Boston High School: Fred Damon

Long, storied hoop history shapes Rockland pride

February, 25, 2014
Feb 25
3:02
PM ET
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."

Recap: Rockland 65, Cohasset 63 (OT)

February, 15, 2014
Feb 15
11:09
PM ET
ROCKLAND, Mass. -– With the scored tied and the last seconds of overtime ticking away against Cohasset, Rockland’s Matt Nicholson unleashed a potentially game-winning 3-pointer in front of a packed gym on Saturday afternoon.

The ball came down squarely on the rim, the result being a long rebound back out toward foul line. With the miss, it looked for sure that the Bulldogs would be headed to a second overtime in their final South Shore League contest of the year.

Sophomore John Furr had other ideas.

“I was out looking for a three-pointer on the right wing, and when I saw the shot going off the rim I knew it was heading toward a gap where no one was on the floor,” Furr said. “I just got there, grabbed the rebound and wanted to get a shot up and hoped it would drop.”

In one motion, Furr took off from behind the free throw line, caught the rebound and sent the ball back toward the basket before he landed. The ball arced high off the backboard, clanged off the front of the rim straight up in the air, came down on the back of the rim, and slowly rolled in, giving the Bulldogs a 65-63 win that caused the capacity crowd to rush the floor in celebration.

“I was prepared for double overtime, but I knew Matty shot that with enough time that we might be able to do something,” said Rockland coach Fred Damon. “I saw Johnny coming in from wing. I said ‘just get in and get one chance.’ We’ve been telling the kids all year if they get that chance to put that shot off the glass, because if you try to finesse it, it goes off the back rim and falls out.”

Before Furr’s game-winner could be possible, the Bulldogs (15-4) needed some late-game heroics just to force overtime.

Trailing by five with under two minutes to go, Rockland used a 3-pointer from Furr, who had a game-high 19 points, to cut the lead to two. Cohasset drew a foul on the ensuing possession, but connected on just one of two free throws.

On the other end, Rockland couldn’t get an open look at a potential game-tying 3-pointer, and instead worked the ball down low to Ian McDonald, who used a strong post up-and-under move to lay the ball and cut the lead to one.

Rockland was unable to come up with a steal on the inbounds pass, but quickly fouled. The Skippers (17-1) again went 1-for-2 at the line, leaving the Bulldogs trailing by two.

After a Rockland timeout, the Bulldogs set up their offense and worked the ball around looking for an open shot. As the clock ticked under five, Joe Kimball fired a pass to Andrew Frazer in the corner, just in front of the 3-point line.

Frazer went up with a jump shot, let it fly and saw it snap through the twine to the tie the game.

Nicholson ensured they’d head to overtime when he picked off Cohasset’s Christian Laettner-style heave attempt in a manner that would make Ed Reed proud.

“The last two minutes says a lot about this team,” said Damon. “We were down five, and we came back against a good team like that. You could feel the momentum change there.”

Skippers sailing despite loss: Despite being dealt its first loss, Cohasset looked like a team primed to wreak havoc in the D4 South Sectional Tournament. That was especially true in overtime, when Rockland rode the end of regulation to a quick five point lead in OT.

The Skippers pulled closer at the free throw line, just to see Rockland expand its lead up to six points with 1:01 left. On the very next possession up the floor, before the offense even got set, Chris Haggerty unfurled a deep 3-pointer to cut the deficit to just three.

A defensive stop gave Cohasset the ball with 35 seconds left.

Cohasset moved the ball around the perimeter, finally landing in the hands of defensive-minded Joe Buckley, who let a fade-away 3-pointer go near the corner. His shot ripped through the net to tie the score with just 15 seconds remaining in overtime.

“That’s why they were undefeated,” said Damon. “That team doesn’t quit. They just keep coming, and have a lot of different guys who can make big shots.”

That’s something Skippers coach Bo Ruggeiro is very proud of, especially when considering that Cohasset graduated 1,000 point scorer Shane Haggerty, as well as SSL All-Star point guard Christian Davis last year.

“Considering what we lost, I’ll take a 17-0 start. Now we’re 17-1, but we have sole ownership of the SSL title,” Ruggeiro said. “I’m really proud of these guys to come into an atmosphere like this, and play well out here today.”

D3 South: Wareham 61, Rockland 55

March, 5, 2013
3/05/13
12:56
AM ET


BROCKTON, Mass. -– Darien Fernandez is getting more out of his high school basketball career than most players do.

Literally.

The 5-foot-7 star point guard led the way as his No. 1 Wareham team slipped past No. 4 Rockland, 61-56, at Brockton in a Div. 3 South Sectional Semifinal match-up, guaranteeing Fernandez and the Vikings will make their straight trip to the sectional finals.

Fernandez piled up 26 points to go with 11 rebounds, five assists and three steals as Wareham advanced to a repeat of last season’s finals match-up as they’ll take on No. 7 Martha’s Vineyard on Saturday at UMass-Boston.

