Some final thoughts as we put a close on the 2012-13 high school basketball season...
A FLU SHOT HE'LL NEVER FORGET
After committing to Vanderbilt last August, Lynn English's Ben Bowden told ESPNBoston.com he was leaning towards not coming back out for basketball his senior year, saying "it delayed my pitching", that he lost "alot of interest" from some colleges "because I didn't throw hard as they wanted me to."
"I'm leaning that way so I can be fully prepared, because we've got the [MLB] draft and everything," Bowden told us at the time. "Where it's at right now, I don't see myself playing. But it was fun while it lasted."
Bowden, a 6-foot-4 lefty flreballer, is one of the state's most heralded prospects following his junior season, which started with a perfect game against Marblehead and ended with a spot on ESPN Boston's All-State Team and whispers of draft potential. He was 10 minutes away from spending his winter in the gym sharpening his craft, on his own; but a chance encounter on the first day of basketball tryouts changed all that.
The school was conducting flu shots that day, and the location just happened to be near basketball coach Mike Carr's office. As Bowden's girlfriend was getting her shot, Carr light-heartedly ribbed him about spurning one last winter with the team. After Bowden wished Carr good luck and the two parted ways, Bowden bumped into a half-dozen Bulldogs players, who gave him even more ribbing.
Bowden went home, thought about it, and by 5 p.m. had changed his mind.
And boy, was he glad. The Bulldogs captivated the City of Lynn over the second half of the season and throughout their sudden run to the MIAA Division 1 North finals, with Bowden starting at power forwrad, drawing fans from all four of the high schools to come see their wildly-entertaining brand of run-and-gun. He called the Bulldogs' wild 94-87 win over Everett in the D1 North semifinals "the best atmosphere I've ever played in any sport", and doesn't regret a minute of his time this winter.
"It got me into very good shape, obviously I have no regrets at all," he said. "Even if I got hurt, I wouldn’t have regretted playing at all. It was an awesome experience."
Vandy head coach Tim Corbin encourages multi-sport activity out of his high school recruits, a sentiment many high school baseball coaches support for a multitude of reasons -- primarily, that it encourages competitive spirit, and also works different muscle groups to keep the body in prime shape.
Carr heavily emphasized conditioning this year with his team, concluding practice each day with a grueling 10-minute session up and down the school's four flights of stairs, and it's paid off for Bowden. Headed into his first start of the spring, currently slated for April 10, he says this is the "best I've ever felt going into a baseball season."
"I feel my legs are stronger, I'm pushing off the mound better," Bowden said. "My core has gotten stronger. Everything we did for basketball has helped me in a positive way for baseball."
Talking about keeping his arm loose, he added, "I feel the best I've ever felt going into a baseball seasons, and I think it's because I've lost quite a bit of weight. I'm feeling a lot better and a lot lighter, and also because I was throwing more...By the time baseball started [this season] I was on my seventh week of throwing. I was a lot more ready than I was in any other season. I was smart about my decision to play basketball because I knew I had to get throws in."
As basketball becomes more individualized at younger and younger ages in this AAU-ized era of specialization, we sometimes forget that these sports can bleed into each other. Notre Dame hoop coach Mike Brey first heard about Pat Connaughton after a tip from the Irish's baseball coach. Soccer prowess helped Danvers' Eric Martin and Melrose's Frantdzy Pierrot become more elusive runners in the open floor. And some are quietly wondering if football may end up being the meal ticket for Wakefield super-sophomore Bruce Brown, who excels with the Boston Amateur Basketball Club (BABC) but also turned in a pretty nice campaign last fall at wide receiver. Same with another budding BABC star, Brendan Hill of Mansfield.
Unless you're one of the top players in the country at your position, I'll never understand why some physically-mature high school guards don't at least give an additional sport a try -- but that's a probably a topic for a whole other day. Know that for as much accolades as we've all poured on English's talented trio of guards, Bowden may have played the most important position of all -- the Joey Dorsey, the rock-solid post player down low counted on for rebounds that can keep possessions alive, and facilitate a whip-quick fast break going the other way.
