Danvers High’s Fabulous, Fantastic Fenomenal Falcons Had Questions Galore At Season’s Start, Then Answered Them All With An Emphatic ‘Yes’

Great Expectations.

The name of a famous Dickens novel, of course, but also the cloud that hung over the heads of every coach and player on the 2014-2015 Danvers High basketball team.

Four years of unprecedented success had brought coach John Walsh and his three-time defending Northeastern Conference champions to opening day of practice on Monday, December 1, 2014.

Bottom line: Could the Falcons, with virtually the same starting team as a year ago that had gone 20-3 and advanced to the Division 2 North final before falling to New Mission, all achieved without the injured Vinny Clifford, meet the expectations of the Falcon Faithful?  TRhat expectation was another NEC title, possibly another state title (the third in four years) and — oh hell, why not say it — an undefeated season.

Incredibly, they reached all those goals and attained arguably the greatest achievement in Danvers High sports history — combined, a 27-0 record and their third state title in four years, something only three other high schools have accomplished since the state tournament went to the division format 43 years ago.

This all coming together in a program that as of 2011 had not won a conference title since 1975, let alone had any kind of impact on the tournament — ever.

So what were those questions that hovered above the heads of key players and the coaching staff, especially head coach Walsh, as the new season got under way?

Here they are, while we remember the Falcons most likely would not have won the state championship — yet again!!!!!!  — without each and every one of these vital contributors.

1. After sitting out his entire junior year because of knee surgery, how effectively  could the aforementioned Clifford bounce back to form? Quite effectively as it turned out. The 6-3 senior forward hit 5 of 11 threes in his debut game at Winthrop and the knee seemed to hold up well. The one concern was the frequency with which Walsh sat down Clifford in the first half of the regular season schedule. Was Vinny’s knee bothering him to a major degree? No. It was the game plan Walsh and Clifford agreed upon to get the knee gradually back into full-throttle mode. By the Revere game, in which Clifford hit 6 of 7 threes, he was playing full time. He admitted later that it was mostly a case of mind over matter; of getting used to playing with minimal to moderate discomfort in the surgical area. Fact is the knee held up beautifully for all 27 games. Vinny will be the first to admit that his outside shooting was hot and cold, especially late in the regular season and in the tournament. But when he was needed most, he delivered big time. Exhibit A: He blocked Salem’s last-second three-point shot with Danvers protecting a 39-37 lead at home to preserve the victory. Exhibit B: Clifford’s 28-point effort in the Falcons’ epic 79-78 victory at Lynn English, in which he hit 8 of 14 three-pointers, giving him 17 treys in his last 32 attempts. He was 23-for-42 in threes after going 6-for-10 at Rockland, then, in his final game for the Falcons, following a blanked first half, Vinny scored eight vital second half points (Danvers scored only 19 total) in the 52-49 state title game win over Marlborough. Clifford’s senior campaign had been a rousing success, accented by the final two quarters in his farewell showing on the biggest stage.

2. What kind of encore season could senior Devan Harris deliver after his debut year for the Falcons had earned him MVP honors in the Northeastern Conference? A beauty of a season. The 6-5 power forward, a Charles Barkley clone if I ever saw one, answered the query immediately, opening the season scoring 18, 27 and 25 points his first three games en route to a season that would give the Cincinnati and Hingham transplant 952 points in two years, a team record.  Harris had nine 20-plus point games, the biggest coming in the 53-47 road win at Marblehead (21) and in back-to-back 26-pointers against Brighton and Arlington on the road to the state title. He was a clutch foul shooter, hitting the one free throw with no time remaining that beat Lynn English and making 4 of 4 in the last 23 seconds that clinched the state championship game at Worcester. His patented spin move close-in produced a ton of points and foul shots. His three-point shot delivered many a timely three. His quick first step to the basket led to countless penetration drives to the basket against slower defenders. Defensively he and center Peter Merry created a formidable inside presence and rebounding dominance, among the best in the state. He hit double figures in 23 of his 27 games.

3. Would Peter Merry be able to improve his game to a level that would make him the dominant inside player necessary to, in turn, raise his team’s overall defensive standard to state championship level? To coins phrase from Sarah Palin, “You betcha!” Need I say more than the fact the spindly 6-10 pivot was named Most Valuable Player by Northeastern Conference coaches? He wasn’t flashy, but Merry was there in the middle of the Danvers defense four 27 games, intimidating any opposing player who ventured down the lane, near the basket. He was the Bill Russell of the North Shore, averaging five blocks and 11 rebounds a game while diverting countless rival shots. The impact his defensive play had night in and night out cannot be overstated. His defense is why he was named NEC MVP. His offense came and went because he was usually the fourth option in an offense full of solid shooters and penetrators, i.e. Clifford, Harris, Devonn Allen, Rudy Rashad Francois. But his offensive showing in the 67-56 home court win over Lynn Classical represents the highest scoring night by any Falcon. Peter played like an unstoppable Bill Walton in his prime (look him up, youngsters), hitting his first 10 shots from all around the paint, finishing with a team season-high 36 points to go along with 12 rebounds and 6 blocks. And no one should forget his fingertip deflection of a Chris Doherty inside shot in the closing minute in the state title game against Marlborough. Following in the footsteps of brother George, who led the Falcons to their very first state title in 2012, Peter became the ideal second act of the “Merry Brothers.” There would be two less state title trophies resting in the glass case outside the field house without George and Peter.

