John Walsh: The Modest Coach-Turned-Legend In His Own Time — With A Hall of Fame Record To Boot

When John Walsh, a baby in the business at the age of 30, was appointed the new boys’ basketball coach in June 2010, few Danvers High sports fans took notice. Maybe the players and the parents for the 2010-11 team were paying attention, but few other people were.

The program had been in the doldrums so long that the changing of the coaching guard meant little to most DHS sports fans in town, even those of us who had connections with the team for two years or 52 years.

But to Principal Sue Ambrozavitch, Athletic Director John Sullivan and their screening committee, the appointment of the new coach meant a great deal. For they saw special qualities in Walsh, one of 25 candidates for the position, that gave them hope for the program’s future.

“We liked John’s basketball background and knowledge to begin with,” says Sullivan, now retired after an exemplary career as an educator and coach. “He was very dedicated to young athletes, whether he was coaching basketball or football. He had an enthusiasm that impressed us, as well as organized goals that he convinced us could help create a championship program.”

Yet, after two games they might have had second thoughts about their choice. At the conclusion of the varsity’s second game of the season, Walsh had a verbal exchange with a fan on the field house court. Walsh was handed a two-game suspension and most of us casual observers were wondering what kind of fellow this Walsh was. We wondered if he’d last the season, or at best be a one-and-done coach.

In hindsight, some of those involved with the process feel Walsh may have been unfairly disciplined for the incident in question. But he accepted the ruling and moved on.

Little did we know what kind of coaching legend he would become in a few short years.

We found out soon enough. Once he got his bearings, and after a discouraging 2-6 start, Walsh, ridiculously new at this stuff, guided the Falcons to an stunning 11-3 finish, a 13-9 record, two MIAA tournament wins for the first time in school history and maybe, just maybe, the start of a turnaround in Falcon hoop fortunes.

Turnaround? How about mini-dynasty? For that’s what the Falcons became over the next four seasons, climaxed by what they just accomplished: an unprecedented 27-0 record, only the second in North Shore high school basketball history, their first MIAA State Division 2 title and their third MIAA state title in four years, the first two being Division 3 titles in 2012 and 2013.

The numbers are numbing; numbers not even Vince Lombardi, Red Auerbach, Bill Belichick, Scotty Bowman, Casey Stengal or Joe Torre can match.

  •  4 – straight Northeastern Conference (NEC) Small Division titles
  • 4 – straight NEC overall titles
  • 4 – straight 20-win seasons
  • 3 – MIAA state titles in four years, a feat accomplished by only three other schools since the division format was introduced in the early 1970s
  • 105 – wins in five years against 18 losses
  • 22 – wins against 2 losses in five years of MIAA state tournament play

Walsh, a top-notch guard at Malden Catholic, spent five years as a varsity assistant to his cousin, the head coach at Watertown High, then felt he was ready to secure a head coaching gig of his own.

“John wasn’t kidding when he expressed such dedication to the basketball program in his interview,” Sullivan added. “He showed that dedication as soon as he got hired. He got involved with the summer program and had kids feeling positive about the team long before the season started (keeping in mind the prior season had been a 3-17 record). Then when the season did start he worked not only with the varsity, but attended jayvee and freshman practices; showed the kids he cared about their progress, their games, too, not just his varsity team’s. He even stopped by the girls’ practices, got immediately acquainted with Pat Veilleux, the girls’ coach, and welcomed the chance to work with Pat and his squad, at Pat’s encouraging. Fact is John Walsh’s dedication to Danvers High basketball, in my estimation, has been unbelievable.”

Walsh calls it a lucky situation he fell into, one in which the high school program was starting to benefit from the youth program. Probably true. And he is the first to make note of two significant transfer players who played major roles the last few years – Nick McKenna from St. John’s Prep and Devan Harris from Hingham.

“It’s all happened because of the fine players I’ve had,” Walsh has said over and over again, “like the Merry brothers. How many coaches get that fortunate?”

Agreed, coach. George and Peter Merry have had major hands in all three state titles and the four consecutive Northeastern Conference titles. Hell, Danvers had won only three NEC titles in the 70-plus year history of the loop until their dominance started in 2012.

I have called it serendipity; a perfect storm, if you will, of two groups of players being led by one outstanding young basketball coaching mind. The first group nucleus won NEC and Division 2 state titles in 2012 and 2013. The second group of players overachieved last year at 20-3 without one of their star players, Vinny Clifford, sidelined for the season with a bad knee, then went P-E-R-F-E-C-T-O this season with a 27-0 mark, topped off with a Division 2 state championship.

Yes, the players make the shots, steal the passes, grab the rebounds, sink the clinching free throws. But without the right leader directing them from the bench, I argue that no team, no matter how talented, would win a championship.

So John Walsh’s presence has made all the difference in the world in creating this statewide powerhouse.

He knows how to deal with his players, how to prepare them in practice, how to handle them during games with the proper substitutions, the proper strategy, when to call timeouts and when not to.

Years ago I might agree with this statement: you can call winning one state title a fluke. But no more. There are too many good teams to defeat in your bracket and in your Section. Moreover there are no soft opponents once you reach the state semifinal in TD Garden and the state final at the DCU Center.

One highly respected coach told me this year’s batch of Division 2 teams was as strong a group as he has seen in many years.

So say what you will about winning one state title and you still may be laughed out of the room. But when the team with the same coach wins a second state title in a row, then moves up from Division 3 to Division 2 the very next year and advances, with a completely new cast, to the Section final minus one of your two most important players, then the following year, with the same nucleus and your missing player from a year ago back in the fold, goes a perfect 27-0 and wins the Division 2 state title, you’ve got a mastermind in charge.

Simple as that.Walsh, husband and the father of three young children, takes his job as coach very seriously. Surely just as seriously as his day job as assistant executive director of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston.

We see him follow his team onto the floor for pre-game warmups accompanied by his assistants. He always wears a white dress shirt and tie. He usually watches not only his own team take warmups at the far end of the court, but the opposing team shooting right in front of him.

He spends much of the game in a baseball catcher’s crouch, looking courtward or turning back and consulting his assistants, usually first with Mark Garrity, his varsity assistant.


When he’s not crouching he’s shouting instructions to a player or discussing a point with an official. He is well respected by the officials or they would not give him as much opportunity to state his case. Another example of what makes an effective coach.

When there’s a timeout, he sits his players on the bench and resumes the crouching position, offering his advice singularly and collectively.

During all these celebration poses the team has provided for photographers the last four years in Lowell, Boston and Worcester, Walsh has acted almost like an accidental observer who has mistakenly walked into the picture; like he’d rather have the kids get their picture taken without him. He reluctantly leans in from one end of the shot.

“It’s their day,” he seems to be thinking. “It’s their picture. I’ve done my job and that’s all I need.”

Maybe it’s all John Walsh needs. But it’s not what his players need, nor what the thousands of DHS hoop fans need. They need to acknowledge John Walsh, the Rembrandt of this masterpiece of a four-year championship run (not forgetting Year 1 was important in re-establishing a winning tradition that had been missing for more years than anyone wishes to remember).

Maybe it’s time to name the playing surface in the Danvers High field house Walsh Court. What finer tribute could a school and town bestow upon the greatest coaching performance in the history of Danvers High athletics (with apologies to Roger Day)? The statue can come later.





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