Pat Veilleux-coached Danvers High Girls Cagers Pull Off A Lazarus; Win 7 of Last 8, Last 5 Straight, To Qualify For EMass Tourney

Danvers High School girls basketball coach Pat Veilleux has experienced plenty, and thought he had just about seen it all as a player, coach and hoop fan around these parts during his 57 years on this snow-covered earth .

That was until the last few weeks, when his Falcons, standing 3-9 and needing seven wins in their last eight games, then five wins in their last five starts, to qualify for the Eastern Massachusetts tournament, did just that.

“I’ve had a wonderful life in basketball as a fan, player, coach and parent,” says Veilluex. “This amazing turn of events ranks — and I’ve had time to give this some thought — among the most satisfying team success I’ve ever experienced. In fact, I’ve never seen anything this special performed by a team when it’s been under the gun for eight games.

“Nobody outside our locker room probably believed, when we were 3-9, that we could win seven of our last eight. Then, when we lost that 10th game and now faced the necessity of winning our last five to make the tournament, well, the girls on this team learned what they can accomplish when they believe in themselves, in each other, in their coaches, and, most important, play together.

“And that’s what this team has been all year, with injuries, sickness, some painful losses; a team that doesn’t care who scores the points or gets the ink in the papers; as long as they give it their best effort.

“It’s still happily numbing to me; the way we were under the gun for eight games, had little room for error, and weren’t sure if certain players could do the job with so much at stake,” Veilleux said. “But we found out, in essence, that everyone we called on could do the job and look what fantastic results we got.”

Veilleux is not one to exaggerate. He’s been around the block many times in this pressure basketball world. He was the junior point guard on the 1975 DHS boys’ basketball Northeastern Conference championship team coached by John McGrath and led by NEC MVP Ed Gieras.

He and Gieras were stars on two Salem State squads that won MASCAC titles and reached the NCAA Division 3 regional tournament.

He had two tournament teams in four years as the Bishop Fenwick boys coach in the 1980s, succeeding DHS immortal Dana Skinner, now the athletic director at NCAA Division 1 UMass-Lowell. He had two more tourney teams in a 12-year tenure as the DHS boys’ coach, took seven years iff from coaching to referee at the high school level, then got back on the bench as the Danvers varsity girls’ coach for the 2006-07 season.

He enjoyed major success when the girls, led by Kellie MacDonald, Sara Palazolla and Kasey Sherry won back-to-back NEC titles in 2010 and 2011. For all those good times, nothing has been as sweet as what his current team has achieved.

“I wondered at times last summer if we’d have enough players to make up a team,” Veilleux joked. “Three of our players suffered major injuries over the summer and have been wearing heavy knee braces all winter. We get into January, lose by one in overtime at Lynn Classical, then face a strong (6-1) Beverly team at our place with two of our players out with bad ankles and another out after suffering a 12-stitch cut in her eye in a freak practice mishap. So we had only seven players dressed.

“These injuries were giving me the willies. We’d lost senior captain Kara Connors in our second game for the season with a torn ACL. That was the fifth ACL injury we’d had to deal with in recent years. There were other injuries that lasted a week or so. It just didn’t seem like we’d be able to overcome all this stuff.

“But Devan Walsh scored a career-high 27 points the night we beat Beverly, 48-44, and we looked at ourselves differently; that we could be a good team if we could stay healthy. We stumbled at Salem despite a great effort, then lost to Revere and Peabody, and that when we found ourselves 3-9.”

Then the magic started. First came a 49-27 win at Saugus, thanks to a big second half from freshman Siobhan Moriarty (11 points, 14 rebounds) and a 17-2 third quarter.

“We played with more belief after that game,” Veilleux said. “That and the Beverly game we fed off more and more.”

Next came a home game to a Peabody team that had walloped the Falcons by 20 in their first meeting, Sophomore Angele Saggese scored 14 to power the Falcons to a 38-31 reversal.

A tough loss, despite a strong defensive effort, followed at Winthrop. Now the Falcons were 5-10. hey couldn’t slip up again.

And they didn’t. Danvers dumped non-league foe Ipswich, 42-28, keyed by a super effective box-and-1, devised by assistant coach Jon Levine, on Tiger ace Jenna Gagnon, who was held to nine points. Walsh’s 14 points and 10 rebounds led the way, aided by 10 rebounds each from Elena Clifford and Moriarty. Clifford, sister of DHS boys’ standout Vinny Clifford, had had a breakout game back in December with 20 points and 14 boards versus Saugus.

(Danvers basketball is thriving this year in large part because of the three Devans/Devonns taking charge; Walsh on the girls’ side and Devan Harris and Devonn Allen on the boys’ side. Let’s have a first-name-only 3-on-3 high school tournament and I’ll take the three Devans/Devonns every time.)

After falling to a Swampscott rally earlier in Swampscott, the Falcons gained revenge for win No. 7, 38-25, boosted by Hannah Llewellyn’s three three-pointers and Tina Gigli’s nine rebounds in a reserve role.

Set with an imposing nine-player rotation, the Falcons gained revenge for a bad loss earlier at home to Gloucester and sank the host Fishermen, 48-38, led by six clutch Llewellyn free throws in the fourth quarter, as well as Nicole White’s 12 points in the first half, her six steals and Walsh’s 18 points.

The very next night Danvers got its ninth win, after losing by double digits in Marblehead earlier, in what ranks as the second biggest of the team’s comebacks this season. Trailing by 40-25 early in the fourth quarter, with the tournament hopes all by erased, the Falcons staged a stunning rally, going on a 21-1 spurt and pulling out the victory, 46-41.

“This comeback was the most thrilling seen I’ve seen as a coach or player,” Veilleux said. “How it all snowballed with a full court zone press and clutch scoring plays, some steals; a situation where everyone on the floor during that spurt contributed. No one was bigger than Clifford (10 points, 12 rebounds), and White was right there, too,m with six steals and eight points.”

The Falcons were now at 9-10 with one game left to win or turn in their uniforms. Hone to Lynn English last Friday night, Veilluex feared most a letdown after the amazing win the night before. This made three games in three nights.But after a sluggish first half in which the Falcons led by only 29-22, they turned it on the second half for a 64-35 rout and a most unlikely 1`0-10, tourney-qualifying record. From 3-9, wow.

“We did an effective box-and-1 on their top player, Waleska Muriel, shared by Saggese, Moriarty and the other Llewellyn, Meagan, Hannah’s sister, and they held her two two second half points. With the underrated sophomore Julia McNulty sidelined with a concussion issue and Hannah Llewellyn out with illness, Veilleux had his pre game concerns. But they were unfounded. He had nine players hit the scoring column as they reached the post-season party.

“I’m just so happy the girls have had this experience. They earned it. They deserved all the good feelings that come with all but rising from the dead. I wish we didm;’t have to take all this time off between games, since the pairings don’t come out ’til this weekend, but we’ll get over it and maybe surprise someone once we get playing again. But no matter what happens from here, the girls have some wonderful memories to take with them for the rest of their lives.

“Equally so, it’s been a grand experience for me and my assistant, Jon Levine. The Salem State Hall of Famer is a Hall of Fame assistant in my estimation. He’s had my back the last four years, done a phenomenal job. I can’t say enough for all he’s done for the varsity program.”





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