SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

March 10, 2014

Matt Jenkins column: Despite loss, winning and excitement still surround Danvers

On Basketball
Matt Jenkins

---- — LOWELL— Danvers boys basketball coach John Walsh has the unique ability to see the best in every team the Falcons are lined up to play.

In many ways, it’s the secret to his success. Unwilling to open himself up to the possibility of overlooking an opponent, Walsh prepares his team for every game like it’s the biggest, most important contest. Regular season success has followed the Falcons through each of Walsh’s first four years on the job, and the postseason output has been even more impressive.

Eventually, Danvers’ postseason win streak had to end, and a talented New Mission team did the job in the Division 2 North final Saturday afternoon by outlasting the Falcons, 61-50, at the Tsongas Center.

As the Falcons waited postgame to board their homeward-bound bus, they were clearly accompanied by a feeling of disappointment after the program’s playoff streak was stopped at 14 games.

But there was something else lingering around the team — excitement.

A third straight state title — and what would have been the program’s first at this level after winning back-to-back Division 3 crowns — was not in the cards. However, with Walsh returning all but two players from this roster, Danvers is already an early front-runner to return to the Tsongas Center in March 2015.

Losing seniors Kieran Beck and Mark McCarthy will not be something Danvers can just shrug off. McCarthy filled the point guard void left behind when his cousin, Eric Martin, graduated last spring. He played above expectations by doing the majority of the ball handling, pitching in on defense and playing with a fearlessness on offense that must run in the family.

Beck, meanwhile, was Mr. Versatility. He was asked to play a variety of roles — defensive stopper, reliable scoring option, part-time ballhandler — and tackled each of them with the heart of a champion.

Beck believes this season, and this loss to New Mission, will only help the Falcons grow into something stronger. Three starters — junior center Peter Merry, junior forward Devan Harris and freshman guard Devonn Allen — will return, plus sixth-man Rashad Francois.

Those closest to the Danvers program know the key factor in all of this will be the return of junior Vinny Clifford, who started at guard on the state championship team last year.Clifford’s season was lost before it began due to a torn ACL, and Beck knows the impact his return will have on the Falcons.

“With Vinny coming back they’re going to be very good,” Beck said. “I expect no less than a state championship next year.”

Winning is now officially in the Falcons’ blood.

“(McCarthy and Beck) are the last link to the kids before, especially with Vinny being out, so they know how to win and what it takes to keep winning,” Walsh said. “It’s been passed down from Nick Bates and Eric Martin and Jon Amico and Nick McKenna and Danny Connors and all those kids. They were the last link to it, so they passed it down and I thought they did a great job as captains. They were leaders and I’m proud of them.

“I believe winning breeds winning,” he continued. “If kids are used to winning, then they win. If they’re not, they don’t.”

With Clifford watching from the bench in street clothes, Danvers saw another star begin shining. Harris, a strong 6-foot-3 forward, showed off his good footwork, his soft touch and his natural rebounding ability all season. With the help of 6-9 Peter Merry standing by his side, he became Danvers’ rock in the middle. Harris averaged 23.7 points per game in the postseason while pulling down more than 16 rebounds per contest.

You have to believe coaches in the NEC and Div. 2 are already shuddering over the thought of playing against a team that features Harris, Merry and Clifford.

Allen and Francois are two young guards who have amazing potential. Francois is another dangerous scorer on the perimeter while Allen is an excellent defensive player with natural basketball instincts.

“I hope this motivates them going into the offseason to lift and get physically stronger and become better basketball players,” Walsh said. “It could be good on paper, but the games are obviously played out there (on the court). I do think it looks good and, for sure, not having (Vinny was) a big deal.”

Clifford felt the pain of his teammates this weekend, even though he couldn’t be on the court with them. He’s far enough along in his recovery that he’s been able to run, shoot and do some basketball drills. There’s been a fire burning in him all season, and a similar fire ignited in his teammates this weekend.

“It’s been killing me all year; I can’t wait,” Clifford said. “I think this definitely will be a motivating factor, just knowing two years in a row we came here and won here.

“Basically, you just want to reclaim what is yours.”

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Contact staff writer Matt Jenkins at mjenkins@salemnews.com or 978-338-2648. You can also follow him on Twitter @MattJenkins_SN.