Boston High School: Nick McKenna

Walpole's Arsenault wins inaugural Shot For Life Challenge

August, 4, 2013
8/04/13
10:19
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HANOVER, Mass. –- Even Mike Slonina was impressed.

More than two years since the 20-year old Watertown resident hoisted jumpers for 24 consecutive hours and created A Shot For Life Foundation (ASFL) -– a non-profit dedicated to funding brain cancer research at Mass General Hospital and Boston Children’s Hospital -– the former Catholic Memorial School varsity basketball manager was awestruck by his surroundings.

As he stood in the middle of the eight basketball courts that comprise the University Sports Complex in Hanover –- site of Saturday afternoon’s inaugural “A Shot For Life Challenge” – the rising junior from Quinnipiac University pronounced, “The amount of shooting talent in this room is . . . it’s tough to match. And the fact that they’re all doing this, really, to make a good impact on the world, outside of basketball, is awesome. All these kids deserve a ton of credit for this.”

When the two-hour exhibition – which challenged 11 competitors to 20-minute intervals of specific shot types, including mid-range jumpers, free throws and three-pointers – concluded between the Commonwealth’s top marksmen, Scott Arsenault, who will be a senior at Walpole High this fall, was crowned the “Best Shooter in Massachusetts.”

With a large crowd of friends and family looking on, the Rebels two-guard knocked down 90.6 percent of his attempts to better runner-up Shiraz Mumtaz of Brookline High, who finished at an 81.8 percent clip. Newton North’s Tommy Mobley placed third with a shooting percentage of 79.2.

Arsenault, who led throughout, also received a trophy and will have his number retired at future ASLF events.

“I was just trying to hit as many as I could in a row,” he said. “I knew I was going to get tired because it was for two hours. So, I made sure to stay disciplined and not break my form.”

Drawing visions of Jimmy Chitwood -– the lean, smooth-shooting sniper from the film Hoosiers -– Arsenault battled through the final half-hour despite “feeling [his] leg kind of giving out.”

Such physical ailments were commonplace amongst a field that included Ben Judson (St. John’s Prep), Sam Bohmiller (Franklin), Nick McKenna (Danvers), Jake Foote (Duxbury), Ryan Roach (Cardinal Spellman), Mike Nelson (Bishop Feehan), and Tyler Gibson (Rockland), the Massachusetts’ Gatorade Player of the Year who will play at Bentley University next season. Vinny Clifford (Danvers) was a late scratch after injuring his knee during a recent pickup game.

“Extremely tired,” said Mobley in the competition’s immediate aftermath. “I think my right arm is significantly stronger than my left arm now.”

Judson acknowledged similar symptoms.

“It was definitely tough,” said the Plaitstow, NH product. “My arms and legs were so tired halfway through, but I just had to keep pushing.”

Said Bohmiller, who will play at Babson College next season, “My arms are heavy and I’m pretty tired, but I had a lot of fun.”

Despite their collective fatigue, there was a general sense of elation that each competitor had pushed themselves to their physical limits for a worthwhile cause.

And though many were aware that what they had accomplished –- regardless of their final stats -– was significant, they also knew it paled in comparison to Slonina’s 24-hour shooting marathon.

“It seems impossible to do that,” Mobley said of shooting for a full day. “I’m right now very exhausted. I’m probably going to sleep the whole car ride home. And when I get home, I may take a shower and sleep some more. He shot for 12 times longer than I did, so, I mean, doing that 11 more times, back-to-back, I can’t even imagine what it must mean. It’s incredible that he was willing to work that hard for the cause; it’s incredible that there are people out there with that much passion to help others.”

Echoed Bohmiller, “No way, I don’t know how he [did] it . . . Props to him for 24 hours. That’s something special.”
Still, Slonina knows that for now his shooting days are over. He’s traded in his sneakers for wingtips as he focuses on expanding ASFL and its marquee event each year.

“For A Shot For Life to grow in the way that I want it to grow,” he said, “A Shot For Life can’t be synonymous with Mike Slonina. It just can’t be. A Shot For Life needs to outgrow me in that sense. I [received] a big outpouring of support for the 24 hours; that’s great and I appreciated all of it. But I want A Shot For Life to grow to the size of Livestrong. I want A Shot For Life to be nationwide. If it’s about one kid shooting over and over, it can’t do that. The face has to change.”

With Saturday’s one-day event already topping $10,000 in proceeds, Slonina understands that there is more money to collect and donate and additional events to plan.

“Raising money is the part that counts,” he said. “We raised $10,000 without any corporate help whatsoever. In my mind, I think, we can easily turn that into $50,000. That’s with no corporate sponsorship; that’s a really good sign.”

As for the structure of next year’s event, Slonina said, “We’re definitely having a dunk contest, I can guarantee that. We’re almost going to turn it into an NBA All-Star Saturday where they have the skills competition, three-point shootout and dunk contest. That’s what this event will eventually evolve into.”

While Slonina will no longer be doing the shooting, it’s undeniable that the legacy he created and the standard he set with his courageous effort in April 2011 will endure.

Paul Lazdowski can be followed on Twitter: @plazdow

High expectations for A Shot For Life Challenge

July, 23, 2013
7/23/13
2:42
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WEST ROXBURY, Mass. -– Mike Slonina has always found solace and strength on the court. In 2010, when he learned that his mother had been diagnosed with brain cancer, the Watertown resident went straight to the Waltham YMCA and shot jumpers for four hours, while trying to process the news. Gratefully, the initial diagnosis turned out to be incorrect and he became determined to try and prevent others from suffering from the hopelessness that he felt that afternoon.

It turned out that basketball would provide more than just a coping mechanism, it also became the method by which Slonina, then a senior at Catholic Memorial High School, would try and fight back.

“I’m one of those people that, when something goes wrong, I feel like I have to do something,” he recently reflected. “The thing with cancer is that it makes you feel helpless and that’s what makes me so mad. I just wanted to give that hope back and show people that you can make a difference.”

He formed a non-profit foundation, trained for several months, and, on April 9, 2011, took to the Ronald S. Perry gymnasium court and shot jumpers for 24 hours straight. That day, A Shot For Life Foundation (ASFL) raised more than just awareness about brain cancer; it also raised nearly $30,000 for Mass General Hospital and Boston Children’s Hospital.

Two years later, as a rising junior at Quinnipiac University, Slonina has organized another competitive event to further his organization’s mission of funding cancer research.

On Saturday, August 3, at the University Sports Complex in Hanover, 11 of the best shooters in Massachusetts high school basketball -- including Rockland's Tyler Gibson, the state's Gatorade Player of the Year -- will fire jumps shots for two straight hours. The winner of the “A Shot For Life Challenge” (to be determined by field goal percentage) will not only be crowned the “Best Shooter in Massachusetts,” but will also have his number retired for all future ASFL events.

“I think it’s great because you hear so many terrible things happening in youth sports today and here are 11 really tremendous basketball players unselfishly using their talents for a good cause,” said Slonina last week during a break in a youth camp that he is helping to run at his alma mater. “It was so great seeing that many young kids embracing it and realizing the good that they can do with basketball.”

His own basketball career was cut short in seventh grade by a nerve problem in his ankle, which it was later determined was caused by a bone being in the wrong place, but the game remained a huge part of his life. Slonina was the team manager for the CM team that won the 2008 MIAA Division 2 state championship and, when he needed an outlet for his desire to give back, basketball (and his great jump shot) was a natural fit.

He showed up at CM every morning at 6:30 a.m. to shoot, would lift during lunch periods, and then shoot for hours again after school. He demonstrated the same determination off the court, going door-to-door to raise funds for the event. While Slonina admits that ASFL is not yet raising the type of money that will make a huge difference, he firmly believes that every penny counts. He also believes that this is just the beginning for his foundation.

He explained, “That’s what everyone needs to grasp. On a bigger scale, that’s what I was trying to do with the 24-hour thing. People kept saying, ‘But, you’re only one person.’ It only takes one person.”

Following his feat, Slonina’s life changed and the profile of A Shot For Life was at its highest point. He hopes that the foundation, which he loves, can reach that potential again through the August competition and that the players will feel honored to be taking part in the event. There is no question that Slonina is already eyeing the future and placing high expectations on himself and the foundation.

“I want to be the Nike of non-profits,” he said with total sincerity and a contagious enthusiasm for what the future holds for ASFL. The inaugural “A Shot For Life Challenge” is still more than two weeks away, but Slonina is already thinking of ways to make it bigger and better in 2014. He exclaimed, “I can tell you right now that next year is going to have a dunk contest!”

Since his record-breaking effort, Slonina and A Shot For Life have inspired countless people and he can recount numerous examples of people that have shared stories that, he says, nearly bring him to tears. An example was a comment from one of his former teammates from the 2008 state title-winning team, who came back to rebound for him that day.

“[One of the players], who was a senior when I was a freshman, told me, ‘You don’t know how many people you just inspired.’ I look up to him, so him saying that...It just means so much to me,” marveled Slonina. “I don’t want to say a cliché, but it means the world to me.”

After several other tries to put into words just what it meant to read the letters and emails that he received after the 2011 event or to have people tell him how about how he affected their lives, Slonina simply shook his head and laughed, “This is the first time I’ve been speechless in an interview. I don’t know how to word it. It’s awesome.”

