“Sensation at Salem:” The Legendary Babe Zaharias’s Historic 1954 U.S. Open Victory at Salem Country Club

New from Gary Larrabee……….

“Sensation at Salem:” The Legendary Babe Zaharias’s Historic 1954 U.S. Open Victory at Salem Country Club…

…is considered the greatest single tournament achievement by a woman professional golfer to this day.
The story of the week when Babe staged an amazing performance on a suburban Boston golf course while battling cancer and carrying a colostomy bag, defeating the field by 12 strokes, is chronicled like never before!

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Top-seeded Danvers High Boys Cagers Get Off To Strong Tourney Start, Clipping Wakefield, 69-52; Win No. 100 for Coach John Walsh

Considering they were coming off an eight-day layoff, the top-ranked and top-seeded Danvers High Falcon boys opened their Division 2 state title quest tonight in impressive fashion, disposing of Middlesex League entry Wakefield, 69-52, before a near-capacity crowd in the DHS field house.

In the process, the victory gave Danvers coach John Walsh his 100th as coach, this his first head coaching opportunity. His DHS teams are 100-19, most likely the fastest any North Shore varsity boys hoop coach has gotten to 100 wins.

The Danvers High Boys Basketball Boosters and thez Danvers cheering section, the Falcon Fanatics, celebrated at the final horn by storming the courts and saluting Walsh with special Danvers blue tee shirts with the numbers 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015 on there backs, marking Walsh’s five teams, all of whom have reached the state tournament, and two of which have won state Division 3 titles (2012, 2013). They’re hoping Walsh will reach the number 105 for victories before the end of the tournament, which will signify state title No. 3, this time in Division 2.

Next up for the Falcons: 14-7 Boston Latin Academy back in the DHS field house Monday night at 7, the same night and time as the other three Division 2 North quarterfinal encounters. If Danvers takes care of Latin, it will then face in the semis, either Wednesday or Thursday on a neutral court, the winner of the Salem-Brighton game. Latin advanced with a 50-45 win over a weak Masconomet team.

As for beating Wakefield (10-10), the Falcons looked share after a poor first 108 seconds, during which  the Warriors took a 4-0 lead, Danvers missing its first three shots before Mike Nestor swished a three-pointer from the corner to get Danvers’ scoring under way.

Next thing, you know, the Falcons were making four straight shots — all three-pointers — from Rashad Francois, Vinny Clifford and Devonn Allen (2) — staking Danvers to a 17-6 lead. It was 23-14 after one, 40-19 after two and the Warriors never gotx closer than 57-43 early in the fourth quarter after that.

Halftime stats were telling. Sophomore point guard deluxe Allen led the Falcons with 18 points on 3-for-3 shooting from beyond the arc (an NBA-like 9-for-15 in threes for the game). The Falcons made 7-of-9 treys by intermission while hitting 8-of-13 from the foul line. The Falcons held Wakefield scoreless for the first 4:35 of the second quarter.

The two biggest negatives for the 22-0 Falcons would be their foul shooting (17-for-27) and their 16 turnovers, the same as Wakefield. The Falcons must take better care if the ball, and that will mean giving Allen some help getting the ball up the floor against defensive pressure. Rest assured Latin, a decided underdog come Monday, will do everything in its power to rattle Allen, who has emerged as the Falcons’ most valuable and consistent player over the last several weeks, especially in the pressure games.

That assignment will most likely go to sixth man Rashad Francois (12 points tonight) and possibly forward Clifford, who’s a better ball-handler than he gets credit four. A third option might be backup guard Tre Crittendon who got little playing time tonight but could be the answer if Latin — or an other couture opponent — tries to put there clamps on Allen.

The Falcons are better foul shooters than they have shown the last couple weeks. Hopefully they will improve as their tournament ride proceeds.

Devan Harris finished with 11 points and eight rebounds, Clifford 10 points on 2-for-5 in threes, and Merry was his usual Mr. Intimidation on defense with nine rebounds and five blocks to go with his six points.

The Falcons were bothered  somewhat by Wakefield’s pressure defense. They will want to handle Latin’s pressure better than this come Monday.

All in all, an encouraging start on the Road to Worcester.

  • It has been reported that the North section finals will not be played at the customary Tsongas Arena in Lowell next Saturday because of a schedule conflict with the UMass-Lowell hockey team. Instead of the Division 1-2-3 boys and girls finals at Tsongas, the six games will be played on six different sites. Stay tuned.
  • Terrific Danvers turnout, but the fans made as much noise as church mice, with the exception of the Falcon Fanatics, the high school students who sit together at the north end of the home side bleachers. Let’s go folks. Make lots of noise Monday night, will you!!!!????
  • There’s no question the Falcons’ No. 1 offensive weapon is their three-point offensive machine that features four players before tonight and five now that Nestor, a defensive specialist, has finally canned a three.  And if teams stretch out their defenses to defend against it, look for Harris and Merry to go crazy with their inside games.
  • I hope Danvers fans appreciate they have the best P.A. voice on the North Shore in Steve Avigian.
  • Wakefield players were mighty chippy. On one occasion Andrew Auld threw Francois down to the floor and was assessed a technical. On another occasion Allen got bumped in the head or poked in the eye while rolling on the floor during a scramble for a loose ball.
  •  Walsh, who grew up in Wakefield and lives in Wakefield with his family, has led the Falcons to an unfathomable  17-2 tournament record. And this historic run, unimaginable five years ago, continues.

 

 

 

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Danvers High Champion Hoopster Jeff Ryback Dies, at 68

With the passing of Jeff Ryback in mid-February, at 68, the world lost a Renaissance man of the highest form: award-winning writer, playwright, author, actor, film producer and director, educator, commercial pilot, software developer, worldwide traveler, theater company founder ands artistic director, Ford Agency model, field biologist. Just google him.

But to us contemporaries who had the pleasure of sharing our high school days with him, especially on the basketball court, he will always be the deadly shooting cager who led the Danvers High basketball team to its first Northeastern Conference championship in 1964.

He had some talented teammates that year, most prominently fellow starters Bob Cunningham, Bob Bonner, John Keane, Steve Lenz and sixth man Pat O’Shea. But Ryback, a 6-2 forward with equally adept moves to the basket and a deadly pull-up jump shot, was the straw that stirred that championship drink and enabled the Oniontowners to surprise the title favorite, Marblehead, in both of their meetings that winter.

Ryback’s crew had had a respectable season the year before, but with the arrival of a new young coach in John McGrath, the all-senior rotation flourished and Ryback emerged as the best player in the eight-team circuit. Those were the years before NEC realignment/expansion when the loop was comprised of Danvers, Amesbury, Swampscott, Marblehead, Andover, Newburyport, Woburn and Winthrop.

“When I got the job I was apprised quickly,” McGrath recalled, “that I had some good athletes but only one pure basketball player in Jeff, and that Jeff would need a big year to carry us too any significant success. And he did indeed. In addition, he was an inspiration to all the younger basketball players in town. He was Danvers’ Mr. Basketball.

