MANSFIELD — Brendan Hill has played in only 26 varsity games for the boys’ basketball team at Mansfield High, but he has an advantage most sophomores do not: he has watched many, many more.
The 6-foot-5 forward, who is quickly establishing himself as one of the best players in the Hockomock League, saw every game his older brother, Jeff, played in more than three full varsity seasons for Mansfield coach Mike Vaughan from 2007 to 2010.
“It’s really fun, just being a little kid and always coming to the games, waiting for one day, ‘Oh, that’ll be you,’ ” Brendan said. “And now that day’s finally come. As soon as my brother left, I came in the next year, so that was pretty special.”
Once Jeff moved on to Bentley, to play football, Brendan made the varsity as a freshman and was a spark off the bench, averaging seven points and 5.5 rebounds per game.
In the early going for the Hornets this year, Brendan has made big jumps in both those areas: his 11 points per game is second best for Mansfield, while his 8.3 rebounds per game is a team high.
“He’s a special kid,” said Vaughan, now in his ninth season as the Hornets’ head coach. “He passes the ball like a point guard, he rebounds like a center, and he scores like a small forward. You kind of get a luxury of having everything, and at times you treat him like he’s a fourth-year senior.”
Jeff — a 6-foot-4, 215-pound receiver who has quickly emerged as a big-play threat at Bentley, credits his rough-and-tumble treatment of Brendan growing up for his younger sibling’s success.
“I taught him everything he knows,” said Jeff, tongue only half in cheek.
While Brendan wouldn’t go that far, he did give older brother his due.
“He would never give me anything easily,” Brendan said. “He made me tougher, always being mean and pushing me around.”
The two had a relatively normal childhood, with a broken leg for Brendan, many pick-up game wins for Jeff, and countless arguments as highlights.
Now, however, their roles are reversed.
Brendan is the one with a height advantage, however slight. Brendan wears the Mansfield No. 31 jersey. Brendan is better at basketball, which even Jeff admits. And, when Jeff is home during winter break, he is the one sitting in the bleachers in the Mansfield High gym watching his brother play.
“It’s kind of weird to watch,” Jeff said. “He’s wearing my old uniform, coach Vaughan’s face is turning red as usual. It’s weird [to be on the other side.]”
Jeff said the brothers inherited their height from their 6-foot-6 father, Bryan , and athletic ability from their 5-foot-9 mother, Kathy (Finn) , the only women’s basketball player at Providence College to be named Big East Player of the Year.
Brendan’s strong start has the team off to a hot start as well.
The Hornets (5-1) have already registered wins over Boston College High and Amityville, N.Y. The team suffered its first setback of the season, a 60-54 loss to New Mission, on Dec. 28, but looks primed for a big run with Hockomock play rolling into full gear in the coming weeks.
The team is minus junior Michael Hershman , a returning Hockomock League all-star who suffered an injury during the football season. But others have more than stepped up in his absence.
Sophomore Ryan Boulter , who shoots 42 percent from beyond the three-point line, leads the team with 12.7 points per game. Senior captain Greg Romanko , a lanky, 6-foot-3 forward, rounds out Mansfield’s three double-digit scorers with 10.3 points per game to go with his 5.8 boards.
Then there is Zach Wisnieski , a senior captain who does not put up big numbers like some of his teammates, but whose role Vaughan refuses to discount.
“Zach is definitely our toughest kid,” Vaughan said. “He’s the type of kid that will run through a wall for you. Does whatever you ask, goes above and beyond, is really a great emotional leader.”
Even given the early success, Vaughan is expecting major improvements as the season continues. For Hill specifically, he wants a more consistent focus on defense, while for the team he seeks more maturity out of a squad with four sophomores, five juniors, and five seniors.
Vaughan said the team too often charges down the court on “ugly, immature possessions,” looking to make the flashy play instead of the sensible one, which often results in missed chances.
“We haven’t reached our potential, or anywhere close to it,” Brendan said. “Once we hit stride I think we’ll be very, very dangerous, so I’m excited for that.”
Dedham girls on a roll with improved defense
When Dedham High girls’ coach Don Savi tapped off the season, his seventh with the Marauders, there was something missing: For the first time in his tenure with the team, neither of his daughters was on the squad.
“It’s different,” Savi said with a laugh. “It’s a lot quieter when I go home.”
But with his progeny gone — Nicole is a junior as Assumption and Jenna a freshman at Merrimack — Savi’s squad is experiencing one of its best starts in recent memory.
At 5-1, the Marauders are already halfway to their win total from last year’s 10-11 team, which was ousted by Archbishop Williams in the first round of the Division 3 South tournament.
The biggest difference, Savi said, is on defense. Twice the team has limited its opponent to 17 points, on Dec. 7 vs. Dover-Sherborn and Dec. 10 vs. Dorchester .
The defense combined with a balanced offensive attack has been a recipe for success. All five starters — senior captains Emily Hill , Ellen Masalsky , and Renee Gassler , plus juniors Libby Masalsky and Brianna Dozier — are averaging between six and 10 points per game.
The last piece of the recipe? A unique level of team chemistry. The starters, minus Dozier, play soccer for Savi in the fall.
“We’re pretty successful with soccer,” Savi said of his Bay State Conference Herget Division winning team. “So a lot of them just carry over with me to the winter. That helps a lot.”