By Mike Grenier
---- — They came from opposite sides of the basketball tracks.
When you consider all of the championship-caliber teams on the North Shore in the last 60 years, perhaps the unlikeliest pairing for a fantasy matchup would pit Bishop Fenwick against Danvers High.
On the one hand, you have the Bishop Fenwick Crusaders, who were 32 minutes away from winning a Division 3 state title under coach John Jaworski in 1975 when they lost to Notre Dame of Fitchburg. Fenwick has generally been a respectable and often outstanding program ever since, with marquee players such as Casey Arena (Maine), Sean Connolly (Providence, Ohio State) and Mike Clifford (Buffalo) getting snapped up by Division 1 college programs.
Connolly was the best of the bunch, finishing as one of the state’s all-time top scorers with 2,473 points. The Mike O’Brien-coached Crusader teams he played for from 1995-98 went 82-10, including seven postseasons wins. They were a legitimate contender to capture a Division 3 state championship during those four seasons.
Danvers, on the other hand, was never in such a prime position — for several decades. Its most severe drought extended from 1974 to 1992, when it didn’t win a single postseason game.
There was no hint of a turnaround for the next 19 years either, but then Danvers hired Watertown assistant John Walsh as head coach beginning with the 2010-11 season. Though barely 30 years old, Walsh was dynamic, knowledgeable and extremely well-organized. He also had the right mix of athletes, soccer players and basketball players who could get along and play with a purpose.
Walsh set the bar high, both for himself and the team, and the Falcons delivered more than even the most cockeyed optimists could imagine, winning consecutive Division 3 state championships in 2012 and 2013. Except for Lynn Classical in the mid-1990s, no North Shore team had ever accomplished that feat.
Ironically, Walsh played against Connolly and the Crusaders when he was a sophomore at Malden Catholic in December 1995. The Bishop Fenwick standout made such a deep impression on Walsh that he remembers that game as if it was played a month ago.
“They beat us in a Christmas tourney, won by 10 or so,” said Walsh. “Sean was by far the best player I ever saw. It was strange to play against him; something I can’t even put into words. It was just that one time and he’s still the best I’ve seen. When I think about it now, it’s insane.”
What’s not insane anymore is the fantasy matchup between Walsh’s Danvers teams and the Connolly-led Bishop Fenwick teams.
Of course, Danvers is in a seemingly unassailable position as an ultra rare back-to-back state champion, but people who have seen the best North Shore teams over the years would tell you that Walsh and the Falcons would’ve had their hands full with O’Brien on the opposite sideline and Connolly leading his very capable teammates on the floor.
Soaring to new heights
Danvers would be favored entering such a huge game, something that was simply unfathomable just three years ago when Walsh was just The New Coach and core players such as George Merry, Jon Amico, Nick Bates, Dan Connors, Eric Martin, Mike Scarfo, Kieran Beck and Jake Cawlina were in the Danvers system. Nick McKenna would join the group after transferring from St. John’s Prep and Vinnie Clifford would become a factor as a sophomore last year.
Based on the team’s history, the players had only vague expectations about what they could accomplish in their high school careers.
“As young players, all we knew was that Danvers was not a strong program and weren’t sure we could change it,” said McKenna, who is about to enter Springfield College. “Danvers had some decent teams, but it never had a coach who could take a team to the next level. We found out that coach Walsh was that guy.”
Still, it was a tough sell initially because the Falcons were so accustomed to losing.
Martin, whose best sport was soccer but who would become the indispensable point guard of the two championship teams, remembers that he didn’t want to make the varsity team as a sophomore because he felt he’d get more playing time with the junior varsity.
“It was hard to believe we could do much as a team, especially at the beginning of my sophomore year when we started 2-6,” said Martin. “It was like ‘same old team.’ But halfway through we started playing better; we got that positive mindset going. Coach Walsh changed the mindset of the whole team. He changed everything about us.”
