Category: Jam Session

Championship Snapshots: Past hoop memories galore

By Mike Whaley

This week’s Jam Session hears from fans, coaches and former players and coaches as they recall special moments from past championship games.

There are quite a few varied takes. You have a celebratory bus ride past adoring townspeople; injuries overcome and deficits, too; a player standing on a rim after the game; a basket scored for the other team; a lucky nickel; trampoline dunking in practice the day before the final; and how about one win at a time all the way to 25-0 and a few other perfect thoughts. Let the memories begin!

Bill Douglas • 1971 Austin-Cate Academy

Bill Douglas, player, Austin-Cate Academy, 1971 Class S boys champs – With the Class S title in hand against Epping in the waning minutes at the University of New Hampshire, old Austin-Cate Academy of Center Strafford cleared the bench, recalled Douglas, the team’s star guard. Freshman Eddie Maccarelli made a steal and blazed down the floor in the final seconds, laying the ball in just before the buzzer – but in the other team’s basket. Final score: ACA 66, Epping 55. Douglas said he later found out that if Macarelli, who he dubbed “Wrong Way,” had scored for Austin-Cate the Wildcats would have tied the Class S record for most points by a winning team in a championship game with 68. Maccarelli is the only Austin-Cate player to have played on the school’s two state championship hoop teams. He was also on the 1974 title team as a senior. ACA made four trips to the Class S championship during a five-year span in the early 1970s. The school closed in 1980.

Frank Weeks, coach, Alton, 1975 Class A girls champs – Weeks recalls in the ‘75 final vs. Hillsboro-Deering, Alton led by just 20-14 at the half. However, they had a huge 18-0 surge in the third quarter that propelled them to a convincing 49-24 championship win – the first of three championships in four years. Alton, which became part of Prospect Mountain HS with Barnstead in 2004, won again in 1976, lost in the 1977 final and won in 1978, along the way building a 64-game winning streak. Two of its players – Amy Birdsey and Diane DeJager – scored over 1,000 points, and a third, Pam Smith, had over 970. A fourth, Arlene Dejager, a force on the boards, recorded over 1,000 career rebounds. Weeks also recalls at practice the day before the championship, he felt they were well prepared and there was nothing else to be done to get ready for the game. So he let the girls pull out the trampoline and the team spent the rest of the practice working on their dunks. “It was a very good group of young ladies,” Weeks said. “They were physically talented and committed. They enjoyed playing basketball.”

1976-77 Oyster River senior captains Jody Mooradian and Laurie Herbst admiring the championship plaque with coach Cathy Coakley.

Jody Mooradian, player, Oyster River, 1977 Class A girls champs – Mooradian had this memory from game day in 1977, which she recounted in 2019 to Seacoastonline after coach Cathy Coakley’s death: On the day of the state championship game, the bus was 30 minutes late. Coakley, always cool and calm, handled it perfectly. “Instead of getting nervous, she said, ‘OK, everybody let’s start dressing now in the bus.’ We all started putting on our shorts and our sneakers, then when we got off the bus we were ready to go.” Mooradian added, “Some people, even in college, when things start happening, coaches will let the situation take over. I just remember that — ‘just start getting dressed.’ That’s a thing that kind of sticks with you. How do you react? She was very professional. She made it happen. That helped us win, that little adventure.” Indeed, the Bobcats beat perennial power Alton, the two-time defending champs, in the final, 49-46, at Saint Anselm’s College for the school’s first girls’ hoop title. It snapped the Apaches’ 64-game winning streak to cap a perfect 20-0 season for Oyster River.

Mike Whaley, fan, 1976 Class L boys championship game – One of Whaley’s favorite championship memories (when he was a high school teen growing up in the Durham area) took place in the waning seconds of the 1976 Class L final, played at UNH between Trinity and Portsmouth. With the score tied at 58-all and time running out, a Portsmouth player called a timeout the Clippers didn’t have. A technical foul resulted. “Back then, the technical was a one-shot award,” recalled Whaley, not the two shots it is today. “With only a second or two remaining,Trinity sent gritty guard Dan Duval to the line at the end of Lundholm Gymnasium where the crowd enters. Above the basket was an open area where, at the time, fans were allowed to gather to watch the game. Since it was a technical foul shot,  Duval was all by himself at the foul line. As he prepared to take the shot, a small group of hecklers taunted him from above. It didn’t bother Duval, who calmly drilled the shot for the championship win.” That allowed Trinity, coached by Don Beleski, to defend its title, while, for Portsmouth, it was one of four painful Class L championship losses over a six-year span under legendary coach Dan Parr – the state’s winningest coach with 704 coaching victories.

