Walsh, Top-Seeded Danvers High Boys, In Division 2 North Opener, Likely To Face NEC Rival Lynn Classical Friday In Rematch

From one unforgettable season to another, head coach John Walsh has continued to take the Danvers High boys’ basketball program to heights never before achieved.

From an unprecedented two tournament wins in his rookie year as a head coach (turning a 3-17 squad into a 13-9 unit), Walsh has created a four-year powerhouse program and earned a position among the elite Massachusetts basketball coaches.

It’s redundant, yet a joy to list the biggest of the major accomplishments Walsh and his Falcons have attained every opportunity I get:

  • Four consecutive Northeastern Conference “Small” and “overall” titles
  • Consecutive MIAA Division 3 state titles in 2012 and 2013
  • A totally unexpected 20-3 season in 2013-14, with an entirely new starting lineup and sole returning starter Vinny Clifford sidelined for the season because of major knee surgery

Now, in his fifth — and latest — year of exceptional guidance, Walsh has directed the Falcons to their first-ever perfect regular season, their first 20-win (actually 221-0) regular season, their first No. 1 ranking (currently) in the Boston Globe Top 20, and the favorite’s role in their quest for a first-ever MIAA Division 2 state championship beginning with a Division 2 North Section encounter Friday night (7 p.m.) in the DHS Fieldhouse.

Granted, they were predicted to have a terrific season, but 21-0? And topped off with a mind-numbing, emotion-packed 79-78 victory at Lynn English last week that once again earned the Falcons  “best in the NEC” recognition.

“The kids showed up to play every night, though on a few occasions we didn’t have our best scoring games,” Walsh said of the regular season. “But they always found a way to win, whether the score was in the thirties or the seventies. They had the bullseye on their backs every night, pressure on them every night, and they answered every challenge. They never looked ahead to the next game. They focused on the game at hand.”

So as Year 4 winds down in what unjust be called “The Golden Era of Danvers High Boys Basketball,” the Falcons begin their quest for a third state title in four years Friday, after a much deserved eight-day rest from game action — against the winner of tonight’s Wakefield (9-9) at Lynn Classical (11-11) meeting.

Classical must be considered the favorite, based on the Rams’ recent play, which included a homecourt victory over Lynn English (17-3), the No. 2 seed in Division 1 North. The Rams also gave the Falcons all they could handle, at Danvers, back on January 9, before falling, 67-56. Classical might have stolen that one had not Peter Merry scored a personal career high (and team season high) 36 points, in which he made his first 10 shots and finished 14-for-17 from the floor, 8-for-11 from the line. Devan Harris aided the cause, scoring all 14 of his points in the second half.

“Both teams are  better than their .500 records,” Walsh observed, “so we’ll let the game play out its course and then get read for whomever is coming to town Friday.”

Before getting fully geared for the post-season, this is an appropriate time to celebrate the history the Falcons made in the regular season.

They won 16 of their 21 gams by at least 10 points, 11 by at least 20, and seven by at least 30. They knew how to win the close, low-scoring affairs as well, such as the one-pointer over English, a two-pointer over Salem, a four-pointer over Bishop Feehan, three- and six-pointers over Marblehead.

“The players deserve all the credit,” Walsh said, as always, deflecting any of the credit away from him and his staff. “They knew how to persevere under a variety of circumstances and always figured it out, even when we couldn’t shoot straight. That’s the sign of a fine team.”

The defense has been backboned by a strong three-deep set up with 6-10 Peter Merry, 6-4 Devan Harris and 6-3 Vinny Clifford. Guards Devonn Allen and Mike Nestor have been rock solid outside along with Rashad Francois and Tre Crittendon off the bench.

Offensively, the Falcons may have the most unstoppable offense in the state, led by the deadly three-point shooting quartet of Clifford (a stunning 23-for-45 his last four game), Allen, Francois and Harris, combined with an all-but-0indefensible 1-2 inside power game from Merry and Harris.

Most remarkably (knock on wood — a lot of wood), none of the “Fab Five” have missed playing time because of injury. “They knew how to get ready for the season condition-wise and it’s paid off,” Walsh said, probably with all his fingers and toes crossed, as well as his arms and legs, maybe even his eyes.

In assessing his “steady seven,” Walsh called off-guard and occasional small forward Mike Nestor “one of the best stories of our season with his incredible defends and timely rebounding. He and point guard Devonn Allen give us two outstanding ‘on-ball’ defenders.

Backup point guard Tre Cittendon “has come a long way this year,” says Walsh. “He’s made a lot of clutch plays, can make three-pointer and can give Devonn a breather whenever he needs it, though that’s not very often.

Devonn, in fact, has amazing stamina, as he showed at Lynn English. He handled all that defensive pressure, 32 minutes worth, like a senior, when he’s actually a sophomore. Simply put, Devonn has grown into a tremendous two-way player, a leader in every respect. He’s a big offensive threat as well. He’s shown he can beat you on the drive or with the pull-up three- or two-pointer. We would not be where we are without him.”

Walsh has been delighted how Vinny Clifford, after missing all of the 2013-14 season with a surgically repaired knee, returned this season as a ready-for-prime-time performer, especially after he got used to playing with the anticipated soreness.

“Vinny has gotten stronger as the year as gone on, as he’s trusted his knee more and more,” Walsh said. “His excellent all-around play has reflected that and his three-point shooting has been fabulous (23-for-45 the last four games).

Walsh says his 6-10 pivotman, Peter Merry, seems to have improved every game, though it might not always show up on the box score. His inside play on defense can’t be matched and he’s gotten more and more aggressive at both ends these last few weeks, just what we’d hoped to happen.”

Lastly, the Conference’s most dynamic inside-outside offensive force, Harris  has not disappointed following his MVP winter of a year ago. “People talk about his offense, which is just as difficult to defend against in the lane or on the arc,” Walsh said. “But his defense and rebounding are sometimes overlooked; just terrific.”

If folks wondered if what Walsh did with his first group of players was a fluke his first three years, what he has achieved these last two years is almost equally as remarkable, whether they win a state title this time around or not.

“It’s sure been enjoyable and gratifying,” Walsh concedes. “No one has ever been complacent in this program and hopefully will never be complacent. At this stage, it’s all about getting the job done every time out. In one second the game can change. We’ll try and have the kids ready for every situation and see what happens. We’re all looking forward to getting started again.”

Friday  night cannot come soon enough.




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