The “A Shot For Life Challenge” will take place on Saturday, August 3 at the University Sports Complex in Hanover beginning at 1 p.m. The 11 shooters are: Ben Judson, St. John’s Prep; Sam Bohmiller, Franklin; Tommy Mobley, Newton North; Nick McKenna, Danvers; Jake Foote, Duxbury; Ryan Roach, Cardinal Spellman; Vinny Clifford, Danvers; Scott Arsenault, Walpole; Mike Nelson, Bishop Feehan; Shiraz Mumtaz, Brookline; and Tyler Gibson, Rockland.

To donate to the A Shot For Life Challenge, CLICK HERE.

D3 Boys Final: Danvers 66, Smith Academy 50

March, 17, 2013
3/17/13
1:19
AM ET


WORCESTER, Mass. -– For the second times in as many years the Danvers boys’ basketball team captured the Division 3 state title. After defeated St. Joseph Central of Pittsfield in 2012, the defending champs took another team’s best shot for the last time, defeating Smith Academy 66-50 at the DCU Center in Worcester to finish the repeat.

Danvers (24-2) had to fight through until late in the game against Smith (22-4), the Western Mass. champion, before finally pulling away in the early minutes of the fourth.

Smith Academy kept the lead from getting to double digits, always on the verge of threating. With 38-32, the Danvers Falcons began to create separation when Vinny Clifford starting to knock down shots.

After not scoring in the first half, Clifford hit his last four shots, en route to 11 second half points.

“We were always that one or two shots away from extending that lead,” Danvers head coach John Walsh said. “I mean it’s credit to them. We just couldn’t extend it.”

Clifford rattled home a pair of threes in the opening minutes of the fourth and Danvers held a double-digit lead for the rest of the game.

Danvers started the game behind strong shooting, with Nick McKenna and Nick Bates knocking down 4-of-5 from three in the first quarter. Over the next eight minutes, Danvers missed seven 3-pointers as Smith cut into a 12-point deficit, closing the first half on an 9-2 run and trailed 34-29.

In the second half, Danvers relied on getting the ball to Dan Connors inside while shying away from the three ball.

“We knew we had to get it inside to Dan Connors,” McKenna said. “If we get it into him, he’s either going to score the ball or have a really high percentage shot (or) a kick out for three."

McKenna ended with a game-high 20 points with a pair of rebounds and assists. Connors and Bates added 12 while Clifford and point guard Eric Martin added 11 as all Danvers starters scored in double figures. Smith was led by Seaver Rickert with a team-high 14 points with Mat Sulda added 11.

Danvers repeats: Danvers continued its title reign on Saturday with another double-digit win in the state final at the DCU Center. For a core of senior starters –- Eric Martin, Nick McKenna, Dan Connors and Nick Bates -– there is no better way to go out.

“It’s unbelievable,” McKenna said. “I mean we worked so hard to get here; back-to-back years is not something a lot of teams get to do. To win...[I] can’t even explain it.”

The final act for the Danvers repeat was the easiest. Smith Academy hung around for all of three quarters, before the opening minutes of the fourth saw Danvers finally break open a double-digit lead.

All four seniors were instrumental in Saturday’s title win. All four scored in double figures while McKenna was the only player to go for 20 points and Bates finished with a double-double of 12 points and 14 rebounds. Martin and Connors may not have filled the stat sheet, but were solid all-around, especially Connors, who was the focal point of the offense in the second half.

“He (Connors) didn’t have the greatest offensive game up to his standards, but he was tremendous defensively and rebounding,” Walsh said.

In the final minutes, the four seniors exited the floor after Martin connected on a free throw and Danvers was able to bask in the second straight title as the clock hit triple zeros.

“It’s such a special moment sharing this with my team,” Bates said. “We knew it was going to be hard, but we knew we had it in us.”

Clifford continued to shoot: Danvers sophomore Vinny Clifford could not find his shooting stroke. Through one half the sophomore was 0-for-6 from the field. The Falcons’ 3-point shooting was on display earlier as Nick McKenna and Nick Bates connected on 4-of-5 to start the game. However, Danvers went onto to miss seven consecutive, as Smith climbed into the game.

When the second half started, Danvers focused on getting the ball inside to Dan Connors. Yet, when the Falcons did go outside, Clifford was the one to make the big shots.

“We’re very demanding of certain things,” said Walsh. “When you’re a shooter, we want you to shoot the basketball. We don’t care if you miss; just keep shooting. You have to be a threat for the defense to at least want to cover you.”

In the second half, Clifford got into a groove and finishing the game connecting on his last four shots.

“He (coach) just told me to keep shooting,” Clifford said. “It was good because I had been shooting bad all game, it just felt good to finally find my shot.”

Danvers held a six-edge with when Clifford hit his first shot, a 3-pointer to up the lead to nine. Clifford hit a long two to keep the lead at nine and then buried to more threes to push the lead to double digits. With six minutes to go and Smith Academy still hanging around down 10, Clifford drilled a 3-pointer to put Danvers up 50-37.

“He doesn’t miss once he gets going,” McKenna said. “It’s amazing to see a sophomore; a kid who still barely talks to us, hit huge threes in the state championship. It’s pretty cool to see."

With Danvers core of two-time champions set to graduate, Clifford showed the promise of the Falcons future.

Tale of the Tape: Danvers vs. Smith Academy

March, 14, 2013
3/14/13
11:52
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MassLive.com online sports producer Jay King and I break down each of the three MIAA boys basketball State Championships taking place Saturday at the DCU Center in Worcester. I'll be providing Eastern Mass. perspective, while Jay handles Western Mass.

***

DIVISION 3: DANVERS VS. SMITH ACADEMY

School: Danvers
Record: 23-2
Region: North

The Falcons were our preseason pick to repeat as Division 3 state champs, and outside of a forgettable showing at the Comcast Tournament in late February (against Division 1 competition, mind you), they have done nothing to dissuade from that. Danvers head coach John Walsh is a cousin of Watertown coach Steve Harrington, winner of D3 state titles in 2007 and 2009, and has brought elements of Harrington’s four-out motion offense to Danvers for dramatic results.

Overall, Danvers is one of the most well-conditioned squads in Eastern Mass., able to win track meets when the game calls for it. Part of that is due to several players’ success on the soccer pitch during the fall season. The bench is considered deep for the long haul, but in the short term the Falcons typically keep it to a seven-man rotation. And those seven can all shoot from deep.

-- Brendan Hall

Key Players:
Eric Martin, 6-0 Sr. G – One of several soccer standouts on the squad, the Northeastern Conference MVP is one of the region’s better distributors.
Nick Bates, 6-4 Sr. G – Another soccer star, and another terrific shooter from long range.
Nick McKenna, 6-0 Sr. G - Missed a month of action during the regular season with mononucleosis, but has come on strong in the playoffs, including Tuesday night’s win over Martha’s Vineyard.
Dan Connors, 6-3 Sr. F – The weak-side pivot in Walsh’s four-out offense, he’s not as big as 2012 All-State center George Merry, but has certainly held his own with the best of them.
Vinny Clifford, 6-2 Soph. F – Sharpshooter is the younger brother of current Merrimack College forward Mike Clifford.

Road through the playoffs
North First Round: beat Greater Lawrence, 78-41
North Quarterfinal: beat Minuteman, 81-42
North Semifinal: beat Whittier, 69-51
North Final: beat Wayland, 57-52
Eastern Mass. Final: beat Martha’s Vineyard, 50-47

***

School: Smith Academy
Record: 22-3
Region: West

At halftime of the Western Mass. final against St. Joe’s, I joked with a Smith Academy assistant coach that I could use one of the team’s patented scoring runs to liven my day. He looked at me and said, “And it might come from anywhere.”

Anywhere? Well, it’ll probably come from one of the top five scorers. Smith Academy’s top five scorers account for 86.5 percent of the team’s points, with 64.4 percent of that coming from the top three scorers. Smith Academy’s sixth-best scorer averaged just four points per game.

But that’s okay, because the Falcons’ heart of the order can hit for both power and average, and the supporting cast features role players willing to get their hands dirty. The mixture forms a potent offensive team that can score in a hurry. During the first half of an opening-round playoff game against Ware, Smith Academy drilled an obscene 12 three-pointers.

After surviving a St. Joe’s attempt at the buzzer of the Western Mass. final and rolling Littleton by 16 points in the state semifinals, Smith Academy has reached the school’s first state championship game in 21 years. The Falcons are now 22-3, with those losses coming by a combined five points.

-- Jay King

Key players
Mat Sulda, Sr. G (19.3 points per game) – Sulda doesn’t have much of a conscience, and there isn’t really any reason for him to have one. The lefty, who has 76 made 3-pointers this season, can hit tough shots from almost anywhere on the court.
Keith Natale, Jr. F (14.3 points) – Natale’s a smooth wing who can hurt opponents in a lot of ways. His off-the-dribble, spinning jump shot from just inside the free throw line provided the final margin in Smith’s 3-point Western Mass. championship game win.
Derek McMahon, Jr. G (10.4 points) – A couple of his teammates score better, but McMahon’s court presence and cerebral play are quite important ingredients.

Road through the playoffs
West Round 1: beat Ware, 85-39
West Round 2: beat New Leadership, 67-46
West Semifinals: beat Renaissance, 57-45
West Final: beat St. Joe’s, 66-63
State Semifinals: beat Littleton, 72-56

D3 EMass: Danvers 50, Martha's Vineyard 47

March, 13, 2013
3/13/13
1:44
AM ET


BOSTON -- Experience is everything in big games, especially when one team is the defending state champions starting four seniors, and their opponent is returning just three total varsity players.