Marge Fisk, coach, Dover, 1977 Class AA girls champs – Fisk guided the Green Wave during the infancy of NHIAA girls basketball from 1970 to 1982. The 1977 championship was unexpected as the previous year’s team, laden with seniors, went undefeated, but was upset in the quarterfinals. However, the ‘77 Dover girls, led by gritty guard Patty Foster, plus the addition of talented sophomores Karen Vitko and Lynne Richard Chavez, went undefeated to win the program’s first title over Manchester Central. “That was one of the finest groups I ever coached,” said Fisk in 2021. “They were just a family. There were a lot of superstars, but we always played as a team, and it made a big difference.” There was no big celebration after the championship win.  On the bus ride back, the players did ask coach Fisk if they could do “something wild.” Mary Brady Legere said the coach let the girls get out of the bus at the Lee Traffic Circle to do a Chinese fire drill around the bus and then get back in. 

Paul Boulay, player, Somersworth, 1984 Class I boys champs – It was the third quarter of the 1984 final at UNH and Somersworth trailed Pembroke by 10 points (45-45) with under two minutes to play. The Hilltoppers were 20-0 and playing in their third straight final, having lost the previous two. “They’re shooting a free throw and I’m lined up looking into the stands trying not to start crying,” said Boulay, who recalls he and teammate, Kyle Hodsdon, talked about winning the championship as pre-teens back in the day at a family Christmas party. “I went coast to coast for an old-school three and then assisted on a layup to end the third quarter (to cut the lead to 45-40). We outscored them 15-6 in the fourth to win 55-51. Up 53-51 with five seconds left, I got fouled and went to the line for a 1-and-1 (before the 3-point shot). I remember hitting the first one (to make it a two-possession game) and erupting with a jumping fist pump and a quick run in front of our fans. Don’t remember thinking about doing it, but the release of emotions and relief was just overwhelming because I’m not sure what I’d have done if we’d lost three straight.”

Tim Mucher, Farmington • 1984 Class M State Champions

Mike Lee, coach, Farmington, Class M boys champs (1984, 1988) – Lee, who coached the Tigers, from 1977 to 1998, recalls at the end of the 1984 championship game, a 76-54 win over Conant, being approached by a furious Peter Cofran, the tournament administrator. Cofran was yelling at Lee, “Get him down!” Lee had no idea what Cofran was referring to, until he saw Farmington guard Tim Mucher standing atop one of the rims. “I don’t know how he got up there,” said Lee, although he had his suspicions. “I’m sure it was something he had seen on television.” Not long after, Lee recalls going to the NHIAA offices in Concord and seeing a picture of Mucher on the rim. He laughs. “That resonates now.” He also recalls in the final 90 seconds of  the 1988 championship game, a 78-70 win over Mascoma, seeing a nickel, heads up, in front of the Farmington bench. As he bent down to pick it up, a voice yelled, “Don’t pick it up. It’s been there the whole game.” That voice belonged to Tony Carone, a member of the ‘84 championship team. Lee left the nickel there because, you know, a heads-up nickel signifies good luck – and it did that day for the Tigers.

Nute Rams • 1990 Class S State Champions

David Burrows, player, Nute, 1990 Class S boys champs – Burrows led the Rams to their last hoop title in 1990, scoring a tournament record 149 points in four games (still the most in the state regardless of division or gender). Nute beat Wilton-Lyndeborough in the final, 56-45, behind 34 points from Burrows. He had this recollection: “Something that stands out in my memory was after our championship game (in 1990). The team bus and several spectator buses were parked at the exit outside the locker rooms at Plymouth State College.  I think the entire community of Milton was waiting for us to come out to celebrate. What I saw next was hair tingling. Wilton’s team came out of that exit and our fans gave Wilton a standing ovation. I was very proud to be part of a community that shows that level of respect and sportsmanship.  Something you rarely see these days.”

Kelly Hall Barsky, center, is now the interim athletic director at UC Santa Barbara where she is a former basketball coach. In 1992-93 she helped lead Coe-Brown to an undefeated season and the Class M girls hoop championship. [Courtesy photo]

Kelly Hall Barsky, player, Coe-Brown, 1993 Class M girls champs – The Bears capped a perfect season with a 54-52 win over Franklin in the final to win the school’s first girls’ basketball championship. Barsky, now the interim athletic director at UC Santa Barbara, fondly remembers the championship and the celebration afterwards. “We rode back in the bus,” she said. “As we pulled into Epsom (Traffic) Circle and then all the way to Northwood, there were families that came out of their houses, along the route, and turned their lights on. We had a fire truck that led the bus. They came out and waved and we were waving and cheering.” It culminated with the team going back to the Coe-Brown gym where the Bears practiced every day. “Families and community members showed up,” said Barsky, who played for her dad, Tom Hall. “It brings me to tears now because it was just a moment of unity.”