“As good as Jeff was at both ends of the floor, that was a team where the individuals for the most part were good, but as a team they were excellent — and intelligent. They were all team players, Jeff in particular . He had some big scoring games, but he was a fine passer who usually found the open man when he was double teamed, which was often.

“In our 1-3-1 combination defense, Jeff played the back man and had to do a great job blocking out and rebounding.”

Ryback’s personality also played a vital role in his success as a player, which would lead him to success at the college level first at Merrimack, then at Salem State.

“Jeff knew how to control his personality on there court and off,” McGrath said. “He did not let his success affect his emotions. He kept his calm and his teammates did as well.”

Ryback was a basketball nut. He always had a ball tucked under his arm and played several hours a day during the off-season, especially in the summer. He was always finding ways to get use of a public school gym in the winter when he wasn’t at team practice or the team wasn’t playing games.

He is best remembered by this admirer for the countless pickup games he would organize at the Danvers Park court or the Maple Street School court when he wasn’t shooting at his driveway hoop located across the street from the ice cream stand/golf driving range on upper Conant Street. He made sure, too, as the BMOC (Big Man on Court), that the youngest players got their chance to shine in these pickup games.

He had a variety of interests outside basketball, like tennis and the performing arts, but none of us imagined the world he would create after graduating from college.

His brother Andrew was one year younger than Jeff and was not blessed with his size or talent, but he played a positive role on the 1964-65 team that went 7-7 in the NEC. Andrew also chose a life as a world traveler and was living in Sweden at last notice.

Thanks to Jon Tiplady, who stepped into Ryback’s “lead scorer” role the following two seasons at DHS after Ryback’s graduation, and Barry Robertson, for letting me know about Jeff’s passing.

Ryback is the second member of that championship team to pass away. The first was Cunningham, a Harvard graduate and three-sport DHS standout who had a successful career as a teacher and coach before finding his true niche working for a defense contractor in eastern Europe.

  • Get well wishes go out to McGrath, 82, the legendary Danvers High basketball and baseball coach, who is recovering from major back surgery. Prior to that he had dealt with a serious cancer condition and a heart condition that nearly killed him. McGrath won three NEC titles as hoop coach and two NEC titles, as well as an Eastern Mass. Class B title, as baseball coach.

 

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Wakefield, Not Lynn Classical, Looms As Danvers Boys Cagers’ First Tourney Test Friday

Many of us expected the split-personality Lynn Classical Rams to survive their opening round Division 2 North meeting at home against Middlesex League foe Wakefield last night.  But those of us so inclined were wrong.

Wakefield (10-9) overcame a 30-21 third quarter deficit, making three of four free throws in the closing seconds and tipped Classical, 49-46. The Warriors thus earned the right to face top-seeded and No. 1-ranked Danvers Friday night at 7 in the DHS Fieldhouse in a round of 16 game starting at 7 p.m.

“Classical may seem the  better team on paper,” Danvers coach John Walsh had said after the pairings were announced Saturday, but Wakefield has several solid players and could give Classical a tough game.”

Walsh was right.

Classical had 10 days earlier shocked Division 1 Lynn English and several weeks back had given Danvers all it could handle in Danvers before losing, 67-56, but the West Lynners were not up to the task last night against Wakefield, due in large part to being held to 18 rebound and 37% shooting from the floor. There game was tied with two minutes left.

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Walsh, Top-Seeded Danvers High Boys, In Division 2 North Opener, Likely To Face NEC Rival Lynn Classical Friday In Rematch

From one unforgettable season to another, head coach John Walsh has continued to take the Danvers High boys’ basketball program to heights never before achieved.

From an unprecedented two tournament wins in his rookie year as a head coach (turning a 3-17 squad into a 13-9 unit), Walsh has created a four-year powerhouse program and earned a position among the elite Massachusetts basketball coaches.

It’s redundant, yet a joy to list the biggest of the major accomplishments Walsh and his Falcons have attained every opportunity I get:

  • Four consecutive Northeastern Conference “Small” and “overall” titles
  • Consecutive MIAA Division 3 state titles in 2012 and 2013
  • A totally unexpected 20-3 season in 2013-14, with an entirely new starting lineup and sole returning starter Vinny Clifford sidelined for the season because of major knee surgery

Now, in his fifth — and latest — year of exceptional guidance, Walsh has directed the Falcons to their first-ever perfect regular season, their first 20-win (actually 221-0) regular season, their first No. 1 ranking (currently) in the Boston Globe Top 20, and the favorite’s role in their quest for a first-ever MIAA Division 2 state championship beginning with a Division 2 North Section encounter Friday night (7 p.m.) in the DHS Fieldhouse.

Granted, they were predicted to have a terrific season, but 21-0? And topped off with a mind-numbing, emotion-packed 79-78 victory at Lynn English last week that once again earned the Falcons  “best in the NEC” recognition.

“The kids showed up to play every night, though on a few occasions we didn’t have our best scoring games,” Walsh said of the regular season. “But they always found a way to win, whether the score was in the thirties or the seventies. They had the bullseye on their backs every night, pressure on them every night, and they answered every challenge. They never looked ahead to the next game. They focused on the game at hand.”

So as Year 4 winds down in what unjust be called “The Golden Era of Danvers High Boys Basketball,” the Falcons begin their quest for a third state title in four years Friday, after a much deserved eight-day rest from game action — against the winner of tonight’s Wakefield (9-9) at Lynn Classical (11-11) meeting.

Classical must be considered the favorite, based on the Rams’ recent play, which included a homecourt victory over Lynn English (17-3), the No. 2 seed in Division 1 North. The Rams also gave the Falcons all they could handle, at Danvers, back on January 9, before falling, 67-56. Classical might have stolen that one had not Peter Merry scored a personal career high (and team season high) 36 points, in which he made his first 10 shots and finished 14-for-17 from the floor, 8-for-11 from the line. Devan Harris aided the cause, scoring all 14 of his points in the second half.

“Both teams are  better than their .500 records,” Walsh observed, “so we’ll let the game play out its course and then get read for whomever is coming to town Friday.”

Before getting fully geared for the post-season, this is an appropriate time to celebrate the history the Falcons made in the regular season.

They won 16 of their 21 gams by at least 10 points, 11 by at least 20, and seven by at least 30. They knew how to win the close, low-scoring affairs as well, such as the one-pointer over English, a two-pointer over Salem, a four-pointer over Bishop Feehan, three- and six-pointers over Marblehead.

“The players deserve all the credit,” Walsh said, as always, deflecting any of the credit away from him and his staff. “They knew how to persevere under a variety of circumstances and always figured it out, even when we couldn’t shoot straight. That’s the sign of a fine team.”