Danvers, the defending state champions, took advantage of their experience and defeated Martha’s Vineyard 50-47 in the MIAA Division 3 Eastern Mass. Championship Tuesday afternoon at TD Garden.

“It helps a lot,” Danvers head coach John Walsh said of his teams’ experience. “We start four seniors and they are very tough kids. It has nothing to do with our coaches -- we just have really tough kids.”

[+] EnlargeDanvers
Brendan Hall/ESPN BostonNick McKenna's late free throws sealed Danvers' close call over Martha's Vineyard, and advanced the Falcons to the D3 state title game for the second straight year.
The Falcons trailed 43-41 with 2:09 left, but went on a 7-0 over the next 1:57 to take a 48-45 lead over the Vineyard’s. A lot had to do with the inexperience of the Vineyarders, who turned the ball over a number of times on possessions down the stretch.

“Those last two, two and a half minutes, we got up two and had the ball, but then they felt the pressure a little bit,” said Vineyard coach Michael Joyce. “It was more going too fast than not making the play. They saw it there -- they just went too fast. That comes with experience, playing here and being at this kind of venue.”

With Danvers leading 48-45, Vineyard had the ball with 12.7 seconds left. Jack Roberts went the length of the court for an uncontested layup cutting the deficit to one, 48-47.

Vineyard then immediately fouled the Falcons’ Nick McKenna with 4.7 seconds left. The senior sprinted to the line and calmly sank both free throws, giving his team a 50-47 lead with 4.7 seconds to go. Vineyard’s Izak Browne had a deep look at three at the buzzer, but it missed giving Danvers its second EMass title in as many years.

“It was a crazy last minute, it felt like an hour,” McKenna said. “The last couple of free throws you just try and go through your routine and block out their seven bus loads of people. You just go through your routine and make shots like you always do.”

Of Danvers’ 12 points in the fourth quarter, eight of them came from the foul line. For the game the Falcons went 12-for-23, something Walsh was very disappointed in.

“Our free throw shooting was atrocious, I don’t even want to know what the numbers were,” he said.

Danvers struggled on the offensive boards in the first half as Vineyard’s size and skill got them plenty of second chance points. This was a point of emphasis at halftime.

“I told our kids from the beginning you have to box out, you can’t just turn and jump,” Walsh said. “We have athletes, but their front line is big. Holy cow.”

The Falcons turned things around in the second half, limiting Vineyard to just two offensive rebounds.

“We haven’t seen a team all year long with that size and athleticism,” McKenna said. “Coach’s halftime speech was ‘you got to rebound, you got to rebound.’

“He lit a fire under us and in the second half we really tightened it up defensively, especially on the rebounding end. We boxed out as much as we could because we knew we couldn’t out jump them like many other teams.”

Danvers jumped out to a 17-10 lead after one quarter, but Vineyard tied the game, 24-all at the half, led by Browne’s 12 second-quarter points.

For the game Browne led Vineyard with a game-high 17 points, while fellow senior Jack Roberts added 12 in the loss.

Danvers had very balanced scoring as usual, led by their seniors. Nick Bates led the way with 12, followed by McKenna who had 11 and Dan Connors added 10.

With the win Danvers moves on to defend their state championship Saturday afternoon at the DCU Center against Smith Academy.

It was something their team might not thought possible with some injuries the team has had to deal with over the course of the year.

“It’s amazing with all the injuries we’ve had,” McKenna said. “Eric (Martin) was out for awhile, I was sick early in the year. To fight through all that and get to this point, it’s an amazing thing to do.”

END OF A GREAT RIDE
All is not lost for Martha’s Vineyard who finished the year 18-6 and was the No.7 seed in the Division 2 South bracket. Returning only three varsity players, and making it to the EMass final is something Joyce is very proud of, especially seeing his team grow throughout the season.

“We only had three returning players from last year’s varsity team on the team this year,” said Joyce. “There were nine new faces and we started off playing like that this year. The first five or six games we were definitely shaky and no one knew how to play with each other. As the season went on they grew how to play with each other and became unselfish and then in the tournament we started to play really well obviously.”

Vineyard got tremendous fan support with seven fan busses making the trip to TD Garden, not including the parents and other adults who made the trip.

“It was a great showing by the Island community,” Joyce said. “They really got behind the kids and supported them. It’s been great and each game we got more and more people. It’s been a blast. I think that is something the kids will keep with them after...They will start to realize it was a pretty neat year.”

For Vineyard, getting to the Garden is something to build on as they accomplished something they hadn’t done in over 30 years.

“This run was certainly something special,” said Joyce. “We hadn’t been to the Garden in 33 or 34 years. Certainly it would have been nice to win one more and get a chance to play for the state title, but that is part of getting the kids used to this type of situation. Danvers played like they had been here before – their calmness and patience in the fourth quarter.”

Comcast: No. 6 Brighton 74, No. 4 Danvers 66

February, 17, 2013
2/17/13
11:13
PM ET
WELLESLEY, Mass. -– It happened in a flash. One minute all the discussion was about the efficient execution of the Danvers half-court offense; the next minute all anyone could talk about was the explosiveness of Brighton in the full-court.

The Bengals (14-5) scored 30 points in the third quarter against Danvers (18-1) in the first round of the IAABO Comcast Board 27 Comcast tournament at Babson College. Brighton turned a halftime deficit into a 74-66 win over the previously unbeaten Falcons.

Malik James was the catalyst for the Brighton turnaround. The junior point guard scored 16 points and dished out seven assists in the second half (he finished with 22 and eight for the game), while shooting 8-10 from the floor. Junior Nick Simpson chipped in as well with 14 of his game-high 23 points after halftime.

The offensive explosion by the stars was impressive, but Brighton head coach Hugh Coleman pointed to the full-court defense of a reserve guard for giving his team a third quarter spark.

“This was a good step up for Malik tonight, but Nate Hogan, our senior guard off the bench, just played phenomenal D on their point guard and I think that really set the tone for us,” said Coleman. “That was a real key for us tonight.”

The second half started with an 18-4 for the Bengals, which turned it from a seven-point deficit into a 46-39 lead. Hogan hounded Danvers point guard Eric Martin up and down the court and the Falcons had no answer for James’ penetration. In addition to his defense, Hogan also knocked down two big three-pointers to extend the Brighton lead in the third quarter.

Danvers continued to hang around thanks to top scorers Nick Bates (21 points, nine rebounds) and Dan Connors (23 points, five rebounds). Connors had a three-point play that pulled Danvers back within five at 60-55, but Brighton answered.

Junior guard Mark Mojica dove to secure an offensive rebound right under the basket. He scrambled to his feet and James found him open in the corner. Mojica buried a dagger three that put Danvers away for good.

Falcons head coach John Walsh gave Brighton credit for the result, but also noted that his point guard was limited in the second half.

He remarked, “Our point guard is everything for us and when he got hurt it made him a lot slower and it really, really hurt us. We don’t have anyone to step in his place. I don’t know that it was a disruption...They hit shots and Malik James is a Division 1 player. It’s more of a credit to them.”

The first half was a much different game.

The Falcons demonstrated a prolific half-court attack that led to easy shots at the rim for both Connors and Bates. Constant movement, multiple screens, and the ability of guards Martin and Nick McKenna to get into the lane opened up the Bengals defense almost every trip down floor. Bates had the highlight of the first half with a two-hand slam over a Brighton defender.

On the other end, Brighton struggled from the floor. In stark contrast to how the game developed after halftime, the Bengals were only 12-32 in the opening half. Brighton stayed in the game by dominating the offensive glass. Sophomore center Jason Jones scored eight points and pulled down nine rebounds (seven offensive) in the first half alone and Simpson added five boards.

“They killed us. All the second chance points seemed to lead to kick outs for three’s,” said Walsh.

Coleman noted that rebounding has been a point of emphasis for the team all season.

“We’ve really been on our big guys all year about being active down there and not getting boxed out, and not just sitting behind somebody, and it worked for us today’” he said. “I know they’ve got a big team so I was really worried about the boards, but I think our weakside guards rebounding helped out as well.”

It was only the first loss of the season for the defending Division 3 state champions and Walsh believes that having a tough test like Brighton on the schedule will help the Falcons prepare for the tournament.

“It can’t hurt,” he mused. “They’re so good that it’s going to prepare you. When that kid [Malik James] is in the lineup, they are as good as any team in the state.”

Brighton will play in the finals of the tournament on Monday night against B.C. High, which beat Newton North comfortably in the opener. Danvers will face the Tigers on Monday afternoon.

Recap: No. 3 Danvers 49, Beverly 47

January, 29, 2013
1/29/13
11:27
PM ET


BEVERLY, Mass. -– Over the course of a season, a team very rarely goes out and dominates teams on a night in and night out basis like Danvers has this season. Eventually there comes a night where maybe they don’t play their best, ending up in a dog fight with a tough opponent.

That is what took place Tuesday night as Beverly (10-4) gave No. 3 Danvers (13-0) everything they had, but eventually fell 49-47 before a packed house at the Henry Cabot Lodge Field House.

“It was a crazy ending to really a great high school basketball game,” Beverly coach Scott Lewis summed up perfectly following the game.