 

The 1992-93 Stratford Lions went 21-0 to win the Class S state boys hoop championship, beating Orford in the final, 40-39. [Courtesy photo]

Eric Hurlbert, player, Stratford, 1993 Class S boys champs – Hurlbert was a junior on that undefeated team and one of three players – seniors Troy Burns and Josh Stone were the other two – to break 1,000 points that season (two did it in the same game). The Lions beat Orford for the title, 40-39, scoring the winning basket at the buzzer on a Billy Burns feed to his brother Troy. It was Stratford’s first championship since 1942. The school closed in 2012.

Keith Friel, player, Oyster River, 1995 Class I boys champs – It was a special moment for Friel when the Bobcats won the first of back-to-back Class I titles in the mid 1990s – a 55-52 win over Lebanon. “Our first championship, winning it at Lundholm (Gymnasium) with that core of kids we grew up playing together from (grades) 3, 4, 5, all the way up,” Friel said. “That was special. Hugging my brother (Greg). It was a culmination of all those hours of camp, all those hours in the gym growing up in Lundholm (where the Friel boys dad was the UNH men’s coach from 1969 to 1989). It was kind of surreal. I have all those memories of seeing (my dad) coaching there. When he ran out on the floor and hugged me, it was really special.”

Dave Smith coached Coe-Brown Northwood Academy to the 1997 Class M boys basketball championship. He is pictured here in 2021 being honored for his 600th coaching win. [Courtesy photo]

Dave Smith, coach, Coe-Brown, 1997 Class M boys champs – The dean of active N.H. coaches, Smith has coached basketball in the state for 55 years (45 in high school). The beginning of his one championship win in ‘97 still resonates. “We started out 6-0 – behind,” recalls Smith. “I was very close to (calling) a timeout. They had the ball. I was saying, ‘Oh crap, this isn’t a good way to start.’ We were pressing at Plymouth State. … Dakota Smith was playing up front on the press and he came all the way back on the rotation, which was a good rotation. He made a steal. We went down and scored. From then on it was back and forth. That kind of set the tone for us defensively. We had a great defensive game.” Coe-Brown won the championship, 57-43.

Dave Nichols, coach, Oyster River, 2003 Class I girls champs – This is one of Nichols’ favorite stories about the 2003 champs. He coached the Bobcats to four titles, and was the first in N.H. to coach both a boys and a girls team to a championship (OR boys in 1988, and three girls teams – 2003, 2006, 2009). “After our first game I commented that it was clear that this team was going to be very good and that all could see that they loved playing together,” Nichols recalled. “I told them that they would have 25 opportunities to do that, 18 regular-season games, three in the holiday tournament (Manchester, playing three Class L schools) and then four in the Class I tournament if we could get all the way to the finals; 25 games, maybe. Then I said, ‘one down’ and they shouted ‘24 to go.’ That countdown continued after every game. That was quite prophetic, too, and later people asked if I had been brazen enough to tell the team that we could go 25-0. No, the 25 games were how many they ‘could’ play, not a challenge to win them all. But we did.”

Dan O’Rourke, coach, Hanover, 2005 Class I girls champs – O’Rourke, the Marauders’ coach since 2001, recalls a key moment early on in the 2005 Class I championship against Oyster River, coached by Dave Nichols. Hanover had three girls with fevers and Oyster River got out to an eight-point lead. Hanover had a player named Emily Huff, who O’Rourke described as a terrier. She was on the bench going, ‘Let me in. Let me in.’ O’Rourke said let’s see what happens, knowing that when he put her in she would get after it. “Finally the game was starting to get away,” he said. “We put her in. Within a 3- or 4-minute span she completely changed the complexion of the game. Came in. Stole the ball two or three times. Hit a shot, and suddenly it was back to a tie game.” Hanover went on to win, 49-38, to defend their 2004 title. The Marauders have won five titles under O’Rourke.

Stephanie Larpenter, player, Sunapee, 2006 sand 2007 Class S girls champs – “One memory that stands out from our championships from 2006 to 2007 is that in the championship game in 2006 there was four minutes left in the game and I tore my ACL,” said Larpenter, who is now Sunapee’s coach. “Fast forward to 2007 after surgery and physical therapy for eight months. We beat Groveton, and just the feeling of accomplishment personally and with the team coming back from a major injury like that is something I’ll never forget. The satisfaction of all the hard work paid off. I think that is one core memory that really stands out to me.”

