, Salem, MA

December 11, 2012

St. John's Prep hoopsters lacking experience, but not ambition

By Mike Grenier

---- — The St. John’s Prep basketball team has never suffered an identity crisis since Sean Connolly took over as head coach five years ago.

The Eagles are a hard-nosed team that doesn’t make excuses. Along the way, they’ve also learned how to win the vast majority of their games.

Over the last three seasons, St. John’s has averaged over 19 wins a season. The Eagles won their first-ever state title two years ago when they went 25-1 and are 70-21 overall under Connolly.

During that time they’ve played in prestigious games and overcome some prodigiously talented players like Anthony Davis, who was the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft earlier this year after spending just one season at Kentucky. They’ve also developed some outstanding players of their own like Pat Connaughton, who is now a sophomore starter at Notre Dame, and Steve Haladyna, an impact freshman at Tufts University.

The Eagles don’t have that kind of elite talent this season, yet their approach won’t change. They want to be playing in March in big postseason games and plan on fighting every step of the way in order to make it happen.

“I don’t think people are expecting much from us because we lost our top scorers to graduation,” said Connolly, the former Bishop Fenwick star who went on to play at Ohio State. “But our objective is the same: the (state) tourney is our goal and we’ll be disappointed if we don’t make it.”

The Eagles will have decent frontcourt size with the likes of 6-foot-4 junior center Max Butterbrodt of North Andover, 6-4 sophomore wingman Ben Judson of Plaistow, N.H., 6-4 senior forward Josh Syska of Peabody and 6-4 junior Mike Disson, who is stepping up from the jayvee team. The problem is, the forwards and centers have precious little varsity seasoning.

“We had a group of kids (prior to this season) who went through the wars together and won a lot of tough, close games,” said Connolly. “We’re kind of starting over with all this inexperience. But I love the way the kids are working at it.”

The Eagles got around to picking their captains late last week and came up with a quartet: seniors Costello, Tyler Dooley and Syska, and the junior Butterbrodt, who played a large part in organizing offseasons workouts.

Butterbrodt looms as the starting center and is built for the task. “He’s physical and he rebounds well. We’re going to need (toughness) from him,” said Connolly.

Meanwhile, Judson is perhaps the most intriguing player on the roster because he showed glimpses of being a difference maker as a freshman last season. “He’s long and athletic and has what I would call a big upside. Hopefully, he can put it together this season,” said Connolly.

The backcourt looks more reliable heading into the season because there are a couple of experienced players in the group. Six-footer Drex Costello is in his third varsity season, can drill the three and play the type of defense that Connolly demands. And Dooley, a 6-foot senior from North Andover, was a major surprise last year, keying a pair of wins over Xaverian and another over Westford Academy late in the year.

“Costello and Dooley are really our two (returning) scoring leaders,” noted Connolly. “Drex brings toughness and defense, and Dooley has improved by leaps and bounds. He won some big games for us down the stretch last year. He needs to have a great year if we’re going to be successful.”

A couple of players from the Prep’s football team, which handily won the Super Bowl over Brockton, will need to catch up on conditioning and everything else, but Connolly will be happy to see Sean Lovett, a junior forward/center, and Jake Burt, a sophomore wing player.

“Our biggest question mark is our lack of overall experience. How are we going to hold up when games are tight down the stretch? That’s going to determine how we do,” said Connolly.

The Eagles will play their usual killer schedule. In addition to their Catholic Conference foes, St. John’s will face Central Catholic, Springfield Cathedral, Charlestown, Lynn English, Reading and Haverhill, among others.

“We don’t mind a hard schedule at all,” said Connolly. “Our end goal isn’t to go 19-1, it’s to make the state tournament. You have to beat good teams in the regular season.”