With Beverly trailing 48-47 with just under 40 seconds to go, and with possession, the ball was knocked loose towards the Beverly bench with players diving after it. One of the referees blew the whistle awarding a timeout to Danvers, but after a few minutes of discussion it was ruled to be an inadvertent whistle, thus turning to the possession arrow and giving it back to Beverly with 30.8 seconds left.

[+] EnlargeVinny Clifford
Brendan Hall/ESPNBoston.comSophomore Vinny Clifford (14 points) fueled Danvers' fourth-quarter rally with two big shots in the final two minutes.
After a runner in the lane by junior Nick Cross rolled off the rim, and Danvers sophomore Vinny Clifford scooped up the rebound, Beverly was forced to foul. Clifford made one of two free throws to give the Falcons a two-point lead and one last chance for Beverly with 10.8 seconds left.

Senior captain Cam Rogers got a good look at a runner in the lane, but it too rolled off the rim and Danvers escaped with the win.

“I was proud we overcame some adversity,” said Danvers coach John Walsh. “You get late in the game and certain things can rattle a team, like when a call doesn’t go your way or something like that. We fought through and I’m ecstatic.”

Beverly led virtually the entire way until a Clifford three-pointer with 5:10 to play gave the Falcons a 42-40 lead. The Panthers threw different zone defenses at Danvers, which seemed to work forcing them off their game.

“They came out like we thought they would and played some sort of zone and it worked to their advantage,” Walsh said. “Like I said they are very well coached. There was nothing that we were surprised about. We knew they would do everything well and right.”

The Panthers led 15-10 after one, 29-24 at the half and 36-33 after three. Lewis also agreed defense was the key.

“We defended,” he said. “We threw some different looks at them and tried to take away their options. That was the key, our defense. Offensively, we were OK. I think in the second half we got a little tight and missed a couple of bunnies. If we made a couple of shots it would probably be a different outcome, but the reason it was close was because we defended.”

Beverly’s offense struggled in the second half -- finishing with just five field goals -- and missing some key shots, which could have put the Panthers over the top.

“I thought we got good looks,” Lewis said. “Cam (Rogers) got a few good looks, and I think Nick Cross had a few good open looks, but they just didn’t drop. Maybe we were tired and didn’t have the legs in the second half. One thing I would have liked to have seen was us go to the rim a little bit more and not settling for the jump shot, but hose are shots that we normally make.”

After struggling in the first half, going 0-for-4 from three-point range, and finishing with just two points, Clifford picked his game up in the second half recording 12 points for a game-high of 14 including three 3-pointers.

“He hit some big shots,” Walsh said. “He is a sophomore and he is coming up big. He’s stepping into that void where (Nick) McKenna would get those shots. I was very proud of him.”

McKenna is arguably Danvers’ best player, but has only played in seven games this year due to mononucleosis. He averaged 19 points in those games and is expected back Feb. 8 against Saugus.

Seniors Dan Connors and Eric Martin each had solid games for Danvers finishing with ten points apiece.

Beverly was led by junior guard Jonangel Franco, who led the team with 11 points. Junior Jonathan Berchoff also played well finishing with 10 points in the loss. Cross, the Panthers leading scorer, was limited to only seven points and none in the second half.

Danvers was able to overcome poor free throw shooting as they finished just 6-for-13 from the charity stripe, while Beverly was an impressive 11-for-12.

The undefeated Falcons, and defending Division 3 state champions, have five Northeastern Conference games remaining before their next big test comes in the Comcast Tournament late in February.

Beverly, who qualified for the Division 2 state tournament in Sunday’s win over Bridgewater-Raynham, has five Northeastern Conference games remaining before a non-conference tilt with Dracut to close out the year.

LOOKING FOR POSITIVES
Coming into the game Danvers’ closest margin of victory in a game this season was 19 points over Revere last Friday. Although Walsh wasn’t particularly happy with the way his team played, the game will certainly help the team down the stretch and in tournament games.

He also was quick to point out the outcome had a lot to do with how Beverly played.

“I’m not happy with the way we played, but getting a win like that can’t hurt us,” he said. “I think it is more of a credit to them. I think they are that good, they are really good. I think they play hard, they are tough and they are well coached. You’re not going to get anything free against them.”

For Lewis, some positives can be taken from taking one of the top teams in the state down to the wire, but ultimately the upset was what the Panthers were after.

“I guess maybe in a couple of days when it settles in we can say ‘we played with Danvers, one of the best teams in the state, beating everyone by 20 points. We can play with them,’” Lewis said. “On the other hand we lost the game. That would have been a huge win for us so we’re a little upset we lost the game because quite frankly we played really well, well enough to win.”

Roundtable: Midseason All-State, Superlatives

January, 25, 2013
1/25/13
3:46
PM ET
At the midpoint of the MIAA basketball season, we've asked our panel of experts to submit their picks for ESPN Boston All-State, as well as Mr. and Miss Basketball along with a number of superlatives:

***

Brendan Hall
ESPN Boston High Schools Editor


All-State Super Team
G – Tyler Nelson, Jr., Central Catholic
G – Darien Fernandez, Sr., Wareham
G – Jameilen Jones, Sr., BC High
G/F – Kamari Robinson, Sr., Springfield Central
F/C – Tyler Gibson, Sr., Rockland

Second Team
G – Jaylen Blakely, Sr., Brockton
G – Nick McKenna, Sr., Danvers
F – Nick Cambio, Jr., Central Catholic
F – Brendan Hill, Soph., Mansfield
F – Isaiah Nelsen, Sr., North Andover

Third Team
G – Riyadh Asad, Sr., West Springfield
G – Juwan Gooding, Soph., New Mission
F - Sam Dowden, Sr., Andover
C - Dakari Wornum, Sr., Dorchester
C – Chris Baldwin, Soph., Springfield Central

Girls Super Team
G - Infiniti Thomas-Waheed, Jr., Newton North
G - Donnaizha Fountain, Sr., Cambridge
F - Olivia Healy, Sr., Reading
F - Caitlyn Abela, Sr., Oliver Ames
C - Molly Reagan, Soph., Braintree

Mr. Basketball Finalists
Tyler Nelson, Jr., Central Catholic – WINNER
Darien Fernandez, Sr., Wareham
Jameilen Jones, Sr., BC High
Tyler Gibson, Sr., Rockland
Kamari Robinson, Sr., Springfield Central

Defensive Player of the Year – Drew Healy, Lowell
Coach of the Year – John Walsh, Danvers
Best Shooter – Tyler Nelson, Central Catholic
Biggest surprise (player) – Dakari Wornum, Dorchester
Biggest surprise (team) – St. Peter-Marian
Most underrated (player) – David Stewart, Madison Park
Most underrated (team) – Melrose

All-Defensive
G – Tyree Weston, Soph., New Bedford
G – Marcus Middleton, Sr., Stoughton
F – Isshiah Coleman, Sr., New Mission
F – Prince Unaegbu, Sr., Brighton
C – Drew Healy, Sr., Lowell

All-Shooters
Tyler Nelson, Jr., Central Catholic
Tommy Mobley, Soph., Newton North
Daivon Edwards, Sr., Brighton
Giulien Smith, Soph., Catholic Memorial
Ben Judson, Soph., St. John's Prep

Second half sleepers to watch

Dorchester
The Bears are a streaky team, but also a gritty one, as shown in their 58-57 loss to East Boston on Wednesday. Dakari Wornum has been one of the breakout stars of the first half of the season, but a number of athletic shooters -- including Jeduan Langston, Khalil Newson, Ceejae Agnew-Carter and Dean Lee -- can make this team explode at any moment. The expected return of 6-foot-7 junior D'Bryant Coraprez should bolser the frontcourt too.

Sharon
We knew junior point guard Brian Mukasa (18.8 points per game) was good, and we though he had potential to be this good, but we had questions about the Eagles' supporting cast. Jimmy Fritzon (14.2 points per game) has some answers.

Waltham
Hawks are my favorite to win the Dual County League's Large division, in a year of parity across the board. Keep an eye on Mike Gelineau, one of the area's more underrated shooters.

Case
Most expected Wareham to run away with the South Coast Conference (again), but guess who's sitting at 11-2 and 8-1 in the league? The Cardinals are allowing a league-best 46 points per game, and face Wareham on Wednesday for a first-place battle in the SCC. Keep an eye on 6-foot-8 senior center Matt Plante.

