The transition was not supposed to be so seamless.
The Danvers High School boys’ basketball team entered this season with more questions than answers, with the two-time defending Division 3 state champions undergoing an offseason makeover.
For starters, the Falcons will be moving up to Division 2 for the state tournament.
The senior catalysts behind the previous two title runs (21-4 and 24-2) were gone; nine in all.
And the only returning starter from a year ago, junior Vinny Clifford , was lost for the season after tearing an anterior cruciate ligament before the preseason even began.
The Falcons entered the season with just two seniors, and the systematic challenge of implementing an entirely new starting five was just one challenge for coach John Walsh’s club.
For Danvers, however, none of that mattered.
“People downplayed us a little bit coming into the year,” said Devan Harris , the team’s 6-foot-3 starting center. “But the guys in the locker room had no doubt. That’s just the kind of the kids we are.”
“You could feel the atmosphere was ready to go right away; we’re not rebuilding, we’re going for a third straight championship.”
At 14-2, the Falcons own the best record in a Northeastern League that features top programs such as Lynn English and Salem.
With a chip on their shoulder, the Falcons rattled off eight straight wins to start the year.
“No one thought we’d be good again,” said senior point guard Mark McCarthy , a third-year varsity player. “We’re trying to prove some people wrong by showing them what we can do.”
He and senior forward Kieran Beck headline a youthful roster that lacks varsity experience. The two captains are the lone returnees from last season’s championship run.
McCarthy is the maestro of the offense, averaging an efficient nine points and five assists per game. The 5-foot-9 point guard has shooting range beyond the 3-point arc, along with the skills to penetrate the lane and deliver kickoff passes to an open teammate.
Beck, the 6-foot-3 starting forward who’s in his fourth year on varsity, plays with a workhorse mentality in the paint, posting 12.4 points per game.
“The leadership and toughness that those two bring have been the difference for us,” said Walsh, in his fourth season as coach.
“I don’t know where we’d be without them.”
No player has made a bigger impact than Harris, in his first year on the varsity after his transfer from Hingham High.
The usually tough transition into a new environment was seamless for Harris.
“Everyone opened up to me right away,” Harris said. “It was just so comfortable to feel like I was already part of the team.”
The team’s leading scorer (19 points per game), Harris sticks to his “old-fashioned” style of play.
His game includes a mixture of hook shots, spin moves, lefty layups, the pick-and-roll option, and the ability to step out for a knockdown mid-range jumper .
“He spends more time in the gym than anybody,” McCarthy said of his teammate. “He’s just a great post player who’s very smart and knows how to run the floor.”
Danvers also trots out two other double-digit scorers in Peter Merry , a 6-9 junior forward (12.5 ppg) who is a nightmare for foes in the paint, and sophomore guard Rashad Francois (10 ppg), a force at both ends. Merry, however, has been dealing with injuries (hip, ankle) and has missed five of the last seven games.
Freshman guard Devon Allen “sets the defensive tone” for the team, according to Walsh.
The new-look Falcons have a lot to prove.
McCarthy believes that playing against the starting five last year in practice was a “great inspiration” to come out stronger this season.
And the players stand behind their coach.
“In basketball, if we like it or not, he’s always right,” Harris said of his coach. “No matter what, that’s just how it is. He never gives up on us.”
Merry says Walsh doesn’t let “anyone take the easy way out,” a trait that makes him the best coach he’s ever played for.
According to Beck, the “no one wants you to win again” mentality is one that “keeps the fire lit” for the Falcons.
Added McCarthy: “We’re going to work just as hard to get back there to do it again; this time as the core group.”
Just getting better
Don’t look now, but the Central Catholic girls are playing their best basketball in the crucial late stage of the season.
Riding a 10-game winning streak, the defending Division 1 state champions (15-1) clinched the Merrimack Valley Conference title with a 66-44 win over Lowell on Feb. 7.
The Red Raiders are led by four returning starters: seniors Amanda Williams , Courtney Walsh , Alex Nagri , and Caitlin Dell’Orfano .
“They’ve played in a lot of tough situations together,” said 18-year coach Sue Downer .
“They have that charisma and confidence to make sure we pull through those types of one- or two-point games.”
Williams, a 6-foot forward captain, is averaging a team-high 18.7 points and 14 rebounds per contest. Fellow captain Walsh, a 5-7 point guard, is posting averages of 11.2 points, 4.8 assists, and 3.3 steals.
“We kind of have a double bull’s-eye on our back, but we know that, and the girls embrace it,” Downer said of the challenges that come with defending a title.
“Some of that carries into making us so good in the postseason since we are used to competing at high levels every night.”
Revenge is sweet
Avenging an earlier season loss to league rival Greater Lowell in Monday’s 55-41 victory, the Greater Lawrence Reggies (16-2) ran their winning streak to 10 games — the program’s longest in six seasons.
Coach Dan Habib , in his seventh year, has put together the team’s best campaign since Greater Lawrence won the Commonwealth League title in 2009.
Habib credits his team’s depth.
“It’s not one particular guy that has put that [scoring] burden on their back any given night,” Habib said. “We’ve been fortunate to have multiple guys step up when others don’t seem to have it.”
A balanced back court, orchestrated by 5-8 junior point guard Anthony Fabian and 5-9 junior guard Alexus Estrella, uses its speed to wreak havoc on both sides of the ball.
Two senior forwards, 6-foot Oscar Reynoso and 6-1 Frankely Estrella , provide a complementary inside presence as offensive forces and defensive stoppers.
“We can’t slack off at all; we have to go at it every game,” Habib said. “And that’s what they’ve been doing.”Joseph Saade can be reached at email@example.com.