Win or lose Saturday — and we surely anticipate a win — in their Division 2 North quarterfinal matchup in the DHS field house (4pm start) against old foe Brighton (remember last year’s delicious win at Woburn?), the Danvers High boys’ basketball team has already earned a “greatness” label based on what it has accomplished.
We will talk for years about the milestones Coach John Walsh and his charges have accomplished in each of their first five seasons, including three state championships the last four years, a feat of historic proportions statewide dating back to the institution of the division setup in the early 1970s, and a feat of local proportion which has never been equalled and probably never will be.
But to take this year’s team singularly, I state unequivocally that they have surpassed expectations to a higher degree than any of the five teams that preceded them. The facts are indisputable.
Last year’s “Team for the Ages,” 27-0, featured the biggest and arguably the most talented front court threesome in North Shore annals — 6-10 Peter Merry, the Northeastern Conference MVP, 6-5 Devon Harris, who became Danvers High’s first back-to-back Globe All-Scholastic hoopster, and 6-4 Vinny Clifford, arguably the best long-range shooter in the region and probably the best in Falcon history.
So take away all that size, plus approximately 45 points, 20+ rebounds and six blocks a game and you’ve got troubles for the following season. Especially when you return a team whose biggest player is 6 feet, one inch tall. From the biggest team around to the smallest. But Walsh, recognized throughout Greater Boston as one of the bright young star coaches, figured it out nicely.
Most preseason predictors liked the Falcons to win between 10 and 12 regular season games. Instead they went 17-4, lost four games by a combined 10 points and won the NEC Large in their first year moving from after winning four straight NEC Small titles. Amazing.
Walsh didn’t make his players change so much as he changed for his players. He kept the offense simple, providing multiple options for the playmakers, i.e. Devonn Allen and Rashad “Rudy” Francois, with Tre Crittendon another option with his dangerous three-point accuracy and penetration ability. Suffice to say, Allen and Francois, as the team’s top two scorers, have proven capable of creating a scoring opportunity from pretty much anywhere on the floor, firing away or driving to the cylinder.
Mike Nestor and Kieran Moriarty have been relied on to bang the boards inside, while Tahg Coakley has been marvelous off the bench, hitting threes, scoring with a strong power game inside and rebounding in timely fashion. Justin Roberto has been a clutch three-point bomber off the bench and Jon Weimert is another bench possibility based on his clutch play in the Masconomet game.
Walsh has given his players freedom to shoot from pretty much anywhere and go 1-on-1 whenever the situation presents itself or calls from it.
But as observers of Walsh’s flyin’ Falcons realized early in the season, they were going succeed or fail this season based on their small-man, quick-footed, steal-minded defense. And with few exceptions they have thrived, applying defensive pressure from anywhere on the floor and creating turnovers in numbers of which Betty Crocker would be proud.
The speed of the “Big Five” — Allen, Coakley, Francois, Crittendon and Nestor — with Moriarty often in the deep position, has been a thing of beauty. I have to believe that the Falcons have scored at least one-quarter of its points off turnovers.
Moreover, with few exceptions, this group has handled the pressure of defending state champions, with a target on their backs every night, like, well, champions.
I won’t be surprised if the way they responded to Wednesday’s horrid state title defense debut at home against Melrose serves them well as their tourney trip continues. From a 4-12 first quarter deficit while shooting 1-for-13 and a 10-22 deficit in the second quarter, the Falcons kept their cool, made some Walsh-inspired defensive adjustments and outscored the Red Raiders the rest of the way 39-18.
Now they’re 18-4, hoping they can win their 31st straight at home against Brighton and then get a second crack at No. 1 seed and NEC rival Salem in the North 2 semifinals. That will pack ’em in no matter where they play it.
No matter. This has been a sensational season for Danvers High boys basketball; Year 6 in the Golden Era of John Walsh-coached Danvers High Basketball. Walsh’s shortest team in those six years has never stood taller.