John Mulvey, player, Portsmouth, 2009 Class I boys champs – “I grew up playing basketball with the same group that won the 2009 championship,” wrote Mulvey who played for his dad, Jim Mulvey and is now the Clipper coach. “Growing up, we would play all day every day. Playing high school basketball with this same group was a dream. We had a lot of success, but going into our senior year we were missing something. That was a state championship. Late in the game, we got two full-court layups from long passes after Pelham scored. After those layups, we realized the game was out of reach and we were going to win the championship. I will never forget the feeling and moment of jumping around with my best friends celebrating a state championship.” Final score: Portsmouth 61, Pelham 48. On a personal note, Mulvey scored a game-high 26 points and buried five 3-pointers, a tournament record he still shares with two other players. The game, however, did not start well for the lefty sharpshooter. He missed his first seven shots. “The first couple almost broke the backboard,” he said in 2020. “I had to settle down.” Which he obviously did.

Aliza Simpson McKenna, player, Londonderry, 2014 Division I girls champs – “We had one loss on the season to Bedford and we were squaring up again for the state title. This was legendary Coach John Fagula’s last high school game after an incredible career and we were hoping to send him off as a champion. I’ll never forget, we were down by two and we probably had 10 seconds left to play. Bedford was a powerhouse and had great defenders. The time was running down and Brittany Roche was left wide open in the corner. A pass came flying at her from a baseline drive and without any fear she threw up a 3-pointer. Nothing but net. We had clinched the title, 57-56, ended Bedford’s undefeated season and allowed John Fagula to sail off into the sunset as a champion.”

Rick Forge, coach, Gilford, 2016 Division III girls champs – “The perfect season,” said Forge, who also coached Gilford to the 2009 title and Somersworth to a crown in 1986 in Class I. “Back then Lakes Region basketball fostered some great rivalries amongst the area’s seven Division 3 schools.  It was only fitting that Gilford and Laconia would be the two teams left standing for the finals. The schools, separated by a couple of miles – or a few long 3-pointers – would be meeting for the fourth time that season (holiday tournament included).  Each previous matchup was an instant classic, including a triple OT game that is still talked about. The community atmosphere in the local coffee shops and businesses was electric.  On championship Saturday it was a full SNHU gym of red and blue and the fans, well let’s just  say they were into it.The actual game was wire to wire filled with huge moments: long 3s from Brooke Beaudet, a clutch Maddie Harris steal in the final minute, Cassidy Bartlett assisting on a Jordan Dean game-winning backdoor cut, and Stevie Orton’s game-sealing free throws in the final seconds. When the final horn sounded we had managed to squeeze out a (42-38) win and complete the undefeated journey. It was a perfect ending to a perfect season for a perfect group of young ladies.”  

Cassidy Bartlett, player, Gilford, 2016 Division III girls champs – “I can still feel the overwhelming sense of emotion that came with the final buzzer,” said via email.  “Years of memories, practice, competition and passion culminating into a picture-perfect ending. There is nothing like celebrating a championship.  It’s not just for the team or Gilford High School – it’s for an entire community.  It hangs as a banner; a piece of history that serves as a symbol of legacy for those who come next.  At the core of our accomplishment was the culture of the team.  We grew up learning the game together, and we inspired each other to be the best versions of ourselves.  Most importantly, we were devoted to the same mission: ‘Take care of the little things and the big thing will take care of itself.’’’

Trevor Howard, player/coach, Littleton, Class M/Division IV boys champs 1990, 2016, 2020 – Howard is part of a small N.H. fraternity to have played for and coached for a high school state champion. Here are a couple quick thoughts from the current Crusaders’ coach: “The last four boys’ state championships 1971, 1990, 2016, 2020 were all undefeated. Littleton hasn’t won a state championship in 50 years with a loss on their record. So I guess it’s either undefeated or nothing.  I’ve been lucky and blessed to be involved in nine state championship games, one as a player, one as an assistant coach, and seven as a head coach.” A huge moment for Howard was Ethan Ellingwood’s game-winning shot with 10 seconds to play in the 2016 championship game against Portsmouth Christian that broke a 36-all tie and won it for the Crusaders. “Best memory and biggest shot in LHS basketball history,” said Howard, who captured his first title as a coach.

