Danvers High’s John Walsh: Brilliant Coaching In A Perfect Storm

The Perfect Storm continues to rage for the streaking Danvers High boys basketball team under the brilliant direction of coach John Walsh. The numbers tell the whole story. Entering Friday night’s Northeastern Conference matchup at Swampscott, the Falcons are:

  • 14-0 on the season, a shoo-in to win the NEC Small division for a fourth straight time until they move up to the NEC Large Division next winter
  • 92-19 during Walsh’s five-year tenure as head coach, his first stint as the man in charge, following a five-year stretch as varsity assistant to his cousin, Steve Harrington, the head coach at Watertown High School.
  • 65-8 in the past 3 1/2 regular seasons
  • seeking their fourth straight 20-win campaign
  • seeking to match their best start in the Walsh Era, which was 18-0 in the 2012-2013 season
  • seeking to ¬†maintain or improve upon their No. 3 ranking in the Boston Globe Top 20; their No. 1 ranking in the Boston Herald’s Division 2 North rankings; their No. 5 ranking in the ESPN/Boston Top 25 statewide ranking, trailing only four Division 1 teams
  • seeking to win a fourth straight mythical NEC overall title
  • seeking to improve upon their 14-1 tournament record and their first Division 2 state title after winning successive Division 3 state titles in 2012 and 2013

Walsh, who turned 35 on January 31, deflects any credit directed his way and sends it immediately to his players. ¬†“They make all the plays. They score the points. They play the tough defense, make the steals and rebounds,” says Walsh, a former Malden Catholic standout who averaged close to 17 points a game his junior and senior seasons for the Lancers.

Yet, anyone who has followed Danvers High boys basketball over the last 10 to 20 years will declare that Walsh is the best coach in the NEC, and not simply because he’s had the best record the last four seasons. He’s the best coach because he knows how to handle the players he is dealt. He knows how to adapt within the parameters of his coaching philosophy, which places a top priority on defense. Salem’s Tom Doyle and Marblehead’s Mike Giardi are highly regarded as well, but Walsh has taken the job performance to a new level.

Year one his team won 13 games, 12 more than the same group had won the year previous, and led the team to two tournament victories for the first time in memory.

Years 2 and 3 he coached the Falcons to Division 3 state titles. Year four, with his one returning veteran, Vinny Clifford, sitting on the bench all year because of a summer basketball injury, the Falcons went 20-3, considered one of the most outstanding coaching jobs done in these parts in decades.

Now, with three returning starters, a vastly improved sophomore Devonn Allen starring at point guard and Clifford back in the groove as a deadly outside shooter and vital all-around forward alongside big forward Devan Harris and 6-10 pivot Peter Merry, Walsh has his boys beating all challengers.

“I try and make the game as easy as I can for our players,” says Walsh, who was a three-year football starter at Malden Catholic at wide receiver and cornerback. “I also try and find different ways for the kids to learn about the game.”

Walsh has had a basketball in his hands “as far back as I can remember,” he says. “My father was a football coach and my uncle Paul Walsh was a basketball captain at Northeastern. So coaching and basketball came together pretty naturally.”

He had no coaching experience when he asked his cousin if he might have a position for him to get his feet wet. Harrington saw something in his relative, so he started him at the varsity level as his assistant. He’d find out soon enough if John had what it takes.

Then, after his fifth year working under his cousin, Walsh got an interview with Danvers High athletic director John Sullivan for the vacant head coaching job with one of the losingest programs on the North Shore. Walsh was hired and it’s been one incredible story now in its fifth year of unprecedented success.

It’s been a perfect storm because Walsh showed in short order that he was the right coach for a group of players with untapped potential; a group that required the right kind of coach to bring out the best in them.

“I always thought there were different ways that the game could be played, based on the group of players you had to work with; a group that changed most every year, though I’ve been fortunate to have had two different groups of players who succeeded each two years at a time — my second- and third-year teams that won the state titles and last year’s group and this year’s group, pretty much the same with a couple variations.

“Great kids to work with; very coachable and dedicated.”

Walsh, a graduate of UMass-Dartmouth after he had played one year at Rivier College in New Hampshire, admits to being analytical as a player and coach.

“There is so much that figures into coaching a winning team. These kids have made it easy for me the last five years because they’ve listened and applied what we coaches have offered them,” Walsh said, “whether it be in practices, scrimmages or games.

“It took a while to get our program implemented from the youth level up to the varsity, but the kids picked up on it faster than I could have hoped. They bought into our system quickly. The next thing we knew we were playing in TD Garden and winning twice and doing the same at the state finals in Worcester. Nothing is more gratifying than seeing your players reach those levels of success.”

Walsh and his staff constantly try and find ways to adjust in game situations based on what the opponent is doing. “The better you adjust, the better chances you have to win,” he explained.

He also noted that player leadership plays a major role in the team success, and no one has exemplified that more than Eric Martin, Walsh’s starting point guard his first three seasons.

“Say what you want about me, but Eric Martin has been the key to where this program has gone since I arrived in Danvers,” Walsh said. “Eric, like many of his teammates and other kids who’ve played for me since, was fun to coach and knew how to play the game to make his teammates better. He thought of his teammates first, himself second on the floor.”

That’s certainly true about the multi-talented Martin, an NEC MVP in both baskets and soccer his senior season. But Martin’s emergence and that of his fellow players and those who followed most likely would not have happened without the ideal man at the helm.

John Walsh was that man. His and the team’s mission to make more DHS hoop history resumes Friday night at Swampscott.





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