WORCESTER — It was a one-game season against St. Joseph's of Pittsfield at the DCU Center on Saturday, but it was two years in the making for Danvers High in its quest to win its first state basketball championship.
A couple of years ago, you would've been laughed out of town if you mentioned Danvers boys hoop and state title in the same sentence. But then along came a bright and ambitious new coach, John Walsh, and a bunch of hungry and committed athletes who wanted to bury the team's ignominious history.
The change began last year when the Falcons won a pair of postseason games for the first time and finished 13-10 with a loss to Watertown in the Division 3 North semifinals.
That particular team was the table setter. This year's squad ran the tournament table, wrapping up a 21-4 campaign with a convincing 59-47 win over St. Joseph's in the Division 3 championship game.
"I wasn't on the varsity two years ago, but I think they went 2-18," said Nick Bates, a junior who had four points, 11 rebounds, three blocked shots and five assists in Saturday's finale. "I never would have thought we'd (win a state title) in such a short time, but Coach Walsh came in here and changed the program. And this is still a very young group."
Even though it was a fait accompli and the players and coaches were lounging around in the media room in midafternoon, the Falcons (21-4) had a hard time digesting the fact that they had won a state title. It came with three convincing wins in the team's last three postseason games, including a 68-45 whipping of 24-0 Wareham at the TD Garden in Boston in the state semis last Monday.
Senior center George Merry (13 points, 12 rebounds, 7 blocks) and junior Nick McKenna (game-high 18 points) were the most obvious stars versus St. Joseph's, but this was a complete team win. The Falcons played serious defense and received major contributions from players who didn't necessarily score a lot of points.
"We play together," said junior Dan Connors, who scored 15 points in the title game. "It's amazing how far Coach Walsh has taken the program in two years."
Junior point guard Eric Martin said bringing home a title should make everyone in the community feel good.
"It has to be 10 years since Danvers won a state title in any sport," Martin said. (Danvers High hockey and baseball both won state titles in 2001). "It all started last year when we had a good year, and we lost only two seniors from that team.
"We know what it takes to win after what we went through," Martin said. "We faced adversity, and we handled it. Coach meant everything to us (in the process of growing up as a team). He's the general. He always calls the right things on the floor, and we know who's going to be in the game at certain times. As a team, we've been good friends off the court. We've been together since elementary school, so this is pretty awesome."
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St. Joseph's coach Paul Brindle was impressed with Merry when he scouted Danvers. He was even more impressed after seeing how much Merry influenced the championship game with his smarts and his ability to block and alter shots. Merry again showed impeccable timing around the basket and was able to play aggressive defense even though he had three fouls early in the third quarter.
"He's so good," Brindle said. "If you have a kid that size in the middle of a 1-3-1 (zone) — it's just so tough. We don't see that kind of size in Berkshire County."
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Danvers High athletic director John Sullivan is obviously thrilled with everything that's transpired in the boys basketball program the last two years. The Falcons have become a relevant program on a statewide level, and he feels the players and coaches deserve all the credit they can get.
"The team got a taste of it last year, making the state tourney and getting a couple of wins," Sullivan said prior to the game. "They developed a lot of confidence, and it gave them a drive to get (to a championship level). The kids went to camp, and then they started beating the good teams in the (Northeastern) Conference, and they did it handily. Walsh has been awesome, and I couldn't be happier for our coaches and kids."
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Merry put the exclamation point on the state championship by shaking loose for a thunderous dunk with just 59 seconds left.
Danvers broke St. Joseph's press, and Connors lobbed the ball over the last line of the Crusaders' defense to Merry. The big center slammed the ball home with a two-handed jam that shook the hoop.
"I was waiting for that all game," Merry said. "I felt like it was the icing on the cake right there."