Jay Darrah, coach, Pittsfield, 2018 Division IV boys champs – Two indelible memories for coach Darrah as Pittsfield won its first hoop state title, beating Newmarket, 43-40. The first: “As a coach, having some of the members of the 1981 and 1990 (runner-up) teams handing over their runner-up medals post game and thanking us for finishing the job that they wanted so badly. Thanking us for bringing a state championship to Pittsfield for the first time.” Secondly: “As a father who had the pleasure of coaching my son and his closest friends through this memorable season, I will never forget the post-game medal ceremony. Placing medals around the boys’ necks in front of our community will be one of my favorite moments.  The 2018 season was my 17th season coaching the Panthers.  We had a handful of semifinal appearances, but never managed to make it to the finals.  But that didn’t stop my son Cam and I from attending every championship game as he grew older.  He always promised me that someday he would get me that championship medal. Well the last player to be presented a medal that day was my son Cameron.  After I placed the medal around his neck, Cam immediately took the medal from his neck and placed it around mine and gave me a hug and said, ‘Here is the medal I have been promising you.’”

Jeff Holmes, coach, Exeter, 2019 D-I boys champs – A few things jump out for Holmes who won his first coaching championship with a 53-30 win over Salem, completing an undefeated season. “We jumped out 7-0, hitting our first three shots,” he said. “That was huge.” To begin the fourth quarter, Salem got a technical with the game still close in the 7-8-9 range. That started a run to allow the Blue Hawks to pull away. As Exeter pulled away, Holmes got to soak in the championship moment in the final minutes. “It was going our way, so I’ve got to take it in, winning the title, which was pretty cool,” he said.

Epping • 2019 Division IV State Champions

Nick Fiset, coach, Epping, 2019 D-IV boys champs – “I remember thinking all week during practice the championship game would fly by, but (remember) during the game feeling like the clock never moved and it was taking forever,” Fiset recalled. “ I called a timeout after Hunter Bullock scored an incredible basket and said to him while he was walking over ‘Keep it going, only a little bit left.’  He replied like he always did, ‘Coach, I can do this all night.’  All I could think to myself was, ‘He sure can.’”

John Fisher, coach, Bishop Guertin, 2021 Division I boys champs – “While I have many fond memories of our championship game – 42-35 win over Winnacunnet – one that stands out was the elation on the faces of the senior players on that team after the final buzzer when they ran onto the floor,” Fisher wrote via email. “A close second was listening to the speeches each senior player gave at the basketball banquet that occurred the next week. Each player’s speech was filled with fond memories of times spent with members of the team. It was an inspiring moment and reminded everyone in the room that having fun with your friends is ultimately what the game is about.”

Rick Acquilano, coach, Gilford, 2021 Division III boys champs – Gilford trailed in the final by as many as 13 points in the second half, but rallied to tie it at 39-all with 22 seconds to play. Hopkinton had the ball. “We needed a defensive stop,” the coach recalled. Gilford’s Riley Marsh stole the ball at mid-court and took it in for a layup to take the lead.  “The game ended with Jalen Reese blocking a shot attempt under the basket as time expired to hold on for a 41-40 victory,” Acquilano said. “Two great defensive plays to preserve the victory.”

Dave Nichols, now an assistant with the Hanover girls, has been coaching since the early 1970s when he was a volunteer assistant at his alma mater of Milford HS. He weaves a good story, and it is this one that we will leave you with, about Oyster River’s 1988 boys’ hoop championship, complete with a superb background story.

During the summer of 1987 he  coached an AAU team along with the late Jack Ford of Winnacunnet and Mike Lee of Farmington. “We had two of my Oyster River players on the team, John Freiermuth and Pat Casey,” Nichols recalled. “Mike Joslin of Lebanon was also on the team. Those three kids, the only ones from Class I, along with Mike Mucher of Farmington, who was the only Class M player, would hang out together a lot. AAU was different back then and we were allowed to pick kind of an all-star team from N.H. so the rest of the team was Class L kids. On one trip I had those four kids in the car with me and the subject of the coming high school season came up. Mike Joslin claimed that they, Lebanon, were loaded and going ‘all the way’. Slowly I responded to the delight of the other three in the car.  ‘Actually, this is what’s going to happen, Mike. You guys will have a great season, probably go undefeated because you have an easy schedule. The three other top teams will be Goffstown, Merrimack Valley (Scott Drapeau was an incredible freshman) and Oyster River. Those three teams will play each other twice and will probably split the wins.” The other three players were now chiming in and giving Joslin, who we all liked a lot, a hard time about their ‘soft’ schedule. I went on. ‘The four of us will get to the semifinals and you’ll have to beat two of us to win it all. That won’t happen. You might beat one of us in the semis but whoever is left will shock you in the finals because you will have faced zone teams all year and you’re not quick enough to play man against any of us. Hopefully it will be us in the finals, right guys?” nodding to Pat and John. “And if it is, you won’t be able to bring the ball up alone against our man press all night.

If it’s us, playing on our ‘second home court’ where we practice all the time (admittedly a huge exaggeration) you’ll have had your third long drive down in a week while we have a five-minute bus ride, we’ll wear down your tired butts and send you back for a long, lonely ride home.’ The other three all joined in with a chorus of agreement while I smiled.

