WORCESTER, Mass. –- The Putnam Beavers are state champions once again.
The defending state champions held off a ferocious late-game charge from Eastern Mass. champ Central Catholic (23-5) on Saturday at the DCU Center, senior captain David Murrell (22 points, 8 rebounds) said he and his teammates had something to prove about the city of Springfield. Beating Central 74-70 in Saturday’s Division 1 state championship game was just another step.
“It means we have talent,” Murrell said in response to Springfield schools winning the last three Division 1 state championships, “We’re going to Boston and other places now. That’s what we’re trying to explain to everybody, and I think we can do that right now –- two-time state champions.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by Putnam (25-0) coach William Shepard. In his fifth year of coaching at Putnam, Shepard said a major reason for Springfield’s dominance on a statewide scale is because of the raised expectations by him and his staff.
“I was born and raised in Springfield and I always knew there was talent there,” Shepard said, “They just needed the coaches to bring up the level of expectation, and that’s being done now – you can see the results of that…there’s good basketball in Western Mass.”
The biggest concern for Putnam on Saturday was just how exactly they were going to slow down Tyler Nelson. Nelson, who is committed to Fairfield University, has built a reputation as a fearless scorer. For Shepard, the only decision he felt was right was to put his starting point guard, senior Dizel Wright, on Nelson. Nelson scored 17 points, but Wright did not disappoint -- coming up with six steals and face guard Nelson from baseline to baseline.
“When I did the assignments in practice, I said ‘Dizel you earned it,’ and he let out a big ‘yes!’ You’ve got to love that as a coach,” Shepard said with a laugh, “That felt good. He’s accepted challenges all year long. Whatever it takes, Dizel is going to try to get it done. He wants that challenge. The toughest opposing player on each team –- he wants that challenge. You’ve got to love a kid like that, you talk about high motors that’s one right there: Dizel Wright.”
Putnam led throughout the first half, but got quite a scare towards the end of the third quarter: Central senior forward Nick Cambio took over the game offensively in the second half. Cambio, who finished with 27 points and was the game high-scorer, helped bring the Putnam lead down to 54-52 after three quarters of play.
Though Putnam was worried about the charging Raiders, Murrell said the most important factor of the fourth quarter was his team’s poise.
“I was trying to stay focused. I didn’t have to really score, I just had to rebound and play defense and that was pretty much my game. Eventually I did score, coach just told me to play aggressive and that’s what it came down to,” Murrell said.
Always calm and collected on the sidelines, Shepard did his best to trust his players down the stretch.
“I trust in our defense, it was out of my hands," he said. "All I could do was watch and these guys came through. It was a great atmosphere out there, a great high school basketball game.”
Beavers bid farewell to Murrell, Wright: The Beavers have gone 49-1 in the last two seasons, winners of 34 consecutive games after winning their second straight state championship. Shepard has emphasized a winning environment and high expectations for his players, and he discussed the legacy that Murrell, Wright, and last year’s senior captain KayJuan Bynum have left at Putnam.
“The brand new school that we have and the foundation these guys are establishing not just for themselves but for the people coming behind them,” Shepard said. “They know when they walk through the doors of Putnam that they can be champions, not just at basketball but at anything, whatever they want to do in life. These guys are showing they can do it.
"We had four juniors, all four honor roll students –- I’m very proud of that. Hopefully we can get the freshmen in and they can see Putnam basketball and we can keep this thing going.”