Clifford, Merry, DHS Falcons Fly High in Season Opener at Winthrop

For those waking up this morning looking for the Danvers High boys basketball team’s opening night score Tuesday from its road game at Winthrop in the Boston Globe, they were in for a jolt. “Winthrop 59, Danvers 37,” the line said under Northeastern Conference scores. Of course, nobody in their right mind would have believed the score accurate, based on the powerhouse group Coach John Walsh has on board for the new season. The Globe either got duped or someone mixed up numbers and teams in the sports department’s nerve center last night.

The actual score was Danvers 62, Winthrop 28, in as impressive a first night effort as one could expect from a squad that some believe is capable of running the table; i.e going 25-0 and capturing its third state championship (Division 2 this time) in four years. Sorry about that, Coach Walsh and team, but it’s where expectation lie among the Falcon faithful. The question now is whether the Falcons and the New England Patriots might both go undefeated between now and mid-March.

For all the delightful individual performances Walsh got from his players — and I’m talking players one through 10 — last night, the most significant performance came of a team nature — the Falcons allowed two — that’s TWO — Winthrop field goals in 32 minutes. That’s got to be a Northeastern Conference boys basketball record dating back, 70, 80 years, when the NEC cage league was first formed.

It was 9-2, right after Vinnie Clifford hit his first three-pointer of the year (he made 5 of 11 total) in what was an encouraging first game after missing all of last year following knee surgery, when Winthrop registered its first field goal on a baseline drive. More than 24 minutes later the Vikings, once a basketball power in its own right, notched their only other field goal on a similar baseline drive, making it 60-25.

In all my years of covering or watching high school boys basketball in these parts, spanning 50 years-plus, I have never ever ever seen a high school varsity hold an opponent to two field goals. Astounding, amazing, unimaginable. Yet another testament to the magnificent defensive coaching and playing efforts continually being put forth by Walsh and his staff and his players.

The Falcons are now 52-8 in their last 60 games, primarily because of the extraordinary level of man-to-man and pressing defense they have played game in and game out against NEC, non-league and tournament foes. I can only presume Walsh will be giving his players at practice the next two days a goal of holding Swampscott to one field goal in Danvers’ home opener Friday night at 7. Just kidding. But anything seems possible with this group.

A hundred and one positives came out of last night’s showing in my estimation. Here are a few:

  • No. 1, of course, was the return of Clifford, who looked sharp as ever on his feet and in the air, defending and shooting and in his overall movement at both ends of the floor. He didn’t appear to work up a sweat after playing all of the first 16 minutes, and his three-point range appears to have been deepened by several feet. The senior captain made five of his first eight attempts, by which time it was 27-6 — game time. His three-point shooting will force opponents to extend their zone defense (no one’s going to play man-to-man against this front court trio) and open up passing lanes for the seemingly unstoppable inside games of towering Peter Merry and wide body Devan Harris.
  • Senior center Merry has sharpened his game in all ways but one. He has a wonderful soft shooting touch. He’ll be cleaning the boards at both ends when teammate Harris isn’t doing the honors, and his presence at the defense end will be frightening to all opponents. At 6-foot, 9 and three-quarters inches, he”ll be nicknamed the human shot-swatter before long. The one part of his game he hopefully will be brushing up on immediately is his tendency to leave his feet on defense. He needs to pick his spots when to jump on defense in a bidf to block a rival’s shot. He had 13 rebounds and 12 blocks last night. Based on last night’s showing, he and Clifford are headed for All-State seasons.
  • The same can be said for 2014 NEC MVP Harris, who is the perfect compliment to Clifford and Merry in what looms as arguably the best front court in the state. Only time will tell if that’s an accurate assessment, but I’ll stand by that statement until proven wrong. Harris, the Charles Barkley of the North Shore, had a routine smooth 18 points and 8 rebounds, scoring on his assortment of inside moves and his improved outside jump shot. Harris could be playing into another MVP campaign.
  • The backcourt looks solid too, with sophomore Devonn Allen at the point and brothers Rashad Francois and Tahg Coakley, along with Tre Crittendon, giving the club depth, especially for defensive purposes, though all four can make the outside shot and penetrate effectively. Allen, with his size and reach, looms as the key defensive player for shutting down the opposing team’s big scorer, be he guard or forward.
  • If last night is any indicator, Walsh will be able to go deep in his bench this season for reliable play at both ends, featuring Mike Nestor, Andrew Dunn and Tom Gillespie and maybe others. Nestor and Dunn looked good last night, Nestor blocking two shots within a minute, recovering the ball on both occasions and taking one of those blocks coast to coast before getting fouled on the way to the basket.
  •   All in all an encouraging Game 1 in what will be a season in which every game will by “The Game of the Year” for Danvers’ opponent.



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