Clifford’s Return Makes All the Difference in the World to Danvers High Boys Cagers

(Note: This is the first in a series of profiles on key members of the 2014-15 Danvers High boys basketball team.)

The Danvers High boys basketball team, considered one of the top teams in Eastern Massachusetts before the season even started, got the best Christmas present it could have imagined on opening night, December 16, when Vinny Clifford returned to the starting lineup after missing the entire 2013-14 season after undergoing major knee surgery the September previous.

The 6-3, 185-pound Clifford, looking strong, agile and athletic at both ends of the floor in the team’s first game, at Winthrop, hardly broke a sweat in the Falcons’ 62-28 rout of the Vikings, scoring 15 points and hitting five of his first eight three-point field goal attempts (5-for-11 total).

The senior captain has been rock solid ever since, scoring a career-high 29 points at Gloucester and 17 points at Saugus as the Falcons posted a 5-0 mark heading into their second home game Wednesday, January 6 against Marblehead. Vinny tweaked his right knee late in the third quarter of the 88-66 win at Saugus, but was expected to be ready for Marblehead.

“It feels great to be back playing with my teammates,” Clifford says. “We’re off to a good start with plenty of room for improvement and I’m just trying to do my share to help us keep winning.”

One can only speculate how painful it must have been for Clifford to sit out the entire 2013-14 season as the only returning starter from the 2012013 repeat Division 3 state championship team. Yet, the Falcons responded beautifully under coach John Walsh, sporting a 20-3 record, winning the Northeastern Conference Small and mythical overall titles and advancing to the Division 2 North final before falling to New Mission.

“Sure, it was really hard watching every game from the bench last year,” Clifford admitted. “But I was glad I could help in small ways during timeouts, during practices, and give vocal support all the time; help the younger players especially.”

Clifford was able to shoot — without jumping — last winter during practices; all part of his rehabilitation program. His first competitive game during the comeback took place during a summer league game. Which did not go as he hoped it would.

“I tweaked it, suffered a partial tear, so I stopped playing in games, skipped the treat of the summoner and all the gal league stuff, and concentrated on my individual game, did some lifting, and it was a good approach,” Clifford said.

The September 2013 surgery, performed at Massachusetts General Hospital by Dr. George Theodore, was a complete success. Dr. Theodore, in essence, took one of Clifford’s patella tendons and used it for a new anterior cruciate ligament. Working with therapist Matt Procopio, Clifford is primed and prepared for a big season.

Now, nearly a year and a half later, Clifford is one of many prime ingredients that arguably comprises another potential state champion. But only the upcoming games will determine if that’s the case.

“We have high hopes,” Clifford admits. “But we have to bring our best every night for the entire regular season and then see what the tournament brings. We’re holding ourselves to a high standard. We’ll give it our beret shoot and see where it takes us.”

“Vinny has progressed rapidly,” says Walsh. “He knows how to handle his knee. We all felt bad for him last winter but he handled it like a man and we’re just thrilled he’s back in the lineup. He makes us a much stronger team every night he’s on the floor.”

Many observers feel the Falcons might have won a third straight state title last year with a healthy Vinny Clifford. Those same folks hope to see the sharpshooter play every game this year, right up until the Division 2 state championship game in Worcester come mid-March.

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