The defense has been backboned by a strong three-deep set up with 6-10 Peter Merry, 6-4 Devan Harris and 6-3 Vinny Clifford. Guards Devonn Allen and Mike Nestor have been rock solid outside along with Rashad Francois and Tre Crittendon off the bench.

Offensively, the Falcons may have the most unstoppable offense in the state, led by the deadly three-point shooting quartet of Clifford (a stunning 23-for-45 his last four game), Allen, Francois and Harris, combined with an all-but-0indefensible 1-2 inside power game from Merry and Harris.

Most remarkably (knock on wood — a lot of wood), none of the “Fab Five” have missed playing time because of injury. “They knew how to get ready for the season condition-wise and it’s paid off,” Walsh said, probably with all his fingers and toes crossed, as well as his arms and legs, maybe even his eyes.

In assessing his “steady seven,” Walsh called off-guard and occasional small forward Mike Nestor “one of the best stories of our season with his incredible defends and timely rebounding. He and point guard Devonn Allen give us two outstanding ‘on-ball’ defenders.

Backup point guard Tre Cittendon “has come a long way this year,” says Walsh. “He’s made a lot of clutch plays, can make three-pointer and can give Devonn a breather whenever he needs it, though that’s not very often.

Devonn, in fact, has amazing stamina, as he showed at Lynn English. He handled all that defensive pressure, 32 minutes worth, like a senior, when he’s actually a sophomore. Simply put, Devonn has grown into a tremendous two-way player, a leader in every respect. He’s a big offensive threat as well. He’s shown he can beat you on the drive or with the pull-up three- or two-pointer. We would not be where we are without him.”

Walsh has been delighted how Vinny Clifford, after missing all of the 2013-14 season with a surgically repaired knee, returned this season as a ready-for-prime-time performer, especially after he got used to playing with the anticipated soreness.

“Vinny has gotten stronger as the year as gone on, as he’s trusted his knee more and more,” Walsh said. “His excellent all-around play has reflected that and his three-point shooting has been fabulous (23-for-45 the last four games).

Walsh says his 6-10 pivotman, Peter Merry, seems to have improved every game, though it might not always show up on the box score. His inside play on defense can’t be matched and he’s gotten more and more aggressive at both ends these last few weeks, just what we’d hoped to happen.”

Lastly, the Conference’s most dynamic inside-outside offensive force, Harris  has not disappointed following his MVP winter of a year ago. “People talk about his offense, which is just as difficult to defend against in the lane or on the arc,” Walsh said. “But his defense and rebounding are sometimes overlooked; just terrific.”

If folks wondered if what Walsh did with his first group of players was a fluke his first three years, what he has achieved these last two years is almost equally as remarkable, whether they win a state title this time around or not.

“It’s sure been enjoyable and gratifying,” Walsh concedes. “No one has ever been complacent in this program and hopefully will never be complacent. At this stage, it’s all about getting the job done every time out. In one second the game can change. We’ll try and have the kids ready for every situation and see what happens. We’re all looking forward to getting started again.”

Friday  night cannot come soon enough.

 

 

 

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Danvers High’s Clifford Loving Every Second Of Championship Run

It’s a journey that Vinny Clifford, on the one hand, wouldn’t have wished on his worst enemy. But on the other, it’s a journey he would hope every basketball buddy could experience.

From savoring the ecstacies derived from being a  sophomore starter on the repeat Division 3 state champion Danvers High Falcons two years ago, Clifford last winter suffered through the worst form of basketball season purgatory. He sat in street clothes for every one of the Falcons’ 23 games, exhorting his teammates as only he could while recovering from major knee surgery from September 2013, required after getting hurt during the summer playing AAU ball.

As the only returning starter on what turned out to be a Cinderella season even without his playing availability, Clifford provided a vital role as the veteran who offered knowledge to a virtually new roster based on his championship season.

There was some gratification in sharing his counsel and seeing his mates sparkle during a 20-3 campaign; one that saw the Falcons repeat as Northeastern Conference champions, win three tournament games before falling in the Division 2 North final to New Mission, and establish coach John Walsh as one of the best in Eastern Massachusetts.

Yet, one can only imagine the anguish Clifford felt in not being able to contribute on the floor, quite possibly being the player who could have made a difference in any of the Falcons’ three defeats. Rather, he simply served as the good soldier last winter, the only consolation as an injured player being his ability in solitude to shoot the basketball flat-footed in practices, knowing he was making good progress in his long rehabilitation.

But, and it was an enormous “but,” Clifford was missing his entire junior season competitively. He would not have the benefit of the 99% of healthy players who would smoothly progress from sophomore season to junior season to senior season.

Fast-forward to this current season and for Clifford and teammates it’s been like living a dream:  an unprecedented undefeated regular season (21-0),  fourth straight Northeastern Conference Small and mythical Overall titles, first-time ascension to the No. 1 ranking in the Boston Globe Top 20, and a most reasonable chance at capturing a third state title, this time in Division 2, in four years.

“What we’ve done to this point is a great accomplishment, something we should all be proud of as players and coaches,” Clifford, the team’s 6-3 shooting forward who has saved his best long-range marksmanship for this week’s tortuous four-games-in-72-hours stretch, said. “We felt we had a good chance to win every game on our schedule and we did, though we had several close calls.

“Someone always came forward and made the big play, whatever it was, to save a game or win the game at the end, and we know we have a great coaching staff led by Coach (John) Walsh. So we every game started out feeling we could, should win.”

No matter how good he said he felt or how strong he played in the preseason, everyone in the Danvers High basketball camp was on pins and needles to a degree when the regular season started. How well, in fact, would Clifford’s knee hold up in real game action?

We found out in the opener at Winthrop December 16 when Clifford hit 5-of-11 three-point attempts and scored 15 points in the Falcons’ 62-28 victory. Clifford was back in action with those beautiful rainbow bombs from three-point land — and deeper. He was quiet offensively the next two games, then exploded for a career-high 29 points at Gloucester, 27 in the second half with four treys, in another easy win.

He was a reliable two-way performer, but enjoyed no splashy offensive games for the next couple weeks, but saved the Falcons’ tense 39-37 home court win over Salem by blocking the Witches’ last-gasp final shot from behind the three-point line with two seconds remaining.

“People forget Vinny is a solid all-around player for us,” Walsh has pointed out often this season. “Defense, rebounding; we have him out on the floor for a lot more reasons than just his offense. That play at the end of the Salem game was the perfect example.”

The next game at Revere was Vinny’s sharpest from beyond the arc to date, hitting 6-for-7 in threes in another Falcon rout. He was 5-for-10 in the 79-40 non-league blowout win over Malden, but three games later had his roughest offensive outing of the year at Marblehead, missing all five field goal attempts and showing zeroes in the box score in a 53-47 “narrow escape” triumph.

Uh-oh. Was everything alright, every DHS hoop fan wondered.  Was the knee acting up? It turned out, of course, that nothing was wrong at all.

