Al Pettway understands the history of basketball in Worcester, but there’s one truth from the city’s hoops annals that resonates deeply with the Worcester North coach.
A Worcester public school has never won a Division 1 boys’ basketball state title.
On Saturday, Pettway stood inside North’s gymnasium, beaming with excitement and brimming with confidence while discussing the upcoming MIAA state tournament. He strongly believes his Worcester North team is the best in the state, the favorite to cut down the nets in Division 1 next month and snap the city’s prolonged championship drought.
“No one from Eastern Massachusetts wants to see us,” said Pettway. “I can tell you that.”
Roughly 40 miles from Boston, Pettway’s Polar Bears are dominating in-state competition with a 14-0 record and an average margin of victory of 28 points. With size, length, and athleticism, North is built like a college-level team that overwhelms opponents with a combination of intensity and skill.
“They are one of, if not the best team in the state,” said Lawrence coach Jesus Moore. “They are tough, gritty kids. They are as good as anyone out there.”
The talk in Worcester all preseason surrounded Pettway’s super team. Coming off a 21-2 season, the Polar Bears returned star sophomore guard Ty Tabales, 6-foot-4-inch bruiser Joseph Okla, and springy 6-5 forward Teshaun Steele.
Then point guard Tahlan Pettway, a 30-point per game scorer at Burncoat, with a MIAA waiver, transferred in to play for his uncle. Guards Amir Jenkins and Khari Bryan returned to their hometown from Springfield Commonwealth Academy, a private school, and swingman Amaren Minor came from St. Paul (the Holy Name/St. Peter-Marian merger), forming a talented seven-man rotation that had played together since they were kids.
“They decided let’s reunite and here we are now,” said Al Pettway. “They know each other, they know how to play with each other, it’s easy for them. There’s really been no growing pains.”
North’s resume includes a 57-54 win over Lawrence, the top-ranked team in the MIAA D1 power rankings, at Emmanuel College and a marquee victory over Newton North, last year’s D1 state finalist. But perhaps the team’s two losses paint a better picture of its ceiling.
Playing in the KSA Tournament in Orlando over Christmas break, North fell to the top-ranked teams in Pennsylvania (Radnor) and Oklahoma (Broken Arrow) by a combined 7 points. Pettway said the trip was the best decision he’s ever made as a coach. It showed his group could play with anyone.
“Playing those two teams helped us a lot and gave us some learning points to work on,” said Tahlan Pettway. “When we came back to Massachusetts we fully believed we could play with anybody in the state.”
The Polar Bears are at their best when defense turns to offense, allowing their trio of guards — Pettway, Tabales, and Jenkins — to showcase their speed and finishing ability in the open court. In Saturday’s win over Wachusett, Steele and Okla clogged the lane with their length, contested shots at the rim, then ignited the full-court offense with outlet passes, a staple of North’s style.
“We like to play fast,” said Tahlan Pettway. “When we stop the ball fast, we can get out and run and just play. I feel like it’s hard to beat us when we do that.”
Pettway said the offense has learned to be unselfish and rely on whoever has the hot hand. The list of options only grew last week when Tabales returned to the court after a serious bout of toxic shock syndrome.
The 6-2 guard, arguably North’s top offensive player, spent 18 days in Boston Children’s Hospital in December and January and underwent two surgeries. Tabales said he feared for his life during those days, but stayed patient and relied on his teammates for support.
“The doctor didn’t even think I was going to make it at one point so it gives me a whole new perspective on life,” said Tabales. “You don’t think you take things for granted, but you really do.”
His return to the court inspired the team, added another dynamic playmaker to the fold, and certainly raised eyebrows around the state since North beat Lawrence and Newton North without him.
With the release of the state tournament bracket three weeks away, North has been the subject of the latest power rankings debate. The Polar Bears were slotted at No. 8 in Friday’s release, a byproduct of their low opponent rating by playing in the Inter High League.
North ranks below Lawrence (No. 1) and Newton North (No. 6) even though it beat both teams head-to-head, and there’s a possibility it faces undefeated Lynn English in the Round of 16 and Lawrence in the quarterfinals, the top two teams in the Globe’s Top 20.
“I feel like we’re getting the short end of the stick but I just try to be positive about it and use it as motivation,” said Al Pettway. “It’s unfortunate for our kids that we’re not getting rewarded but I always say you have to beat the best to be the best.”
Regardless of how the matchups play out, Pettway said he has felt a sense of destiny with his team.
So what exactly would a Worcester North state title mean to the city?
“Everything,” said Pettway. “It would mean everything.”
⋅ With 25 points in a 68-59 win over Whitman-Hanson, Hingham senior Liam McBride surpassed 2006 graduate Neil Creahan as the program’s career scoring leader . . . St. Mary’s star guard David Brown Jr. topped 1,000 career points during a 78-77 loss to undefeated Archbishop Williams . . . Dover-Sherborn senior Luke Rinaldi became the program’s 10th 1,000 point scorer on Jan. 31 in a 75-60 win over Millis . . . Lynn English (16-0) continued an undefeated season with a 74-56 win over Everett Thursday to clinch the Greater Boston League title . . . Catholic Memorial (15-2) clinched a Catholic Conference title with a 71-62 win over reigning league champion BC High Friday night.
BOYS BASKETBALL: David Brown scores 25 including his 1000th career point but the @SMHBoysBball drops the @CCLeagueEst1975 title game 78-77 to @goAWathletics. @HeadofSchool4 @BostonHeraldHS @GlobeSchools @itemlive pic.twitter.com/SXUgqbCJOZ— St. Mary's Spartans (@stmarysspartans) February 4, 2023
⋅ Andover scored a dramatic 54-52 win over rival Central Catholic Friday when senior captain Ryan MacLellan hit senior Rohit Srinivasan for a buzzer-beating 3-pointer. “I’ve been doing this for 34 years and I felt numb,” said Andover coach David Fazio, who topped 500 career wins last season. “I had to make sure that the game was over. I was completely numb” . . . Rockland coach Fred Damon earned his 250th career win Jan. 27 when his Bulldogs edged Cohasset, 45-44, in a South Shore League thriller . . . Lawrence Academy coach Kevin Wiercinski recorded his 400th career win when the Spartans pulled out a 59-25 win at Middlesex School Friday.
Congratulations to Coach @FredDamon22 for earning his 250th Career Win this past Friday, vs. Cohasset! @PatriotLedger @BrocktonSports @BostonHeraldHS @BGlobeSports pic.twitter.com/2NUyrTspAy— Rockland AD (@Rocklanddogs) February 2, 2023
Games to watch
Tuesday, North Andover at Central Catholic, 6:30 p.m. — Coming off a near-upset of top-ranked Lawrence, North Andover challenges another high-powered squad in Lawrence.
Tuesday, Catholic Memorial at Beverly, 7 p.m. — Beverly junior forward Ryder Frost has been putting up eye-popping stat lines all season, while the Knights have used a balanced approach to clinch the Catholic Conference.
Thursday, Burke at St. Mary’s, 6 p.m. — These teams faced off in January, with the Spartans pulling out a 64-57 victory. Burke will have point guard Jasaad Fenton back from illness for the rematch.
Friday, Duxbury at Hingham, 6:30 p.m. — The Dragons are playing hard-nosed defense this season and the Harbormen have a prolific offense to bring to the table in this heated Patriot League Keenan Division rivalry.
Sunday, Newton North at BC High, 1 p.m. — North continues its tradition of playing a big nonleague game on Super Bowl Sunday, as the Tigers visit the Eagles in a rematch of last year’s Division 1 state final.
Nate Weitzer contributed to this story.