Danvers High Cagers Ready to Defend Div. 3 State Title; Martin Needs Time to Heal

Well, here they are. The Danvers High boys’ basketball team that has made history like no other Falcon cage squad.  Now, they are preparing to defend their Division 3 state championship, most likely starting late next week as the No. 2 seed in the North section. North Reading, at 20-0, will get the top seed, and if form prevails these two teams will meet in the section final the first of March.

But for the moment it’s time for the Danvers frontliners to pause and reflect on their extraordinary achievement this past regular season: 18 straight wins to start, an outright Northeastern Conference Small title (after sharing the top spot with Winthrop a year ago), an outright NEC overall title (though it’s not recognized by the league) and the best regular season record in the history of any of the four major sports at Danvers High — 18-2.

Now for the toughest part — defending the Section, Eastern Mass. and state titles won last March.

“It’s been awfully exciting for all of us,” says point guard Eric Martin, who injured a groin muscle in the team’s first loss of the season against Brighton in the Comcast Invitation, then sat out the consolation game loss to Newton North. “We’ve been well prepared every game and competed hard every game.”

As for his groin injury? “It’s a strain,” he said. “Our trainer gave it a good looking over yesterday and told me how to take care of it. I can play when I feel ready, but I know I’m going to feel the groin no matter what. The question is how it’ll feel once I go full tilt in a game. I’ll wrap it. I’ll give it heat. I’ll rest it as long as I can. But I realize I won’t be a hundred percent whenever I play. I just hope it’ll hold out through the tournament.”

That’s the question of the hour for the Falcons. They showed they could handle the Northeastern Conference’s next best teams, i.e. Lynn Classical, Lynn English and Salem, without top scorer Nick McKenna for seven games, winning all seven without the senior swingman, including a two-point escape at Beverly.

But the Falcons did not look like themselves at either end of the floor once Martin was injured against Brighton. The impact of his absence against Newton North was evident from the get-go, despite the exceptional job McKenna did filling in at the point. There are reasons NEC coaches tabbed Martin the top player in the NEC Small (and in most observers eyes the MVP of the entire league).

There’s a whole new dynamic hanging over the Falcons as they await the announcement of the Section pairings by the MIAA. How well can/will they play with a less-than-100 percent star point guard?

“If we play our game we’ll be alright,” says Martin. “If we run our offense right and play good defense, get some points off tunrovers, we’ll have a good chance in every game.”

Inside force Dan Connors is proud of how the team played to put that 18-0 record together, which earned the Falcons a first-ever No. 1 ranking in both the Boston Globe and Boston Herald weekly rankings. “We had to be happy with that,” he said. “We never lost. The last two games? Don’t know if we’ll play teams as good as them in the tournament, but we better be ready to face very tough teams. Everyone wants to knock us off. Brighton and Newton North will hopefully make us better for the tournament even if they were losses. We know what we have to work on, that’s for sure.

“It’ll start with our rebounding and defense,” he added. “Both need to be better than they were in our two losses. We’ll give it our best shot.”

“We took care of business during the regular season except for the two games at Babson,” McKenna, who has shown excellent form since returning from his bout with mononucleosis, observed. “Our confidence built up as the season moved on, and I think we’ve still got the kind of confidence you need to win the state tournment.

“We’ve got to play to our potential, though. Everone wants to see the defending champ get beat. We have to respond to that every time we step on the court.”

Nick Bates pointed out that “we really came together as a team from the start of the season, knowing we’d lost two fine players in George Merry and Joe Amico (via graduation). Several of us have been playing together since AAU days before high school and I guess it’s been paying off last year and this. We believe in each other and Coach (John) Walsh’s coaching style has been a good fit.

“This past weekend was a wakeup call and a reminder how important Eric is to our team. Teamwise we’ve got to get back to our best defensive game and make more of our shots.”

Sophomore Vinny Clifford will hopefully make more of his shots after a rocky weekend at Babson. He enjoyed a fantastic first 18 games, during which he hit a team-high 47 three-pointers. “It’s been a great season so far, even with the two losses,” he said. “We learned a lot in those two defeats. I know I sure did. We need to play better when Eric isn’t on the floor. If we get back to what we were doing so well the first 18 games, we’ll have a good chance to do well in the tournament again.”

Kieran Beck and Jake Cawlina have played major roles coming off the bench, Beck even moreso since he started in place of McKenna during his illness and for Martin Monday against Newton North. They;re anxious to get the tournament underway as well.

“We can do well in the tournament if we play better as a team, run our plays right, get the open shots and look for layups,” he said. “Those kind of things got us to 18-0. We also have to get back to playing the kind of defense we played before the tournament. That way we’ll rebound better and score more points on the break.

“Me? It’s felt great to be in a position to contribute any way I can, like in helping the team on defense and making a shot once in a while, doing what the coach asks of me. Last year we improved as the tournament went on. Hopefully we can improve the same way starting next week, whenever we start playing.”

Cawlina, grandson of the legendary candlepin bowling champion and Professinal Bowlers Tour competitor Joe Cawlina, knows all too well this is the last roundup for him and his seven fellow seniors. “Last year was great, but to stay on top of our games and start 18-0 this year was just as great. Now we have to get back on track for the tournament,” Cawlina said after the team;s Wednesday workout. The team then went bowling at Sunnyside in Danversport and to supper across the street at Oniontown Grille.

“The keys will be the same as last year and this regular season,” he added. “Work hard in practice, give every ounce of effort we have, execute our plays, the basics that have made us a top team. We pride ourselves in our defense, our pressing and trapping. We’ll need to do that well too. If we do, we can go deep in the tournament like last year.”



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