“Marblehead did a good job using a triangle-and-2 (and a box-and-1) that night,” Clifford said. “I realized I had to move better without the ball. They had two strong defensive games against us. They’re a good team.”

Would Clifford get some desired results from moving better without the ball in the Falcons’ next game, the semifinal of the Comcast/Arbella Invitational at Woburn High against Bishop Feehan? Indeed he would.

Clifford hit 5-of-11 three-point attempts in Danvers’s 60-56 victory, then had an equally strong shooting/all-around game in the tourney final the next day against Malden Catholic, going 4-for-7 from deep in a cakewalk win.

These two games served as excellent tuneups for Danvers’s third game in as many days, the long-awaited showdown  between the NEC’s two powers at Lynn English, the Falcon’s third game in as many days.

In unquestionably his finest moments as a high school basketball player, Clifford led all scorers with 28 points, hitting 8-of-14 three-point attempts, sparking two different Danvers comebacks when they might have been on the verge of getting blown out, hit four treys in a third quarter takeover for a 12-point lead, then came through big, big big one final time in the last two minutes. He hit a deep right side three to break a 73-73 tie and made a cut-through layup after a nifty feed from Rashad Francois with 49 seconds left for a 78-75 lead.

Devan Harris’s foul shot with no time remaining was the game winner accounting for the final score, 79-78, but it didn’t take a Ph.D in hoopology to recognize Clifford as the player of the game. Teammates Devonn Allen, Harris, Peter Merry and Francois all contributed mightily, Allen at point guard in particular. But without Clifford’s timely ICBM-like shotmaking, English would have won this battle by double figures.

“You can’t replace great clutch shooting like Vinny gave us tonight,” Walsh said afterward. “We had to score a lot of points to win tonight and Vinny more than anyone made our offensive production possible. The other players more than did their share, all coming through when it was needed most. But Vinny’s three-pointers were critical for us.”

“No, I didn’t change any technique from the Marblehead game to this week,” says Clifford, who in these past four games, including the 68-55 regular season finale win at Rockland Thursday, has made 23-of-45 three-pointers (6-for-10 at Rockland), better than 50 percent, extraordinary at the high school level.

“Maybe my mindset was better, knowing we had to play the hardest we’ve played all year to win. I never lost my confidence. You think too much about it and you’d really be in trouble. I’m just glad I could help the team any way I could.”

The after-effects of the English epic were with Clifford and Company during their Thursday noon hour start at Rockland. “I was  very tired at the start of the game,” Clifford admitted. “Think all of us were. It was hard to get much sleep after the English game. I’m just glad we were able to push through at Rockland, but it wasn’t easy”

Now, the senior tri-captain (with Harris and Merry), is only a handful of games from his second state title.

“It’s great what we’ve done to here, but it’s almost like we start all over,” Clifford said of the post-season. “We’re still growing as a team. We’ve faced several challenges and gotten past them. Now we’ll face more and we’ve got to handle them, too. We can do well in the tournament. I think we’ve played our best stretch of the season this week. I’m hoping we can keep growing, keep getting better, and we could do well.”

A major key in Danvers’ tourney trail will be avoiding injuries and staying out of foul trouble. When the “Fab Five” is on the floor they could be unbeatable in Division 2. The Falcons did not lose a single player to injury for even a single game in these first 21. The players showed tremendous stamina and will at Lynn English. They’ve also been able to weather severe foul trouble situations.

One other issue is keeping turnovers down to a minimum. The Falcons survived though committing 15 at Lynn, many caused by English’s outstanding defensive pressure, in both the man-to-man and zone-press categories.

“We known we’re capable,” Clifford noted. “The pressure will be there on the floor and off the floor since we’re undefeated. But we can handle of it. We’re motivated for all the right reasons. If we give it our best shot, we’ll be fine.”

And if Clifford keeps playing — and shooting — at such a high level, Danvers fans will be fine as well.

 

 

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Danvers High Falcon Boys Finish With Perfection: 21-0 After Four Wins in 72 Hours; No. 99 For Walsh; Now Time For Rest Before State Tournament Quest Begins

After Wednesday night’s exhilarating 79-78 victory at Lynn English, the Danvers High boys basketball team had very little turnaround time before busing to Rockland Thursday morning for a rare 12:30 tipoff to close out their regular season, the result of a prior postponement.

Shaking the cobwebs, the Falcons grabbed a 20-14 first quarter lead, extended it to 40-25 at halftime and coasted from there, posting a 68-55 victory and concluding the first perfect regular season in program history.

Vinny Clifford continued his torrid three-point shooting, making six bombs for 18 points total, the same rung up by Devan Harris, who made the winning free throw at Enbglish with bio time remaining.

Their reward for winning four road games, two of them barn burners, in a 72-hour period? As much as a week off before they begin their bid for a third state championship in four years. They’ll be practicing, of course, under coach John Walsh, who notched his 99th career win against Rockland; maybe even scrimmaging a local  tourney squad.

Pairings for the tourney, Division 2 North in the Falcons’ case, are expected to be announced Saturday evening or Sunday. Check out the MIAA website for the announcement.

It’s expected the Falcons will get at least one home game, probably two, as they did last year before falling to New Mission in the Division 2 North final.

Looking ahead, the Division 2 North final will be at UMass-Lowell on Saturday March 7, followed by the Eastern Mass. title game at TD Garden on Monday the 9th or Tuesday the 10th, followed by the state final the following Saturday in Worcester.

But for the moment, the Falcons get a much-needed and well deserved break from the pressure connected to their historic quest.

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Danvers High Boys’ Cagers Capture Epic 79-78 Victory at Lynn English; Justify No. 1 Spot in Boston Globe Rankings

To have attended last night’s historic, pulsating, heart-stopping, nerve-wracking, glorious 79-78 Danvers High boys’ basketball victory at Lynn English was to have been a part of arguably the greatest single-game performance by a Danvers High boys’ team — ever.

That does not mean we wish to take anything away from the two unforgettable Division 3 North wins, the two Division 3 state semifinal triumphs in TD Garden nor the two state championship wins in Worcester.

But…to have been in full view of what this amazing, amazing team achieved last night under extremely difficult conditions — on the road for the third straight game in as many days against a reputable  foe, in this case a Division 1 state championship contender and repeat Northeastern Conference Large Division champ —  was to have been a part of a sporting event anyone in attendance, especially as a Danvers supporter, will never forget.

I’ve seen a zillion bone-crunching, fast-paced barn burners over the years, from the high school level to the NBA Championship round (thanks to covering five NBA finals with the Celtics), all of which came down to the final shot in the final second.

But nothing I have witnessed prepared me for the athleticism, clutch shooting, momentum swings and pressure-packed play I watched last night.

In the end, the “Falcons’ Fab Five”  — that has a nice ring to it —  was able to survive several offensive assaults from the home team, which was coming off a stunning loss to cross-town rival Lynn Classsical, and earn their unprecedented 20th victory of the year without a loss.

