Lying on the turf at Gillette Stadium on Dec. 3, 2016, a bone protruding through the skin on his right leg, Matt Cross wondered if he’d ever be the same.
A ninth grader suiting up for St. Mary’s of Lynn, Cross had already compiled an athletic resume that suggested a prodigy of sorts. A year prior, playing up for the Spartans’ varsity basketball team, he posted up for the go-ahead basket with three seconds left in the Division 4 state semifinals on the parquet at TD Garden.
His presence on the football field was equally imposing, and a main reason the Spartans had punched a ticket to Foxborough and the Division 3A Super Bowl against East Bridgewater.
Now, the accolades were replaced by question marks and one big, dangling leg.
“When it first happened — about probably the first three or four months — I didn’t think I was going to be the same in sports,” said Cross, who was officially diagnosed with a fractured fibula and tibia after being carted off the field at Gillette on a stretcher in what was a 34-8 loss.
“I knew I was going to come back to play but I didn’t think I was going to play at a high level again. Mentally, I was checked out. It took me a while to start getting back to working out.”
Cross’s surgery was successful and eliminated any doubt regarding whether his leg would hold once he began moving around on his feet. Still, Cross found it difficult to block out that nagging area in his brain that posed questions he didn’t want to consider.
His ninth-grade basketball season already sacrificed to the gridiron gods, Cross eventually refocused. The Beverly teen remained one of the state’s best underclassmen hoop prospects due to his gaudy 6-foot-7, 220-pound frame, and a transfer was imminent.
Thanks in part to Leo Papile, the founder of the Boston Amateur Basketball Club (BABC) who served as a conduit between player and coach, Cross’s gaze settled on Cushing Academy in Ashburnham.
Papile had lauded Cross’s toughness to Cushing head coach James Cormier , and knowing the mouth from which the compliment came, Cormier knew he had a prized possession on his hands.
“I talked to Leo last year after Matt had broken his leg playing football,” recalled Cormier. “Leo had mentioned that he was looking for a place where he could [play] both [football and basketball] and kind of described him as a hard-nosed, face-up, skilled 4-man.
“Leo knew that [toughness] is something that we’ve started to build an identity [upon] here at Cushing. We play really strong defense and run an offensive system that requires a four man that can face up and make some plays off the dribble and also [has] the ability to facilitate for others as well.”
Cross checked all the boxes.
Now all Cormier had to do was convince the rising sophomore of Cushing’s perch near the top of the New England prep school circuit — CA is the defending NEPSAC Class AA champion — and he’d have himself the stretch-4 of his dreams.
“When I visited schools, one thing I noticed about Cushing is they had similar interests with me in terms of how they wanted to play and the mentality of the way their coach was,” said Cross.
“When I visited here, they also told me that I’d be able to have my own person to work out with, [a] personal trainer to work on what I need to work on as far as my leg and quickness of that leg. That was big.”
Cross acclimated himself quickly, proving a valuable mix of shooting and rebounding; a Kevin Love-type power forward able to spur transition opportunities with his superior court vision.
“It’s nice to be able to get a rebound and be able to start the offense with him,” said Cormier. “It gives us an opportunity to get out in transition and play a little faster and get some easy buckets. Moving, flashing him to the high post, and when he’s defended by bigger players, being able to use his speed and athleticism to get by them and create help situations is a luxury that not too many high school teams have. Matt gives us that opportunity to play that style.”
Shouldering an early-season schedule dubbed by Cormier as “difficult as anyone’s in the country,” Cushing (12-4) opened 6-4. Now, winners of six straight, its clear Cross and Co. are beginning to truly gel.
“The main thing about us being on this roll was [when] we started off, we had a lot of new guys,” said Cross.
“There were only a couple returning players. A lot of us have different [playing] styles, so it took us a while to get used to each other. [After] beating a couple of big teams, we realized when we play together, we’re as good as anyone out there.”
Cross understands that work remains to be done if he’s to incur more interest from colleges such as UConn, which has already reached out to the 16-year-old. Cross’s lateral quickness needs work, and his leg still doesn’t feel 100 percent of what it did before that fateful December day at Gillette.
Still, if there’s a work ethic to gamble on, it’s Cross’s.
“He’s very driven,” said Cormier. “He eats the right way, he stretches, he’s been able to do all that stuff. He’s working out in the morning with me, individual workouts and shooting, things like that. He attacks rehab and preparation and development as well as any sophomore that I’ve ever been around.”