4.Could sophomore Devonn Allen (what are the chances? 2 devon/devanns on the same team???) make the gigantic jump from third guard to starting point guard/quarterback on a team projected as a state title contender; a team that would be facing imposing defensive pressure night after night? You better believe it, but Walsh and company knew Devonnn would be a work in progress for a fair chunk of the session, and he was. He had shaky games that turned into routs, plus steady games that were even bigger routs. But, most critically, he handled the pressure like a veteran when the chips were down. Never was that more evident for the first time than in the 39-37 home court nail-biting win over Salem in Game 8. The game where neither team scored in the last 2:30. The game that easily could have fallen in the Salem “W” column except for several missed shots, a few late turnovers and a spectacular fourth quarter from the youngest player on the Danvers side of the floor —  Devonn Allen. Devonn, whom Walsh has already projected as a future scholarship player (he might get the same accolade before too long from baseball coach Roger Day), led Danvers scorers with 10 points, the last six in the tense fourth quarter on slashing penetration drives down the lane when the Falcons couldn’t make a jumper to save their lives. Devonn also grabbed two super-timely offensive rebounds off missed DHS free throws in the last couple minutes. Devonn became a prime time player with this performance. He only got better after that. He became Mr. Cool in all the tight finishes. He was “The Man” asked to bring the ball up the floor against all kinds of pressure in all the down-to-the-wire games that followed against Marblehead, Bp. Feehan (twice), Lynn English, Brighton, Arlington and Marlborough. He seemed like a solitary figure for most of the 32 minutes every night, dribbling the ball up court, getting help when necessary from a teammate, but usually getting the job done solo. Additionally, Allen’s long-range shooting seemed to improve as the season progressed to the point he was as consistent a three-point bomber as they had next to Clifford. His steady all-around play was clearly valued by the Comcast/Arbella Board 27 Tournament officials, who named Allen their Most Valuable Player of the Division 2 competition, which Danvers won with wins over Bp. Feehan and Malden Catholic (Walsh’s alma mater).

5. Would defensive wizard Mike Nestor develop into the sixth man required of a team gunning for a state title? No question about it. In fact, his presence loomed even larger once he was inserted into the starting lineup and fifth starter Rudy Rashad Francois became the sixth man in order to provide more offensive punch off the bench. The switch worked beautifully. Nestor grew more and more comfortable in the starter’s role, became an even fiercer defensive ace guarding the No. 1 or 2 scorer on the opposing team. And, he hit an occasional shot here or there as well as a few clutch free throws and hauled in timely rebounds, all in crunch time. His star never shone brighter than in the ultimate tester against Marlborough, where Mike was given the assignment of guarding 6-6 freshman sensation Chris Doherty, who had scored 33 points and grabbed 15 rebounds in the Panthers’ state semifinal win over South Hadley. Giving away five inches, the feisty Nestor gave Doherty all he could handle the first half. Doherty scored two points by intermission, committed several turnovers while trying to force the issue offensively and found his team trailing 33-15. Nestor got weak side help from frontcourters Merry, Harris or Clifford. Doherty led Marlboro’s third quarter comeback, cutting the deficit to nine heading into the fourth quarter, but then scored only two points the last eight minutes. Nestor had emerged once again as a subliminal hero, similiar to his contribution  the prior game against Bp. Feehan when he corralled rival forward Frank Oftring. Watch for him to be vastly improved offensively next season while retaining his rep as one of the toughest 1-on-1 defenders on the North Shore.

6. Could Rudy Rashad Francois reach his potential and use his obvious athleticism to contribute reliably as a spark plug at both ends of the floor? No doubt about it. He was a starter the first half of the season and played crucial roles in the wins over Somerville (overall floor play), Marblehead (huge 3-pointer when trailing 43-41 in the final minute), Beverly (21 points, 5 3-pointerds) and Winthrop (15 points, 3 threes). But his greatest value surfaced when he switched roles with Nestor and assumed the sixth man assignment. The change first paid major dividends in the fourth quarter of the 60-56 Arbella/Comcast tourney win over Bishop Feehan, where a clutch three-pointer and steady floor play loomed large after Merry and Harris had both fouled out. Coincidentally, that also was Nestor’s first strong game as a starter. Rashad broke out of his scoring slump with 12 points off the bench in the next game, a 20-point rout of Malden Catholic, and the one after that, when he had 11 against Lynn English. He continued his strong bench play with 12 against Wakefield in the MIAA tourney opener and eight against Brighton. He then came up big-time in the Marlboro grand finale, scoring 11 points, all in the first half, powered by three three-pointers. Rashad projects as one of the most exciting players in the Conference next year, possibly as one of the top scorers.

Seventh man Tre Cittendown played sporadically but played several effective minutes in several games, especially in support of Allen in the frantic fourth quarter against Brighton. He, Francois and Allen give Walsh a strong 1-2-3 nucleus around which to build next year’s squad.

A tip of the cap too, to the non-playing bench players. They got playing time once the outcome was determined and showed promise among those players returning next year. But, most important, they gave the regulars battles in practice every day, a quality coaches are infinitely grateful for. Congrats, men.

One last comment about the regulars. They achieved perfection in a second vein. They never got hurt. According to this observer, they played every necessary minute of every game. They took care of themselves and Walsh gave them adequate amounts of rest during games and at the end of routs. An extraordinary accomplishment in itself. Zero injury minutes over 27 games. Unheard of.

8. Would Coach John Walsh be able to push the right buttons, instill enough motivation and keep his players hungry for the long grind ahead? A grind sprinkled with too many blowouts and not enough tough challenges, often an unavoidable condition that leads to upset losses. Almost happened, but never did.

We’ll answer that question with an in-depth look at Walsh’s season in our next blog. Thanks for reading,


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