By Gary Larrabee
Special To The Salem News
---- — Those of us who’ve been involved, in one way or another, with Danvers High basketball for the past 50-plus years are giddy beyond words these days.
Can you blame us?
After watching last season’s Falcons post the best record in the Northeastern Conference (14-3) and capturing a share of their first Northeastern Conference title (Small division) since 1975, then win their first North sectional title, march all the way to victory in the Eastern Mass. title game in the Garden and the Division 3 state championship in Worcester ... well, what possibly could they do for an encore this season?
Let us count the ways.
Following their gallant 49-47 win at Beverly Tuesday night, the Falcons stand a staggering and unprecedented (by school standards) 13-0. They are the only undefeated team in the NEC and a lock to win their first outright conference title since 1975. Moreover, the Falcons have now gone 45-6 in their last 51 games and have won 18 games in a row dating back to last season, a school record of epic proportion considering the program’s history since Gerald Ford was president.
They had won every game by a minimum of 18 points before Tuesday’s nailbiter in the palatial Henry Cabot Lodge Fieldhouse, and are outscoring their opponents by a preposterous average margin of 70-47 over these first 13 games.
A brief look back at DHS title/near-title history (pre-John Walsh years) since 1960:
1961 and 1962: Lose successive NEC championship playoff games to Winthrop, 56-52, and Woburn, 69-67
1964: Win first NEC title under new coach John McGrath with a nucleus of Jeff Ryback, Steve lenz, John Keane, Bob Bonner, Bob Cunningham and Pat O’Shea
1966: Lose NEC title game at Winthrop on final night, 50-48, without the services of injured captain and No. 1 scorer Jon Tiplady
1967: Lose title game showdown at Swampscott, 55-54, in final week of NEC season
1970: Win second NEC title in John McGrath era led by Lon Cohen, Dana White and Jay Veilleux
1975: Win NEC title No. 3 under former Tufts standout McGrath, led by all-time DHS leading scorer Ed Gieras, current DHS girls’ coach Pat Veilleux, Mike Hennessey and Jim Busby
I keep pinching myself. Is this a dream? Two years straight like this?
Barring an act from God, the Falcons, after its next five games (3 on the road), should stand 18-0 and become the NEC’s first unbeaten champion since Scoonie Penn-led Salem High in 1995. That would take them into the Comcast Tournament Feb. 17-18 at Babson College, where Danvers will face the ultimate test in trying to finish with a perfect 20-0 regular season. The other three teams involved: top 20-ranked Boston College High, Newton North and Brighton. The first two teams are Division 1 powers; Brighton a Division 2 contender.
The amazing thing about this team is the hunger/intensity/commitment to winning it displays at both ends of the court, an obvious tribute to Walsh and his coaching staff. Fact is these kids got sick and tired of hearing over the summer how they would take a dip in the standings after losing the multi-talented, 6-foot-8 center George Merry. Wrong; they have shown a fierce determination that exceeds that which carried them to the state championship. It’s almost like they are playing with a chip on their shoulder.
The four key returnees from last year have been magnificent in their own ways, individually and as team players. Eric Martin, Dan Connors, Nick Bates and Nick McKenna have been marvelous as the nucleus. But the real difference in this team’s invincibility has been the two newcomers to the rotation, sophomore Vinny Clifford and junior Kieran Beck, while Jake Cawlina and Duncan D’Hemecourt have pitched in at times, too.
With McKenna, the team’s top scorer at 18 points per game, sidelined for the last five games (and two more to go before his scheduled return on Feb. 8, according to Walsh), Beck has stepped in the breach and done a terrific job at both ends, even contributed double figure scoring a few times. He scored a huge fourth quarter bucket at Beverly.
In essence, the Falcons have not missed a beat with McKenna on the mend. Clifford, meanwhile, has given the Falcons another offensive weapon that defenses have yet to figure out. Through the Beverly game Clifford has made 38 three-pointers in 13 games, most on the team, including a school record eight in a non-league triumph at St. Mary’s. He made three at Beverly, all in the second half, and canned the decisive contested 12-foot jumper in the final minute. Sophomores aren’t supposed to play this big, but Clifford has.
The Falcons score tons of points off their press, double-teams and in transition, but also have a devastating long-range game thanks to the marksmanship of Clifford, Bates and McKenna.
Gary Larrabee is a former Salem News sportswriter and a native of Danvers who played basketball for the Falcons in the 1960s.