■ There are five boys’ basketball programs still unbeaten in Eastern Massachusetts, including the Brooks School in the Independent School League. One resides on Route 24 in Lakeville. Apponequet Regional has rocketed out to an impressive 13-0 driven by a very experienced core group of players.
Four of the Lakers’ seniors were part of the 2015-16 team that advanced to the Division 3 South final against Bishop Stang, before falling to the eventual state champions, 58-50.
“We have four players who were getting a lot of time as sophomores. We pretty much have a veteran team right now who have played a lot of basketball for us and are very competitive,” said Apponequet coach Jim Cabucio .
A few of those seniors are the reason Apponequet is averaging over 70 points per game. Guard Andy Johnson is averaging a team-leading 20 points per game and guard Adam Seablom is at 19.0 ppg.
But it hasn’t just been the seniors behind this start. Junior 6-foot-6 center Clay Meunier (10 points, 15 rebounds)is averaging a double-double.
“[Clay] has done a great job for us,” said Cabucio. “He was with us last year as a sophomore but didn’t get a lot of playing time, but really did a great job on his conditioning and improving his physicality.”
A 58-57 loss to Burke in the first round of last year’s Division 3 South tournament has played a part in this year’s perfect start.
“I think what’s happened is that there is a sense of urgency and the kids realize now that the nice run we had three years ago takes a lot of different factors,” said Cabucio.
“When you get into a high school tournament, every tournament you get into, is very precious. Bottom line is you want to go a little bit deeper than you do, and they had a taste of it the year before so that loss was very therapeutic because the kids are realizing that it’s one game at that point.”
■ O’Bryant junior Rivaldo Soares placed his name into the program’s history books when he threw down a thunderous two-handed slam and let out a great yell of excitment in a 68-56 victory against East Boston on Wednesday. The dunk put the 6-foot-6 Soares at the 1,000 point mark of his high school career . . . Yet another successful MLK Invitational took place at the Cabot Center on the campus of Northeastern University. Three thrilling matchups involving city schools and Catholic programs highlighted an exciting tournament.
Players of the Week
■ Ghared Boyce, Everett — The high-scoring senior guard netted nearly half of the Crimson Tide’s points against Danvers, going off for 40 in an 87-29 NEC win.
■ Walter Dew-Hollis, Tech Boston — The senior pumped in a career-high 31 points and hauled in 17 rebounds in a 79-29 victory over Latin Academy. The 6-foot guard didn’t stop there though. Dew-Hollis scored 17 points —
including 12 in the second half — as Tech Boston rallied to defeat BC High at the MLK Invitational on Sunday, 74-68.
■ Dominic Jones, Madison Park — A week after exploding for a program-record 51 points, the senior guard was at it again for the Cardinals — netting 37 points to go along with 10 rebounds, six assists and five steals in a City League win over Boston English, 78-64.
■ Tyler Spencer, Pembroke — The senior guard not only shredded the nets for a career-high 38 points in a 64-50 win over Dennis-Yarmouth. But it was also a single-game program record.
■ Angel Price Espada, Pope John — The junior had a performance for the ages on Tuesday night. The Cambridge resident counted for more than half of the Tigers’ points (49) to help keep his team out in front in the Catholic Central Small with an 89-81 victory against Lowell Catholic.
Games to Watch
■ Tuesday, Tech Boston at O’Bryant, 5:30 — The Bears have put the rest of the City League, and Division 2, on notice with their astounding victory on Sunday over Catholic Conference power BC High. O’Bryant has been sputtering a bit, so this becomes an important game for both teams.
■ Tuesday, BC High at Catholic Memorial, 7 — The Knights have the opportunity to take control in the Catholic Conference as the Eagles make the trek to West Roxbury. Both teams came in with only one loss in conference play.
■ Friday, Central Catholic at Lowell, 7 — The Red Raiders defeated Central in Lawrence earlier in the season by double digits. And now, with a change in venue, CC comes in full of confidence.
■ Friday, Tech Boston at Needham, 6:30 — If we thought the Tech Boston victory in the MLK Invitational was impressive, a win on Friday night in a hostile enviroment against the reigning Division 1 South champions would put no doubt who is the favorite in Division 2.
■ Sunday, Newton North at Brockton, 1:30 — Already twice this season the Tigers have put an end to undefeated seasons and winning streaks. The only difference here: both those games came at home. Newton North will have to visit the City of Champions to take down another top Division 1 program.