***

Chris Bradley
ESPN Boston correspondent


All-State Super Team
G - Darien Fernandez, Sr., Wareham
G - Tyler Nelson, Jr., Central Catholic
F - Jameilen Jones, Sr., BC High
F - Kamari Robinson, Sr., Springfield Central
C - Tyler Gibson, Sr., Rockland

Second Team
G - Jaylen Blakely, Sr., Brockton
G - Riyadh Asad, Sr., West Springfield
F - Nick Simpson, Sr., Brighton
F - Nick Cambio, Sr., Central Catholic
F - Brendan Hill, Soph., Mansfield

Third Team
G - Nick McKenna, Sr., Danvers
G - Rod Milton, Sr., Worcester South
F - Sam Dowden, Sr., Andover
F - Isaiah Nelsen, Sr., North Andover
C - Chris Baldwin, Soph., Springfield Central

Girls Super Team
G - Kayla Burton, Sr., Newton South
G/F - Donnaizha Fountain, Sr., Cambridge
G/F - Olivia Healy, Sr., Reading
F - Morgan Lumb, Sr., North Andover
C - Molly Reagan, Soph., Braintree

Mr. Basketball Finalists
Tyler Nelson, Central Catholic - WINNER
Darien Fernandez, Wareham
Jameilen Jones, BC High
Tyler Gibson, Rockland
Kamari Robinson, Springfield Central

Defensive Player of the Year - Isshiah Coleman, New Mission
Coach of the Year - Sean Connolly, St. John’s Prep
Best Shooter - Tyler Nelson, Central Catholic
Biggest Surprise (Team) – Wachusett
Biggest Surprise (Player) – KayJuan Bynum, Springfield Putnam
Most Underrated (Player) – Sam Dowden, Andover
Most Underrated (Team) – Dorchester

All-Defensive
G - Marcus Middleton, Sr., Stoughton
G/F - Nate Anderson, Sr., New Mission
F - Isshiah Coleman, Sr., New Mission
C - Alex Cooper, Sr., Wachusett
C - Drew Healy, Sr., Lowell

All-Shooters
Tyler Nelson, Jr., Central Catholic
Tim Dufficy, Sr., Whitinsville Christian
Tommy Mobley, Soph., Newton North
Zack Berman, Sr., Wachusett
Jaylen Blakely, Sr., Brockton

Second-half sleepers:

Andover
If Connor Merinder is back in time for the tournament, then consider Andover a favorite in Division 1 North. Central Catholic has clearly separated themselves from BC High, St. John’s Prep, Lowell, and Andover so far, but if Andover gets a healthy, productive Merinder back, they will make a run to the Division 1 North final. The Golden Warriors have gone 10-2 thus far without the 6-foot-5 forward, who is considered one of the MIAA’s best in a loaded 2015 class. Sam Dowden has done a great job of leading Andover so far, but getting a healthy Merinder makes them a legitimate contender to be at the DCU Center come March.

Worcester South
South became the first team to finally knock off previously undefeated Wachusett in Central Mass. The Cononels, who with the win moved to 8-2, did so without junior point guard Kasheen Cunningham, one of the area’s best outside shooters. South has the best scorer in Central Mass. in Rod Milton, a strong young big man in Khalil Bryan-Robinson, and a constant threat from outside in Cunningham—with Central Mass. Division 1 as up in the air as it has been in years, look for South to make a run to the Division 1 finals at WPI.

***

Ryan Kilian
Founder and Editor-in-Chief, Mass. Prep Stars (www.massprepstars.com)


Boys Super Team
G - Tyler Nelson, Jr., Central Catholic
G - Jameilen Jones, Sr., BC High
G - Malik James, Jr., Brighton
F - Brendan Hill, Soph., Mansfield
C - Chris Baldwin, Soph., Springfield Central

Girls Super Team
G - Morgan Lumb, Sr., North Andover
G/F - Alana Gilmer, Soph., Archbishop Williams
G/F - Donnaizha Fountain, Sr., Cambridge
F - Olivia Healy, Sr., Reading
C - Molly Reagan, Soph., Braintree

Mr. Basketball
Tyler Nelson, Jr., Central Catholic

Miss Basketball
Olivia Healy, Sr., Reading

Defensive Player of the Year
Boys: Kendall Hamilton, Sr., Wakefield
Girls: Infiniti Thomas-Waheed, Jr., Newton North

Coach of the Year
Boys: Mike Kasprzak, Melrose
Girls: John McNamara, Pentucket

Best Shooter
Boys: Tyler Nelson, Jr., Central Catholic
Girls: Morgan Lumb, Sr., North Andover

Biggest Surprise
Boys: Frantzdy Pierrot, Jr., Melrose
Girls: Molly Bent, Soph., Barnstable

Most Underrated Player
Boys: Doug Gemmell, Sr., Central Catholic
Girls: Tess Noguiera, Sr., Pentucket

Most Underrated Team
Boys: Melrose
Girls: Ipswich

Second Half Sleepers

Boys: Wakefield – They have been hanging in the wings with a few losses and have battled some injuries but with a healthy Bruce Brown and continued improved play of Kendall Hamilton, Mikol Blake-Green and others they should be back in the title hunt by the end of the regular season.

Girls: Westford Academy – Westford Academy has played a very difficult schedule, losing to Bishop Feehan, Wachusett and Billerica by a combined five points. They have wins over Lincoln-Sudbury and Arlington Catholic as resume boosters and can play with any team in the state. Juniors Sam Hyslip and Hannah Hackley lead the Grey Ghosts in most statistical categories.

***

Rob Sarmiento
Founder and Editor, Beantown Hoops (www.beantownhoops.com)


First Team
G - Jameilen Jones, Sr., BC High
G - Darien Fernandez, Sr., Wareham
F - Sam Dowden, Sr., Andover
F - Tyler Gibson, Sr., Rockland
F - Doug Gemmell, Sr., Central Catholic

Second Team
G - Jaleel Bell, Sr., Wayland
G - Jaylen Blakely, Sr., Brockton
G - Malik James, Jr., Brighton
G - Tyler Nelson, Jr., Central Catholic
F - Isaiah Nelsen, Sr., North Andover

Third Team
G - Giulien Smith, Soph., Catholic Memorial
G - Juwan Gooding, Soph., New Mission
G/F - Bruce Brown, Soph., Wakefield
F - Brendan Hill, Soph., Mansfield
F - Nate Anderson, Sr., New Mission

Girls Super Team
G/F - Donnaizha Fountain, Sr., Cambridge
G/F - Olivia Healy, Sr., Reading
G/F - Molly Bent, Soph., Barnstable
G/F - Morgan Lumb, Sr., North Andover
F - Sarah Hope, Sr., Medway

Mr. Basketball - Jameilen Jones, BC High
Miss Basketball - Olivia Healy, Reading
Coach of the Year - Mark Antonelli, Somerville
Best Shooter - Tyler Nelson, Central Catholic
Biggest Surprise (player) - Molly Bent, Barnstable (Girls)
Biggest Surprise (team) - North Reading
Most Underrated (player) - Jaleel Bell, Wayland
Most Underrated (team) - Melrose

All-Shooters
Tyler Nelson, Jr., Central Catholic
Sam Dowden, Sr., Andover
Sam Bohmiller, Sr., Franklin
Tommy Mobely, Soph., Newton North
Mike Gelineau, Sr., Waltham

Second Half Sleepers

Boys: Franklin - Well-coached and playing in a tough conference will make them battle ready come playoff time. Plus, they have a player who can make threes in bunches with Bohmiller.

Girls: Arlington Catholic - Seem to always make a run and their style of play is tough to prepare for. They are young in some key positions, but first half of the season experience will show during the playoffs.

Recap: No. 4 Danvers 90, Lynn English 70

January, 10, 2013
1/10/13
1:40
AM ET


DANVERS, Mass. -- Devoid of real depth in the size department, Lynn English looked to push tempo and run at all times Tuesday night. And stocked with multi-sport athletes accustomed to continuous sprints, No. 4 Danvers was more than up for the track meet.

The Falcons took a slim four-point lead into the break, but exploded for 30 points in the third quarter, and outscored the Bulldogs 48-32 in the second half overall to pull away with a nice 90-70 victory in its own field house.

"We went into this game thinking, if it's in the 60's or 70's, we lose," head coach John Walsh said. "Obviously it wasn't our goal to play at that level with that many points scored, but they make you do that. They make you run. For a minute there, I thought they had us."

With that in mind, perhaps just as impressive is the fact that the Falcons (6-0) used just six players on the night. Five of them scored in double-figures, led by seniors Nick McKenna (23 points) and Dan Connors (20 points, eight rebounds). Senior Eric Martin also notched a solid night distributing, finishing with 13 points and eight assists.

[+] EnlargeDan Connors
Brendan Hall/ESPNSenior forward Dan Connors exploded for 14 of his 20 points in the third quarter for Danvers, en route to a 90-70 win over Lynn English.
Walsh admitted he thought Martin looked tired by the end of the game, even calling a timeout with a minute left worried that his senior point guard "was going to pass out". But in the same thread, Martin's star career on Danvers High's soccer pitch has him conditioned for this type of action.

"I was definitely tired at the end there, but for most of the game I can keep going more than other kids because of soccer," Martin said.

Holding on to a 42-38 halftime lead, the Falcons took command of the game in the third quarter with a 30-point outburst. English forward Ben Bowden picked up his fourth foul early in the quarter, leaving the Bulldogs (4-4) shorthanded underneath the basket. The Falcons took advantage, running a slew of sets through Connors as he repeatedly either found space around the rim for easy bunnies, or simply stretched behind the blocks to either clear the runway for Martin or set up an open three with a screen.

Connors was a perfect 7-for-7 from the field in that quarter, while Danvers was 4-for-5 on three-pointers overall, getting two each from McKenna and Vinny Clifford (16 points).

Danvers led comfortably 72-52 headed into the final frame.

Postal Service: With Bowden on the bench with four fouls, the Falcons exploited the ensuing mismatch down low with Connors in a multitude of ways.

"We just started doing everything right, just flashing the ball like we were supposed to," Martin said. "I think Danny was open five times under the hoop, just getting it down to him, he started finishing his layups. So once we took care of all the little plays that we didn't [do] in the first half, things just opened up for us."

He added later, "We knew if we got him the ball, at least if he didn't score they were going to foul. So we started getting him the ball, and everything else just opened up. We started moving it from inside-out, and everything else started opening up."

