Danvers Cagers Stand Alone No Matter What Happens Saturday

I’ve been around Danvers High sports since I was a water boy on my big brother Bob’s Oniontowner football teams in 1960 and 1961. I played on two DHS basketball teams that lost Northeastern Conference titles the last week of the season in heartbreaking showdown road losses by a combined three points.

I covered the Falcons (the nickname changed when Russ Fravel took over the football program in the mid-1960s) for The Salem Evening News during a 25-year span that saw some great teams produced, especially in football and baseball, and one NEC champion in basketball (1975, thank you, Ed Gieras and Coach John McGrath in particular).

Over the last nearly 20 years I’ve watched mostly as a fan and observed first-time state championships won by the hockey and baseball teams and the first two NEC titles ever for the football team.

But nothing — nothing — can match what the DHS basketball program has achieved the last two years. Win or lose Saturday as they try and defend their Division 3 state title against little Smith Academy (they’re called the Falcons, too!!) of Hatfield at Worcester’s DCU Center at 12:30 — and they will win, I assure you — this achievement ranks as the greatest in the history of sport at the school.

To finish 21-4 last year, led by 6-8 all-stater George Merry, with the basketball program’s first state championship, then to open the new season, with Merry now toiling for the WPI hoop team, with 18 straight wins, and now five more wins as they try and defend their state title, it’s been an accomplishment for the ages. A win Saturday will simply be the perfect cherry atop the grandest sundae ever served up by the Danvers High basketball team to its community.

I’ve got a million reasons why the Danvers Falcons will beat the Smith Academy Falcons (Hatfield is located a short distance west of Amherst) Saturday, but here are a mere several:

  • A head coach, John Walsh, aided by a complementary coaching staff, that knows how to make all the right moves, witness his successful strategies in the fourth quarter of their last two, down-to-the-wire wins over Wayland and Martha’s Vineyard.
  • The leadership and all-around clutch play night after night of floor leader Eric Martin
  • The equally stunning clutch play off the bench in the closing minutes from Kieran Beck and Jake Cawlina, never more brilliant than in these last two tourney wins
  • The indescribably consistent effort and results from Martin’s fellow starters — Nick McKenna, Nick Bates, Dan Connors and Vinny Clifford.
  • McKenna’s dynamic offensive play is critical, though the Falcons lived to play another day even after their best scorer shot 2-for-16 against the Vineyard. I predict he will flourish against Smith and bounce back with a 20-point performance.
  • Bates and Connors more than hold their own defensively, particularly on the boards, and can be relied upon to get their 10-12-15 points in a variety of ways.
  • Super sophomore Clifford is the team’s best three-point shooter, with McKenna and Bates close behind, but I expect Clifford to carry the day from the arc Saturday.
  • The D-Falcons set terrific screens that create open shots and automatic two-pointers inside, usually for Bates and Connors.
  • They’re exceptional passers. They have a sixth sense of where the open man will be. They know how to defend man-up, how to pinch in the corners, in essence, how to make the opposing team panic. They are a team’s team.
  • The D-Falcons will not take the SA-Falcons lightly. Smith’s basketball tradition runs deep. It won the State D-3 title in 1990 and 19902. ‘Nuff said. The D-Falcons  are one game away from making history beyond their wildest dreams: two straight D-3 titles, the first time that’s been accomplished in 16 years statewide, the first time for a North Shore team since Lynn Classical did it in 1993-94.
  • They simply will NOT be denied.

A few notes about Smith Academy:

  • Smith Academy is the name of the public high school in Hatfield, founded in 1872 thanks to a donation of $75,000 by Sophia Smith.
  • Hatfield has a population of less than 3500. The school’s total enrollment is approximately 300.
  • Hatfield is one of the last non-regionalized public schools in western Massachusetts.
  • The Smith Academy basketball team advanced to face Danvers by beating central Mass. champion Littleton, 72-56, Tuesday at the DCU Center. Littleton led, 37-30, early in the third quarter before Smith took over.
  • Expect Smith to use the same 2-3 zone that provided a big plus in its second half rally against Littleton. Smith’s top scorers Tuesday were junior Keith Natale (20, one 3-pointer), senior Matt Sulda (15, three 3s) and Derek McMahon (18, three 3s).


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