The Salem News
---- — In the Paint
The Hamilton-Wenham and Masconomet boys basketball teams have had strangely similar seasons so far.
Both teams started slowly because each lacked experience, but after a rough December they both started putting wins together. Now, the Generals and Chieftains are riding identical runs, having each won seven of their last eight games.
The teams’ respective coaches — Hamilton-Wenham’s Doug Hoak and Masconomet’s Frank Shea — have even started talking alike.
“Our margin for error is pretty small,” Hoak said about keeping his team focused now that a tournament qualification is in sight.
Not to be out-done, when asked how his team could keep its momentum rolling Shea said this in a separate interview: “There’s not a lot of margin for error.”
The coaches are down-playing their recent success, but it seems they’re simply trying to remind their teams that losing can be just as contagious as winning. That’s what makes their showdown tonight (at Hamilton-Wenham, 6:30 p.m.) so important.
“The kids know that any given night if they don’t come to play, any team can beat us,” said Shea, his team now 8-7. “Some nights we can beat any team. That’s been the story. Sometimes it’s a little nerve wracking because I don’t know which team is going to show up. Hopefully we can keep it going and hopefully we can play our best basketball.”
Masco started the year losing its first five games — including a 13-point loss against the Generals — and won only one of its first seven. Since then the Chieftains have become one of the hottest teams in the Cape Ann League.
Masco started its hot streak with a 45-35 overtime win over Newburyport and followed that with back-to-back one-point wins over Amesbury and Georgetown.
“We just tried to preach one game at a time. We told them we can’t get to .500 until we win one game. We lost a heart-breaker, up two against Triton and they hit a three at the buzzer,” Shea said. “We had to go one game at a time and we needed to put a streak together. We got kids back healthy and the kids never stopped believing in themselves. That and a couple sloe one-point wins gave us confidence.”
Just like Masco, Hamilton-Wenham seemed to gain confidence from close wins over Pentucket (58-54) and Rockport (48-45). Once 1-5, the Generals are now 8-6 and need only one more win to qualify for the tournament.
“We’ve come a long way and we’ve still got a ways to go, but certainly we’re different from when we started the year with one experienced player,” Hoak said. “We had some growing pains early on and now the kids are gaining confidence and experience. With experience comes confidence and with winning comes confidence.”
Hoak knew what he could expect from sophomore James Foye when the season started, but didn’t know who else would step up. Seniors Nick Fusco and Ben Kozlowski have found their roles with the team and junior Henry Eagar has become another go-to offensive player for H-W.
Sophomores Shawn Kotch and Nikos Lara have helped to add to the team’s depth. Kotch is a center for the Generals, while Lara is a swingman.
Hoak knows these other players have to step up because Foye and Eagar have been drawing a lot of defensive attention.
“I wouldn’t be surprised (if Masco played that way) because other teams are trying to do that,” Hoak said. “But that’s one thing that’s helped other kids start to come along and we’re getting a little more versatility.”
For Masco, senior guard Tighe VanLenten, senior center Zach Turcotte and junior guard Jalen Aho have taken over leadership roles for the Chieftains.
Both coaches expect a tight battle when the two teams collide tonight.
“They handled us pretty well early in the year,” Shea said. “We had a ton of injuries in the first five games and we were still in desperation mode, searching for a lineup and looking for guys to fill in. They came in and took it to us pretty much. Hopefully now we’re at full strength and it should be a pretty competitive game. Both teams are playing well and we’ve got those kids back and have a set rotation.”
The Winthrop boys basketball team slipped from its usual perch at the top of the Northeastern Conference Small this season, but that has been no fault of senior point guard Joshawa Babb.
Babb has been extremely productive for a Vikings team that has struggled to a 3-11 mark so far. He is leading the team in virtually all statistical catergories while making a name for himself as one of the conference’s top guards.
Babb has started all 14 games and is averaging 17.4 points per game while shooting nearly 53 percent. He also leads the Vikings in steals with 36 (2.6 per game), assists with 59 (4.2 per game) and rebounds 75 (5.4 per game).
Babb started out at Lynn English as a freshman before spending his sophomore year at Bishop Fenwick. That year he was a valuable reserve for the Crusaders, on the same team as current Beverly standout Nick Cross.
Playing the “what if” game, it would be hard to argue that Fenwick would be one of the top teams in Division 3 North this year if both Cross and Babb had remained at the Peabody school. Babb and Cross would have fit well with Dom Luoni, Matt Costello, Ben and Travis Maxner, Fran Hannon, Jhon Oliveira, Rishad DeSilva, Joe Buccheri and Devin Graham. Fenwick would have been one of the deepest teams around.
Babb’s decision to attend Winthrop (which has school choice) worked out well, though. The Lynn resident was a starter for a Vikings team that went 16-7 and advanced to the quarterfinals of Division 4 North last year.
He hopes to continue playing basketball in college, and he’s obviously not nervous about traveling for school. He’s currently interested in schools in California (University of La Verne), Texas (University of Texas at Dallas, University of Texas of the Permian Basin), Virginia (Lynchburg College, James Madison University), Florida (Lynn University), and Pennsylvania (Elizabethtown College). Westfield State is also a possibility.
Is there a school in the state with more underrated players than St. John’s Prep?
Senior point guard Tyler Dooley doesn’t get enough credit for what he does for the Eagles. He’s an excellent on-ball defender and his penetration is crucial to the team’s offensive success. There were times against Central Catholic on Sunday when he would just break down his defender and get into the paint, either dishing to a teammate, finishing himself, or drawing a foul.
The post players that Dooley often finds after his drives are also underrated as a group.
Forwards Josh Syska, Max Butterbrodt and Jake Burt have been providing toughness and strength under the basket since the beginning of the season, but lately they’ve stepped up on the offensive end, finishing around the basket and hitting jump shots.
Butterbrodt, a junior, had a big game with 16 points against Catholic Memorial, then followed it with 11 in the Eagles’ win over Central Catholic. Butterbrodt actually scored nine points in about two minutes late in the second quarter against the Raiders.
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 email@example.com, or follow him on Twitter @MattJenkins_SN.
Five for Thought We are officially in the stretch run, the part of the season when teams are either gearing up for the postseason, or putting all their effort into qualifying. Here are five players who could play a critical role for local teams down the stretch: 1. Tyler Dooley, St. John's Prep -- The Eagles' senior point guard is truly the player that makes this team go. He's excellent defensively and when he's orchestrating the offense while limiting his turnovers, the Prep is very difficult to beat. 2. Dan Connors, Danvers -- Everyone expects the return of Nick McKenna to ignite the Danvers lineup later this week, but when games are tight teams need to be able to pound the ball inside and produce points. Connors is that guy for Danvers. 3. Jonangel Franco, Beverly -- Beverly coach Scott Lewis says Franco, the team's junior point guard, doesn't know how good he can be. Once he figures it out, Beverly will reach its potential. 4. Marvin Baez, Salem -- Baez can fill it up, but he can be so much more than just a scorer. Salem needs his complete game to be at its best. 5. Tighe VanLenten, Masconomet -- He's an athlete and he's experienced. He's the senior leader the Chieftains need to find their way into the state tournament.