The Salem News
---- — In the Paint
They want you to know who they are.
They want your respect.
Most of all, they want to win championships.
They are the Pingree boys basketball team ... and they are the best kept secret on the North Shore.
The Highlanders toil in near anonymity around these parts because, well, they don’t often play in these parts. With an Eastern Independent League schedule that features games in Cambridge, Lexington, and Worcester as well as contests in Maine and Rhode Island, Pingree is an unknown commodity.
On a typical game night at the Hamilton school, the junior varsity game resembles any other on the North Shore — played at a frantic pace, sloppy at times, and featuring players that either haven’t hit a growth spurt yet or haven’t yet grown into their bodies. But one look at the varsity talent is the only clue you’ll need to know the highest level of basketball at Pingree features players who are capable of playing at the next level.
Pingree’s captains are a trio of juniors who provide talent and leadership to a young squad that is focused on taking the Highlanders to the top of New England.
Forwards Kyle Lentini and Connor Reardon and point guard Johnny Spears were each key players on last year’s team, and they still have a bitter taste in their mouths from a first round loss in the New England prep school tournament.
Their main focus now is to get back to New Englands and make amends for their early exit. Along the way, they’d like to grab the attention of basketball fans in Eastern Massachusetts.
“I definitely feel that way. We get in the newspaper and they spell my name wrong or put my brother’s name in. They don’t even get it right,” Spears, an electric guard who also excels on the gridiron for Pingree, said.
“They overlook Pingree all the time; they don’t even know who Pingree is. We’re trying to put Pingree on the map.”
The lack of attention also fuels the Highlanders, who are off to an 11-3 start this winter.
“We just use that as motivation to get better, to get more fans, to build a bigger fan base and get more people to the games,” Reardon, a Salem resident, said. “We want to show people what we’re about.”
What Pingree is about is team basketball. The Highlanders are dedicated to playing tough defense and sharing the sugar on offense.
Spears is the engine, igniting the defense with tremendous on-ball pressure, then guiding the offense like an All-Pro quarterback. Lentini and Reardon are each 6-foot-5 forwards who possess inside-outside games. Pingree coach Steve Gibbs calls Lentini a “zone buster” because he has range out to 23 or 24-feet, and Gibbs praises Reardon for his team defense.
Spears, a Haverhill resident, started his high school career at Georgetown before coming to Pingree. Even though he’s a couple years older, his role is different with the Highlanders, mainly because of players like Lentini and Reardon.
“At Georgetown my job was to score,” Spears said. “Here I can just drive and kick to Kyle and Connor and they’re making plays. I just try to set them up to make the game easier for them and me.”
Along the way, this trio has helped to speed up the maturation process for freshmen Nino Leone, Alonzo Jackson, Justin Assad and Griffin Beal.
The Highlanders have won seven straight games and feel like they’re growing each day.
“I think we’ve grown tremendously through the first 14 games,” Lentini, who is from North Reading, said. “At the beginning of this season we had that culture shock because we had a lot of young kids, but as the season has progressed, through practice, we’re getting better every day.”
Leone is 6-5 and strong, a true post player who can protect the basket, while Jackson is big (6-4) and athletic. Assad and Beal are also capable scorers.
The thought of another full year with this group has to have Gibbs smiling — and the other EIL coaches just shaking their heads.
The Highlanders face a big test on Friday with Governor’s Academy coming to Hamilton (6:30 p.m.).
“It’s like Red Sox-Yankees, Florida-Florida State.,” Gibbs said. “You might as well start the game with five seconds to go, one-point game. It always comes down to the last shot. The last four years the spread has been four points or less (each game) and we’ve won three of the last four.”
Governor’s is Pingree’s current target, but long-term the Highlanders just can’t help but think about that New England title.
“We’re hoping to get a championship this year and get it next year, too. Last year we got knocked out really early in the first round and it was a shock to us,” Reardon said. “We didn’t expect it; we were heavy favorites coming into it.
“This year we know what to do. We’ve been there and understand that we can’t take anything for granted. We have to come out every single night ready to play.”
One of the keys for Bishop Fenwick during its stretch run will be how the Crusaders handle pressure. Turnovers plagued Fenwick early in the season, but the emergence of sophomore guard Jhon Oliveira and the heady play of junior Matt Costello has helped correct that problem.
Oliveira became a starter recently and is a natural point guard. He gives head coach Mike Kane a reliable ball handler who can get the ball upcourt and find the open man. Oliveira appears to be a capable scorer, but his job is to put Fenwick in the best position to score.
Costello, on the other hand, is not a natural guard. At 6-foot-3, Costello is one of Fenwick’s taller players and he’s not that quick, but he passes the ball well and makes good decisions.
“He’s just a smart player. He doesn’t have the best foot speed in the world, he knows that,” Kane said about Costello. “We put him in the middle against pressure because he knows how to read defenses and sees the court well. He’s also good down low and knows how to use his body to finish.”
The combination of Oliveira and Costello with Dom Luoni, an excellent shooter and scorer, makes Fenwick a dangerous team. The Crusaders also have depth now with the return of senior center Ben Maxner, who broke his wrist in the first game of the season.
Fenwick also has two dirty-work players in Joe Buccheri and Fran Hannon, a lanky forward in 6-foot-3 Travis Maxner, a secondary ball handler in Rishad DeSilva, and a good perimeter scoring option in Devin Graham off the bench.
If Fenwick can stay healthy down the stretch, it has a great chance to get back to .500 from its 4-7 record and contend for a postseason berth.
Two keys to St. John’s Prep’s excellent first half have been junior guard Max Burt and sophomore forward Jake Burt.
Both important reserves for the Eagles, the Burts (who are not related) each bring valuable skills to the floor. Max Burt is really a combination guard, someone who can fill in as the backup point guard but also score like a two-guard. An increased effort on the defensive end has given coach Sean Connolly added confidence in the junior.
Jake Burt, meanwhile, is a strong, hard-working forward who can give either Josh Syska or Max Butterbrodt a rest when needed. While he’s in the game the Eagles lose nothing in their frontcourt, and he has been more of a scoring threat lately.
The performance of both Burts could be critical to the teams success over the second half of the season — and beyond.
Danvers has been playing (and still winning comfortably) without its leading per game scorer, Nick McKenna, who has been forced to sit out while he recovers from mononucleosis. McKenna is expected to return to the Falcons’ lineup in a couple weeks, with plenty of time to spare as the team gears up for the stretch run.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter @MattJenkins_SN.
Five For Thought ... If Pingree is the most overlooked basketball program on the North Shore, then it's high time to get to know five players who would make an immediate impact on any other team in the area: 1. Johnny Spears, Jr. PG -- Super quick and a menace on defense. His coaches and teammates all consider him the best on-ball defender in the area. 2. Kyle Lentini, Jr. F -- A great combination of size and skill. He's 6-foot-5 and strong, but he also possesses a soft touch and long range. 3. Connor Reardon, Jr. F -- Reardon spent two years at Salem High and you can be sure Witches' coach Tommy Doyle would love to have this 6-5 forward in his frontcourt now. 4. Alonzo Jackson, Fr. F -- Some well-respected North Shore hoop fans who have watched Pingree play this season came away raving about the potential of this talented 6-4 youngster. 5. Nino Leone, Fr. F -- Any team in Eastern Mass. would love to add Leone's size to its roster. He's 6-5, strong, and hard to budge.