The Falcons, led by the unflappable genius of baby-faced coach John Walsh, eek to close out the regular season 21-0 — and to retain the first-ever No. 1 ranking in the Boston Globe Top 20 received just hours before the Lynn English showdown — this afternoon with a 12:30 non-league visit to 7-7 Rockland.  That will mean two games in less than 24 hours and four games in 72 hours. But expect the Falcons to come out with fire in their eyes once again, as they did in stopping Bishop Feehan Monday at Woburn, 60-56, Malden Catholic Tuesday at Newton North, 79-59, to win the Comcast Arbella Division 2 Invitational, and outlasting Lynn English night.

Anyone reading this will probably already know in detail, most important Devan Harris’s free throw with no time remaining that won the game, thanks to the “big game” coverage provided last night’s game by The Boston Herald, Boston Globe, Daily Item of Lynn, Salem News and ESPN/Boston, how this masterpiece of a high school contest (despite the 29 total turnovers combined, 14 for Lynn,  and seemingly easy scoring opportunities that were missed) evolved. But here are a few snippets.

  • Facing without question the best team they have played all season, the Falcons fell behind at the outset by 6-1 and 11-4 counts, as English’s zone press defense, red-hot shooting (5-for-5 to start, 3 of them three-pointers) and obvious advantage in athleticism and speed had the visitors reeling. The Falcons committed turnovers on their first three possessions, two of which occurred before they got the ball to halfcourt, four in the first two minutes.
  • But senior shooting forward nonpareil Vinny Clifford, on as spectacular a three-point shooting hot streak as you can have (17-for-32 the last 3 games, 8-for-14 on this evening) got Danvers untracked offensively with successive treys, three for the quarter and a 16-foot two-pointer for good measure, and the Falcons clawed back to within 23-20 at the end of the quarter.
  • English (17-4 and a high seed when the Division 1 North pairings come out this weekend) then went on another spree and had the Falcons on the ropes yet again in the second quarter at 35-26. But super sensational sophomore point guard Devonn Allen, the MVP of the Comcast-Arbella tourney and probably the co-No. 2 star last night with mates Peter Merry (16 points10 rebounds, 4 blocks), Harris (15 points, 9 rebounds) and sensational sixth man Rashad Francois (11 points, 5 rebounds), behind Clifford and his career-high 28 points (8 boards), answered the challenge. Allen hit a 16-foot swisher. Francois added a floater in the lane, a cut-in-the-lane layup and two foul shots, Harris put in a rebound and Allen provided a delicious driving scoop lay-up, all of which drew the Falcons within 41-38 at intermission. The fans only had 10 minutes,  to catch their breaths and cool down, but they might have welcomed enough time to run outside and dunk their heads in one of the available mammoth snow piles.
  • Keep in mind the “Fab Five,” cheered on in deafening manner by the “Falcon Fanatics” seated right behind their bench, were going the entire game, with rare mini-brief substitutions from Mike Nestor and Tre Cittendon, with a frighteningly frantic up-and-down-the-floor pace. Not exactly what they have been accustomed to, such as in their toughest NEC games to date (39-37 over Salem, 46-43 and 53-47 over Marblehead). Still, they took control of the game in the third quarter. Powered by four Clifford rainbow three-point bombs from the corner, Danvers hit eight of its first 11 shots and jumped out to a 64-52 less, their loyal followers going delirious.
  • But as anyone on board anticipated, English responded with a rush that tied the score at 66 just as Harris got hit with his fourth personal foul with 6:19 left. But the Falcons have handled foul trouble and foul-outs with masterful aplomb in the most dramatic of situations and this was no exception. Harris never did foul out,
  • The game remained nip and tuck the rest of the way, with several excellent Falcon field goal bids hitting the back of the rim until Clifford — it’s time to call him Mr. Clutch — hit his eighth and final three-bagger to make it 76-73 with 1:22 showing, then cashed a layup on a nifty pass from Francois for a 78-75 cushion with 49 seconds left.
  • It was 78-77 when Harris missed the front end of a 1-and-1 with 14.9 seconds remaining, but English’s Stevie Collins made only his second of two foul shots with 5.4 ticks remaining at the other end after a penetration down the lane (and a controversial foul call).

That set the stage for Harris’s redemption, though he was vital to this victory and has been critical in the Falcons’ overwhelming success last year and this since coming to town from Hingham.  The Falcons had to go the full length of the court. When Harris got the pass near mid court — if my memory serves me (writer’s remorse) —  the ever-confident Harris took two dribbles and fired away from 27 feet in front of the Danvers bench, the ball was partially deflected and many thought it meant overtime. But no, in deflecting the shot the Lynn defender had struck Harris’s arm. That meant a three-shot foul with no time remaining. Devan made the first (after going 0-for-4 from the line prior) and the Falcons had secured one of the greatest wins in the program’s history.

Walsh’s explanation after the game for his team’s ability to raise its game to new levels this week? “They’re playing harder and harder. They’ve got the stamina to handle the fast pace, any pace. They know how to get through tough times. They’re confident they can handle any situation, They believe in each other.”

It is difficult for this observer to put this win in proper perspective. The enormity of its meaning is obvious. The heart of the five primary players can never be overstated. Their endurance, their nerves, their ability to make so many huge plays — all five of them based on the roles each must play. And Walsh continues to marvel with his handling of this team in general and his front liners in particular.

Count your blessings, Falcon fans. Remarkably, the team has not had to deal with a single major injury through 20 games; nothing short of unbelievable a year after the team lost its only returning starter to a summer knee injury (see below).

Now, a player-by-player rundown:

