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.