Dave Fazio looked exhausted. The Andover High coach was hunched over on the sideline with sweat dripping from his forehead.
A court-storming was occurring a few feet away following the Warriors’ frantic win over North Andover in last month’s Merrimack Valley Conference boys’ basketball showdown. Fazio watched the chaos unfold, then delivered a phrase commonly used to summarize the 2023-24 MVC season.
“It’s just another night in the Merrimack Valley,” Fazio said.
This winter, the MVC is all about tense rivalries, tight finishes, and hard-nosed play. Five teams — Lowell, North Andover, Lawrence, Andover, and Central Catholic — are ranked in the top eight of the latest MIAA Division 1 power rankings. Methuen and Haverhill are also positioned to make the D1 tournament, while Tewksbury is on the right side of the cut line in D2.
In his 35th season at Andover, Fazio labeled this year’s league unique. There’s no dominant team or standout player, but there’s a deep crop of quality teams that require focus and intensity every night.
“There’s just a bunch of really good teams and really good players,” said Fazio. “Every team has three really good guys so you have to be ready from the opening tip. There are no nights off this year and that goes from the top of the league to the bottom. It’s cool to see, especially for the kids.”
North Andover senior Zach Wolinski relishes the raucous atmospheres and nightly battles. A four-year starter at point guard, Wolinski called the MVC’s physicality its biggest separator.
The Globe All-Scholastic takes pride in facing tough defenders every night, tabbing Andover’s Danny Resendiz as the league’s best. Wolinski understands the MVC has helped him develop into a complete player, and offers excellent preparation for his next stop at Wesleyan.
“It’s a lot of fun,” said Wolinski. “Every team’s main goal is to try to beat you down and get physical. Every game is a battle, regardless of record. It all goes out the window and it’s a complete dogfight from the opening tip.”
North Andover’s résumé speaks to the chaos. The defending D1 semifinalist beat Lawrence and Central Catholic twice. The Scarlet Knights also lost to Chelmsford (4-13) and Methuen (9-8).
Wolinski feels the depth of the league starts with the youth programs. Players have been competing against each other in travel ball since fourth grade, so when they arrive at high school, not only are skills refined, but they’re supported by continuity. Teams cherish the grind needed to be crowned league champion.
“The league as a whole has just gone to the next level and everyone’s motivation is to see who can come out on top,” said Wolinski. “There’s so many great coaches and players. I think it’s a tough challenge but it strives everyone to get better.”
Ranked 18th in the D1 power rankings, Methuen has suffered its lumps. Of the Rangers’ eight losses, six are against NA, Lawrence, Andover, Lowell, and Central. But coach Anthony Faradie believes the setbacks proved to his team they can play with anyone. He knows the lessons will prove valuable in the state tournament, especially because the MVC’s top teams play different styles.
Lowell is quick, led by electric junior guard Tzar Powell-Aparacio. MVC Large champion Andover plays physically with 6-foot-6-inch forward Luca Palermo leading the way. Lawrence is athletic behind wing Obbie Luciano, while Wolinski fuels North Andover’s disciplined, connected attack.
“Going up against these teams all season has given our team a lot of confidence,” said Faradie. “We feel if we can put it together, we’re right there with anybody. Seeing all these different styles and matchups is very beneficial when you get into a state tournament game.”
Coaches and players feel at least one MVC team, possibly more, will make a deep state tournament run. Lowell coach Bob Michalczyk compared it to the old Big East, when teams would beat the bag out of each other in the regular season and rely on those experiences in the tournament.
Wolinski knows NA will be prepared for March. After this regular season, how could it not?
“Night in and night out in this league, it gets you ready for the postseason,” said Wolinski. “It gets you ready physically, it gets you ready basketball-wise. As long as we’re not playing another MVC team, I think we’re all rooting for each other because, after all, we’re representing the league.”
▪ Bishop Stang sophomore Alexis Rivas Menesses, the captain of the JV program, is a national finalist for the 2024 Jersey Mike’s Naismith High School Basketball Courage Award.
The 6-foot, 210-pound forward from New Bedford leads the JV team in rebounding and is a key defender, and he’s also a two-way lineman for Stang’s football program. Rivas Menesses has helped his family through economic hardships, volunteers with middle school students in the New Bedford Star Kids Scholarship program, and leads tours at Stang for prospective students. It was included in his nomination for the award that he taught his sister, Ivana, how to play basketball outside the New Bedford Boys & Girls Club.
The winner will be named March 6 from a list of 10 finalists, with a $2,000 prize going to the student-athlete and $2,000 going to their basketball program.
“He’s a fantastic kid and exactly the type of kid we want to have at our school,” said Stang AD Nate Greene. “We have kids who come to our school with good character, and he’s at the top of the list.”
Rivas Menesses said he didn’t think what he was doing was extraordinary and he didn’t expect to be recognized for his busy life.
“When I heard I was in the top 10 I was in shock,” said Rivas Menesses, “It means a lot to me. My mom, Guadalupe Menesses, motivates me a lot. She’s the main reason I do all this.”
Lackluster 59-52 win over Wilmington tonight to move to 12-6 (11-4) but that was secondary to an amazing accomplishment from @cedricrod32 who needed 24 points to get the all time BHS scoring record and took care of that in 3 quarters and finished with 34! More on 🧵 pic.twitter.com/PrxYm508J8— BurlingtonBasketball (@Burlingtonhoop) February 10, 2024
⋅ Burlington senior Cedric Rodriguez scored 34 points Friday to become the program’s career scoring leader (1,269 points), topping the previous mark by Shane Farley (1,249) . . . Archbishop Williams senior Tristan Rodriguez poured in 42 points to eclipse 1,000 points in his career . . . Bourne senior Nate Reynolds provided a 23-point, 16-rebound performance to top 1,000 career points . . . On Thursday, Billerica senior Brady Martin erupted for a school-record 46 points to lead a 69-63 comeback win at Tyngsborough.
⋅ This weekend marks the start of February break, with a large slate of tournaments scheduled around Presidents Day. The Spartan Classic at St. Mary’s, Comcast Classic at Woburn, and Roundball Classic at Mansfield are a few of the top brackets to watch.
Games to Watch
Thursday, No. 4 North Andover at No. 11 Natick, (6:30 p.m.) — Two of the best defensive teams in the state will go head-to-head in a nonleague bout to get primed for vacation week tournaments and the statewide tournament.
Friday, No. 9 Central Catholic at No. 5 Lowell, (6:30 p.m.) — Central Catholic took the first of two meetings between these MVC rivals, 61-56, on Jan. 23, and the Red Raiders look to return the favor with a home win.
Friday, No. 2 Andover at No. 13 Lawrence, (7 p.m.) — Andover has clinched the MVC Large title, but needs one more road win to go undefeated through one of the toughest leagues the state has seen in recent years.
Tuesday, No. 10 Cambridge at Lynn English, (7 p.m.) — Cambridge is coming off a string of tough Dual County League wins and English just locked up a second straight Greater Boston League title.
Sunday, No. 8 Charlestown vs. No. 12 Needham, (11 a.m. at Woburn High) — The Comcast Classic tips off Sunday with a slew of great matchups to follow, including this nonleague bout.
Correspondent Nate Weitzer contributed to this story.