Pretty much the best prediction I have ever made. It was a long hard season for us but somehow we were ranked No. 2 with MV third and Goffstown fourth. Lebanon did get by Goffstown while we pulled out a close, hard-fought win over Merrimack Valley. 

In the locker room at UNH someone came by to wish us luck and said there were a bunch of limousines in front of UNH to drive the players and coaches back to Lebanon. We never knew if that was true or not, but certainly used it as motivation. Lang Metcalf was a great coach and a lot of insiders thought this was going to be his crowning achievement to a storied career. Lang admitted to me later that he knew they were in for a battle. Joslin played well, but we did wear him down and Freiermuth was deservedly the player of the year. We led the whole way and the game was not really as close as expected, 65-51. Oyster River’s first-ever Class I championship.

If you have championship memories of your own that you’d like to share, please email those to kj@ball603.com by March 15 and we’ll post those as well.

Amid shortage, women coaches thrive in Division IV

By Mike Whaley

Wednesday was a big evening for high school girls’ basketball coaches in New Hampshire. Three of the four coaches in the NHIAA Division IV semifinals were women, which is something to celebrate in a state where women are vastly under-represented in that profession.

No. 3 Derryfield held off No. 2 Pittsburg-Canaan in overtime in the first semifinal at Newfound High School, 47-40, while unbeaten No. 1 seed Concord Christian dispatched No. 4 Woodsville, 64-44, in the second game.

Concord Christian Head Coach Rebecca Carlile.

Rebecca Carlile’s CCA squad will meet Courtney Cheetham’s Derryfield five in the championship Sunday at Keene State College at 1 p.m. – a rarity in N.H. for two women coaches to face off in a basketball championship game.

The third female coach in Wednesday’s mix was Woodsville’s Tori Clough, who, at 24, is one of the youngest coaches in the state.

Farmington coach Dawn Weeks was excited about the semis with three women patrolling the sidelines. “Being one of few, it drives us to work that much harder,” she said.

Of New Hampshire’s 85 varsity high school girls’ basketball head coaching positions, only 17 – or 20 percent – are held by women. In Maine, the percentage is 28.

Newmarket Head Coach Meghan Averill.

Cheetham was ecstatic about the opportunity to coach against other women, especially in the tournament. “I just coached against (Newmarket’s) Meghan Averill,” she said of her team’s quarterfinal win over the Mules. “She’s my coach of the year in Division IV. She’s another female who is right there. She’s great.”

She added,” I think it’s really good for girls’ sports. … It’s good to see a decent amount of female coaches in the south.” Of the 17 women’s varsity hoop coaches in the state, seven are in D-IV, five in D-III, three in D-II and two in D-I.

“I think it’s good for kids to see some role-modeling,” Cheetham said. 

Woodsville Head Coach Tori Clough.

Clough, in her first year as a head coach, knew it would be a challenge against Concord Christian. “Rebecca Carlile has done such a great job with her team,” she said. “If we can just hang with them, that would be a successful first year in my book.

“Rebecca, Courtney, Meghan Averill from Newmarket, I look up to all of them,” said Clough, a 2016 Woodsville grad. “They have such great teams and they do such a nice job with them.”

“I think it’s amazing,” Carlile said. “I think it’s great. Anytime you see women being empowered to use their gifts and talents, what she’s passionate about. … I love to see women doing what they’re doing and not feeling like they can’t do it because it’s a men’s job.

“I also think it’s a great opportunity for the girls to see women doing something that they are passionate about, that they’re knowledgeable about, and they’re willing to instill what they know on a younger generation.”

SMALL FRATERNITY, BIG CHALLENGES

But the fact remains that women make up a small part of New Hampshire’s basketball coaching landscape.

Why is that? Are women not applying? Are they not being considered or even encouraged? Does the climate turn them off? Is it more difficult for women to coach in an environment stocked with so many men? There is a lot of speculation. 

Although armed with no specific answers, Dover High School Athletic Director Peter Wotton did note that the New Hampshire Athletic Directors Association (NHADA) will be dealing with similar subjects at its spring conference in May. “We’ll be looking at gender equity, Title IX and how to increase participation in females in sports,” he said. “We didn’t specifically mention basketball, but it is something we are going to be talking about as a group at our conference. It is something we do recognize in general.”

That being said, the position of athletic director in the state is another that is held mostly by men. Of the 88 high schools in the state, 12 have women ADs.

Speaking for Dover, Wotton said a woman has not been a head hoop coach at the school since he’s been there, which dates back to the mid 1990s. “I’m trying to think back,” he said. “We’ve had maybe a couple applicants. But only one good one, one that was close (to getting hired).”