And to think, if his girlfriend hadn't gone to get a flu shot that first day of tryouts, we might be talking about a whole different story in Lynn.
MORE THAN JUST 'WANTING IT MORE'
You have to think long and hard to find the last time a kid in the Merrimack Valley Conference went from benchwarmer on one team in one season, to league MVP on another team the next.
Chris Bardwell's transformation from garbage-time go-getter at Central Catholic in 2012 to an ESPN Boston Super Team selection at North Andover in 2013 is one that will be held up as a model example of will power. At least, that was the rhetoric being told this winter -- that if you want it bad enough as Bardwell, if you train hard enough, you can make the jump.
Sure, some of this transformation has to do with the mental element. But Mansfield wanted it just as bad as Putnam in the Division 1 state title game, and was unable to prevent the Beavers from continuously leaking out for some uncontested fast break points. Scituate wanted to just as bad as Brighton in the Division 2 Eastern Mass. title game at the Garden, but couldn't cleanly escape on-ball pressure from Nate Hogan long enough to prevent Malik James' last-second heroics.
I think of Bardwell -- also a lefty pitcher with reportedly mid to high-80's velocity -- and I think back to my first months at ESPNBoston.com, in the summer of 2010, when St. John's Prep star Pat Connaughton was one of the hottest names nationally on the recruiting front. In basketball, he was an ESPN 100 prospect with a lengthy list of suitors east of the Mississippi. On the mound, he was an overpowering righty with first five round potential, named by Baseball America as one of the nation's top 100 high school prospects.
Connaughton had big hype, and in turn put in a legendary summer workout regimen to back it up, sometimes putting in eight hours of training a day -- quite literally, treating it like a 9-to-5. After signing with Notre Dame, the results spoke for themselves -- a state championship, All-State recognition in both sports, and a Day 3 selection by the San Diego Padres.
OK, so Bardwell's not Connaughton. The point is, situations like Bardwell's are the product of both opportunity and preparation, and all that will power is for naught if you're not training right. Bardwell came into the last offseason more determined, but he also upped his daily cardio, played more basketball, and changed his diet, cutting out junk and carbonated beverages and increasing his protein intake. Training for both basketball and baseball certainly helped him stay sharp.
Let's not forget had Bardwell stayed at Central, he would have been battling for playing time among a deep stable of forwards, duking it out with the likes of Doug Gemmell, Nick Cambio, Joel Berroa and Aaron Hall. At North Andover, he could fit in snugly as a terrific compliment to one of the state's best bigs in Isaiah Nelsen -- though in the end, obviously, Bardwell turned out to be the star of the show.
Success stories come from anywhere. Just take a look at another former Central Catholic baseball product, Dennis Torres, who was cut four times by the varsity during his high school years yet was drafted by the Orioles last June after walking-on at UMass.
Like Bardwell, he wanted it badly. Clearly, Torres was sick and tired of being sick and tired. But as usual, it's never as simple as pure will power and mental maturation. There's a method, and Bardwell played it right.
RE-BIRTH OF THE RUN?
When you think of the MIAA's most dominant running teams of the 21st century, there are two programs that come to mind. One is the Charlestown juggernaut of the early 2000's, ranked nationally by USA Today and led by electric scorers like Rashid Al-Kaleem, Tony Chatman, Ridley Johnson and Tony Lee. The other is Newton North, winners of back-to-back D1 state titles behind one of the East Coast's best backcourts in Anthony Gurley and Corey Lowe.
Not about to call it a renaissance, but if there's one thing I'll take away more than anything else from this MIAA season, it's the return of quality running teams to the upper echelon. The two best running teams we saw this season represented two different styles.
There was Lynn English, pushing a white-knuckle pace, using more than 15 seconds of the shot clock only sparingly, and blitzing the opposition coming the other way with in-your-grill, full court man-to-man pressure. It took about half a season for Mike Carr's unique system to click -- but once it did, they were firing on all cylinders. The Bulldogs' backcourt of Freddy Hogan, Stevie Collins and Erick Rosario was as good as any in the state the second half of the season, with the former two earning ESPN Boston All-State honors earlier this week.
