Mark Bertrand pictured his Our Lady of Assumption basketball team as the Little House on the Prairie, one that was surrounded by gigantic homes. It had a towering effect on the Little House inhabitants.
His combined fifth and sixth grade basketball team was, as he said, "A representative of one church (in Lynnfield), one parish." Playing in the New England CYO Regionals in Waterbury Conn., they easily could have viewed their second round opponent, mighty St. James of Bridgeport, Conn., as Goliath.
"St. James had the benefit of getting kids from seven parishes — the two best players from each parish — and they came from large city parish situations," Bertrand said.
Unfortunately, there was no slingshot big enough for OLA to slay St. James in their Junior Varsity boys quarterfinal. The final score, 51-43 for Bridgeport, reflects that.
"We stayed with them for a while," Bertrand said, "but they killed us with a bunch of three-point shots. They didn't hurt us on penetration. A few fast breaks and an occasional breakdown, but otherwise, (5-foot-10) Charlie Vozzella shut them down when they tried to go inside. We had a pretty good zone that was tough to challenge.
"They did light it up from outside," the coach said. "It almost seemed like they couldn't miss. I've been coaching youth basketball for eight years at OLA and I don't think I've seen a team in our age bracket shoot like St. James did."
The loss couldn't dampen a great season for OLA, however. The Eagles made their coach and parish very proud, spreading their wings greater than they ever had.
According to Bertrand, the opening triumph at Waterbury, 47-35 over Burlington, Vt., was of historical significance.
"OLA has won a state title before — four years ago, I think — and qualified for the regionals, but this is the first time (they went to New Englands) since the school inaugurated basketball in the 1970s," he said. "This was a measure of accomplishment. Don't get me wrong, these kids enjoyed a great season. They went 15-1and won the North Shore grammar school JV title for the first time.
"They were upset and did shed some tears after losing at Waterbury," Bertrand went on. "But pretty soon they realized how proud we were of them getting that far. And OLA easily had the biggest support of fans there, as well as our cheerleaders."
All 17 players on the team got on the floor in the final game.
Vozzella was the Eagles' go-to guy, averaging 26.1 points per game and was outstanding at both ends of the court.
"He'll be heard from," Bertrand predicted. "He has the tools to do everything."
The rest of the starting cast included Jordan Buonopane from West Peabody, the off guard and "Charlie Hustle" of the team; Dan Bertrand of Saugus, a great playmaker at New Englands; Brendan Powicki of Salem, a blockbuster on the boards who was especially effective in the state Archdiocesan championship clincher over Malden; and Christian DiBerto of Saugus.
Matt Lombardi of Peabody was a solid contributor as the sixth man, and twins Kevin and Teddy Sanford of Lynnfield were power forwards who did a good job on the boards.
Others included Joe O'Brien, Paul Cook, James Meagher, Chris Della Piana, Robert Pagliuca and Thomas Pham of Saugus (OLA has 167 students from Saugus), Jack Bernard of Peabody, Ryan Desmarais of Swampscott, Nick Leone of Revere and Anthony Gill of Melrose.
One of the great memories for OLA at Waterbury was the first basket of the season for Della Piana.