By Matt Jenkins
---- — WORCESTER — Hearing Nick McKenna talk about his team’s preparation, it almost seemed as if the Danvers High boys basketball team didn’t get any sleep before games.
“Not at all ... we live in the gym,” McKenna smiled after scoring 20 points in his team’s 66-50 win over Smith Academy Saturday afternoon at the DCU Center.
The Falcons captured their second straight Division 3 state title because of skill, chemistry and, most importantly, hard work.
Coach John Walsh explores every possible angle when preparing for an opponent, and that approach always stuck out when Danvers was closing out its postseason opponents.
“It’s unbelievable. Coach Walsh, all he does is watch film. He’ll leave practice and watch the same game five times and just scout and scout and scout,” McKenna said. “He knows every single move of every player.
“We had a ton of film on (state semifinal opponent) Martha’s Vineyard. We watched probably six or seven of their games and we had two or three games for Smith Academy. We know the personnel pretty well and try to use the scouting to our advantage.”
The effort level was extremely high from the moment Walsh walked through the gym doors three years ago, and it hasn’t dropped.
“You can’t take days off and we didn’t get many over the season,” senior point guard Eric Martin said. “People complained about it, but everyone pushed through and it shows how hard you have to work (to repeat). This whole group worked as hard as they could.”
McKenna and Martin are two perfect examples of how Walsh’s preparation pays off.
McKenna is Danvers’ most consistent offensive threat, but not many opponents would think of him as a defensive stopper. Yet there he was on Saturday frustrating Smith Academy’s Mat Sulda, the team’s top scorer.
Usually, Martin is Walsh’s choice to defend the opposition’s best guard, but Smith point guard Derek McMahon was also a handful. McKenna more than did the job against Sulda, limiting him to 11 points. There’s no doubt the preparation paid off for McKenna.
In Martin’s case, the senior guard was really an inexperienced basketball player when Walsh took over. Martin, who didn’t start playing basketball until he was in the eighth grade, credits Walsh with helping him grow quickly.
The coach’s work ethic rubbed off on his players.
“We know that if he’s working hard to get film and he’s telling us how to cover these kids, then we know we can go out and execute,” McKenna said. “It’s definitely a confidence booster.”
A year ago, Walsh and five of his players — McKenna, Martin, Nick Bates, Dan Connors and George Merry — stood together in the DCU Center press room as most of the remaining reporters headed back to the court. One final question was tossed Walsh’s way.
“Is there a chance for a repeat?,” Walsh was asked.
He didn’t commit to anything, but the usually careful Walsh seemed to be considering it.
He knew Merry would be moving on, but a solid core group of players would return.
“I was thinking it, but I didn’t want to say that,” Walsh said. “The kids were too good. I’m not saying it would have happened, but I thought there was an opportunity.”
The Falcons didn’t spend the season openly talking about their goal of repeating, but they were all thinking about it.
“We were returning four starters, we were here last year ... we’re all good players and every day in practice we knew we could make it this far,” Bates said. “We didn’t want to say stuff that might jinx us, but we just knew in the back of our minds that if we worked hard every day in practice we could get back here.”
Danvers dominated many of its opponents, but the team did prove its mettle through a couple tough stretches, especially when the Falcons had to play without McKenna while he was recovering from mono.
“Really, the stretch when we lost McKenna and were still able to go 7-0 or however many games he missed,” Martin said, referring to when he knew Danvers could repeat. “We knew kids would always step up. Everyone stepped up for him and to have kids step up when your top scorer is out is impressive. Then, when he came back it just made us so much better. We knew if we played well we could make a deep run.”
Before leaving the DCU Center this year, Walsh had to face one more question.
“Yeah, right,” Walsh laughed.
Danvers is graduating four starters and the Falcons will only return two of their top six. In addition, they’re moving up to Division 2.
Still, all the talk about Danvers struggling next year might be overblown.
Sophomore Vinny Clifford emerged as a dangerous shooting and scoring threat, and junior Kieran Beck was a valuable reserve. Danvers also has its fair share of underclassmen on the bench, including sophomore centers Peter Merry and Thomas Gillespie and freshmen guards Rashad Francois and Tre Crittendon. Junior guard Mark McCarthy could take over some of the ball-handling duties left behind by Martin.
“Vinny is going to be a great scorer and George’s little brother Peter is getting better every day. We’ve seen him progress through the year and get better every day,” Bates said. “Kieran is a great player and he’ll be a captain next year and be a leader. They’re going to have a good starting five — and they can make a run.”