Wotton said there is a common misconception from the general public that schools are receiving dozens of applicants for coaching positions. “If we get five, six, seven, eight, it’s oh my god, I can’t believe we have this many,” he said. “This is great.”

The opposite, however, is usually the case. “We’ve had head positions of significant sports that we got one or two,” Wotton said. “We’ve had one before.”

Dover is currently advertising for a new head girls’ basketball coach. 

New Hampshire Basketball Coaches Organization President Dave Chase agreed with that assessment. “The first thing I would say: it’s hard to get male coaches,” he said. “Times have changed. It’s a bigger commitment. I don’t think anyone is saying they don’t want to hire a female to coach basketball. There are so few women that are getting into it. I really don’t know why.”

It is a topic, however, that Chase intends to put on the agenda for the next NHBCO meeting on March 12.

He also pointed out that the NHBCO right now just has Averill (treasurer) as one of its four officers. The organization is currently looking for a vice president and secretary. “We’re begging,” he said. “It’s tough to get women to do it if there’s not a lot of women coaching.”

Derryfield Head Coach Courtney Cheetham (center).

Cheetham did note that before Derryfield, where she is in her second year as the head coach, she was the head coach at D-I Merrimack for six years. She had some pretty good success there, and was named coach of the year in her final season (2017-18).

She took a year off from coaching, but then put her name back out there in 2019. “I applied for other jobs the next year and I didn’t get them, which is funny to me,” she said.

Now she’s happy she didn’t get any of those jobs because she enjoys coaching at Derryfield so much, where she is also the Director of Wellness.

Certainly another reason that is universal is that some women want to have families. Carlile falls under that category. A 1994 graduate of Alvirne High School, she played basketball at Southern Nazarene University in the mid to late 1990s (two-time NAIA national champs). Coaching basketball wasn’t even on her radar until she was approaching 40.

Even then it came more out of necessity than anything else.

She was watching her son and then daughter play youth basketball, and not enjoying the experience. She finally decided she could bring more to the table with her past expertise to help out the well-meaning, but less knowledgeable volunteer coaches when her daughter was in third grade.  “It got to the point where I’ve just got to help here,” Carlile said.

Eventually that evolved into coaching CCA’s middle school team for two years, and then she was approached to coach the high school team three years ago. “It’s not like people are banging down doors to get coaching positions,” she said.

That coincided with a rejuvenation of sports at CCA. The school had built a new athletic facility. “There was extra energy,” she said. “There was some extra effort focused on winning, honestly. We can win and be Christian. We can be loving and kind and still win. That’s been fun to watch the last couple of years.”

As much as her first year as a head coach has been a great experience for Clough, it does provide insight into some of the challenges a young female coach faces.

“It was a lot,” said Clough, who played for and worked under male coaches at Woodsville. “I won’t lie. I’m coaching against the coaches I played against six, seven years ago.” 

She was able to use some of those coaches as resources like Littleton’s Dale Prior and Groveton’s Tim Haskins. “It was fun to have them as mentors this year,” Clough said. “They’ve kind of helped me along; given me some tips. It’s nice when you can look up to those coaches.”

Clough felt it was a good change for Woodsville having a young woman coach. “I know the kids appreciate having a female role model now,” she said. “It feels different as a young female coach. You look around and it’s all the typical middle-aged males.”

Clough is a patched basketball official in Vermont, and there are very few women officials in that state. The case is the same in N.H.

“It’s daunting to be a young female trying to do anything right now,” she said. “It’s nice to have the men to support me and it’s nice that they do. But I wish that I would see more females.”

Clough recalls it was a battle when she first started as the head coach. “I don’t think people trust you as much as they would a middle-aged male,” she said. “We definitely have to earn people’s respect much more than a middle-aged male would. I know that sounds crazy, but it’s true.

“I see that in officiating and I see it in coaching, too,” Clough said. “I step onto the floor to officiate and (she gets the look) – ‘it seems like she looks really young.’ I do just as good a job as a 50-year-old man.”

Along the same lines, Cheetham found it funny when she began coaching at the Division IV level. She was learning who some of the referees were. “Ninety-five percent of the time everybody would walk over to my assistant (a man) and introduce themselves,” she said. “They thought he was the head coach. And every time he’d point to me – ‘She’s the coach.’ There’s this assumption that he was the coach. Why him?”

She added, “This is no knock on referees because I’m a patched referee myself,” she said. “I’ve got a lot of respect for referees.”

“It’s tough that we have to earn that respect, to earn people’s trust to have faith in us, when we do just as good a job,” Clough said. “I think that keeps a lot of females from hanging around. We have to work extra hard for something that a man doesn’t have to” because of who they are.”

