By Matt Williams
---- — Quality over quantity.
Perhaps that old cliche is the best way to describe the North Shore’s stake in the upcoming MIAA boys basketball state tournament. After all, only five of the 12 teams in the immediate area will be dancing in the postseason.
All five, however, have reasons to believe they can make deep runs in their respective brackets.
Let’s begin in Division 1, where St. John’s Prep drew the No. 1 seed in the North tournament after an 18-2 season and Catholic Conference championship. The Eagles host Billerica on Tuesday (7 p.m.) in a first round match-up.
The Prep has made relentless defense and strong guard play its hallmark this season, led by seniors Drex Costello (15.1 points per game) and Tyler Dooley (10.7 ppg). The Eagles played a difficult schedule, with marquee season sweeps of Central Catholic, Catholic Memorial and BC High.
Sophomore guard Ben Judson (42 3-point field goals) has also emerged for St. John’s and could be one of the players to watch in D1 North. Forward Max Butterbrodt is also playing well and senior Max Burt adds a strong shooting touch off the bench.
Winners of the Division 1 state title two years ago, the Eagles are 9-3 in the postseason under head coach Sean Connolly and are making their 12th consecutive tournament appearance.
The Prep’s potential road to TD Garden has a Merrimack Valley feel, with the winner of Andover/Medford set to visit the Eagles if they advance past Billerica. The No. 4 seed, Central Catholic, would be the Prep’s semifinal opponent if the seeds hold, and that would be one of the hottest tickets in the bracket given the two thrillers those rivals played earlier this season.
In Division 3 North, defending state champion Danvers drew the No. 2 seed after losing its last two games to fall to 18-2. Undefeated Cape Ann League champion North Reading (20-0) drew the top seed.
The Falcons, who won the Northeastern Conference title by winning their first 18 games (23 in a row overall), are not in uncharted territory: They lost their last regular season game a year ago before rattling off five straight to earn their first state championship.
The road to a repeat begins at home on Wednesday, when the Falcons will host Greater Lawrence (7 p.m.). Danvers has been a deep, resourceful team this winter led by Nick McKenna (16.6 points per game), forward Dan Connors (13.6 ppg), sophomore Vinny Clifford (11.9 ppg, 45 3-point field goals) and gifted point guard Eric Martin (11.0 ppg).
The Falcons feasted on the NEC, with 15 of their 18 wins coming by 20 points or more and six of those by at least 30 points. Comcast Tournament losses to Brighton and Newton North notwithstanding, Danvers beat Lynn Classical, Lynn English, Beverly and Salem teams that have designs on making runs in Division 2, so they should be battle tested.
Danvers is 7-1 in the postseason under coach John Walsh, who is in his third season.
Looking ahead, Danvers appears to have caught a break with Wayland on the opposite side of the bracket as a No. 4 seed. Wayland and Danvers went down to the wire in last year’s semifinals as the Falcons overcame a late 10-point deficit to win. Local fans wondering how North Reading might stack up with Danvers will have to wait until the Division 3 North finals should both clubs advance.
Hamilton-Wenham will be the first team in action when they visit Newburyport for a D3 first round game on Monday. The Generals (10-8) are seeded No. 11 while the Clippers are seeded sixth with a 13-7 record.
The Cape Ann League rivals split their regular season meetings, with the Generals winning the first game 56-44 and the Clippers emerging with a 51-49 overtime victory the second time around. Sopho-more James Foye is the player to watch for H-W, which is making its fourth consecutive state tournament appearance. He was leading the North Shore in scoring at last check, with 18.9 points per game. Henry Eagar is also scoring at a healthy clip with 12.7 ppg.
The only other local teams in the playoffs are old-time rivals Salem and Beverly, who are both in Division 2 North. The D2 North sectional is one of the deepest in recent memory, with top seed Melrose undefeated at 20-0. No. 2 seed North Andover has to be considered among the favorites, which include Brighton, New Mission, Salem, Beverly and Lynn Classical as the bracket features 11 teams with winning percentages over .600.
The Witches (15-5 for tournament seeding, excluding a split with Everett) drew the No. 4 seed and host Winchester on Tuesday at 7 p.m. They’re 12-9 in the playoffs under coach Tom Doyle and have qualified in each of his 10 seasons as head coach.
Dangerous senior Christian Dunston (16.4 points per game) leads Salem with both creativity and athleticism, while Marvin Baez provides a shooting stroke with 49 made treys. Billy Muse has made 48 trifectas of his own for the Witches while James Louf-Woods and David Kazadi provide the muscle down low. Dunston, Muse and Baez were the NEC all-stars for Salem, which would host the Brighton/Burlington winner in the second round if it defeats Winchester.
Beverly is facing a familiar foe in NEC rival Lynn Classical, with the rubber match slated for Tuesday at 7 p.m. The Panthers will host the game as the No. 6 seed with a 14-6 record while the Rams come in seeded No. 11 at 14-8.
Beverly took care of Classical in the season opener, 53-45, but fell in the second game, 66-45, on Feb. 1. The Rams have NEC North Player of the Year Eraldo Custodio while the Panthers counter with a deep roster that includes Cam Rogers, Jon Berchoff (13.5 ppg), Nick Cross, JonAngel Fraco and Dom Abate.
A year ago, Beverly won its first playoff game in five years and the Panthers are hoping to build on that momentum this year. They’ve been to the playoffs in seven of coach Scott Lewis’ nine seasons.
Outside the immediate area, six of the 12 Northeastern Conference teams made the playoffs with Lynn English in Division 1 North and Saugus joining the bracket in D3. Similarly, six of 12 qualified out of the Cape Ann League with North Reading, Lynnfield, Manchester Essex and Amesbury joining Hamilton-Wenham and Newburyport.