  • Vinny Clifford — What a story this young man has written after being forced to suffer through the entire 2013-14 Cinderella season (20-3, NEC Small and NEC overall titles, Div. 2 North final loser to New Mission) sitting on the bench in street clothes after needing surgery for his ACL in September of 2013. What mental agony he must have gone through. What a difference he could have made if able. So he served as the best teammate and bench leader he could. And he waited and waited for the 2014-15 season. He nicked the surgical knee during the summer but recovered quickly. He returned to action last December gradually, needing to build up resistance to discomfort in his injured, heavily-braced knee. He has had countless strong all-around games, several superb shooting games, without missing a single game, though in the early schedule he got more rest than he wanted, but that was part of Walsh’s plan to bring him along at a safe pace. When Clifford was held by Marblehead last Thursday in Marblehead to an 0-for-5 shooting night, his worst of the season, there were concerns. But neither Clifford nor his mates nor his coach had any. And with good reason. In what loomed on paper as the three toughest games of the regulars season, Clifford has been an NBA-ish 17-for-32 from three-point land, many of his swishes coming from several feet beyond the arc. Vinny is simply playing his best all-around basketball of the season right now, as has been evidenced in his ability to help Allen primarily, but Francois and Frittendon too, in bringing the ball up against relentless defensive pressure. He has also upticked his rebounding and defending to an all-star level. But his ICBM-like marksmanship has played the most impactful role in the team’s jacking up its game to celestial levels these last three games. His two early bombs last night seemed to get his teammates going after a scary start.
  • Devonn Allen — Coach Walsh had every confidence that Allen would be a terrific point man for his team this winter, especially after Allen’s sparkling summer play alongside Merry, Harris and Merry on the AAU Boston Warriors squad. But the young man has raised his game to stratospheric levels the last few weeks, highlighted by his play in these last four games. His MVP award in the Comcast/Arbella tourney is testament to all that. His play against Bishop Feehan and Lynn English this week has been critical to his team’s victories. As Walsh has noted after both victories, Allen’s tremendous floor play, especially against English’s stifling man and zone-press defenses, made those wins possible. If Devonn cracks, the Falcons lose, period. He does not crack. Allen had a few turnovers, but everyone else on the team did as well (16 total). Unavoidable against a team with such quick feet and exceptional athleticism. Devonn beast that pressure singlehandedly countless times. And don’t forget that Devonn is a threat to cash in his jumper (he’s been uncanny with his threes) or drive to the rim every time down the floor.
  • Peter Merry — The 6-10 senior center had enjoyed a solid regular season, topped by his near-perfect 36-point offensive showing against a good Lynn Classical unit that shocked English last week. But his ferocious defensive and rebounding play this week has taken his game to another level of performance needed, or the Falcons probably lose to Feehan and English. He quietly does the dirty work at both ends of the floor, getting little compassion from the referees on offense while showing his dominating influence at the defensive end. Moreover, his re-discovered offensive impact this week has been welcomed by all.
  • Devan Harris — Where would the Falcons be without this Charles Barkley-esque figure who can do everything well and is all but unstoppable when he gets the ball in the low post (helped in no small part by the attention teams must give the aforementioned Mr. Merry on the other side of the lane)? NEC MVP and Salem News Player of the Year in 2013-14, Harris has been no less successful this year, but his impact may not be measured quite as highly this year because of Merry’s improvement from a year ago and Clifford’s return. But make no mistake, the 6-4 power forward has had a fantastic season, topped by last night’s winning free throw with no time left at English.  His three-point accuracy has added yet another three-point dimension to go along with Clifford, next option Allen and Francois. Because of the three-point talent this quartet possesses, the Falcons are liable one night soon to win a game by taking more threes than twos. The team’s ability to take so many threes is enhanced by the devastating 1-2 inside game provided by Harris and Merry. Devan’s uncanny rebounding ability and underrated defense (not appreciated by the whistle tooters at all this season) also weigh heavily in Danvers’ 20-0 record.
  • Rashad Francois — The junior flash with the best quickness and speed on the floor along with Allen has enjoyed several heroic games this season, but none to compare with his play against Malden Catholic and English in his frequently-created sixth man role. He savored undoubtedly his finest two-way game under pressure conditions last night. He made his presence felt in every phase of his game: rebounding, shooting outside and penetration, passing that set up layups and wide open successful threes, ball-handling, defense and rebounding. When Rashad gets into his desired rhythm, as was the case last night in what was a brutally up-tempo game, he thrives.

Off-guard/small forward starter Mike Nestor and backup guard Tre Crtittendon have had their moments, especially in what they delivered against Bishop Feehan after Merry and Harris fouled out. They will continue to contribute, hopefully with their best games ahead of them as tournament time approaches.

Now, a few more comments on John Walsh. Like Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick have often said, “You are what your record says you are, no matter what your personnel.” Well, there can be no mistake that Walsh has been the perfect coach for this group and the group he guided the three years prior, there second and third editions of which won Division 3 state titles. He’s only in his mid-30s, with five years of varsity assistant coaching experience under his belt before coming to Danvers. Today he is considered one of the top high school coaches in the state and one being eyed by virtually every Division 1 and 2 school that might be looking for a new coach sooner rather than later.

For much of the first 15 games or so, the Falcons seemed to play to the level of — or only slightly above the level, thankfully — of the team they were playing.  This frustrated the coaching staff. Walsh never conceded this observation, but it must have driven him loco, trying to figure out what was needed to get the “Fab Five” to all play with complete devotion and energy. Of course, team insiders might consider this perspective loco since the team kept winning every single game. No matter. They finally have played these last three games like state champions, even with a few performance warts showing.

After finishing an historic 21-0 with the expected win today at Rockland, the Falcons will get some time off before hosting one or two Division 2 North games. They will be seeded No. 1, with a rematch with New Mission a strong possibility. After today’s game, let the magical ride of this superb season continue with all arrows pointed to the state final in Worcester March 14.

Lastly, a few factoids regards the greatest winning era by a major boys’ sports team in DHS history.

  • 21-0 this year, 41-3 the last two years, 63-5 the last three years, 84-9 the last four years, tournament games included.
  • Four straight NEC Small titles
  • Four straight NEC Overall (mythical) titles as the team with the best NEC record in either Small or Large
  • Two MIAA Division 3 states titles 2012, 2013, Division 2 North finalist 2014
  • The first No. 1 ranking in the Boston Globe’s Top 20 (published February 18, 2015), within five Division 1 teams ranked two through six.

Now catch your breath and get ready for February/March Madness.

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DHS Boys Cagers Near Perfect; Rout Malden Catholic, 79-59, for First-ever 19-0 Record and Comcast-Arbella Classic Division 2 Title; Merry Named To All-Star Team With Tourney MVP Allen

It loomed as a close contest for the Comcast-Arbella Classic Division 2 tournament title Tuesday at Newton North High School. But the close-to-peaking Danvers High Falcons played their finest two-way game of the year against a quality opponent and mauled Malden Catholic, 79-59, giving them a program-record 19-0 regular season mark.

The masterful victory, in which five Falcons were in double figures and Peter Merry was named to the all-tourney team with teammate and tourney MVP Devonn Allen, sets the stage for a third major battle in as many nights, this one at 14-2 Lynn English Wednesday at Lynn (7 p.m. start), with either the Falcons clinching a third straight mythical Northeastern Conference title with a win or sharing the mythical title with a loss. English has already won the NEC Large once again, while the Falcons won the NEC Small for a fourth straight year and are looking for a fourth straight best overall NEC record.

The Falcons, hitting a stunning 10-for-22 three-point field goal attempts, similar in percentage, maybe somewhat better than what they shot the previous day in beating Bishop Feehan, 60-56, turned a 20-14 one quarter advantage against MC into a 44-25 halftime runaway, powered by a balanced offense and a strong-willed man-to-man defense that forced Catholic Conference representative MC (11-6) into seven first half turnovers and a poor shooting night from start to finish.

The Falcons, operating effectively in every aspect of the game, from shooting to ball-hawking to rebounding, never let up in the second half. Senior Vinny Clifford followed his 5-for-8 three-point accuracy against Feehan with a 4-for-7 outing against MC. That’s 9-for-18 in the two games after being shut out at Marblehead last Thursday. Most high school players would beg, borrow and steal to shoot like that from inside the arc, never mind from behind. But Clifford currently is honing in from extra deep range like never before this season.