“You really can’t stop a kid like that,” said Rockland coach Fred Damon. “He initiates contact, he gets us in foul trouble and he distributes the ball. We knew he was going to do what he was going to do, the key was we just didn’t want to be able to make everyone else better. We also wanted to be able to limit their threes.”

For the most part, Rockland (19-4) succeeded to limit the damage done by Fernandez’s supporting cast. It was the 3-pointer, however, that sent them home -– largely because Fernandez was able to find his guys open from distance.

“Darien’s been unselfish all year,” said Wareham coach Kevin Brogioli. “He loves to penetrate, but if there’s open players he’ll hit them. He’s done it all year. He leads our teams in points and assists and that’s a pretty potent combination.”

Wareham (22-1) knocked down eight 3-pointers in the game, led by Sam Brogioli who poured in four of them. Each one of his came from way downtown, beyond the range of Rockland’s coverage. He sealed the game with a fourth quarter heave nearly 10 feet beyond the arc.

“That one from about 25-feet away -– man, the backyard blacktop paid off on that one,” said coach Brogioli of his son. “I was happy for him because he struggled a bit early. He had open looks early too, and he wasn’t afraid to keep shooting his shot. He hit them down the stretch.”

Added Damon: “Give the kid credit -– those weren’t even just high school threes, they weren’t just college threes, they weren’t even NBA threes. They were even beyond that, and they were all nothing but net.”

Brogioli’s 14 points paired him with Fernandez in double-figures, but offense was harder to come by last night for Wareham than it had been in the first two rounds of the tourney.

“Their defense is good. I’d never seen that,” Fernandez said. “They really tried to take my shoes away so I couldn’t really drive and kick like I wanted to and like I like to do, so I just had to get to the rack.

Added Brogioli: “Their defense is very tough –- but we held them to 56. We knew what they’re capable of –- we knew that was the Rockland way. Ever since Bobby Fisher, and now Fred Damon does it. They’ve got tough kids.”

As Wareham, the defending South Sectional champs, advanced to the title game for the third straight year, they also got strong showings from Quintin Silveria (six points, four rebounds, three blocks), Mason Vasconcellos (eight points) and Latroy Hariston ( six rebounds).

EMOTIONAL GOODBYE FOR BULLDOGS
With the loss, Rockland also had to say goodbye to South Shore League MVP and UMass-Lowell bound Tyler Gibson.

A three-year varsity player who scored 986 career points, Gibson helped the Bulldogs win 54 games during his time there – an average of 18 per season.

The Bulldogs’ success this season could’ve have taken a hit if Gibson would’ve put himself ahead of the program. Last spring, prep schools sought out the 6-6 forward with promises of increased chances for a college scholarship.

Instead, Gibson chose stay Rockland for a chance to add something to the impressive basketball legacy there.

Gibson, who finished with 25 points and 21 rebounds, nearly added another chapter alongside Matt Nicholson (14 points, seven rebounds) and Bryan Tavares (14 points) before the Bulldogs fell just short on Monday night.

The scholarship offers came anyway –- he had one from Merrimack in addition to UMass-Lowell, all without having to leave a town he calls home.

“There’s no place like Rockland, and I’m serious when I say that,” Gibson said. “It’s the tradition; we’re just one big family. That’s why I stayed.”

During his career, he blossomed from a physically gifted athlete into something much more.

“I’ve grown up a lot since sophomore year -– all because of this program,” Gibson said. “Coach Damon, the whole coaching staff and my teammates and I can’t give them enough credit.”

While Gibson’s play blossomed on the court, it was his non-basketball skill that impressed his coaches most.

“Your blessed when you get players like that,” said coach Fred Damon. “Totally blessed. Those type of kids only come along every so often. You look at his stats -– and they’re tremendous -– but it’s much more than that. It’s his personality, it’s how hard he works, it’s everything.”

Recap: No. 21 Rockland 78, Mashpee 51

January, 9, 2013
1/09/13
12:16
AM ET
ROCKLAND, Mass. -– Not all games are created equal. Some of them, like when the Rockland boys basketball team hosted South Shore League rival Mashpee on Tuesday night, just feel bigger.

“This was our fourth statement game –- Scituate, Norwell, Abington and this game here,” said Rockland coach Fred Damon. “We wanted to send statements. If we want people to take us for real, we need to win these types of games. We want to set ourselves as a team that can be a force in division three.”

That message was sent loud and clear on Tuesday, as No. 21 Rockland rolled to an easy 78-51 over the formerly unbeaten Falcons (8-1) in front of a sellout and raucous crowd.

UMass-Lowell signee Tyler Gibson got Rockland (9-0) on the board with a pair of free throws on the first possession, but senior point guard Bryan Tavares was the driving force behind the Bulldogs (9-0) forging an early lead, finishing the first quarter up 15-11.

Tavares notched 21 of his 26 points before halftime on a ridiculous 8-for-9 shooting. Even more impressive was that he did it all while battling the flu, twice leaving the court to throw up.

“I honestly don’t know how I did it,” Tavares said. “I practiced a lot over the summer and I can feel the improvements now. It all kind of came together tonight.”