With just one real post pivot, senior Ben Bowden, the Bulldogs relied on their guards to generate transiton by forcing turnovers, sometimes flat out ripping the ball out of players' grips for easy fast break points. Carr's emphasis on conditioning was well-known, the the Bulldogs never looked tired.
Many will point to Central Catholic's stark rebounding advantage as to why they were able to lay a dump truck on English in the D1 North Final (they held a 28-7 advantage at the half), but -- follow me here -- that was practically by design. The Bulldogs flat out bailed on offensive possessions once the shot went up, surrendering the advantage and forcing Central's guards to make plays (they did, and did often).
That philosophy stood in contrast to what I felt was the state's best running team this year, Division 1 state champion Putnam. They seemed to play a physical brand of basketball in the City of Springfield this year, and nobody exemplified this better than the Beavers, who made up for lack of height with plenty of linebacker-like bulk in forwards KayJuan Bynum and David Murrell, both ESPN Boston All-State selections.
Throughout the season, Putnam coach William Shepard demonstrated enough faith in Bynum and Murrell's ability to get defensive rebounds that the Beavers' guards could continually leak out of possessions early to get fast break after fast break (Bynum and Murrell combined for 11.4 defensive rebounds, and 19.6 overall, per game this season). When an opposing team's shot went up, guards started strafing up the sidelines in anticipation of a long outlet pass. This led to a slew of production in the D1 state title game from guards Ty Nichols, Dizel Wright, Ki-Shawn Monroe and Jonathan Garcia.
Best of all, these two squads return a ton of talent to keep them in Top 10 consideration for the next two seasons. Both teams must find a replacement for their best big (English with Bowden, Putnam with Bynum), but feature a slew of talented backcourt and wing players to keep the tempo frenetic and the opposition uncomfortable.
INTERVIEWS OF THE YEAR
My personal favorites for interviews of the year. First, the short category...
And now, the long category...
WILL JACK EVER COME BACK?
After Brighton won its first ever state title, Bengals coach Hugh Coleman held court in the media room at the DCU Center, dedicating the state title trophy and season to his lifelong mentor, legendary former Charlestown boss Jack O'Brien.
Anyone familiar with the bond between O'Brien and Coleman knows it is strong. O'Brien came into Coleman's life at a very hectic time -- being born when his mother was 20, becoming the man of the house at just 6 years old, and watching a number of his family members get rung up on drug arrests. He was under supervision of the Department of Social Services when he first met O'Brien as a freshman at Charlestown in 1993.
O'Brien is probably most known for his run of five D2 state titles in six seasons from 1999-2005 at Charlestown, and Coleman was an assistant on the last three. It's worth noting the 2003 squad, which Coleman's brother Derek captained, was the last squad to win both a city and state championship before Brighton did it this year.
"The way Jack O’Brien came into my life...He never recruited me, no one ever said I was going to Charlestown, I ended up going there by chance, he ended up going to Charlestown and it was special," Coleman said. "I lucked out and got the Brighton job four years ago. I probably wasn’t supposed to get it, but I did. A lot of people recruited him out of middle school to go to different schools, but he ended up at Brighton with me. So I think that’s such a great blessing. I’m glad that I’ve been able to be a part of his life, and him a part of my life. He’s made me a stronger person and I hope that I was able to rub off on him. He led us to victory this entire season, including today.
"I definitely want to dedicate this to Jack O’Brien. He should be coaching. He should be coaching, and I have no idea why he’s not coaching in the state of Massachusetts. In my opinion, he is the best coach in the state of Massachusetts. He is, and not just because he won games. He changed the lives of so many of us young men at Charlestown during that time. We went on to go to college. We went on to be great men, fathers, husbands, and you know what? It’s because of what he helped us do from the inside out. He helped us to be great men.
"I’ll be honest with you, I coach and I took the coaching job because he’s not coaching. I couldn’t allow that to...When they said he couldn’t coach, or they wouldn’t allow him to coach for whatever reason, I said I’ve got to keep the legacy going. He’s healthy, he’s a 10 times better man, whatever lesson I guess he was supposed to learn. It’s a shame he’s not coaching, because he is all that and then some."