Coach John Walsh showed just how much confidence he has in his quartet of reliable three-point shooters (Clifford, Allen, Devan Harris and Rashad Francois) by running most of his first half set plays geared to the open three, and they got them with terrific results. How often have you seen a high school coach run set play after set play with the ultimate goal either an open three (often launched) or a feed inside to the 6-10 pivot (Merry)?

Clifford finished with 14 points, Allen 10 (2-for-3 from 3-point land), sixth man Rashad Francois had 12 (2-for-6 in treys), Harris added 15 (12 in the second half after sitting much of the first half with foul trouble) and Merry added inside scoring balance with Harris’s with 19 points in one of his finest two-way games of the season. That’s five players in doubles, a rare feat.

All in all, it was a breathtaking showing. For so many weeks spoiled Danvers fans, including this one, had fretted that the Falcons were playing only to the level of their opponent, had gotten lucky in a few of the close wins against the better NEC rivals, and might stumble badly as they wrap up the regular season schedule against some major challenges.

Wrong. The Falcons have risen to the occasion their last three toughies and today scaled a new height not before reached this season. They play like this against English and in the tournament they’ll have a good shot at making it to the state Division 2 final at Worcester March 14.

It should be added that Walsh had perfect command from the bench for a second straight outing, this observer’s only concern being that he kept his front liners in the game too far into the fourth quarter.

This game may prove to be the game that showed everyone, including the Falcons themselves, that they may be destined for even bigger things come tournament time.

Wednesday’s English showdown will hopefully give us more encouraging signs. But to this point, the Falcons have been an extraordinary team led by an exciting two-way point guard in Allen, three game-changing captains in Merry, Clifford and Harris, a defensive demon in Mike Nestor and a sixth man, Francois, who return to brilliant form against Malden Catholic. Add third guard Tre Crittendon’s steadier play too the mix and the Falcons may just be the team to beat in Division 2.

But first they’d like to take care of business at Lynn and Rockland.

 

 

 

 

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Pat Veilleux-coached Danvers High Girls Cagers Pull Off A Lazarus; Win 7 of Last 8, Last 5 Straight, To Qualify For EMass Tourney

Danvers High School girls basketball coach Pat Veilleux has experienced plenty, and thought he had just about seen it all as a player, coach and hoop fan around these parts during his 57 years on this snow-covered earth .

That was until the last few weeks, when his Falcons, standing 3-9 and needing seven wins in their last eight games, then five wins in their last five starts, to qualify for the Eastern Massachusetts tournament, did just that.

“I’ve had a wonderful life in basketball as a fan, player, coach and parent,” says Veilluex. “This amazing turn of events ranks — and I’ve had time to give this some thought — among the most satisfying team success I’ve ever experienced. In fact, I’ve never seen anything this special performed by a team when it’s been under the gun for eight games.

“Nobody outside our locker room probably believed, when we were 3-9, that we could win seven of our last eight. Then, when we lost that 10th game and now faced the necessity of winning our last five to make the tournament, well, the girls on this team learned what they can accomplish when they believe in themselves, in each other, in their coaches, and, most important, play together.

“And that’s what this team has been all year, with injuries, sickness, some painful losses; a team that doesn’t care who scores the points or gets the ink in the papers; as long as they give it their best effort.

“It’s still happily numbing to me; the way we were under the gun for eight games, had little room for error, and weren’t sure if certain players could do the job with so much at stake,” Veilleux said. “But we found out, in essence, that everyone we called on could do the job and look what fantastic results we got.”

Veilleux is not one to exaggerate. He’s been around the block many times in this pressure basketball world. He was the junior point guard on the 1975 DHS boys’ basketball Northeastern Conference championship team coached by John McGrath and led by NEC MVP Ed Gieras.

He and Gieras were stars on two Salem State squads that won MASCAC titles and reached the NCAA Division 3 regional tournament.

He had two tournament teams in four years as the Bishop Fenwick boys coach in the 1980s, succeeding DHS immortal Dana Skinner, now the athletic director at NCAA Division 1 UMass-Lowell. He had two more tourney teams in a 12-year tenure as the DHS boys’ coach, took seven years iff from coaching to referee at the high school level, then got back on the bench as the Danvers varsity girls’ coach for the 2006-07 season.

He enjoyed major success when the girls, led by Kellie MacDonald, Sara Palazolla and Kasey Sherry won back-to-back NEC titles in 2010 and 2011. For all those good times, nothing has been as sweet as what his current team has achieved.

“I wondered at times last summer if we’d have enough players to make up a team,” Veilleux joked. “Three of our players suffered major injuries over the summer and have been wearing heavy knee braces all winter. We get into January, lose by one in overtime at Lynn Classical, then face a strong (6-1) Beverly team at our place with two of our players out with bad ankles and another out after suffering a 12-stitch cut in her eye in a freak practice mishap. So we had only seven players dressed.

“These injuries were giving me the willies. We’d lost senior captain Kara Connors in our second game for the season with a torn ACL. That was the fifth ACL injury we’d had to deal with in recent years. There were other injuries that lasted a week or so. It just didn’t seem like we’d be able to overcome all this stuff.

“But Devan Walsh scored a career-high 27 points the night we beat Beverly, 48-44, and we looked at ourselves differently; that we could be a good team if we could stay healthy. We stumbled at Salem despite a great effort, then lost to Revere and Peabody, and that when we found ourselves 3-9.”

Then the magic started. First came a 49-27 win at Saugus, thanks to a big second half from freshman Siobhan Moriarty (11 points, 14 rebounds) and a 17-2 third quarter.

“We played with more belief after that game,” Veilleux said. “That and the Beverly game we fed off more and more.”

Next came a home game to a Peabody team that had walloped the Falcons by 20 in their first meeting, Sophomore Angele Saggese scored 14 to power the Falcons to a 38-31 reversal.

A tough loss, despite a strong defensive effort, followed at Winthrop. Now the Falcons were 5-10. hey couldn’t slip up again.

And they didn’t. Danvers dumped non-league foe Ipswich, 42-28, keyed by a super effective box-and-1, devised by assistant coach Jon Levine, on Tiger ace Jenna Gagnon, who was held to nine points. Walsh’s 14 points and 10 rebounds led the way, aided by 10 rebounds each from Elena Clifford and Moriarty. Clifford, sister of DHS boys’ standout Vinny Clifford, had had a breakout game back in December with 20 points and 14 boards versus Saugus.

(Danvers basketball is thriving this year in large part because of the three Devans/Devonns taking charge; Walsh on the girls’ side and Devan Harris and Devonn Allen on the boys’ side. Let’s have a first-name-only 3-on-3 high school tournament and I’ll take the three Devans/Devonns every time.)