One particularly successful method involved cross screens, or screens set with lateral movement to create an opening in the post area. As a cross screen was set underneath the basket for Connors, Martin was usually coming off of a flare screen, or a screen set near the three-point line aimed at releasing the shooter fading to the wing for an isolation play.

"AFter Vinny Clifford sets the initial screen, when he gets to the corner, it's almost like...if you don't switch it, he's going to get an open look in the corner," Walsh said. "Which he did, so he hit a couple of three's. And that makes it so that you have to know where he is at all times. And if not, Danny Connors is coming to the back, almost like a flex cut, but it's set by the point guard and then they have to decide whether to go after Vinny or Danny. It worked out well."

Run, and run some more: To establish their affinity for the uptempo, the Bulldogs came out pressing from the get-go, switching off between man-to-man and 1-2-2 looks -- and still, later some 2-1-2 sprinkled in, which Danvers solved with some movemenet up the sidelines.

To keep pace with it, that requires a certain level of conditioning. Most of the Falcons are multi-sport athletes. Some, such as Martin, are accustomed all of this run-and-gun style from his standout career as a soccer player, having scored more than 100 career goals for the varsity.

"We're blessed with Eric, because he's a soccer player that can legitimately run forever -- I mean, forever," Walsh said. "And our other kids are just used to it. It's a philosophy I've had."

Young, but promising: With just two seniors on the roster, the Bulldogs are a bit green this year. But that isn't to say there isn't talent abound in the program, with players like junior Freddy Hogan (23 points) and sophomore Erick Rosario (10) leading the backcourt.

One in particular to keep track of the next few years might be Johnny Hilaire, a 6-foot-6 sophomore slasher with an above-the-rim style brought on by a fairly impressive vertical leap. Hilaire exploded for eight points in the fourth quarter on a perfect 4-for-4 clip from the field, highlighted by a tomahawk dunk in transition. He finished the night with 12 points overall.

Both Walsh and English coach Mike Carr made a comparison to former ESPN Boston All-Stater Keandre Stanton, who had some low Division 1 interest before settling at Frank Philips Junior College, in Borger, Texas, where he is a freshman.

Said Carr: "He's an athlete, he does a lot of nice things. He's only a sophomore, he just has trouble picking some things up, that's why he's not playing as much. But he will, he's a good kid. It's a great group, they work hard."

Said Walsh: "He's going to be him [Stanton]. It's freaky how quickly he gets off the floor. I don't know he jumps as high as Keandre -- I don't know if I've ever seen anyone in my life jump as high as Keandre ever -- but he's pretty close. And he's only a sophomore, so that team is loaded -- loaded -- for the next couple of years."

Big week at AAU Nationals for Bridges, Gibson

July, 28, 2012
7/28/12
9:47
AM ET
As another day of basketball begins at 11th Grade AAU Nationals in Orlando, Boston Warriors coach Mark Papas sends along some impressive information regarding two of his most outstanding players.

Point guard Greg Bridges, an incoming sophomore at New Mission playing with the 17-and-under squad, had an explosive effort for the Warriors' "Blue" team last night in an 86-69 win over Altamonte (Fla.) in the Division I tournament. The 5-foot-7 waterbug hit 11 three-pointers, as part of a 42-point effort. For the tournament this week, he is averaging 32 points per game.

Meanwhile Tyler Gibson, an incoming senior at Rockland High, has been putting up surreal numbers with the Warriors' "Black" club in the Division II bracket. For the week he is averaging 18 rebounds per game -- including 23 last night against Boo Williams (Va.) -- to go along with 15 points and five blocks. A handful of low-major Division 1 and Northeast-10 schools are expressing interest in the 6-foot-5 forward.

Also playing well this week for the Warriors have been Medway's Matt Ozzella (15 points per game), Danvers' Nick McKenna (15) and Staples (Conn.) guard Pete Rankowitz (13 points).

Behold the Future: MIAA hoop teams to watch

March, 28, 2012
3/28/12
6:49
PM ET
With the unveiling of our MIAA All-State Teams for Boys and Girls late last week, the 2011-12 basketball season has come to close. But before we officially slam the book on another exciting season of hoop, and move on to spring sports, I wanted to get out a few thoughts on the landscape for next season.

To whet your appetite for the 2012-13 season, here are my early projections on the state's must-see teams to watch:

BOYS

Central Catholic - Plenty of talent returning with this squad, which captured the No. 1 overall spot in Division 1 North despite missing Luis Puello (ankle) for most of the season. ESPN Boston All-State guard Tyler Nelson returns as one of the state’s top shooters, but the Raiders also return all three of their regular bigs in Joel Berroa, Doug Gemmell and Nick Cambio.

New Mission – Apparently it’s never too early for bulletin board fodder, because head coach Cory McCarthy is already making some barnstorming rounds, telling ESPNBoston.com this afternoon that if the Titans don’t win the Division 2 state title next year, “I should be fired.” Bold, yes, but it’s hard not to like a lineup of Isshiah Coleman, Nate Anderson, Greg Bridges, Damion Smith and Shaquan Murray. There is some promising talent in those ranks.

Mansfield – Folks are talking about the Hornets being one of the South region’s top teams in two years’ time, between promising freshman Brendan Hill and sophomore Michael Hershman. I’m of the camp that believes with those two versatile parts, paired with a terrific coach in Mike Vaughan, the future is now.

Taunton – Shaquille O’Neal Davis. That’s legitimately his full name, and one you certainly will not forget by this time next year, for reasons that have nothing to do with The Big Aristotle.

West Springfield – Terriers return virtually everyone, including Chris Lipscomb, Paul Bessette, Andy McNulty, Dewey King, and leading scorer Riyadh Asad. West Side is the early favorite next year in Division 1 West.

St. John’s (Shrewsbury) – Junior transfer Tarik Octave was one of the nice surprises of the playoffs, and freshman Davon Jones has shades of former Pioneers great David White all over him (Doesn’t hurt that Jones was also the Pioneers’ starter at safety last fall, too). A boat load of underclassmen return, including Ken Harrington and T.J. Kelley, which should more than make up for the graduation of Matt Palecki.

Danvers – Falcons graduate 6-foot-7 center George Merry, an ESPN Boston All-State selection, but return some terrific guards. Nick McKenna, Nick Bates, Eric Martin and Dan Connors can all shoot the ball, and are perfectly-suited for John Walsh’s four-out offensive system. My early pick to repeat at D3 champs.

BC High – Eagles return what ought to be one of the state’s best backcourts in point guard Charles Collins and ESPN Boston All-State swingman Jameilen Jones. Throw into the mix one of the region’s best basketball minds in Bill Loughnane (he of four state titles) and it’s hard to think of the Eagles as anything but a favorite in the South.

Springfield Central – A plethora of talent graduates, including Chris Prophet, Lee Turner, Jevaughn McMilian, and ESPN Boston Super Teamer Tyrell Springer. But All-State forward Kamari Robinson should have another terrific season, and the way Cornelius Tyson exploded onto the scene in the Division 1 state final makes us all wonder if he’s about to realize the potential that many in the Springfield area have been talking about for so long.

Stoughton – Super Teamer Aaron Calixte and Defensive Player of the Year Marcus Middleton formed the state’s best backcourt in 2011-12. If all goes as planned, they’ll be well-equipped to defend that notion next season.

Wareham – Vikings might not endure an unbeaten regular season again next year. But another year of All-State point guard Darien Fernandez means they’re not going anywhere.

GIRLS

Braintree – Wamps started three freshmen this year: Ashley Russell, Bridget Herlihy, and 6-foot-1 center Molly Reagan. Expect them in conversation for state title contention from now until their time runs out in 2015.

Archbishop Williams – Ditto the Bishops, who have two 6-foot freshmen to look forward to the next three seasons. Add in sophomores Olivia Conrad and Leah Spencer, and their fiery mouthpiece Sara Ryan, and this could be another top-five team come December 2012.

Reading – The Rockets made a flawless run through the Division 2 gauntlet, winning their first Division 2 state title in school history as one of two final unbeaten squads in Massachusetts. Two-time Middlesex MVP and ESPN Boston All-State Olivia Healy returns, as does guard Morgan O’Brien.

Andover – Golden Warriors are expected to come down to Earth with the graduation of two-time ESPN Boston Miss Basketball, Nicole Boudreau, and UConn lacrosse commit Ally Fazio. What might be overlooked amidst Andover’s unprecedented run to a third straight state title is that there were plenty of terrific complimentary backcourt pieces in the underclass.

Central Catholic – Raiders treaded water after some injuries early on. But once junior forward Casey McLaughlin was back to full strength, they made a run all the way to the Division 1 North semifinals. Have to imagine they’ll be in conversation again next year.

Div. 3 Boys Final: Danvers 59, St. Joe's 47

March, 17, 2012
3/17/12
7:06
PM ET



WORCESTER, Mass. -- On this Holiday of Obligation in Ireland, the whole world feels a little Irish. And from the sound of the alarm at the end of the first half until the final buzzer sounded Danvers' 59-47 win over St. Joseph Central, Nick McKenna's ancestors wielded cudgels for him fervently and fought for him.

The junior guard scored a game-high 18 points, including a three-point buzzer beater at the end of the first half to pull the Falcons within one in addition to 5 of the 7 points in Danvers' run at the end of the third quarter that put them ahead for the final time, St. Joseph Central High School unable to beat back McKenna and his army.

“I think St. Patrick was looking down on us,” said Danvers coach John Walsh. “The luck of the Irish I think was with us today.”

