, Salem, MA

March 20, 2013

Appreciation: These indeed are the greatest days in Danvers basketball lore

By Gary Larrabee
Special To The News

---- — Danvers High sports fans tended to forget how reliably successful the boys’ basketball program had been ‘in the good old days’ because of the team’s mediocrity and misfortunes spanning the last 30 years. That’s a lot of misfortune and mediocrity.

That’s all changed, of course, with the Falcons’ utterly amazing back-to-back Division 3 state championship run that culminated Saturday with a harder-than-it-appears 66-50 victory over Smith Academy of Hatfield (a two-time state champ in its own right) in the Division 3 state title game at Worcester.

Now the Falcon cagers are the gold standard by which all future teams at DHS — and all future hoop teams throughout the North Shore — will be measured.

It has been the perfect storm. The arrival of former Watertown JV coach John Walsh three years ago, combined with an incredible group of athletes who bought into his regimented offense and chest-bumping defense from Day 1 and blossomed into history-making winners of the highest magnitude. The results: 13-10 and a first-time semifinal berth in the North Section tourney in 2010; 21-4, NEC and first state title last winter; 24-2, NEC title,18-0 start and a second state title this past Saturday. That’s 58-16 combined.

Danvers diehards wonder if they’ll ever see the likes again of these young men. It starts with last year’s seniors who helped make state championship No. 1 possible: 6-foot, 8-inch All-Scholastic George Merry, DHS’s version of Kevin Garnett; Joe Amico, the perfect complement to backcourt mate Eric Martin; and reserve Mike Scarfo, without whose final-seconds three-point field goal forced overtime against Wayland a year ago in a second round tourney game, there would not have been a first state title.

Then there was this year’s nucleus, in which the whole clearly exceeded the sum of their individual talents. They were a remarkable group of clutch performers who were determined to prove they could win without the ‘big guy,’ Merry. From Northeastern Conference Small Division MVP Martin, the ultimate point guard at both ends of the floor and Mr. Clutch from the foul line, to prime scorer/go-to-man Nick McKenna, to wingman/rebounder deluxe Nick Bates, to inside two-way force Dan Connors, to sophomore three-point bomber Vinny Clifford, to subs Kieran Beck and Jake Cawlina.

How fitting they would clinch MIAA championship No. 2 with all five starters scoring in double figures; the ideal example of teamwork par excellence.

Their legacy is secure: they’re now one of only two North Shore boys’ basketball teams (Lynn Classical, 1993-94) to win successive state titles since the divisional format kicked in back in 1972.

But there was indeed a legacy of championship basketball at Danvers High beforehand. Here’s a breakdown of the other (Northeastern Conference) champions:

1955: According to long-time Danvers sports fan Bernard Balser, author of the Danvers-based memoir “Off Hillcrest Road,” Coach George Radulski’s starting five was 6-foot-5 Ron Winskowicz, who played at Dayton; forwards Bob Batura and Sid Gates; and guards Leo Plante and Billy Kellenberger. The key subs were Dickie Morse, Peter Mackey, Charlie Brown, Bobby Hawkes and Jack Flynn. The latter became a legendary football coach at South Portland (Maine) High.

1964: New Coach John McGrath’s first of three NEC title teams in an 11-year span (he also coached the baseball team to three NEC titles and the Class B title in 1970) featured conference MVP Jeff Ryback and Steve Lenz at forwards; center John Keane; starting guards Bob Cunningham and Bob Bonner; and sixth man Pat O’Shea. Marblehead was the title favorite that season, but the Oniontowners (they became the Falcons in 1966) won both meetings and cruised to the championship.

1970: Point guard Jay Veilleux and future University of New Hampshire standout Lon Cohen, a power forward, were keys to the ‘70 title run along with Dennis Goode, David Elwin, Dana White and Dan Foote.

1975: It appeared this group would have to settle for a share of the NEC title after winning its final Conference game at Gloucester on a Friday night in mid-February. But before getting on the bus, they got word that their likely co-champ had been upset. Outright title to DHS, the last one until 2012. Ed Gieras, the loop’s top scorer, MVP and future Salem State ace, dazzled with his offensive repertoire as a power forward/pivotman who could not be stopped. Mike Hennessey, Jim Busby, future Salem Stater Pat Veilleux (the current successful Danvers High girls’ coach and Jay’s kid brother) also started, while Brett Hardin and Glenn St. Cyr shared the other guard slot.

That was all she wrote until John Walsh turned the Falcons into state champions nearly 40 years later.

(Editor’s Note: The Falcons did not win a title during future Merrimack College All-America, Boston Celtics draft pick and current UMass-Lowell athletic director Dana Skinner’s years between 1971 and 1973, but they did qualify for the tournament.)