NEWTON — There was one familiar face on the Newton North High sideline, and it was red before the end of the first quarter. Coach Paul Connolly stomped his feet, waved his arms, and blew ear-piercing whistles to get his players’ attention early on in the Tigers’ 50-47 Bay State Conference win over Walpole last week.
After 11 winning seasons as the Newton North basketball coach, his methods have not changed much. His passion is the program’s constant.
Otherwise, this team is new.
North lost seven seniors and five starters from last year’s group that went 19-4 and advanced to the Division 1 South semifinals. The list includes the reigning Bay State Conference MVP, Michael Thorpe, who has moved on to Emerson College, as well as conference league all-stars Luke Westman and Barry Santana . According to Connolly, the departing players made up 94 percent of last season’s scoring output.
Despite the drastic turnover, the Tigers have quickly adopted their coach’s style — aggressive man-to-man defense, up-tempo offense — and started the season with two heart-thumping victories. They beat Braintree in their first game, 63-60.
“We’re grinding it out, man,” Connolly said after his team edged Walpole in the game’s final 90 seconds. “With this newness right now, the kids have really done a great job buying in. I’m thrilled at the fact that we got two grind-it-out wins.”
There really isn’t any other way to play for Connolly. He asks his players to go at full speed all the time. When the players get fatigued, mass substitutions are the norm. He used 10 players in the first quarter against Walpole.
“We have a lot of guys who can step in,” said senior captain Seamus Bruno . “And when they step in, they bring the same energy as the guys who just came off. When they go in, they don’t care if they’re only going in for one or two plays. For those one or two plays, they’ll go hard. They’ll go 110 percent just to help the team.”
It’s a cliché that has become the Tigers’ creed. Without any returning stars, the Newton North squad is full of players accustomed to fighting for minutes, which has helped Connolly’s system — requiring a hard-nosed, team-over-self approach — take root so quickly.
“This is Coach Connolly’s philosophy: Play hard, play smart, play together,” said senior Korey Mui . “All of us have to buy into the system. We’re 14 strong. Everyone is buying into the system, and we just have to keep playing hard, and listen to Coach. He can go a little crazy, but we all take it in. We’re all very coachable. We all want to get better, and we all trust in Coach.”
Though the Tigers are lacking when it comes to size, the roster is rife with versatility. The tallest player is 6-foot-4 junior center Ezekial Francisco . After him, most players are comfortable at two or three positions, which makes defensive switches a breeze and creates mismatches on offense.
Mui, a 6-foot-2 point-forward, has proven to be the most effective mismatch when North has the ball. A volleyball player in the spring, he has the leaping ability to out-rebound taller players, but he also possesses the ball-handling abilities of a guard.
After taking off last season to focus on academics, Mui, an honors student, has come a long way from when he was a varsity contributor as a sophomore. He finished the Walpole game with a team-high 21 points, seven rebounds, three assists and two blocks.
“It was a rush coming back,” Mui said. “The home-opener, it was that feeling again, that adrenaline pumping. It was a tough adjustment in the beginning, but I’m getting a lot more comfortable now.”
While Mui has led the team in scoring, Bruno has been its barometer for grit. An undersized power forward at 6-foot-2, he is the team’s best rebounder (he pulled down 12 boards against Walpole) and one of its quickest-thinking players — just Connolly’s type.
With shooters like junior Liam Bruno (Seamus’s brother) and sophomores Tommy Mobley and Sam Jefferson filling out the roster, North has left its mark on the Bay State Confernce early.
“You know that when you play them, it’s going to be a physical game,” said Walpole coach David St. Martin . “It’s going to be an up-and-down game.’’ Connolly “is one of the best in the business, so we know coming in that regardless of how many kids they lost or who they have, it’s going to be a battle.”
Newton North’s strong start doesn’t mean Connolly will stop making noise and wearing his emotions on his sleeve as he paces up and down the sideline. That’s what he’s always done. But he is encouraged that his players this season have ignored their inexperience and quickly grasped those lessons he so loudly professes.
“I like the group,” he said with a smile, admitting he was on the verge of losing his voice. “They play hard.”
Ferreer takes Assabet all-time win record
Assabet Valley Regional Tech girls’ coach Frank Ferreer just needed a pen Tuesday night. He never expected the news to be made public.
Yet, moments after he asked the team trainer for something that his players could use to sign the score sheet from their 73-42 win over Montachusett Regional Tech, his record-setting 129th win at the school, word had made its way to Twitter. Then, of course, the secret was out: Ferreer had become the basketball program’s all-time wins leader.
“I got every one of the kids to sign,” he said. “I got my managers, my assistant coaches, everyone that was involved. I’ll keep it in the back of the book, and then at the end of the season I’ll probably take it out and put it in something so that I have it.”
When Ferreer took the job nine years ago, the Aztecs had won just three games in the two previous years. He won seven games in his first season (“Believe it or not, people were excited we were 7-12,” he said) and got to .500 the next year. In every year since, the team has amassed at least 14 wins.
All of his teams are characterized by a frenetic pace.
“I love chaos,” he said. “That’s what we try to create on the court. The more chaos, the better chance we have of winning. We want to play 94 feet, pressure all over the place, play nothing straight up, trap all over. Sometimes it’s very successful, sometimes it’s very ugly. But that’s our style.”
There should be plenty more wins on the way. Already 4-0 this season, Ferreer has most of his starters back from last year’s sophomore-laden team, including the Colonial Athletic League’s top all-star vote-getter, point guard Tia Joubert .Phil Perry can be reached at email@example.com.