each morning, he rises from his home in Medford and makes the 15-mile commute south across heavy traffic to his job in the Physical Education department at West Roxbury High, a drive that can take up to 45 minutes. From there, he takes off at 1:15 p.m. and makes the 85-mile drive west to Springfield Central High, a commute that can take up to two hours.

There are nights when the Eagles get the gymnasium for a night practice, landing O’Brien home in Medford as late as midnight, only to get up in five hours to do it all over again.

“It’s not easy, but I want to be here, so I’ve got to do it,” O’Brien said Wednesday night, following his first game back on the sidelines since leaving his storied post at Charlestown in 2006, a 69-47 win over Amherst. “You do what you gotta do. You made a commitment, what else can you do? You either do it, or you don’t do it, or you feel bad for yourself –- and you can’t do that.

“You know, one of my kids needs a ride home right now, so I’m going to give him a ride home and go out of my way [before going home]. I told the kids, this is what I’m going to do, this is the way I’m going to treat you.”

After winning an MIAA Division 2 state championship in 1990 with McDonald’s All-American Rick Brunson at point guard, O’Brien came over to Charlestown in 1993 and built a program that was nothing short of spectacular. The Townies went on a run at the turn of the Millennium that may never be duplicated in the MIAA, winning five Division 2 state titles in a span from 1999 to 2005. Arguably his best squad, in 2001-02, finished No. 16 in USA Today’s national poll and featured seven players that went on to earn Division 1 scholarships. His final state championship season of 2004-05 was chronicled by Boston Globe writer Neil Swidey in a book, “The Assist”.

O’Brien left Charlestown in 2006 to take over at Lynn English; hours before the start of the first practice, however, he suddenly resigned. After sitting in the shadows, watching his disciple Hugh Coleman coach Brighton High to a first-ever D2 state title a season ago, O’Brien had to venture west to get back in the game after coming up short in several bids for openings in the Boston area. O’Brien accepted the Central job this past September.

Is this the most desirable way to get back into the game? Adding 200-plus miles on the odometer every day? No.

But truth is, this was too good of an opportunity to pass up.

People forget, before the magical run of the early 2000’s, this was not a very good Charlestown program. The Townies won just one game in his first season. The same can’t be said about the Golden Eagles, who two seasons ago captured their first Division 1 state title in 21 years, then last year followed up with a Division 1 West Final appearance.

Cousins Cody and Ju’an Williams are two All-State football stars who bring gridiron toughness to the backcourt (Cody, a Monmouth-bound quarterback, was named ESPN Boston’s Offensive Player of the Year), a crossover O’Brien didn't always have at previous stops. The gem of the bunch may be 6-foot-8 junior Chris Baldwin, considered one of the top power forwards across Massachusetts, who flashes elite brilliance in between moments of inconsistency.

“He’s just trying to feel his way right now,” O’Brien said of Baldwin. “The biggest thing right now is getting him to play hard. We’re pressing, we’re running him around, and I thought he did a pretty good job tonight. I thought he had good moments.

“He showed some good things, but we’ve got to do a better job of getting him the ball, too. That zone [from Amherst] kinda clogged him up a little, so it’s hard. It’s early, but so far he’s had some good moments on defense, blocked shots, and he’s kind of unselfish too.”

Against visiting Amherst last night, the Golden Eagles wore down the Hurricanes in a fashion that had blueprints of those fabled Charlestown squads all over it. After trailing in the first quarter, and leading by three at halftime, they outscored the Hurricanes 39-20 to blow the doors off.

Seven minutes into the contest, 11 players had already gotten into the game, often rotating in players three or four at a time. They pressed like crazy, most notably executing a “Diamond Trap” that made getting the ball over halfcourt an adventure at times. They caused two dozen turnovers, in part a function of the 25 deflections they recorded.

“You really don’t have a man, it’s more of a zone. And we don’t trap a pass, we trap a dribble,” Cody Williams said of the press. “We’ve been at this for three weeks, and I’d say after about two weeks we got a feeling for it.”

For the most part, despite what the final score indicated, scoring points was an adventure, particularly in the half-court. But of the 47 rebounds they hauled down, 31 of them were offensive, leading to many second-chance points. Even the lumbering Baldwin took a charge, in his own end.

O’Brien said the press was “not even close to where it should be right now”, but was pleased with the Eagles’ effort in the win. Asked to reflect on his first experience back in a game in seven years, he was deferential, saying, “Honestly, I like the practices better than the games. That’s where you teach the kids.”

Those practices appear to be pretty intense.

“High energy,” Cody Wiliams said of the new culture under O’Brien. “High energy, and very serious and blunt about things. It’s his way and it’s our way, or no way.”

Conditioning is a paramount emphasis in practices, where O’Brien has built a culture of high expectations. Competition between players is fierce, but they find out daily about the quick hook of O’Brien, who is unafraid to boot someone out.

“For instance, he said ‘Don’t bounce pass’ to someone, kid bounce passes and Jack says ‘You’ve got one more time to bounce pass and you’re out of the gym’. Kid bounced passed, [Jack] kicked him out the door,” Cody explained. “That’s it. He came back, but obviously he missed that day.”

Intimidating environment, eh?

“Hell yeah,” Cody laughed. “You don’t want to be that kid. You want to give it all. He expects it out of you, so you better give it back to him.”

There’s a lot to like down the road with these kids, a loose bunch that can string together some electric fast break plays, with players like junior Terrel Morse, Isaiah Pizzaro, Rashyne Prophet and James McMillian. It’s a daily grind, but one the folks on Roosevelt Ave have embraced.

That doesn’t make O’Brien’s daily travel any easier. But it’s certainly rewarding.

“Honestly, I do the best I can. I’m not going to say it’s easy. I’m gonna tell you it’s hard,” O’Brien said. “But tonight feels good, though.”