Danvers went 11-9 in the regular season and beat Greater Lowell and Wayland in the 2011 Division 3 North tourney. Two postseason wins? The Falcons hadn’t done that in the previous 56 years.
It only got better in 2011-12 with Danvers rolling to a 21-4 record and the state title when it handled St. Joseph’s of Pittsfield, 59-47, at the DCU Center in Worcester. Its wildest and most significant win along the way was a 70-67 Division 3 North tourney triumph over Wayland after the Falcons trailed by 12 with just over a minute remaining. Without that miracle comeback, Danvers would’ve had to settle for one state title, or perhaps none.
“Yeah, that was really big, coming back like that. But my favorite moment in four years was playing at the (Boston) Garden,” said Amico, referring to the state semifinal game, which turned out to be a 68-45 blowout of Wareham.
Merry, a 6-foot-7 senior center, was the hub of the first title team as an inside scorer and shot blocker. He averaged 17 points and 10 rebounds while McKenna also averaged double digit scoring. Everyone else chipped in on offense and if you let up at all on defense, you found yourself on the bench.
“We had a bunch of good kids already and when McKenna transferred in, it was like the perfect storm for us,” said Walsh. “We needed a flat-out scorer, and McKenna was tough and athletic. And Eric (Martin) wouldn’t let anyone on our team do anything at half speed. He demanded that competitiveness and it rubbed off on everyone.”
Title times two
Despite returning Connors, Bates, McKenna and Martin as starters, there was still an element of doubt about whether the Falcons could repeat last season. Danvers lacked a big man and would have to change its approach.
But the departed player, Merry, who would be starting his freshman year at Worcester Polytech, might have worried the least of anyone. Everything had changed dramatically when Walsh came in, but now the system was in place and there was plenty of highly-motivated talent to make another run at it.
“We had no issues as a team,” said Merry. “Coach Walsh was all basketball and if you couldn’t handle it, you were out. If we listened to him, great things would happen.
“On the court we could sense each other and we were comfortable with what we were doing. We couldn’t have done anything without coach Walsh. He motivated us in every respect. It was all chemistry and communication.”
There was enormous pressure on Danvers to repeat, but the Falcons were made of stern stuff and handled it all, including the eight-game absence of the crucially important McKenna due to mononucleosis. Danvers compiled an 18-2 regular season record and went 4-0 in the Division 3 North portion of the state tourney, shading Wayland, 57-52, in the final. Danvers got by a very good Martha’s Vineyard team, 50-47, in the state semis and pulled away from Smith Academy, 66-50, in the final in Worcester.
Similar to the first state title team, last season’s champs displayed excellent scoring balance. McKenna led the way at 18 points per game and Bates (13 ppg.), Clifford (12 ppg.) and Connors (11 ppg.) were also in double figures. Martin averaged 9 points and nearly 7 assists and was clearly a leader. Beck and Cawlina provided essential assistance off the bench.
“We had the whole town behind us the first year, but to me the second (championship) was a bigger accomplishment,” said McKenna. “The pressure was there; it was our championship to lose. Personally, the second time we won was more rewarding.”
‘A tremendous understanding of the game’
The Bishop Fenwick players and coaches from the 1995-98 era would’ve given anything to experience that feeling one or more times.
The Crusaders always had enough talent to make a deep postseason run. At one point, coach O’Brien’s team had a 47-game winning streak in league play and won four straight Catholic Central League titles, giving it momentum and confidence heading into any tournament. And the team’s centerpiece, Connolly, got better every year, lighting up opposing defenses to the tune of 1,417 points in his last two seasons, averaging 33 ppg. in the process (he averaged 28.4 over four years).
O’Brien understood that he had the makings of a championship team and didn’t take shortcuts. His practices were tough and he made efforts to play the best teams possible in order to get ready for the postseason.