With 3:32 left in the third quarter, St. Joseph had seemingly quashed Danvers' attempt at recovery, having outscored Danvers 12-7 in the third and Mike McMahon (12 points, eight rebounds) just completing a three point play. But the free throw was ultimately his last score on the day.

After the Falcons only taking two trips to the free throw line in the first quarter netting one point (Eric Martin failing to complete a three point play, George Merry icing his shot), McKenna took back-to-back trips to the line and went 3-of-4, closing down the St. Joe's lead to three at 37-34.

Merry dropped a deuce followed by a McKenna score, which put Danvers up 38-37. St. Joseph attempted a shot in the last 10 seconds of the third, but a miss and a rebound by Dan Connors (15 points, 11 boards) sent the Falcons into the fourth with the lead and an intangible energy that was planted in the locker room at halftime by Walsh.

“[Taking the lead 38-37] was a huge momentum swing,” said Walsh. “We were down 37-31 and we went on that 7-0 run and then had another little run in the fourth quarter. That kind of separated the game and we were able to finish with the win.”

Starting the fourth quarter, the teams traded baskets, but Danvers had the momentum and they were able to take a five-point lead at 44-39 with just less than seven minutes to go in the game.

At 5:50, the Crusaders' junior point guard Taverick “Tank” Roberson (13 points) hit a shot, making it a 3-point game. The score would mark a drought for the Crusaders. Connors hit two free throws with 4:30 to go and McKenna hit two more at the 4:02 point, spreading Danvers’ lead to nine with a spread leg, underhand roll, off the backboard, ring-around-the rim layup that somehow found the bottom of the net, leaving the score at 50-41.

“Sometimes, it as simple as we hit some shots and they didn’t,” added Walsh. “That’s just the way it goes sometimes.”

With 2:50 to go, a St. Joe's intentional foul showed the team’s desperation. Although the effort netted one point at the line, Danvers kept the ball and the game turned into a foul and Hail Mary match for the Crusaders, but Danvers’ had been ordained the Division 3 champs from a higher power with McKenna being the conduit of the blessing.

Conditioning as an Achilles’ Heel, Weapon: Late in the game, Danvers was able to put on a couple of runs. The first ended with them coming from behind to go into the fourth leading by one, the second spread the score out to 10 and put the game out of St. Joseph’s reach for good.

“Honestly, I think it was just focus,” said St. Joseph’s Mike McMahon. “I think we started getting worn down a little bit because we weren’t mentally in it, we weren’t making smart plays... plus we weren’t playing defense.”

On the back end of the fatigue end, Danvers prepared for a prolonged battle and fourth quarter conditioning is something that they rely on like a sixth man according to Dan Connors.

“We work hard in practice... all year," he said. "So come the end of games we’re in very good shape, we get our free throws and close out games.”

Danvers’ center George Merry (13 points, 7 blocks, 2 steals) led the charge down low with Connors.

The Shot: “I’m still not sure how the first one went in,” said McKenna of his shot that brought his team within one at the end of the first half. “I tried to get the ball and get a good look at the hoop. I decided to get a shot at the basket... I didn’t see the ball go in but I just heard everyone go nuts.”

“Kind of ridiculous,” is the way Walsh hestitantly described the basket. “But someone put that in for us.”

Coming Back: Last year, Nick McKenna had an injury that kept him out for the whole season, so this year, he has had incremental growth as a player which pleases coach Walsh, but McKenna’s easy going demeanor, smile and good feel he brings to the team is the most value part of his game according to Walsh.

“He’s a great kid too; better kid than he is a player. “He didn’t play last year so he starting to peak just now.”

Coming back with three out of their five starters, and if all goes well McKenna joining that starting line up, the future for Danvers looks like they’ve got lots of luck in store for next season.


ESPN Boston's MIAA State Championship Picks

March, 16, 2012
3/16/12
8:24
AM ET
The MIAA will crown six state champions in boys and girls basketball on Saturday at Worcester's DCU Center. Here are my thoughts on how those six games will play out:

DIVISION 3 GIRLS: PENTUCKET (22-4) VS. SABIS (21-5)
Pentucket Players to Watch: Tess Nogueira, Jr. C; Leigh McNamara, Sr. F; Sarah Higgins, Sr. F; Nicole Viselli, Jr. G; Alex Moore, Jr. G; Kelsie McNamara, Fr. G
Sabis Players to Watch: Jazmine Collins, Jr. G; Janaiya Sanchez, Fr. G; Shyanne Washington, Jr. F; Madison Sinkfield, Fr. F; Casie Thurber, Soph. C.
Analysis: After coming close the last couple of years, Sabis finally got over the hump in their competitive Western Mass. bracket, to land here at the DCU Center. Plain and simple, these Lady Bulldogs are on a mission; and led by a core that includes the dynamic Collins, this is a well-oiled machine. Unfortunately (and this will be the operative word for many of my picks), they run into a Pentucket team that is quite simply swarming on defense. The Sachems' lineup =is among the best in Division 3, and they're on a roll. Pentucket is also motivated -- the last time they were here, in 2010, the Sachems were penned as a favorite, only to run into a gritty Lee team that, quite frankly, pressed like kamikazes. Hall's Pick: Pentucket over Sabis

DIVISION 3 BOYS: DANVERS (20-4) VS. ST. JOSEPH CENTRAL (20-5)
Danvers Players to Watch: George Merry, Sr. C; Nick McKenna, Jr. G; Nick Bates, Jr. G; Eric Martin, Jr. G; Jon Amico, Sr. G.
St. Joe's Players to Watch: Taverick "Tank" Roberson, Jr. G; Mike McMahon, Sr. F; Joe Wiggins, Sr. F; Lavante Wiggins, Jr. G; Jon Bianchi, Jr. G
Analysis: Credit to St. Joe's for playing an ambitious non-league schedule, which included a rockfight of a bout with Holy Name back in December, and get ready to be introduced to the spunky power that is Roberson -- in my opinion, he's every bit of a tank as his nickname suggests. But after putting in arguably its best performance of the year Monday night in the Eastern Mass. Finals against Wareham, I'm convinced Danvers will come out on top in this one. the 6-foot-7 Merry can step out on the perimeter and facilitate offense for shooters like McKenna and Bates, as much as he can take it inside. Danvers coach John Walsh goes with some of the same offensive principles as his cousin Watertown head coach and two-time D3 state champ Steve Harrington. And if you thought Harrington's four-out, drive-and-kick, dribble drive-oriented motion offensive was frustrating enough, imagine what it's like with size.
Hall's Pick: Danvers over St. Joseph Central

DIVISION 2 GIRLS: READING (24-0) VS. TYNGSBOROUGH (23-1)
Reading Players to Watch: Olivia Healy, Jr. G; Morgan O'Brien, Jr. G; Melissa DalPozzo, Sr. F; Katie Clements, Sr. G; Katherine Callahan, Sr. G.
Tyngsborough Players to Watch: Lauren Iadarola, Jr. F; Amanda Hogan, Jr. G; Helena Hamilton, Sr. F; Morgan Mitchell, Jr. C.
Analysis: The Mid-Wach C champion Tigers avoided a clean sweep of Central Mass. on Wednesday with a dominant 50-35 win over Palmer out in Springfield, getting quality production out of Iadarola, Hogan and Hamilton along the way. But Reading has had the tougher route here, putting away stalwarts Wachusett, Bishop Feehan, Arlington Catholic (twice) and Scituate to get to DCU Center floor. Look for Healy to get hers, but most crucial in the Rockets' overtime defeat of Scituate on Tuesday night was the play of O'Brien, who scored 33 points. Look for her to be the X-factor in this one.
Hall's Pick: Reading over Tyngsborough

DIVISION 2 BOYS: BRIGHTON (21-4) VS. MAHAR (21-3)
Brighton Players to Watch: Malik James, Soph. G; Theo Oribhabor, Jr. G; Daivon Edwards, Jr. G; Prince Unaegbu, Jr. F; Jerard Mayes, Sr. F; Tre Dowman, Sr. C
Mahar Players to Watch: Travon Godette, Sr. F; Jesse LaCroix, Sr. G; Phil DiPhillipo, Sr. G; Josef Whitman, Jr. F; Nate Martin, Sr. C; Darwin Duncan, Sr. F.
Analysis: The relationship between Brighton coach Hugh Coleman and his mentor, legendary Charlestown coach Jack O'Brien, is well-documented. There are ripples of O'Brien's system and tactics sprinkled throughout the Bengals; and we can assure you, there are tons of coaches in Eastern Mass. rooting for Coleman, as good a guy as they come, on Saturday. That aside, the Bengals figure to be favorites in this one. Godette, DiPhillipo and LaCroix combined for impressive whipping of St. Bernard's on Tuesday, but they haven't seen anything like Brighton. Hardened by a brutal schedule, the Bengals lost their best player, sophomore Nick Simpson, before the playoffs, yet somehow haven't dropped off. There's plenty to like -- a frustrating extended 2-3 zone, a swarming press, and a gifted shooter in Edwards -- and I think this will be another big one for promising sophomore point guard Malik James.
Hall's Pick: Brighton over Mahar

