Harry O’Neil sat on the Lexington High bench and buried his face inside his jersey. The 6-foot-5 sophomore forward was exhausted after scoring 31 points and pulling down nine rebounds against Lynn English in their Division 1 North first-round game on Tuesday, and reality had started to set in.
Looking at a double-digit deficit late in the fourth quarter, O’Neil realized that he was watching the clock tick down on his team’s final game of the season. It was also his final game playing alongside his brother Hugh , a senior.
When the Minutemen fell, 97-75, some consolation came to Harry O’Neil in knowing he had time left in his high school career to write a better ending.
“You already feel it sliding by so quickly,” said O’Neil of his two years on the varsity. “Now I’m thinking, ‘I’ve got two years. I have to do the best I can in these two years.’
“It really does help lessen the finality of it. Especially with the team we’re going to have going into next year. We’re a very young team this year. We’ve got a lot of kids who are big contributors who are going to be key parts of the team next year. So I’m very excited about what next year will hold.”
Lexington will welcome back four starters next season, including junior guards David Barner and James Lorenzi, and sophomore Glenn Smith . The Minutemen will continue to rely heavily on O’Neil in the paint, especially after the departure of his 6-foot-6 sibling.
“When you lose and play well, it hurts, and I think it can drive Harry for the offseason going forward for the future,” said Lexington coach Reggie Hobbs . “I’m excited about it. I’m excited about our nucleus coming back.”
Even Lynn English coach Mike Carr , who hadn’t seen O’Neil before last week’s tournament game, walked away impressed by the sophomore’s beyond-his-years post presence.
“As a coaching staff, we were saying, ‘That kid’s gonna be something,’ ” Carr said. “He’s strong. He certainly doesn’t play like a sophomore. He’s physical, he doesn’t back down from anything.
“The kid is going to be a player, there’s no doubt. My hat’s off to him. I don’t want to see him the next couple of years.”
O’Neil is just one of many underclassmen at area schools who have played big roles on tournament teams this winter, providing excitement for the future of their programs regardless of how this season ends.
For freshmen and sophomores playing varsity basketball against opponents two or three years their senior, having size certainly helps.
Like O’Neil, Newton South freshman Sasha Hoban is able to use his natural physical gifts to his advantage. At 6-foot-3 and 230 pounds, Hoban was one of the Lions’ best rebounders off the bench this season. With the grit of an upperclassman — he played tight end for the varsity football team in the fall — he pulled down 14 rebounds in a preliminary round win over Marshfield just one day after his 15th birthday.
Though it took Hoban some time to adjust to the pace of varsity play back in November, eventually he proved he knew how to use his frame around the rim.
“He came in fundamentally sound,” Newton South coach Joe Killilea said. “He knew how to box out, set screens, hedge — all the basketball things that normally take a long time to learn. He’s a hard worker and he gets along great with all his teammates.”
Having a grasp of the game’s fundamentals is doubly important for those underclassmen playing in the back court, whose skills have to be honed enough to make up for whatever size and strength they might lack compared with their older opponents.
Watertown sophomore guard Brendan Hoban used a smooth shooting stroke from beyond the arc to become his team’s top scorer (14 points per game) this season and help the Raiders to a Middlesex League Freedom Division title.
Well before the team’s first game last season, Watertown coach Steve Harrington knew Hoban would fit in and contribute right away.
“He just had a presence in practice,” Harrington said. “I knew that he was not afraid. I think he had no fear of playing against older kids.”
Harrington added, “If you’re ready to play — freshman, sophomore, whatever — we’re going to play our best lineup out there. If you can do it as a freshman, we’re not going to hold someone back.”
Nashoba Regional High coach Danny Ortiz had a similar philosophy going into this season. His roster included two freshmen guards — Nate Mansour and Andrew Snoddy — and he trusted them to make a relatively quick adjustment from eighth-grade basketball to the varsity.
Mansour played an important role in the Chieftains’ back court all winter, playing both point guard and shooting guard. He was among the team’s leaders in minutes played, and was one of its best on-the-ball defenders.
“He’s a freshman, but I don’t think you would be able to tell by seeing him play out there,” Ortiz said. “He’s a smart kid. He can take it to the basket, shoot the ball, find the open man. He’s pretty poised for his age.”
Ashland sophomore Max Feinberg averaged 13.5 points per game and played at the top of the press for the Division 3 Central bracket’s top seed. He played with the varsity as a freshman as well, but has grown leaps and bounds since then, according to coach Mark Champagne .
“Last year we knew he was physically a really good athlete and we treated him with the expectation of being a varsity player,” Champagne said. “But when you go from eighth grade to that, that’s hard for a kid.
“He’s always been very, very competitive, but this year he has a different level of emotional intelligence, and he’s done an outstanding job for us.”
When O’Neil joined Lexington as a freshman last season, he had his brother to lean on to help with the adjustment. That bond continued into this season and won’t stop with the hug they shared on the sidelines after falling to Lynn English last week.
Hugh O’Neil will graduate in the spring and then plans to do a postgraduate year at a New England prep school, where he would be able to continue following Harry’s high school career. As a bonus, there is a chance Harry will be joined next season by the youngest O’Neil brother, Tommy, a 6-foot-6 eighth-grader.
Even after the difficult loss to the Bulldogs, Hugh beamed about Harry’s big game. Like any Lexington fan, he’s eagerly looking ahead for the program.
“Harry just kept going tonight,” Hugh said. “It’s foreshadowing what’s to come in his next two years at Lexington High School because he just put the team on his back tonight.”
First-year coach guides
King Philip into postseason
In his first season as the girls’ basketball coach at King Philip Regional High, Marty Crowley had ambitious goals for a program that had not qualified for the postseason in close to a decade.
“The goal was to get to the tournament, win 10 games,” said Crowley, the team’s fourth coach in as many years. “Then the goal was to get a tournament home game, and we got the home game. Then we got our first tournament win.
“It’s been a pretty good season. I’m proud of our kids and what they’ve accomplished.”
After a 59-53 win over Marshfield in the first round of the Division 1 South bracket last week, King Philip improved to 15-6 on the season. Last year’s squad won six games.
A coach for 20 years in Rhode Island, Crowley won a state championship in 2003 with Burrillville High. Upon taking the position at King Philip, he brought with him his on-the-floor systems, including an emphasis on high-pressure defense.
Crowley credited senior captains Alicia Cuoco, Ellen Wagner, Amanda Johnson and Kenzie Richardson for making the transition to a new coach a seamless one.
“They’ve been spectacular,” he said. “They’re great leaders and great teammates. The reason we’ve been successful is because of the way they’ve handled this season. They just wanted to succeed so badly. Our goal was to make the seniors’ last year a memorable one, and hopefully we’ve done that for them.”Phil Perry can be reached at email@example.com.