, Salem, MA

August 29, 2013

Fantasy Matchups: Hoop Heavyweights Salem vs. St. John's Prep an ultimate hardcourt battle

By Mike Grenier

---- — The North Shore has had its share of boys’ state championship basketball teams over the years, dating back a half century or more.

All of the title teams were good — some even great. They trigger fond memories for the players and coaches who were involved, and for the fans who followed them.

Salem High’s 1990 Division 2 state championship team and St. John’s Prep’s 2011 Division 1 title club are part of that legacy — but they also have qualities that set them apart.

Call them the North Shore’s super-heavyweights in hoop, if you will. Both teams played at an astonishingly high level and with extraordinary consistency in shaping their own destiny. By every measure, quantifiable or otherwise, these two powerhouses would be on the short list of the area’s best teams of all time.

Naturally, this prompts a most intriguing and utterly worthwhile question for North Shore hardwood junkies: how would the Rick Brunson-led Salem Witches, who went 24-2 in winning it all 23 years ago, fare against the Pat Connaughton-led St. John’s Prep Eagles, who finished 25-1 in capturing the 2011 championship?

“Now THAT would be a game to see,” said Mike Fritz, who was a tri-captain and important role player for the 1990 Salem team. “If everybody could be 18 years old again, I’d say why not play it and see how it turns out?”

That, of course, is the crux of the problem. The Salem Witches, who were such a close-knit team during that period under the guidance of coach Jack O’Brien that many of them showed up at a reunion two years ago, are now men who are in the 40-41 age bracket. Meanwhile, the St. John’s Prep players from two years ago are basically half that age.

But in the world of fantasy basketball, which is what this is all about, the possibilities about what could or would happen in a 32-minute clash of the local titans are limitless.

The proper stage for a game of this magnitude would be the old Boston Garden. It had the infamous dead spots on the parquet floor and it was dingy and poorly lit, yet it was every kid’s dream to play there. With a large crowd on hand, it could be an intimidating or liberating environment for the players. It’s doubtful that either Salem or St. John’s Prep would be intimidated.

Both teams would go into it supremely confident — with good reason.

Salem closed out its 1990 season with a 12-game winning streak, capping it with a 68-58 triumph over Gardner in the title game at what was then called the Worcester Centrum. The only close call the Witches had in the postseason was a 68-66 decision over East Boston (Brunson had 34 points and 8 assists, Pedro Jimenez added 16 points and Mike Giardi chipped in 9 points and 12 rebounds). Overall, Salem won its tourney games by an average of 16.2 points.

For the most part, Salem decimated its opponents that season. The Witches beat Gloucester by 47, Marblehead by 42, Danvers by 38, Swampscott by 30 and Peabody by 26. They won 18 regular season games by an average of 25.2 points. To this day the players can’t fathom how they ever lost two games in the regular season, including a 72-69 decision to Lynn Classical that shattered a 37-game winning streak at the Salem High Fieldhouse.

“We had a (motto) from coach O’Brien that year — winning is an attitude. We fed off that all season,” said Giardi, who was an animal off the glass and picked up the garbage points in support of the team’s more sophisticated scorers. “We lost four starters from our great team the previous year in Eddie Hammonds, Zach Zegarowski, Jeff Woods and Bobby Ward, but that didn’t stop us from reaching our goal (in 1990).

“We weren’t happy about losing to English and Classical in the regular season, and when we got to UMass-Boston (site of the North sectional final) to play East Boston, they definitely weren’t happy that they lost to us the previous year (in the tourney),” added Giardi. “East Boston was big and they had just about everybody back from their ‘89 team. Our physical talent did not belong with their physical talent, but we were smart and played as a team. I remember Jimenez and Ricky (Brunson) putting on a shooting display in the third quarter and we eventually pulled it out.”

Brunson, who became a McDonald’s All-American, went on to star at Temple University and play in the NBA for nine seasons, was never more spectacular than in the state semifinal at the Garden, when he buried 16-of-24 shots and finished with 42 points in a 78-66 win over Bishop Feehan. At the time, it was considered one of the greatest tournament performances by a high school player at the Garden (and still is).