DIVISION 1 GIRLS: ANDOVER (26-0) VS. HOLYOKE (22-2)
Andover Players to Watch: Nicole Boudreau, Sr. G; Ally Fazio, Sr. G; Devon Caveney, Sr. G; Angelice Gonzalez, Jr. G; Jackie Alois, Jr. F; Rebecca Alois, Soph. F.
Holyoke Players to Watch: Monique Heard, Sr. G; Alison Littles, Sr. C; Kirsy Segarra, Jr. G; Nyomi Walker, Jr. F; Selena Yates, Sr. G.
Analysis: Our friend and Pioneer Valley legend Adam Harrington is getting giddy over this "dream matchup", Western Mass.'s premier point guard versus, quite frankly, the best female guard to come through Massachusetts in over a decade. We think the crowd on hand will be impressed with Heard, but the Golden Warriors -- despite usually being undersized -- have proven again and again to be unstoppable. It just seems whatever the score is going into the fourth quarter, the Warriors simply turn around and take ownership of it. When you have a team of athletes that get up and down as quickly as these girls, plus a superstar with NBA range, that's a vicious combination.
Hall's Pick: Andover over Holyoke

DIVISION 1 BOYS: BROCKTON (23-2) VS. SPRINGFIELD CENTRAL (23-1)
Brockton Players to Watch: Jaylen Blakely, Jr. G; Drew Fiske, Sr. F; Jahleel Moise, Sr. F; Jean Thomas, Sr. F; Will Baker, Sr. G; Sayvonn Houston, Sr. C; Jamal Reuben, Sr. F; Jarrod "Bubba" Shelby.
Springfield Central Players to Watch: Tyrell Springer, Sr. G; Lee Turner, Sr. G; Chris Prophet, Sr. G; Kamari Robinson, Jr. F; Jevaughn McMillian, Sr. C; Trevor Bacon, Sr. F; Cornelius Tyson, Sr. G.
Analysis: This might be the best matchup of the day. I picked Springfield Central to win it all before the tournament started; and since the Eagles are still in it, I'm sticking with the pick. The X-factor here might be the health of McMillian, a game-changing 6-foot-7 shot-swatter who injured his ankle in Tuesday night's thrilling semifinal win over St. John's (Shrewsbury). If he can't go or is less than 100 percent, that could make the matchup down low with Brockton's 6-foot-6 Sayvonn Houston -- by many accounts, one of the state's most efficient true five -- very interesting. Yet it seems the Golden Eagles thrive on adversity -- in the Western Mass. Final, with Springer and Prophet fouled out -- Robinson held his own to stave off a furious Commerce comeback bid. On the flip side, the Boxers have been on a mission since getting trounced by nearly 20 by Charlestown right before the start of tournament play. Blakely has been one of the best point guards of the tournament, and the Boxers have gotten crucial shooting out of Baker, Fiske and Reuben. Look out for Moise, an athletic shot swatter with quality defensive skills.
Hall's Pick: Springfield Central over Brockton

Div. 3 Boys: Danvers 68, Wareham 45

March, 13, 2012
3/13/12
12:26
AM ET
BOSTON — Danvers head coach John Walsh knew it wasn’t a time to panic.

Even after Wareham scored the first 10 points of the second half and grabbed its first lead since the first bucket of the game, Walsh stood firm and let his players decide to figure it out for themselves.

Boy did they ever. Danvers went on a 24-4 run after losing the lead to hand the Vikings (24-1) their first loss of the season in the Div. 3 state semifinals in a 68-45 win, on Monday at the TD Garden.

“We only had three (timeouts) left,” said Walsh. “With five minutes left I was going to call the timeout, but we had used two earlier in the backcourt. I said screw it. If it becomes a nip-and-tuck game then we are going to need that other timeout.

“If they had scored one more hoop I would have called the timeout. We came down and hit a big shot, and then another shot.”

Stefan Montiero and Aaron Baptiste took dishes from Darien Fernandez and deposited them for 3-pointers to begin the 10-0 run, and Fernandez capped it off with a hoop for a 32-30 lead.

Nick McKenna finally got Danvers on the board in the half with a 3-pointer and then the points started to come in a flurry. Nick Bates hit back-to-back 3s to stretch the lead back to seven points. After Fernandez got to the dish again, the Falcons scored 15 of the next 17 points to take full command of the game.

“They went into a zone so the shooters on the team knew that we had to open it up from the outside and hit a couple of shots,” said Bates, who finished the game with 17 points. “That opened it up on the inside and that’s how we get back into games.”

McKenna scored four straight buckets in the run and finished with 12 points for the game, while George Merry led the team with 22 points.

Guarding Fernandez: It’s one thing when you see a talented point guard play and get used to his tendencies, but the Falcons only heard of the talents that Fernandez brings to the table.

The Falcons’ defenders had to just adjust to what they were seeing on the Garden floor instead of what game tapes or X’s and O’s could be drawn up in preparation leading up game time.

“He’s a great player,” said Bates. “We just had to go out there and do it on our own this time. The coaching staff usually has all the plays drawn up for us when we go against the teams from the NEC, but today we didn’t know much about (Wareham), so we kind of had to go out there and just learn it on the fly and play basketball.”

Fernandez finished with 19 points and nine rebounds, but the Falcons kept his assist numbers low (four) and forced the talented Vikings guard into committing turnovers.

“It’s tough. I like to go the lane and they were 6-8, 6-6, so I had to alter my shot more,” said Fernandez. “I was trying to drive and kick, but their guards did a good job of hitting the ball from behind. I had a lot of turnovers too.”

Strong Start, No Nerves: Nobody would begrudge either team for being nervous on probably one of the biggest stages in high school basketball, but the Falcons came out strong as if it was just another game.

As a team the Falcons shot 9-of-14 from the floor and built a 21-9 lead after one.

“I think it was more that we were just ready,” said Merry. “We were excited and ready to play. I think in warm-ups we were nervous because it was a huge gym and big atmosphere. … You are playing on the parquet and some of the greatest players in the game played on that floor. We thought we could do the same, got in the zone and did our thing.”

D3 North Boys: Danvers 53, Saugus 40

March, 10, 2012
3/10/12
3:11
PM ET
LOWELL, Mass. -- Danvers is headed to the TD Garden Monday night to face Wareham in the Division 3 semi-finals after it knocked off league foe Saugus 53-40 Saturday in the Division 3 North final at Tsongas Center.

After losing by at least 30 points twice this season, it was different Saturday for Saugus. It had a plan right from the start on how to deal with Danvers’ 6-foot-7 center George Merry.

Unfortunately, it was not always successful, as the senior went off for 21 points and 12 rebounds.

“Right from the start, when we walked in before the game, coach said, ‘I want you to play like an animal,’ and that’s what I tried to do,” he said. “I tried to be as good as I can, tried to get every rebound. I tried to get the ball and go up. I tried to change shots, without fouling of course, and just play my butt off trying to get every rebound I could, get every point I could.

“I was trying to help out the team as much as I could on defense. On offense, I just wanted to try and create shots for guys, help secure the ball and just get it to the guards.”

It played some form of a zone for a majority of the game, while mixing in the occasional man-to-man defense. He had seen most defenses before, and adjusted accordingly.

“They went man a couple times, and that just didn’t work,” he said. “The other times they played a 2-3, and whatever side I was on, the middle guy and the guy on that side collapsed on me down low and tried to prevent me from getting the ball.”

Saugus led 15-14 after the first quarter, due largely to its guards getting in the lane and hitting short-range jump shots and floaters over the long arms of Merry.

Curtis Casella (19 points, four rebounds) proved to be a difficult matchup for Danvers, who always seemed to find his way into the paint and score, even when spacing seemed limited.

“We had an entire gameplan to try and stop Curtis,” said Danvers coach John Walsh. “He’s one of the best players in our league, and he is still going to get his points. He’ll drive and dish, the kid is just a phenomenal player. We spent the last few days trying to devote all our defensive time to a kid like him, and he still gets his points. That’s the frustrating part, but it’s more just hats-off to him because he’s just so good. There’s really not much you can do about him.”

With the lead never getting above four points, Danvers’ Nick McKenna (10 points) hit a three-pointer in the second quarter to give his team the lead at 23-21. From there, Danvers never looked back.

Its lead only grew from there and by mid-afternoon, Danvers had punched its ticket to the TD Garden.

Defense Delivers: Danvers is moving one step closer to the TD Garden thanks in large part to its team defense. It held Saugus to only three points in the final quarter and scoreless over the final six minutes.

“Our team is all about defense,” said Danvers’ Nick Bates (nine points, 12 rebounds, two steals). “We knew we had to go out there and defense hard, and that’s what we did in the second half.”

It will have to continue that trend if it hopes to come out on top against a high-scoring team like Wareham on Monday.

“We tried to defend that well from the beginning,” said Walsh with a laugh. “Kids like Curtis (Casella) don’t make it easy. We just tried to defend and keep the ball away from some of their top scoring options. We did a better job on that in the fourth quarter to let them put only three points up.”

Merry Shines: Nine of Merry’s 21 points came from the free throw line. The big man showed a deft touch from the line after getting mauled underneath by the Saugas defense. It seemed like every time Merry got the ball in the low block, the defenders made it a point to hit his arms, whether it was to try and dislodge the ball or to intentionally send him to the line.

He made them pay by adding to his team’s point total and ultimately, allowing them to get one step closer to a state championship.

“Free throws are one of my strengths,” he said. “In the Wayland game (the tournament semifinals), I hit two big free throws at the end of the game to ice it. I just do free throws all day before practice, after practice, when we come out of the locker room at halftime. Before we go into the game, I’m always shooting free throws and always making sure I’m on point.”

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