By Mike Grenier
Special To The News
---- — WORCESTER — The Danvers High assistant basketball coaches were fidgeting nervously a few minutes before tipoff against Smith Academy Saturday in the Division 3 state championship game at the DCU Center.
“Hope it’s not one of those cardiac games,” said volunteer assistant Bob McKenna, alluding to the Falcons’ close wins over Martha’s Vineyard and Wayland earlier in the tournament.
As it turned out, Danvers was proactive in preventing potential heart problems by smothering Smith Academy, 66-50, completing what can now be considered a standard-bearing accomplishment in the history of North Shore basketball.
By winning 11 consecutive postseason games en route to back-to-back state titles, Danvers takes its place alongside Lynn Classical, which also went 11-0 while winning the Division 3 crown in both 1993 and 1994.
Basketball junkies on the North Shore — and there are many of them — can tell you about all the remarkable state championship teams of the past, going back to Ipswich in 1969, when Ruben Britt and Toby Goff led the Tigers to the Class D (small school) title.
Salem High, rich in basketball tradition, won it all in 1990, paced by Rick Brunson, an eventual McDonald’s All-American who played at Temple and then went on to the NBA (he’s currently an assistant coach with the Charlotte Bobcats). The Witches (25-0) won it again five years later with another superstar, Scoonie Penn, who ended up leading Ohio State to the Final Four in 1999 and was drafted by the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks before settling on a productive career in Europe.
More recently, Justin Woodworth was the catalyst for Ipswich when it captured Division 4 in 2005 (unfortunately, Division 4 doesn’t cross over to play Central or Western Mass. teams, so it’s more accurate to call it an Eastern Mass. title). Meanwhile, St. John’s Prep went 25-1 two years ago and took the Division 1 crown; its star player was Pat Connaughton, now a sophomore starter at Notre Dame.
For all of their greatness, none of those teams would ever go on to win a second consecutive state championship.
That exalted status is reserved strictly for the current Danvers team and the Lynn Classical team that dominated in nearly identical fashion two decades ago.
“There are similarities between us,” said Tom Grassa, 61, who’s been the head coach at Classical since 1985. “We were a deep, balanced team just like Danvers was (the last two seasons). Danvers has been just incredible. They’re extremely well-balanced and well-coached. John Walsh came in (as head coach three years ago) and implemented a system, and his players have executed it. He had all the right pieces and made them fit.”
All five Danvers starters — Nick McKenna, Vinny Clifford, Nick Bates, Dan Connors and Eric Martin — were double digit scorers in the state championship contest, and it was poetic justice because that’s how the Falcons were built. Lynn Classical also spread the wealth, said Grassa, even though it had marquee-type players in Calvin Johnson (1,800 career points) and Marcos Echevarria, who was “the heart and soul of our team,” said Grassa.
Lynn Classical compiled an overall record of 45-6 in its back-to-back championship years. Oddly enough, the Danvers Falcons also went 45-6 in their two-year championship span.
Even though it had its “cardiac games” and close calls in the last two state tournaments, especially against Wayland last winter and Martha’s Vineyard earlier this month, Danvers should be remembered as a team that hammered most of its postseason foes. The Falcons won six tourney games this year by an average of 18 points. That’s even more impressive than last year, when they won five games by an average of 14.2 points.
But as easy as the Falcons made it look at times, going the distance is never a cakewalk. Every team in the state recognized Danvers as a contender this season and was hungry to unseat Walsh’s team. The Falcons knew that ahead of time and responded with a killer instinct and an intelligent approach that enabled them to win it a second consecutive time.
“It was a lot tougher than last year. I never expected it would be this hard to repeat,” said Martin, the indefatigable point guard who had 11 points in the title game. “Every single team we played after the first round gave us a fight. We had to bring it every game and couldn’t coast through games like we did sometimes during the regular season.”
So now that Danvers has secured its place in history, where does the program go from here?
For one thing, it’s bumping up from Division 3 to Division 2 next year. On paper, anyway, that makes things a bit tougher. But with Walsh as head coach, the Falcons feel they have a fighting chance in every contest.
It was interesting after the championship game to hear 17 and 18-year old kids bring up the coach’s name without being coaxed into talking about him. The players feel he’s a difference maker and have bought into his system.
“We’re moving into Division 2 next season but with coach Walsh here and those (younger) kids going up against us every day in practice, I think they’re going to be OK,” said Martin. “It’s really a high level of practice every day and with coach Walsh, the kids aren’t going to take days off.
“We (seniors) haven’t talked to (the underclassmen) yet, but we’ll tell them that the program needs to stay up. We don’t want it to go backwards to where it was 10 years ago or when no one paid attention.”
Walsh comes from a winning background. For five years he was an assistant at Watertown, a consistent program. He’s got Danvers doing things that even its most ardent fans couldn’t have dreamed about a few years ago, and he just wants consistency and effort and commitment from his teams — no matter what the talent level is.
“All I ever want the kids to do is to play the right way,” said Walsh, still a young coach at age 33. “I know these things are cyclical; you have good teams some years and it’s not as good some other years. We want to emulate Watertown because I was there and that’s what I know. They’re always in the thick of things and that’s what we want to do.
“We want to keep doing it the right way.”