You’d think a 17-year-old kid would be bouncing off the walls after a game like that, but Brunson flatly refused a copy of the box score as a take-home souvenir. He would often talk about “getting busy,” his way of reminding himself and his teammates that they still had to win one more time to celebrate in earnest.

“The loss to Duxbury (in the state semifinal) the previous year left a bitter taste in his mouth, so he was even more committed his junior year,” said Zach Zegarowski, who was Brunson’s teammate on the outstanding 1989 team and remains one of his closest friends. “Rick started lifting weights and was going to carry that (1990) team. He could’ve averaged 40 and was capable of 50-point games, but a lot of games were over at halftime and coach O’Brien would take him out.”

Brunson averaged 27.5 points, 10 rebounds, 8 assists and 5 steals in the championship season. He obliterated Connie St. Pierre’s single-season Salem High scoring record by 287 points, piling up 734 points for the year. With one season left at Salem, he already had 1,326 career points.

There was plenty of solid, well-coached talent surrounding Brunson. Jimenez, who could be an explosive scorer if Brunson had an off night, gave the Witches 17 points and 6 rebounds per game, and the unheralded Giardi averaged 10 points, 11 rebounds (he had 19 boards in the title game against Gardner) and 3 steals. Point guard Erik Leibowitz, who had big shoes to fill when Hammonds graduated and moved on to Division 2 Merrimack College, finished with 12.9 points, 9.5 assists, 6 steals and 2 rebounds per game. George McDonald, who started at center, had a nifty touch around the basket and fit in with everything the Witches did. Current Salem coach Tommy Doyle provided deadly outside shooting, and Fritz was another spark who was part of the rotation.

O’Brien was the young, energetic and dynamic coach who put all the pieces together. After compiling a remarkable 131-30 record in seven Salem seasons, he would move on to Charlestown and win four consecutive state titles. But at Salem, it helped that Brunson was a well-adjusted star who remained humble to the end. O’Brien never had to worry about him.

“We had something special going those years,” said Doyle. “Coach O’Brien had his own focus every day and wouldn’t allow us to look at the big picture, even though we dreamed about it the way kids do. And Brunson just relished his increased role and all the challenges. I remember my father would open up the Bates School gym so he could go in there and practice. We took our (cue) from him.”

“I was the second option on offense — and that was fine with me,” said Jimenez, 41, who now lives in Beverly. “We were very fortunate to have the great Rick Brunson; he was willing and able to carry the load. He created opportunities for the rest of us and we took advantage of it.”

Twenty three years later, St. John’s Prep would forge its own path to a state title, shaking off a midseason loss to Charlestown and winning 13 straight games, ending the Division 1 tourney with a 72-57 trouncing of St. John’s of Shrewsbury at the DCU Center in Worcester.

Without question, the Eagles’ rise to prominence was stunning compared to Salem, which at least had a reputation as a basketball power. St. John’s, on the other hand, had a history of pretty good teams, but except for the 1974 club that made it to the state final and lost to Boston English, the Eagles were never a serious threat to go the distance.

That all changed when Sean Connolly became the head coach and Connaughton, who would develop into the Prep’s version of Brunson, began his daily commute from his Arlington home to the Danvers campus as a freshman in 2007-08.

“I always thought (a state title) would happen from the time I got moved up to the varsity,” said Connaughton, 20, a superior athlete who now plays both basketball and baseball at the University of Notre Dame. “When you look at the guys we were supposed to have my sophomore year — (Andrew) Lutz, Ryan Canty and Brendon Felder, and I was just the fourth guy — coach Connolly must have been drooling at all that talent. But kids transferred and it didn’t happen for us. By junior year I was the only one left and we had to sort of recalibrate.”

The core group of Connaughton, Steve Haladyna, Mike Carbone, Conor Macomber, Freddie Shove, Owen Marchetti, Drex Costello and Isiah Robinson finally broke through two years later with the winningest team in school history, which included the elusive state title.

In many ways, the Prep’s run was as impressive as Salem’s. Playing a more rugged ‘big school’ schedule than the Witches ever had — a win over future NBA No. 1 pick Anthony Davis and his Perpectives Charter School team of Illinois was just one of the highlights — the Eagles won their regular season games by an average of 18.9 points and their tournament contests by 12.7 points per game.

