The talent level across the North Shore High school boys hoops scene is undeniable. From Division 1 competition all the way down to Division 4, numerous programs in the area punch their tickets to the state tournament year in and year out.
This winter, however, proved to be somewhat of a down season for local squads. Just seven of the 13 Salem News-area eligible teams qualified for a postseason berth (down from 9 last year), with only two of those groups advancing past the first round (down from 4 last year).
With that being said, there was still plenty of excitement on the hardwood over the past four months; players and teams worth celebrating and thrilling contests to look back on. Here’s a look back on the season that was in all its glory.
The Witches may not have been an overwhelming choice, but it’s tough to look past such a surprisingly successful group. Despite boasting an undersized, guard-oriented lineup, the Red-and-Black won 15 regular season games and were the No. 3 seed in Division 2 North. They finished tied with Somerville atop the Northeastern Conference South division and recorded marquee wins against the likes of Boston English, Gloucester, Beverly and Malden. Salem also enjoyed a strong early season showing in Orlando, winning two of their three games against competition from Pennsylvania, Florida and Tennessee.
Just one player on Salem’s roster averaged double digit scoring figures this season (Isaiah Williamson), but they found a way to win games with their incredible balance and unselfishness. Ultimately, head coach Tom Doyle and Co. fell by two points in the final minutes of opening round tournament action with Malden Catholic, but down the line they’ll look back on the 2018-19 campaign as both a memorable and special one.
Other key players from this year’s Witches squad included sophomore sharpshooters Bobby Jellison and Tommy Beauregard; senior slasher Jhoan Vago; sophomore point guard Guillermo Pimentel; senior spark plug Divin Katende and senior guards Galvin Gonzalez and Bryan Pena.
Honorable mention: Pingree, Hamilton-Wenham.
MOST IMPROVED TEAM
This one was a bit easier. The Falcons flipped the script on last year’s 2-win campaign, going 10-10 to qualify for the state playoffs for the first time since former coach John Walsh departed following the 2015-16 season.
Justin DiTomaso came through with a senior campaign to remember, nearly averaging a double-double (16.1 points, 8.2 rebounds per game) while serving as an invaluable leader and defensive presence. Armani Vlaun gradually improved all season en route to becoming one of the most dangerous 3-point threats in the area; Brendan Treacy translated his dime-dropping tendencies from the football field to the court; Anthony Yebba proved an effective shooter; Sherak Ayamga was a welcome spark and consistent surprise off the bench; Max Beuvelet returned just in time for the playoff push and was an irreplaceable asset down low; and freshman Jared Berry had plenty of ‘wow’ moments in what was an overall exceptional first year.
Danvers wound up falling in the opening round of Division 2 North play to rival Gloucester, but not before they took the eventual sectional semi-finalists to overtime on the road.
Honorable mention: Swampscott
I’m going with a playoff classic between Cape Ann League rivals Triton and Hamilton-Wenham. The visiting Vikings had just won their final four regular season games to book a spot in the Division 3 North bracket, and the host Generals were hoping to defend home court and keep their up-and-down season alive. H-W did just that, prevailing 56-53, but it certainly wasn’t easy.
The Generals trailed by five at halftime and fell behind by double digits in the third, but Whelan, Markus Nordin and Co. battled back with some good ball movement offensively and ferocious defensive pressure to grab the win. The triumph was preserved by some clutch free throw shooting down the stretch and smart defense on the final Triton possession.
FANTASY STARTING FIVE
PG — Billy Whelan, Hamilton-Wenham: Crafty, intelligent and an accurate shooter, Whelan is a high-scoring facilitator that could fit well in any system. The senior averaged over 20 points and four assists this season and carried an otherwise underwhelming Generals’ squad to the D3 North quarters. He finished with over 1,000 career points.
SG — Will Batchelder, St. John’s Prep: The shifty sophomore enjoyed a solid freshman campaign off the bench a year ago, but blossomed into arguably the area’s best player in a starting role this season. Batchelder averaged an area-best 24 points, often handled point guard duties and was a sneaky good defender both on and off the ball.
SF — Felix Kloman, Pingree: Realistically, the athletic 6-foot-5 Kloman could slide in at any positions 1-through-4. He has the dribbling skills and court vision of a guard, the physicality of a big man and the knock-down shooting prowess of a spot-up 3. Kloman held nightly averages of 20-plus points, 4-plus rebounds and 3-plus assists. He’s a no-brainer on this fantasy squad.
PF — Isaiah Williamson, Salem: The new age position-less basketball allows me to throw Williamson in as an undersized 4 here and not think twice about it. The senior Swiss Army Knife for Salem did it all: scored, rebounded, facilitated and defended for the area’s top squad. He’s got a sneaky good jumper and slices to the rack like a snake with ease.
C — Jack Crowley, Beverly: Crowley embraces that fundamental, ‘old man’ style of basketball and uses it to torch opponents. He’s tremendous at creating space down low and getting off easy layups; he’s got a soft touch around the rim but can extend his jumper as far back as the 3-point line if open; and he’s a hard-nosed defender who will either beat you to the spot or time your shot for the block. Crowley isn’t the biggest center around, but with nightly averages of over 14 points and 12 rebounds, he plays like it.
6th man — Nik Pignone, Bishop Fenwick: I love this kid’s game. Not only is he one of the most prolific outside shooters in the area (he drilled seven 3-pointers in a near comeback win over Kipp Academy in his final high school game), but he plays with tenacity and grit from the opening tip to the final buzzer. Pignone averaged over over 16 points in his final high school campaign and would be an incredible addition to this year’s fantasy lineup.
Honorable mentions: Toskany Abreu, Beverly; Duncan Moreland, Beverly; Justin DiTomaso, Danvers; Mike Tansey, Peabody; Markus Nordin, Hamilton-Wenham; Jake Spaulding, Pingree; Aidan Callahan, St. John’s Prep; Jackson Byrne, Swampscott; Harry Warshafsky, Masconomet; Billy Ackerman, Marblehead; Jason Finkst, Ipswich.
MOST IMPROVED PLAYER
Will Batchelder, St. John’s Prep: Not only is Batchelder a Salem News MVP candidate (that honor will be announced later this month), but he’s also my clear cut choice as most improved. Just a freshman last year, Batchelder provided instant offense off the bench for a team filled with talent (i.e. Tommy O’Neil, Matt Relihan, Nate Hobbs and Jarnel Guzman). But will each of those players gone this winter, Batchelder took his game to another level, averaging over 21 points and playing nearly the entire game each time out while willing the Eagles to a tournament berth. He was also the main reason for the Eagles’ near upset win over Lowell in the D1 tourney.
Honorable mention: Justin DiTomaso, Danvers; Sherak Ayamga, Danvers; Andrew Augustin, Swampscott.
ROOKIE OF THE YEAR
Jason Romans, Bishop Fenwick: The Crusaders freshman impressed me from the start. In just his first varsity appearance to open this year, Romans scored 19 points with six 3-balls to go with eight rebounds, four assists and two steals in a win over Rockport. He may not have replicated those numbers on a nightly basis, but he remained steady throughout the season and became one of the most important pieces to head coach Kevin Moran’s playoff lineup.
Romans possesses all the skills you want from a guard and has only scratched the surface on his basketball potential.
Honorable mention: Jared Berry, Danvers; Cleto Chol, Pingree.
This is the final Full Court Press column for the 2018-19 high school basketball season. Contact staff writer Nick Giannino at Ngiannino@salemnews.com or 978-338-2648, and follow him on Twitter @NickGiannino_SN.