ROCKLAND, Mass. -- Like any high school gym, the one at Rockland High is adorned with banners detailing the
school's athletic achievements. The boys basketball one hanging adjacent to mid-court begins to tell the story of why much was expected of the Bulldogs this season.
The 26 league titles listed on the banner are a glimpse at the program's sustained success, and that winning tradition meant Rockland's sights were set high as ever this season, even if this could've been an easy year to temper their lofty goals.
Tyler Gibson, a freshman for Bentley University, graduated last spring from Rockland as perhaps the most decorated player in school history. He averaged more than 21 points and 15 rebounds per game. Gibson anchored a stingy Rockland defense, blocking nearly five shots per contest.
After leading the Bulldogs to a South Shore League title, the post season honors poured in; he was selected SSL MVP, was tabbed for ESPN Boston's All-Defensive and Super Teams. His impressive resume added an exclamation point in the form of being named the 2012-2013 Massachusetts Gatorade Player of the Year.
Rockland also graduated stand-out point guard Bryan Tavares, a two-time league all star who is in the middle of a post-grad year at Lee Academy (Maine).
If losing two starters of that caliber wasn't tough enough, the Bulldogs were dealt an unexpected blow before their season even began. Junior Joey Reardon, a key to last year's defense nearly as important as Gibson, was lost for the year on Thanksgiving day. Playing quarterback for the Dogs' football team, he separated his shoulder, tearing his labrum in the process. Just like that, Rockland was tasked with replacing it's best on-ball defender in recent memory.
Three pistons of the engine gone, but Rockland continued to motor on this season, going 15-5 and even improving their league record by one game despite finishing second to Cohasset.
"We don't the word rebuild in this program," said Bulldogs coach Fred Damon. "We use the word reload. We get new people in and we know we have a job to do.
Historically the Bulldogs have held true to that, and when they host Dennis-Yarmouth to open the South Sectional on Tuesday night, it will mark the 43rd time in 46 ears that Rockland has qualified for the tournament.
Legendary coach Bob Fisher crafted the impressive winning tradition and Steve Sangster and Tom Bailey kept it alive during a few years away from the sidelines for the Hall of Famer. For the last 10 years, Damon -- coach for 137 wins in that time -- has overseen the continued success of Rockland basketball.
Just how has Rockland withstood the test of time, the changing of the coaching guard and the inevitable replacing of high school athletes?
One reason is simply the culture that the winning tradition has created throughout the program and the town.
"The history here means growing up in town, you better know about Rockland basketball," said Damon. "Everybody who plays here knows what's come before them and knows what is expected around here."
For this year's version of the Bulldogs, they grew up watching one of Rockland's most impressive decades. The Dogs rattled off nine straight league titles from 1997-2004. For many of the players, Joe Coppens, one of just five 1,000-point scorers in school history, be a me more than just a basketball player when he led the way during a state championship run in 2004.
"I went to every game during the state championship year, and that just made me want to play here," said senior captain Matt Nicholson, who has averaged better than 20 points per game this year. "Joe was my role model growing up. He rolled his ankle in the state title game and still scored 30 that night. After that game, I dreamed of wearing a Bulldogs uniform."
Long before Nicholson idolized Coppens, his hero had heroes of his own.
"Growing up in Rockland, sports in general were huge, but especially basketball and football," said Coppens, who's now an assistant at Brandeis. "Back then, we looked at the varsity athletes like they were celebrities. I couldn't wait to be on that team and to be one of those guys."
The town itself -- an old mill town that saw jobs shift away from the factories, when cheap labor was procured overseas -- is another reason the Bulldogs have been one of the prominent programs on the South Shore generation after generation.
"It's a hard-working, blue collar town and you have a lot of hard-working, blue collar people in it," Coppens said. "Fortunately or unfortunately, however you want to look at it, those same people are the ones coaching the youth programs and high school programs. In Rockland you grow up with coaches who aren't afraid to get in your face and be honest with you. You were either tough, or you became tough."
Added Damon: "This is the way it's always been and this is the way things go here. When our guys are not doing what we want them to do, they're going to hear it, but when they are doing what we expect, they'll hear that as well. It's the only way to get better."
Players like Gerard Saucier -- a guard built in the mold of Dustin Pedroia -- are proof that you can overcome not being the biggest or fastest players on the floor.
"Wearing this uniform is the best thing that's ever happened to me," Saucier said. "Growing up, I was never a top notch player, so I was never even sure I'd play here. We're usually not the most talented, but we have the biggest heart in the state and we take a lot of pride in playing the way we do."
At 5-foot-8 with limited scoring ability, Saucier has turned himself into a tougher than nails defensive player. The epitome of a Rockland player, was elected a captain for this season.
The result of the way Rockland does this is bunch of tough kids similar to Saucier, who welcome a demolition derby style of play, something that makes them especially difficult to play against.
"You expect hard-nosed defense and you expect a physical game any time you see Rockland," said Wareham coach Kevin Brogioli, whose Vikings have regularly squared off with Rockland in the tournament, including a back-and-forth rumble in the semifinals a year ago.
"Whenever we play Rockland, we would prefer the game being more up and down than getting into a half court slugfest because that's not our best style of play," Brogioli added. "They will make it a physical game. You know with them you're in for a rock fight, a dog fight, a real physical battle. You have to be ready, and if you're not, you're going to get crushed."