Danvers boys’ cagers (8-1) off to remarkable start in 2013-14 season

Even after suffering its first defeat last night at Salem, 41-38, the Danvers High boys’ basketball team, with nary a single starter back from last year’s state championship-winning group, is off to a spectacular start.

Makes one appreciate even more, if that’s possible, the Belichikian-like job John Walsh has done in his first varsity head coaching job. The Falcons are 8-1 and a lock to go to 9-1 when they host Revere Friday night. Projecting through the regular season, the Falcons look like a lock to go 15-5 at worst in the regular season.

Who would have imagined such a thing back in late summer after junior sharpshooter Vinny Clifford, the lone returning starter from a year ago, smashed up his knee, required surgery at Massachusetts General Hospital and was ruled out for the entire season.

Well, based on what Walsh had accomplished in his first three seasons, we shouldn’t be surprised.

Year 1: 13-10, a 12-win improvement on the previous season, the first time the Falcons had won two tournament games, the first time they’d reached the North Section semifinal round

Year 2: A 21-4 record and the program’s first state championship (Division 3)

Year 3: An 18-0 season start, a 24-2 record en route to repeating as Division 3 state champions

But with zero starters returning this winter, expectations were modest at best heading in to this new season. We should have known better. Walsh has created a six-man playing rotation that has combined the program’s trademark in-your-face, man-to-man defense, combined with some zone and trap variations, to make the Falcons a powerhouse once again. They are steamrolling through the Northeastern Conference large and small teams, last night’s stumble the exception, and already they are considered one of the teams to watch as the Division 2 state tournament approaches.

Yes, the Falcons will not be able to go for a three-peat in Divisision 3. Enrollment numbers at DHS have moved the Falcons up a division. I doubt Walsh and the players care either way.

There is some concern among diehard fans who attend every game if Walsh can get the maximum out of a group when only six players figure into the rotation. Here’s hoping he expands the rotation to at least seven, if not eight, by tourney time. The Falcons are a sure thing to win the Northeastern Conference Small division once again, but their post-season prospects are uncertain.

Regardless, the “Stupendous Six” has been marvelous so far.

Kieran Beck, who played a vital “super sub role last year, has emerged, as expected, as the leader of this year’s unit, able to play inside or out, guarding the opposition’s top scorer most nights and delivering clutch offensively at the same time. Best example: the pulsating comeback win over Beverly last Friday night.

Peter Merry has made huge strides since last season and is a major presence in the middle at both ends of the floor; a feared shot blocker and rebounder as a defender and with a smooth inside game at the offensive end with his jump hook, soft jumper and hunger for offensive put-backs. He could next year make people compare him with big brother George, an all-scholastic his senior year when he led the Falcons to the 2012 state title.

Devan Harris has emerged as the wild card after moving to Danvers from Hingham, influenced more than a little from his summer basketball-playing relationship with Clifford. He is the perfect complement to Merry, giving Danvers an ideal 1-2 inside presence offensively. Harris, at 6-foot, 2 inches, sports a football lineman’s body but with a running back’s agility, wondrous spin moves near the basket and a soft jumper he can make from most any range. Harris took the final-seconds three-pointer last night at Salem — the perfect strategy from Walsh — that went around the rim, in, then rolled out as the buzzer sounded; an excellent shot from Harris, who deserved to see it drop through the bottom of the net and force overtime.

Mark McCarthy has played a terrific point guard to date at both ends of the floor and has been the team’s most reliable three-point shot. His development over last season, like that of all his holdover teammates, has been significant. The one weakness Mark and all of his teammates showed at Salem was a tendency to force passes where they should not go. If they get that issue resolved, they will be mighty hard to beat in every game upcoming, including the NEC battles with Large division teams Peabody (away, January 24) and Lynn English (home, January 28) and the non-league home-and-home in February with Martha’s Vineyard, the team the Falcons defeated last March in TD Garden in the Eastern Mass. final.

Rashad Francois has been a pleasant surprise as the fifth starter, with an impressive athleticism that no teammate can match. He made several huge plays to help the Falcons rally in the final minutes against Beverly, but, like his teammates, had rocky moments at Salem, hopefully a good learning experience for them all. Rashad is the team’s second-best three-point shooter. His quickness on both sides of half court makes him a player who can change the complexion of the game.

Devon Allen is a reliable sixth man, a fantastic feat for a freshman, who can play guard or small forward and has a three-point shot that must be respected by rival defenses.

Beck and McCarthy are the only seniors on the team. Merry and Allen are juniors, Francois a sophomore. That means four of the six regulars are back next year along with Clifford, who, despite his season-killing injury, is already being eyed by Division 3 college recruiters across New England.

The future looms incredibly bright, especially with reports that the eighth grade team is loaded with potential talent. But the future is NOW for this team, starting with Revere. After that, who knows?

This observer’s biggest concern is the team’s current lack of depth, which can lead to durability issues in fourth quarters and late-season/post season battles that go down to the wire. For all the energy they have as high school athletes, Walsh’s six regulars are going to need timely rests during the second half of the regular season and the tournament. Hopefully Walsh will find another player or two who can provide those necessary substitutions down the road.

Beyond that, enjoy what is shaping up an another phenomenal ride with the Danvers High boys basketball team and its brilliant head coach. Success we had never seen with this program until Walsh arrived on the scene.




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