Their commitment to lockdown, suffocating D is relentless, all 32 minutes of a game, and it’s proven to be the foundation for a 7-2 start for the Wakefield Memorial High boys’ basketball team.
“We get excited on defense,” said Wakefield coach Brad Simpson , after his squad employed an effective 1-3-1 full court press the entire game, forcing nearly 20 turnovers en route to a 65-36 victory over Middlesex League rival Wilmington last week.
The key to the Warriors’ effective defense goes back to their team chemistry, which improved as they played together through the summer and fall, according to senior captain Kendall Hamilton .
In a bit of a slump losing their previous two games after an undefeated start, the 6-foot-3 Hamilton knew his team had to make a change.
“We just decided to work harder and come more focused,” he said.
A terrific leader on and off the court, Hamilton is the straw that stirs the Wakefield drink. His style is to lead by example, something on display during his 17-point, 7-steal performance against Wilmington Tuesday night.
“It's whatever they need me to do,” Hamilton said . “I lead by example. I'll do anything to win. I just want to win.”
In one game earlier this season, a teammate recalled, Hamilton took his defense to an entirely different level.
From the opening tip, Hamilton defended the ball incredibly, forcing several turnovers. By the end of the game, the opposing player was so frustrated with his inability to drive, pass, or shoot that he threw the ball at Hamilton in exasperation.
That’s the kind of defense needed to win big games.
It’s not just during the game that Wakefield locks down on the defensive end .
During practice, Simpson refuses to allow his starters to play together because they're all so good. He doesn't get any pushback; his players actually ask to be separated.
“Me and [sophomore phenom] Bruce Brown battle back and forth with each other on defense,” said Hamilton. “We're always asking coach to be on opposite teams so we can go at each other. We like to challenge each other during practice. It shows on the court.”
Hamilton is right. During stretches of Tuesday night’s game, if Wilmington scored, it almost came as a shock. Wakefield's defense was just that good.
Senior center Mikol Blake-Green says the team has “a lot of individual talent” who take pride in their performance.
“We all have our egos,” Hamilton said. “It goes back to practice — we’re all going at each other's heads and then afterward we're able to laugh at it.”
Blake-Green clarifies the key to success for a squad packed with so many talented players: “As long as we play as a team we'll be all right.”
Simpson doesn't preach fun, it's just an added bonus.
“I keep telling them practice is not supposed to be fun, that's supposed to be hard work. The game is fun.”
Blake-Green disagreed. “We have mad fun out there, coach,” he exclaimed as he walked by.
The defensive game Wakefield has been able to play is especially impressive when you consider the circumstances they’ve thrived under.
The team has been without seven different players during games this season, including their projected starting point guard, a cocaptain who sustained a concussion during football season.
On top of this, their sixth man is now a starter and one player who almost did not make the team, Nick Maio , thrives in regular action off the bench.
“We're getting there,” Simpson said . “I’m looking at the glass as certainly being half full.”
Hamilton feels the same way.
“It's not about where you start, it's about where you finish. We just want to win states.”
Billerica girls take aim
The Billerica High girls are clearly on a mission early on, with a blazing hot 7-1 start. Led by senior Brittany Lomanno , their only loss came to defending Division 3 state champion Pentucket.
The 50-39 loss served as a learning experience and wake-up call for the team.
Following that defeat, the Indians took on an excellent North Andover team — fresh off defeating Central Catholic in their holiday tournament — two days later and registered a 67-55 victory.
Everything culminated last week against Central Catholic in Lawrence, the team that ended their season early as the 12th-seed underdog in the Division 1 North tournament this past March.
Trailing almost the entire game, Billerica High stepped up its defense in crunch time and made crucial stops, allowing them to take the lead and hold on to a nail-biting 57-55 victory.
The victories serve as stepping stones in a successful season, setting the stage for an extended run in the state tourney. The road ahead will not be easy:
The Indians have rematches against Central Catholic and North Andover, along with a game against three-time defending champion Andover High.
Pat Bradley can be reached at email@example.com.