By Matt Jenkins
---- — Many of the great teams in sports have the unique ability to turn a minor slight — real or imagined — into a major motivational tool.
The Danvers boys basketball team is no exception.
The Falcons (22-2) will battle Martha’s Vineyard in the Division 3 state semifinal at the TD Garden this afternoon (4:15 p.m.), still playing with a chip on their shoulder because their biggest star from the state championship run graduated last June.
George Merry was big in size (6-foot-8) and production (18.2 points per game in five tournament contests) last March. These Falcons have been hungry to prove they’re still good enough to reach an elite level this time around.
“It’s much more rewarding this year because of that. No one thought we’d be able to do it again,” senior point guard Eric Martin said. “Even though we were favorites probably through the whole tournament, everyone thought a team would knock us off because we didn’t have the height. But everyone bought into what we were doing and it feels great to be going back (to the Garden) again.”
Even though Merry, defensive specialist Jon Amico and three-point sniper Mike Scarfo played major roles for the Falcons’ 2012 state championship team, the nucleus was the then-junior class.
Those juniors are now the senior leaders, and they’ve been dreaming about and preparing for this run for a long time.
“It’s so rewarding because it’s all my friends. This group of seniors grew up together and we’ve played basketball together our whole lives, so it was really rewarding to get this win (over Wayland) and move on again,” senior forward Nick Bates said. “We’re a different team without George. We were a great team with him, but definitely a different team. We’re more up-tempo, fast-paced, fast break type of team. I think we’re just as good as last year, if not better, and we have a good chance of going far again.”
Martha’s Vineyard (18-5) is now the team standing the Falcons’ way. Danvers will have to beat a long, athletic, deep team to be granted the opportunity to truly defend its state title.
Senior guard Jack Roberts has been the Vineyarders most consistent scorer, but fellow starters Navardo Anderson, Izak Browne, Brandon Watkins and Liam Weston are also capable scorers. DeShawn James, Kane Araujo and Jahmari Thomas are quality options off the bench.
Martha’s Vineyard also has well distributed size. It may not possess a 6-7 or 6-8 center but the Vineyarders have several players 6-3 or better, notably Browne, Weston, James and Thomas.
Having all that size and athleticism allows the Vineyarders to mix things up on both ends of the floor.
“They’re definitely one of the more athletic teams and very long all over the place ... and very, very athletic,” Danvers coach John Walsh said. “They can shoot. They mix their defenses, playing man, 1-3-1 and some 2-3, and Roberts is real good.”
The pace of this game should be very different from Danvers’ North final against Wayland. Unlike the deliberate, calculated pace that Wayland played at, Martha’s Vineyard will look to run whenever it gets the chance.
That works well for Danvers, a team that can seemingly play any style.
Martin, Bates, Nick McKenna and Vinny Clifford are especially good in transition for Danvers while Danny Connors is a dangerous scorer in the post. Jake Cawlina and Kieran Beck proved their worth against Wayland, each making huge plays down the stretch.
Danvers is willing to play however it needs to in order to compete, and that’s what the Falcons plan on doing on the parquet.
“We’re gonna try. We have the type of kids who have been able to adapt to other teams and been successful,” Walsh said. “Whether running with Lynn English or having to be in a battle with Beverly and be in the 40s, we’ve seen both ends of the spectrum. That’s the way it goes with the Northeastern Conference, there is legitimately nothing you haven’t seen. It doesn’t mean you’re going to win, but nothing will catch you by surprise.”