Matt Williams column: North Shore proves to be fertile crescent of high school sports

Now 137 days since Beverly's North champion boys basketball team played at TD Garden and we're still wondering when a North title will be up for grabs again ...

What stood out most about the recently completed "Bling's the Thing" best championship ring contest? Not the brightly colored gems nor the rhinestone sparkles.

Assortment was what truly grabbed my attention. These rings had more variety than you'd find among the flavors at old Baskin-Robbins. In all, 13 of the area's high schools were represented in a half-dozen different sports. The rings ran the gamut from 1986 all the way to 2019.

Sure, 35 years is a lifetime in some circles, but when you're talking about sports championships its a drop in the bucket: Not so long compared to the 86-year Curse of the Bambino.

Having photos of so many championship rings staring back at me made the notion that there's a whole lot of winning on the North Shore very tangible. Day-to-day, it may feel like some programs are downtrodden and may never field a winner again.

The big picture reveals something else entirely. Winning at the high school level here on the North Shore is a lot like the New England weather: If you don't like what's going on, just wait a while.

Among the dozen schools in the Salem News coverage area, the average length of time since the last state championship is a ridiculously short 7.3 years.

Two schools -- Swampscott and St. John's Prep -- won state titles this past year. Another four -- Bishop Fenwick, Ipswich, Hamilton-Wenham and Danvers -- have won state titles within the last five years. Then Beverly, Peabody, Masconomet and Marblehead have won it all it the last ten years.

That's 11 of the 12 Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association schools in the coverage area having won state titles within the last decade. Salem and Essex Tech (using the North Shore tech lineage) have the longest droughts, if you want to call them that, at only 23 and 21 years. Two decades is a while but compared to the plights of the Chicago Cubs, Toronto Maple Leafs, Montreal Canadiens, Oakland Raiders and even Notre Dame football it's not so long.

As an observer, some would say expert, on North Shore sports those number amaze me. It's hard to win a state championship. It's supposed to be hard and it's rare. A laundry list of very good, No. 1 ranked, regionally and nationally touted teams don't go all the way.

Yet since the first "Harry Potter" book came out, every single team in the area has won it all at least once. Throw in state titles won by Gloucester, Winthrop, Lynn English, Manchester Essex, St. Mary's Lynn and numerous Cape Ann League teams and it's crystal clear how fortunate we are to live in one of the most successful sports regions around.

Part of the reason for the success is the sheer number of sports that have strong programs around these parts. You're talking about state titles won in cross country, volleyball, football, boys and girls soccer, boys and girls basketball, gymnastics, boys hockey, wrestling, baseball, boys lacrosse, tennis ... and I wouldn't be surprised if I've forgotten something.

Expand our search for success to either winning a North championship or appearing in a North final and it's even more impressive: The average waiting time for one of our schools is 1.9 years. Less than two years; On average, if you're a student at one of the schools we cover you'll get to play in or attend and cheer at at least one North final in your high school career.

There were five local schools that played in a North final this past year -- and that's with 1/3 of the school sports season lost to COVID-19. Lest you think last year's success skewed the average, each of those five schools played in another North final within the last four years as well.

Every single North Shore school has played in at least one North final since Barack Obama's election as President. Over those 12 years, most have played in many. The longest time without a North final appearance is Salem at 10 years; Peabody's is nine and the other 10 schools have all played in a state semifinal within the last five years.

Another remarkable feat? Most of these schools have won championships in BOTH boys and girls sports. That's the case for Fenwick, Danvers, Hamilton-Wenham, Marblehead, Masconomet and Swampscott, who've all won titles in both genders within the last 15 years. Since 2004, every school besides Salem has won both a boys North title and a girls North title in one sport or another.

People often ask what the best part of covering sports at The Salem News is, and it's this. Some team, in some sport, is always on the upswing. The convergence strong programs around the circulation area is nothing short of divine. The number of divisions represented, sports excelled at and diversity of school populations means that there's no way at least one of the 100-or-so teams we cover any given school year won't be a true title contender.

Hall of Fame sportswriter Bob Ryan once wrote he didn't understand how anyone covering a team wouldn't prefer to see it win. It's one of my all-time favorite quotes about the profession. As I admired all these championship rings, plus dozens more champs that either didn't order rings or didn't send in photos, that quote popped into my head.

The last two decades haven't just been a golden age of Boston sports, but of North Shore varsity winners, too. I wouldn't prefer to have it any other way than to work right here in the fertile crescent of high school sports.

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Let Matt Williams know what championship team he forgot -- or which one will be the next to win it all -- at MWilliams@salemnews.com or on Twitter @MattWilliams_SN.

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Assistant sports editor of The Salem News, blanketing the North Shore with the best coverage you'll find. Football fiend, track guru, seam-head, goaltending aficionado, history buff, stat geek. Allons-Y. #StrikeOutALS

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