Wherever he has gone, O'Brien has had dramatic results, producing McDonald's All-Americans at Salem High and nationally-ranked squads at Charlestown. But he has remained out of coaching since his 11th-hour departure from Lynn English hours before the first practice of the 2006-07 season. His name has been linked to jobs throughout Eastern Mass. over the years, most notably Somerville in 2008, but it's unclear when he'll return to coaching.
Still, with 400-plus wins, six state titles, some of the Bay State's most captivating running teams of the last quarter-century, and his age (he just turned 55 last month), there remains faith that he will turn up somewhere. Just where is anyone's guess.
HALL'S TOP 10 FOR 2013-14
Hornets lost just one senior from their 2013 Division 1 state championship run and return the most talent of anyone in the state, including reigning Hockomock MVP Brendan Hill. A healthier Michael Hershman should bolster an already-deep lineup featuring Rocky DeAndrade, Michael Boen, Ryan Boulter, Kevin Conner and Kyle Wisniewski.
2. Lynn English
The returning backcourt of Freddy Hogan, Stevie Collins and Erick Rosario, along with wing Danny Lukanda, makes this team a preseason Top 5. Key will be the development of promising 6-foot-6 sophomore Johnny Hilaire, whose pogo-like leaping ability has begun to draw comparisons to former All-Stater Keandre Stanton.
3. St. John’s (Shrewsbury)
Pioneers return arguably the state’s best backcourt in Davon Jones and Adham Floyd, along with a dynamic frontcourt of T.J. Kelley, Drew Vittum and Charlie Murray. Next year gets interesting in D1 Central, with stalwarts such as Franklin, Westford and Acton-Boxborough joining the fray.
4. Central Catholic
A returning core of Tyler Nelson and Nick Cambio makes the Raiders one of the premier perimeter teams in Eastern Mass once again. Six-foot-6 junior Aaron Hall has big shoes to fill in the frontcourt, with the graduation of center Doug Gemmell.
If all goes as planned and everyone returns, you’re looking at a coach’s dream. Elijah Rogers is a virtuoso at the point, and a supporting cast of Obi Obiora, Anthony Jennings, Tyler Patterson and Mark Gasperini makes them a formidable foe on size and skill alone.
6. Springfield Putnam
Beavers stand a legitimate chance at going back-to-back as D1 state champs as long as they can find an able replacement for graduating senior post KayJuan Bynum. By season’s end this was the best running team in the state –- who knows what another season of David Murrell, Dizel Wright, Jonathan Garcia, Ty Nichols and Ki-Shawn Monroe will bring?
All signs point to Malik James having played his last game as a Bengal in the state championship game, but freshman Javaughn Edmonds shows promise to potentially fill the point guard role. Should All-State forward Nick Simpson return, you’re looking at a front line of Simpson and 6-foot-5 sophomore Jason Jones that is as good as any across Division 2.
Scary as his junior season was, reigning Middlesex League MVP Frantdzy Pierrot could turn in an even more monstrous senior campaign in 2013-14 for the Red Raiders. With realignment shifting many teams in the North, and a quality stable of underclassmen led by freshman point guard Sherron Harris, next year is as good a time as any to strike.
Sophomore Bruce Brown is expected to return next season, and that alone makes the Warriors a favorite in D2 North. The question will be whether they can turn their early-season promise into deep playoff production, and whether they can get past the semifinal round.
10. Springfield Central
The Golden Eagles are not without talent, with one of the state's most promising big men in sophomore Chris Baldwin. The question will be if the guards and forwards can get on the same page, and we think after some growing pains this year, cousins Ju'uan and Cody Williams will make this team sharper coming off a disappointing Division 1 state title defense.
Others to watch: Acton-Boxborough, Andover, Braintree, Boston English, Catholic Memorial, Danvers, Haverhill, Holyoke, New Bedford, New Mission, Newton North, St. John’s Prep, Wachusett, Watertown