, Salem, MA

December 11, 2012

In The Paint column: Local hoop teams face big questions this year

In the Paint
Matt Jenkins

---- — The gym lights have been turned on and the sounds of whistles have been filling the evening air at local high schools for the past two weeks. The boys basketball season is once again upon us and, as usual, the season starts with many questions and very few answers.

In time, everything will begin sorting itself out on the hardwood, but there are some topics that simply can’t be left alone any longer.

Here are five burning questions that need answers before most teams tip-off tonight:

1. How does Danvers overcome the loss of George Merry? Merry was the most unique player on the North Shore last season. A 6-foot-8 center with unusual athleticism and a soft touch, Merry was equal parts intimidator and go-to player for the Falcons.

With Merry in the middle, Danvers reached the mountaintop, capturing the Division 3 state championship last March. Four of the Falcons’ top six players from last year’s championship team return, but not Merry, who is currently playing for WPI in college. How Danvers fills that void will go a long way in determining if it’s capable of defending its title.

Although 6-6 sophomore Peter Merry — George’s younger brother — is in the Danvers’ program, he’s probably not going to be ready to be a steady varsity contributor this winter. That means George Merry’s contributions must be divided this season.

Defensively, senior forwards Nick Bates and Danny Connors must protect the basket for the Falcons while guards Eric Martin and Nick McKenna apply the pressure on the perimeter. On offense, McKenna seems the most likely player to become Danvers’ most consistent offensive threat, while Connors must become an option in the post.

2. Does winning equal losing for Beverly? Panthers’ coach Scott Lewis hopes that’s not the case, but the reality is that Beverly found itself stuck in the mud this preseason because of the football team’s run to the Division 2A Super Bowl.

Beverly was more than a week behind its rivals because of the gridiron success. Last Monday, Beverly played competitively against New Mission in a scrimmage at the Henry Cabot Lodge Fieldhouse, but it did so with at least four football players — including senior captain Dom Abate and senior forward Mike Dooling — sitting on the sidelines in street clothes.

In the name of equality, Lewis still had to treat the second week of practice as tryouts because the football players were seeing their first action. That meant Beverly still hadn’t put in their offense as of last week.

“It’s so hard to do because they’re banged up, too. But we gotta play basketball,” Lewis said. “We gotta have the same fairness for tryouts as we did with everyone else, so it’s difficult. We’re almost two weeks behind everybody else. We didn’t really run any offenses (against New Mission) or anything else because we haven’t put anything in.”

3. Will it be “rebuild” or “reload” for St. John’s Prep this winter? Sean Connolly enters his fifth year at the helm of St. John’s Prep, and his first year without having a true go-to player. Connolly’s first season was when Pat Connaughton, who is now playing for Notre Dame, was a sophomore. Steve Haladyna, now at Tufts, was a freshman on that team.

While the Eagles were young then, it was clear that Connolly had two players he could build on. Two years ago, Connolly guided a team led by Connaughton and Haladyna to the Division 1 state championship, but very little remains from that group. Only senior guard Drex Costello saw any significant minutes on the state title team.

St. John’s went 13-8 and lost to Lawrence in the first round of the Division 1 North tournament last year, but qualifying for the tournament could be the top priority for the Eagles this winter. They play a tough schedule and are young and inexperienced.

Connolly will need an excellent group effort from junior center Max Butterbrodt and seniors Josh Syska, Tyler Dooley and Costello. The future strength probably rests in the hands of sophomore wing Ben Judson, who saw action as a freshman last year.

4. Is Bishop Fenwick ready to take the next step? Fenwick coach Mike Kane has been facing a rebuilding project for the past few years, and this could finally be the year the Crusaders make a move toward Catholic Central League contender and state tournament participant.

Junior guard — and CCL all-star — Dom Luoni leads a core group of players that hopes to push the Crusaders to the next level.

Luoni will get lots of help from junior guard Matt Costello, senior center Ben Maxner, junior guard Rishad DeSilva, senior forward Fran Hannon and senior guard Joe Bucchieri. Juniors Travis Maxner and Eric Razney should provide some depth for Fenwick.

“I think we’ll be a strong defensive team; we just need to score,” Kane said. “I think everybody has gotten better, and we have all five starters back. We have a lot of talent, and guys have worked hard over the summer and fall.”

5. Can Hamilton-Wenham make it four straight Cape Ann League Division 2 titles? The odds are definitely stacked against Doug Hoak and the Generals this winter. But, then again, they were last year also. Hamilton-Wenham was a senior-laden team a year ago, but they were very inexperienced. Somehow, Hoak made everything come together and the Generals hung another banner.

This year, however, seems to be a bigger challenge.

Hoak was expecting two players with experience to return, but only sophomore guard James Foye will suit up for Hamilton-Wenham this winter. Jimmy Campbell, Foye’s classmate, saw lots of action in the Generals’ front court last year, but a broken leg suffered during football season will keep him out for the year.

Senior guards Nick Fusco and Ben Kozlowski were also on the team a year ago, but saw very little action.

Hoak’s task to is to pull together his small group of returning varsity players and mix them with a collection of JV players that has moved up to the next level.

“They’ll have to step up and play,” Hoak said about the JV players who will be moving up a level. “The biggest challenge is the speed and physicality of the varsity game. It’s more physical, and we’ll see if we’re up for that.”


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 email at or follow him on Twitter @MattJenkins_SN.



Five for thought ... For the first time in a long time, the North Shore basketball scene doesn't have one or two returning players who you know will be in the Player of the Year discussion at the end of the season. With that in mind, here are five preseason favorites to earn that year-end distinction: 1. Christian Dunston, Salem Sr. G -- Quick, creative, and has the opportunity to freelance in coach Tommy Doyle's uptempo system. 2. Nick Bates, Danvers Sr. F -- Possibly the most physically gifted player in the area, Bates could do lots of damage for the Falcons this year. 3. Eric Martin, Danvers Sr. G -- If this award were given out based strictly on confidence, Martin would run away with it. 4. Cam Rogers, Beverly Sr. F -- The Panthers only returning NEC all-star, Rogers will be asked to do much more than just score this season. 5. Nick McKenna, Danvers Sr. G -- A polished offensive player with a smooth jumper. He could post some big offensive numbers this winter.