“We had our regular Catholic Conference opponents, and then our non-conference schedule was really tough,” said John Dullea, who was Connolly’s assistant and has since become the Prep’s head coach. “We beat New Mission, which went on to win the Division 2 state championship, and Andover was very good. Central Catholic had won two (Division 1) state titles in three years and we beat them twice. The Division 1 North tourney had the deepest field I’d seen in 10 years and in the state final we beat a (St. John’s of Shrewsbury) team that played in the state championship game for four straight years. So our kids really earned it.”

Similar to Salem with Brunson, the Eagles had the best all-around player in the state in the 6-foot-4 Connaughton, who could give you 28 points and 18 rebounds one night, then do it all over again against a better team three nights later. And even though he wasn’t technically supposed to bring the ball up as a frontcourt player, circumstances forced him to do so; that served him especially well as a senior when point guard Macomber missed half the games with a leg injury and then mono. The Prep had another key injury in its championship season as MacKenzie Burt missed the entire year.

Connaughton, the school’s all-time leading scorer with 1,713 points, averaged 23 points, 17 rebounds and eight assists. Haladyna, a gifted scorer who could take some of the load off Connaughton, routinely scored in high double figures and exploded for 29 in the state title game. Carbone stretched the defense as a three-point threat much the same way Doyle did for Salem, and Costello was a deep-shooting sophomore off the bench. Marchetti disrupted defenses with his ability to run the floor, and Shove wasn’t shy about mixing it up inside against players who were bigger and stronger.

“We had no weak spots — it was just a solid team,” said Connolly. “I remember thinking after Pat’s junior year (20-3, with a loss to Central Catholic in the North final) that maybe we had a chance to win it the next year. Pat improved a lot and we had all these other kids who were getting better. It was a great group to coach, but we had to find a way to beat Central Catholic. They were always in our way, so we basically tried to emulate them as a tough, hard-nosed team.”

Connaughton paid Central Catholic the highest compliment, saying “they were always the biggest elephant in the room.” St. John’s hadn’t beaten the Raiders since 2001, but St. John’s finally shed that albatross with a 72-70 win at home. Then, with far higher stakes involved, they beat them again in the state tourney, 63-60, in a neutral court game at Lawrence (that really wasn’t a neutral court at all, since Central Catholic plays there every year).

“To be honest, Central Catholic pretty much provided all the motivation we needed that year,” said Haladyna, who now plays for Tufts University. “After we lost to them in the state tourney the year before, we spent the entire offseason preparing to meet them again. Coach Connolly reminded us of how good we could be and we had the hardest practices. They were comparable to college practices, and that was a big shock to me in high school. The big word was accountability.”

It was no surprise that the Prep’s title chase caught the attention of Salem’s 1989 and 1990 teams. Some former Salem players made it a point to check in on St. John’s in the state tourney and in every instance they came away impressed.

As you would expect, they would fall short of saying the Eagles would beat them head-to-head, but the respect for St. John’s was obvious.

“I didn’t hear too much about Connaughton until I saw him,” said Jimenez. “The night I saw them (a classic tourney win over Lynn English in 2010); the team was awesome and he was awesome. Connaughton is the Danny Ainge of his era (with the ability to play two sports at high level).”

Zegarowski was even more outspoken.

“I saw the Prep play a lot and I’d have to say Connaughton is one of the best players in North Shore history. I’ve never seen a better rebounder,” he said. “And Pat’s hands are so good; he catches everything. He’s like Spiderman.

“But if push came to shove in a game against us, I think it would come down to the play of the guards. Rick (Brunson) jumped center and played guard and IS the best player in North Shore history. He’d be the difference. But it would be close, maybe 4-6 points unless Brunson went off.”

The St. John’s players are in a distinct disadvantage in making comparisons because they weren’t even born when Salem won it in 1990. But the Eagles are secure with their own place in history.

“I wouldn’t know about Salem; we weren’t around then,” said Carbone. “But I love the team we had. You could put us up against anyone and I think we’d have shot.”