The Salem News
---- — In the Paint
There will be nights this basketball season when things don’t fall into place for the Danvers High boys team. That’s the nature of basketball.
The Falcons will never suffer through nights when they are not prepared to win, however. Head coach John Walsh couldn’t live with that.
There’s nothing that an opposing coach can throw at Walsh that he hasn’t already thought about — and prepared for — himself.
“We just try to think how people might defend us and try to prepare for everything,” Walsh said. “There will be games we don’t hit shots. That’s just basketball. As long as we’re getting the shots we want, that’s all you can ask for.”
Danvers may lack a huge (6-foot-8 George Merry) presence in the middle that it can consistently rely on this season, but that doesn’t mean teams can load up defensively on the Falcons’ star perimeter players.
Danvers’ game against Saugus Friday night is Exhibit A. As soon as Nick McKenna and Nick Bates started heating up, Sachems’ coach Paul Moran elected to go to box-and-one and triangle-and-two defenses. Instead of slowing down Danvers’ attack, the defensive switch actually helped the Falcons heat up.
Walsh and his staff anticipated those moves from Saugus, and the Sachems’ desired result of confusion fell flat, leaving them frustrated and defeated.
It’s a song sung by most Danvers’ opponents in Walsh’s two-plus years at the helm.
“It’s crazy. We have so many plays. We have plays against box-and-one, triangle-and-two, 2-3 zone, 1-3-1 zone, man-to-man ... so many sets,” said McKenna, who helped Danvers improve to 3-0 with 19 points in the win over Saugus. “We run through our plays every day for about a half hour just to make sure everything is crisp and everything is jelling. That’s a big part of what we do.”
The Danvers coaching staff makes it a priority to know their opponent’s personnel and how the team likes to play. Then, with the help of non-stop defense, the Falcons turn the other team’s strength into a weakness.
“A lot of preparation goes into it. Walsh and (Mark) Garrity, our assistant coach, do a lot of scouting,” Bates said. “They know about every player on every team. They know what to do with most kids, force them left, all the little stuff to get an advantage.”
Make no mistake about it, Danvers is talented with Bates and McKenna on the wing, rugged interior player Dan Connors, and senior point guard Eric Martin, who is a pest defensively and the perfect quarterback for the Falcons’ offense. Sophomore guard Vinny Clifford is also an emerging star, and Danvers’ bench is better than advertised.
Still, the one factor that makes it seem like Danvers is in good position to make a solid title defense this year is preparation.
“We have an X on our back obviously from last year’s state championship,” Bates said. “Every team is going to give it their best shot, and we have to play our best every game because we’re going to get everyone’s best game.”
The preseason talk surrounding St. John’s Prep was that the Eagles might have a hard time finding the necessary 10 wins to qualify for the postseason. Sean Connolly’s crew has made all that speculation look foolish now.
The Eagles are off to a 5-0 start, already halfway to tournament qualification, with a couple games remaining before they hit their Catholic Conference schedule.
Lacking a true go-to player was expected to hurt St. John’s, but the Eagles have made up for it with a commitment to defense and a balanced lineup.
Senior guards Drex Costello (14 points per game) and Tyler Dooley (12.2 ppg) have been very consistent so far, and junior guard Max Burt (10.6 ppg) has been impressive off the bench. Burt is a shooter capable of stretching the floor, and he has helped Connolly by also serving as a backup point guard.
“I have been very pleased. The kids are working hard and getting better every day,” Connolly said. “We’re really working hard on defense, which is a big reason we’re 5-0.”
Costello and Dooley are both excellent perimeter defenders, and Costello has made some big shots for the Prep this season.
On the inside, Josh Syska and Jake Burt have been giving the Eagles good minutes.
Connolly knows this fast start was just what the Eagles needed because of their difficult schedule. St. John’s still has two games each against B.C. High, Catholic Memorial, and Central Catholic.
“The toughest part of the schedule is coming with league play. There are still a lot of tough games,” Connolly said. “Early on when we were looking at the schedule we realized if we wanted to make the tournament we’d have to start this way because there are so many tough games down the stretch.”
Austin Prep is off to a 4-0 start this season thanks in large part to Beverly’s own Rich Gilbride. A sophomore, Gilbride has already made his presence felt with a couple of big scoring games. Gilbride went for 25 points in the team’s win over Matignon two weeks ago, then led the way with 23 points in an overtime victory over Cristo Rey earlier this week.
In The Paint, a column on North Shore boys’ basketball, runs every Tuesday during the winter sports season in The Salem News. Contact staff writer Matt Jenkins at 978-338-2648, by e-mail at email@example.com, or follow him on Twitter @MattJenkins_SN.
Five for thought ... Most North Shore teams have played less than a quarter of their schedule so far, but getting off to a fast start can be critical to a good season. Here are the area's top five hottest teams out of the gate: 1. Danvers (3-0) -- It's not surprising that the Falcons are on this list, but it's hard to believe that they're already playing like it's midseason. 2. St. John's Prep (5-0) -- Probably the most surprising team on the North Shore so far, the Eagles look much better than anyone anticipated in the preseason. 3. Salem (3-0) -- The Witches have an excellent backcourt with Christian Dunston, Marvin Baez, and Billy Muse, and they already have a signature win with their last-second victory over Lynn English. 4. Beverly (2-1) -- The Panthers don't have one superstar, but they seem to have solid depth. 5. Pingree (3-2) -- The Highlanders have already posted a couple wins with large margins of victory.