“We expected to win every game,” said Chris Timson, now 32, who was the point guard and a two-year starter for the Crusaders. “Win a state title or bust; that was our mentality. The team had won four or five straight conference titles and it didn’t mean anything to us because our goal was the state title. Coach O’Brien beefed up the schedule and we played teams like Boston English, Weston, Tabor Academy and ( St. John’s ) Prep.
“We had Sean and he was a special type of player, a kid who comes along maybe once in a decade,” added Timson, who lives in Swampscott. “He was very quiet. Great players lead by example and that’s what he did. I would guard Sean in practice and coach O’Brien would say, ‘You’re not going to stop him, but it’s good because you’ll never have to guard a better player.’ And he was right.
“I think Sean is one of the top three players to ever come out of this area. Ricky Brunson and Scoonie Penn (both from Salem) and Sean — they’re at the top.”
Connolly wasn’t a solo act, though. He had good teammates around him and while his individual highlights included a 55-point game against Wayland (in the postseason, no less), a 53-point game against South Boston and a 56-point game against Savio Prep (that included a mind blowing 13 three-pointers), he incorporated his multiple skills within the team framework.
“He had a tremendous understanding of the game,” said O’Brien. “For a kid who scored that many points, I don’t think he took three bad shots in the four years that we had him. That’s how disciplined he was. If he didn’t have separation, he didn’t take the shot. His game was intelligence.”
Connolly has fond memories of playing with the likes of Arthur Koudanis, Dusty Arnold, Billy Mandel, Marty Harrington, Timson and many others. He had confidence that the Crusaders had all the necessary pieces to win it all.
“I think our best chance of winning the state title was my junior year,” said Connolly. “We had a lot of young talent and just killed teams.”
What Connolly neglects to mention — unless you bring it up — is that he had bacterial meningitis towards the end of his junior season. He spent a few days in intensive care at Beverly Hospital, and for a while it was touch and go. The last thing on his family’s mind at that point was whether he’d ever play basketball again. Bishop Fenwick cancelled a regular season game and scrapped a couple of scrimmages prior to the state tourney.
When he did come back in a weakened conditioned for the postseason, Connolly’s Crusaders whipped Watertown and Wayland before getting eliminated by Savio Prep, 74-68.
Bishop Fenwick was outstanding his senior year, going 21-3. Connolly was the veteran of the group. Timson came into his own as the junior point guard, Mandel was a sophomore who could score and Harrington was a promising freshman. A.J. Gigliello was an undersized center and Greg Richards was the sixth man.
“That was the best team we had in four years, but it didn’t have the best chance to win the whole thing,” said O’Brien. “Weston was great (and defeated the Crusaders three times, including the North final) and they were all seniors. Had it been an AAU tourney, they would’ve been the Under-18 team and we would’ve been the Under-16 team.”
There were extenuating circumstances that hindered the Crusaders that year, too. Connolly had a bad shoulder that would require surgery in the offseason. The shoulder popped out again when he got banged around in the first half of the North final against Weston. He was pretty much useless in the second half, a one-armed player, and the Crusaders season ended with a 70-64 loss.
“Sean would never tell you about that stuff. He wouldn’t mention it to his teammates,” said Timson. “He still went out and played in the second half, but it affected us. Weston finished as the No. 1 team in the state. In our minds, we were the second best. Looking back now, we were the most successful program of the late 1990s.”
The Danvers players are too young to have seen Connolly play. As a general rule, the Falcons had a plan whenever they faced an explosive scorer.
“We would go to a zone, mix it up a bit,” said Martin. “We would never go to a box-and-one or double team someone. With a big scorer, our (approach) would be to let him get his but try to shut down everybody else.”
That’s all well and good, but it’s safe to say the Falcons never saw a player of Connolly’s caliber on their way to winning two state titles.
“Let me put it this way,” said O’Brien. “If Sean the elder (referring to Connolly coaching St. John’s Prep to a Division 1 state title two years ago) coached Sean the player, I think we would’ve had a better shot at winning a state championship.”
Beating Danvers is an altogether different question. As a fantasy matchup, it would always be ripe for debate.