After falling to a Swampscott rally earlier in Swampscott, the Falcons gained revenge for win No. 7, 38-25, boosted by Hannah Llewellyn’s three three-pointers and Tina Gigli’s nine rebounds in a reserve role.

Set with an imposing nine-player rotation, the Falcons gained revenge for a bad loss earlier at home to Gloucester and sank the host Fishermen, 48-38, led by six clutch Llewellyn free throws in the fourth quarter, as well as Nicole White’s 12 points in the first half, her six steals and Walsh’s 18 points.

The very next night Danvers got its ninth win, after losing by double digits in Marblehead earlier, in what ranks as the second biggest of the team’s comebacks this season. Trailing by 40-25 early in the fourth quarter, with the tournament hopes all by erased, the Falcons staged a stunning rally, going on a 21-1 spurt and pulling out the victory, 46-41.

“This comeback was the most thrilling seen I’ve seen as a coach or player,” Veilleux said. “How it all snowballed with a full court zone press and clutch scoring plays, some steals; a situation where everyone on the floor during that spurt contributed. No one was bigger than Clifford (10 points, 12 rebounds), and White was right there, too,m with six steals and eight points.”

The Falcons were now at 9-10 with one game left to win or turn in their uniforms. Hone to Lynn English last Friday night, Veilluex feared most a letdown after the amazing win the night before. This made three games in three nights.But after a sluggish first half in which the Falcons led by only 29-22, they turned it on the second half for a 64-35 rout and a most unlikely 1`0-10, tourney-qualifying record. From 3-9, wow.

“We did an effective box-and-1 on their top player, Waleska Muriel, shared by Saggese, Moriarty and the other Llewellyn, Meagan, Hannah’s sister, and they held her two two second half points. With the underrated sophomore Julia McNulty sidelined with a concussion issue and Hannah Llewellyn out with illness, Veilleux had his pre game concerns. But they were unfounded. He had nine players hit the scoring column as they reached the post-season party.

“I’m just so happy the girls have had this experience. They earned it. They deserved all the good feelings that come with all but rising from the dead. I wish we didm;’t have to take all this time off between games, since the pairings don’t come out ’til this weekend, but we’ll get over it and maybe surprise someone once we get playing again. But no matter what happens from here, the girls have some wonderful memories to take with them for the rest of their lives.

“Equally so, it’s been a grand experience for me and my assistant, Jon Levine. The Salem State Hall of Famer is a Hall of Fame assistant in my estimation. He’s had my back the last four years, done a phenomenal job. I can’t say enough for all he’s done for the varsity program.”

 

 

 

 

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Danvers High Cagers Play Like Champs; Hold Off Bp. Feehan, 60-56

That, ladies and gentleman, is how a championship team handles extreme adversity and wins a pressure-packed game against a quality opponent.

In staving off Bishop Feehan (14-4) by a 60-56 count in the Comcast/IAABO Board 27 Division 2 semifinal Monday afternoon at Woburn High, the undefeated Danvers High Falcons showed many of the winning qualities necessary if they are to be an MIAA Division 2 state title contender once the post-season gets under way next week. The Falcons face Tuesday at 4 p.m. Malden Catholic (11-6), a 68-63 winner over host Woburn, for the Division 2 tourney title at Newton North High School. Malden Catholic nearly upset St. John’s Prep last week, losing in overtime.

The Falcons (18-0, matching the program’s best start ever, also posted in 2012-2013) took offensive command early grabbing a 7-0 lead and made the South Shore team play catchup for all 32 minutes.

It was 19-7 early in the second, keyed to that point by three deep range three-pointers by Vinny Clifford, but Bp. Feehan drew within 24-22 at intermission. It would not have been that close except for several in-close Danvers misses and eight first half Danvers turnovers.

Sparked by the all-around floor play and two quick three-pointers from sophomore point guard deluxe Devonn Allen, the Falcons had their rivals reeling again in the third, during which DHS led by as many as 39-26 before ending the quarter ahead 41-32.

The Falcons continued in control in a game that featured two clawing man-to-man defenses early in the fourth quarter, on top 48-39, when it appeared disaster had struck.

First Devan Harris (13 points, 7 rebounds), fouled out with 4:36 left on what initially looked like a nifty Harris drive to the basket. But the referee waved off the basket and instead nailed the Falcons’ versatile power forward with his fifth foul.

Next trip down Rashad Francois, battling a shooting slump, canned a huge three-pointer to get the cushion back up to 12, but at the other end 6-10 pivotman Peter Merry (5 blocks, 9 rebounds) was called for his fifth foul on a defensive play and suddenly two vital starters were banished.

Could the Falcons hang on for the victory?

Bp. Feehan began whittling away at the deficit, but when Clifford (5-for-8 in threes, 15 points total) hit yet another long right corner three for a 56-43 lead with 2:40 left, the Falcons looked golden, even without Merry and Harris. When Clifford, who’d been shut out at Marblehead last Thursday, swished two foul shots for a 58-45 lead with 1:05 left, there was no doubt of the outcome. Or was there?

Bp. Feeehan ralled to draw within 58-56 with 12 seconds to go, aided by five successive missed Danvers foul shots, and it wasn’t until third guard Tre Crittendon sank two freebies with eight seconds left that the game truly was cinched.

Despite committing 13 turnovers, missing a batch of charity tosses late, having two top players foul out, and letting Bp. Feehan make a frantic rally in the closing minute, the Falcons showed once again they can win under virtually any circumstance, whether they have all their key players on the floor at the finish or not.

That’s the third game they’ve won by four points or less.

Clifford regained his shooting touch at the perfect time, coach John Walsh adjusting his offensive scheme from the Marblehead game ever so slightly so that Clifford, arguably the best three-point marksman in the region, got great looks on each of his bombs. Clifford also had a solid all-around game at both ends, play that often gets overlooked because of the way his three-point shooting stands out.

Harris was a clutch contributor with his vaunted inside game at both ends.

Merry shone, as usual, at the defensive end with those five blocks and nine rebounds and forced Bp. Feehan attackers to redirect their shots into misses.

Allen, nothing short of spectacular running the offense, getting the ball up court against a nasty zone press, especially in the fourth quarter, hitting distant field goals and making some gorgeous dish-offs for layups late, continues to play at an MVP level.

Francois regained his playing rhythm, especially with his clutch trey in the finale, and helped handle the ball in the final minutes against constant pressure.

Starting small forward Mike Nestor clearly had his finest game of the season, sparkling on defense and with his rebounding.

Crittendon, in addition to his game-clinching foul shots, also helped Allen handle the ball with the pressure on in the late going.

Lastly, John Walsh enjoyed what this observer believes was his best coaching effort of the season, handling every phase of the game expertly, especially in his substitutions and adjusting to Bp. Feehan’s rallies, as well as the Harris and Merry foul-outs.

Now they’ll try and do it again — for No. 19 without a loss — at 4 p.m. today.

The amazing, incredible five-year run of the John Walsh Era (96-19), continues.

 

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