Needham’s Thomas Shaughnessy and Newton North’s Ethan Wright know firsthand how familiarity can breed intense rivalries.
As two of the best basketball players in the region, the senior guards have been competing against each other for four years at the varsity level, but prior to that, they were teammates on the Bay State Jaguars AAU program.
“We played together before anyone knew about who we were,” Wright said. “I kind of got to see Thomas become the player that he is today. A lot of people slept on us and our team, because we were young and nobody thought we’d amount to anything, but we could shoot the lights out and we surprised a lot of teams in those tournaments.”
Now standing 6-foot-3 with a lengthy wingspan, Wright isn’t sneaking up on any teams any more. A four-year varsity player, his role has steadily increased to the point that he averaged an impressive 26.5 points per game last season.
Shaughnessy, a 6-foot lefty guard with a deft long-range shot and elite defensive ability, led Needham to its first sectional title last March.
The two guards stand at the forefront of their respective teams in the loaded Bay State Conference, possibly the best league in the state this season.
For 17-year North coach Paul Connolly, the commitment of those players has gone a long way in returning the Bay State to its former glory.
“It reminds me of the old days in the Bay State,” Connolly said, recalling in particular his 2006 state championship team, which featured Anthony Gurley and Corey Lowe, who went on to college stardom at UMass Amherst and Boston University, respectively, and faced other conference teams loaded with premier players.
“That,’’ said Connolly, “was when kids didn’t leave their hometown school.”
“Now we have one of the deepest leagues in the state again,’’ he continued, “and it comes back to Ethan and Thomas, who are out there playing at a high level on the AAU circuit and don’t reclassify [to prep schools]. They show loyalty to their school, their coach, and their program.”
Needham got the better of North in two of three meetings last year, and the two programs will face off Jan. 26 and Feb. 13 this season.
There are plenty of other teams vying for a Bay State title, as evidenced by Natick’s 74-64 win over North Dec. 15. Wellesley is another rising program, and Brookline returns a ton of young talent, including junior forward Mark Barrett, who is familiar with Shaughnessy as a teammate on the Middlesex Magic AAU program.
A 6-foot-5 forward with impressive ball skills, Barrett recognized the improvement of his conference while asserting his own desire to represent his hometown.
“I think [the Bay State] is a lot better than it was before,’’ said Barrett, “because those players with [Division 1 commitments] stayed at their schools.”
“Freshman year, I thought about going to a private school, but decided to graduate from Brookline. It means a lot to me because of our basketball history.”
A year Barrett’s senior, Shaughnessy happened to coach his AAU teammate for one game, gaining the acquaintance of another player who would become a rival once MIAA season began that winter.
According to Shaughnessy, that familiarity only further stokes the flames of competition between these neighboring towns.
“I grew up playing with a lot of the guys I’m playing against now,’’ said Shaughnessy, “and knowing those kids personally, it’s a great experience when they come to my gym.”
“The atmosphere is great, everyone knows each other, and it’s always a big game mind-set.”
Needham, which returns eight varsity players this year, is one of the top contenders for a Division 1 state title. And as 10-year Needham coach Paul Liner points out, his team depends on the reigning Bay State Carey Division MVP, Shaughnessy.
“He plays with high intensity,’’ said Liner, “and regardless of the opponent, Thomas wants to guard the best player on the court.”
“We thrive off his energy and his leadership. I’ve never had a player that plays with that emotion in my career. The players and fans feed off that.”
When Needham hosted North in a key regular season tilt last January, Shaughnessy asked to guard Wright, and his relentless defensive effort combined with his offensive output paced his team to a 59-52 win.
Despite their on-court rivalry, Wright and Shaughnessy remain good friends, and both players said that they’re excited to continue playing against each other at least twice per season when Shaughnessy is at Brown and Wright is playing at Princeton over the next four years.
With like-minded approaches toward the controversial topic of staying in public school versus transferring to a prep school, these fierce competitors will always have something in common.
“We’re the two kids that didn’t reclassify,” Wright said of himself and Shaughnessy.
“We stayed in public school, and that means something to us. It means something to me to represent public schools in general. We’re trying to bring attention to the level of basketball that’s right here around the corner and to the kids that choose to stay, because that’s becoming more and more rare these days.”Nate Weitzer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.