Tavares knocked down three five 3-pointers in the second, sparking a 16-point quarter for him as the Bulldogs extended their lead to 44-28 at the half.

“Bryan’s the floor general of the team, so he basically controls everything,” said Gibson. “He gave us a boost scoring by hitting those 3-point shots early.”

Added junior Matt Nicholson: “It’s awesome to have a guy like. He’s been pretty consistent for us too -– other than the Cohasset game, he’s been like that every single game for us.”

Still, even a 14-point lead at the break wasn’t satisfactory for the Bulldogs.

“We like to keep teams around 20 (first half points),” Damon said. “We came into the locker room and I was not happy at halftime. I said they cannot stop us offensively, there’s no doubt and we ran sets like crazy in the second half. We had to pick it up defensively and they got seven points in the third quarter. We went from up 14 to up 26 –- that’s the game right there.”

Nicholson made sure the offense kept pouring it on as he tallied 11 points in the third quarter before adding nine in the fourth en route to a game-high 28 points, to go with six rebounds, two blocks and four steals.

Considering how both took over the game, it’s not clear which one was better against the Falcons.

“That was an absolute two-headed monster, so I really don’t know,” said Rockland coach Fred Damon. “I probably would have to say Tavares because he put us ahead and then extended the lead, and Nic kept us there. Bryan was just unconscious tonight. It was ridiculous. You cannot stop him when he’s shooting like that.”

Gibson finished with 13 points, five rebounds, three blocks and two steals and sophomore Liam Ball chipped in five rebounds, three points and two steals for Rockland.

Mashpee had a strong showing from Nakia Hendricks, who tallied 19 points, six rebounds, four blocks and three steals, as well as 12 points from Dean Feliciano and 10 points and seven rebounds from Malik Lee. But those individual showings weren’t enough to overcome Rockland’s impressive attack.

“What can I say, they just beat us,” said Mashpee coach Rick Boulrisse. “They shot the ball real well –- I think they hit seven 3’s in the first half. It’s hard to overcome something like that. Rockland just outplayed us.”

Div. 3 Boys: Spellman 62, Rockland 60

March, 2, 2012
3/02/12
11:57
PM ET
ROCKLAND, Mass. — Michael Downing made a promise to his teammates at halftime to be a factor in the final 16 minutes of the Div. 3 South quarter-finals after early foul trouble kept him on the bench in the first half.

The 6-foot senior guard was chomping at the bit to get back into action as the back-and-forth matchup between Cardinal Spellman and Rockland started to get real interesting in the fourth quarter. Downing returned in a big way defensively, as he came up with three steals in the fourth quarter, and the game-saving block at the buzzer to help the No. 5 Cardinals (19-5) down No. 4 Rockland, 62-60, in the final game ever in the “Dog Pound” at Joseph Cogan Memorial Gymnasium.

The exuberance of the moment was all over an emotional Downing’s face after the game, as the Cardinals will now move on to play Wareham in the Div. 3 South semifinals.

“I really felt I let my team down,” said Downing. “I felt that if I could get back in the game then I’m not going to let them down again. I knew that I had to help my team win this game. We are all brothers on this team and we had to do it for everybody.”

The Cardinals were in the midst of a 10-2 run when Downing came up with a big theft at center court and raced down for a lay-in to cut the deficit to 56-55. Downing picked off a Bulldogs (19-3) pass on the next possession and got the ball to Paul Preziosi, who was fouled and sent to the line.

Preziosi hit both of his free throws to give the Cardinals a one-point lead with four minutes remaining left in the ball game.

“We got a couple turnovers off their guards, which helped us out in that little bit of a run,” said Cardinals head coach Mike Perry. “I was happy with the way they played tonight.”

Downing kept his best defensive stand for last. Joey Glynn missed two free throws that would have sealed the game with 4.9 seconds remaining in the game. Ricky Witt grabbed the rebound and tried to get a halfcourt shot off that would win the game at the buzzer, but the lengthy Downing got his hand on is and swatted the ball away to secure the victory.

“When I tipped that ball and I knew that game was over I honestly wanted to cry,” said Downing.

Free Throws a Factor: Fred Damon didn’t want his season to end at the free throw line, but that’s exactly where it did. The Bulldogs were 10-of-26 from the line and missed several clutch free throws.

Tyler Gibson scored 15 points and grabbed 13 rebounds on the night, and was a major reason why the Bulldogs were able to build an 11-point lead in the third quarter. However, he struggled with free throws all night, going 1-for-10 from the line and missing two that would have tied the game in the game’s final seconds.

“It’s a very simple game,” said Damon. “I told them that we didn’t want to end the season on missed free throws.”

End of an Era in Rockland: People showed up in packs to get into the “Dog Pound” for its last game, and on the walk into the gym people were leaving before the game with sad looks on their face as police and security had to cut off the crowd with bodies seemingly in every inch of the gymnasium.

The Cardinals seemed to weather the storm, but with the inbounds near the Bulldogs’ fan section, some Cardinals players could feel the the Bulldogs faithful doing their best Cameron Crazies impressions.

“It was really tough because the fans were right there,” said Glynn. “It was tough.”

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