Even now, Clough isn’t sure what future coaching path she will take. She’s also involved with high school soccer, and feels she could pursue that with or instead of basketball.

Farmington Head Coach Dawn Weeks.

Weeks sees challenges in regards to a few of the male coaches she deals with, although most of her relationships are very good. However, there are a few men who won’t shake her hand or share scouting information. She recalls, as well, trying fervently to get a timeout in a game and could not get a male official’s attention. She was only awarded the timeout when her male counterpart finally was able to catch the official’s eye.

Another important advantage for Clough is her flexibility as a teacher. She teaches third grade at nearby Monroe Consolidated School. That allows her to get to practice and games without impacting her job, something that cannot be said for those who do not work in education.

Ditto for Cheetham and Pinkerton Academy’s Lani Buskey, who work in the school systems where they coach. Carlile has maintained her coaching flexibility working part-time for her family’s business.

“My players have more of a comfortable friendship personally with me,” Clough said. “They’ll share things with me that I say ‘Would you have shared that with a male coach?’ They tell stories. They’re so comfortable and relaxed. I haven’t seen that in the past when there was a male coach. They take advice from me, whether it’s coaching or life advice. It’s kind of nice to think I could be a role model for them.”

WOMEN COACHES EMPOWERING GIRLS

Buskey is one of two D-I coaches, recently leading her team to the D-I semifinals. She was named D-I Coach of the year for the third time.

A 1998 graduate of Pinkerton, Buskey played basketball for the Astros. She has taught English and coached basketball at the Derry school for the past 19 years. This was her ninth season as the varsity coach.

She has no answers as to why there are so few women’s hoop coaches in the state. “Knowing that there are not a lot of us, I take the role very seriously because I know I’m one of few,” Buskey said. “For me, understanding that representation matters in all forms, I really try to be the kind of leader that girls can look at and see themselves doing that. They can see a strong female in a leadership role doing it correctly, holding the whole program accountable and being successful at it. I think that’s important for girls.”

It’s an important point that the other coaches agree with.

“My theme in life, whether coaching or not, is to help people get to their potential or help them maximize their potential,” Cheetham said. “That’s my life coaching mentality. I always like to find that everybody is awesome.”

While Cheetham feels it’s important to expose kids to different voices whether they’re male or female, she is convinced that having strong, passionate female coaches are necessary role models to help impact the future of young women. “I do believe there is a role-modeling component,” she said. “And me being a female I might have the opportunity to do what someone who is male couldn’t.”

Weeks expanded on her take on accountability. A 1991 graduate of Farmington High School, where she was a player, she has been a girls’ head hoop for 10 years, the last nine at Farmington. “We have these ‘Come-to-Jesus’ moments when we sit at center court if I’m aggravated about something,” she said. “I don’t sugar coat anything. That’s not real life. Is it the teacher’s fault that you failed the exam? That’s not the teacher’s fault. It’s about accountability and ownership. It’s about realizing in real life that you’re going to have to work harder than everybody else. You can’t make excuses. And start now. Put on your big girl pants and own it.”

Weeks goes on to say, “I do want to be a good role model. I kind of lead by example and send the right message empowering them: don’t set limits on yourself. You can do anything you want to do.”

Shared experience is at the top of the list. As ex-players and as women, some women coaches feel they can offer insight because they went through some of the same stuff.

“I can say, ‘I’ve been here and here is how I handled it,’” Buskey said. “‘This is how you could approach it if you wanted to.’ I do think that’s the advantage of a female coaching another female. It makes communication or our delivery of things a small advantage over our male counterparts because I’ve been there before. I’ve walked in their shoes.”

“So much about teaching and coaching is about your own personal experience,” said Cheetham, 37, who played at Trinity High School. “Good or bad, I can relate to what it’s like to be a female athlete more than a man can. … I know what it’s like to be in their shoes. That’s a valuable perspective to have people who have similar experiences they can share.”

Carlile has a different take on a similar theme. “For me, I didn’t handle them well,” she said of some of her decisions made when she was younger. “I was facing it and here’s how I wished I handled it. Kids are kids. They don’t know. You do the best to help them and work them through the issues. I’m sure that perspective definitely affects my coaching.”

As for being a good coach for female athletes, Cheetham feels it is key to “understand how each of them ticks as individuals. It’s very different from coaching male athletes. Coaching female athletes you have to really understand each kid as an individual and how they want to be coached and how you can get the most out of them. I think that’s where I would have the slightest advantage as a female just trying to understand that.”

Carlile says that “Psychology 101” is her biggest coaching asset. “Getting kids to work hard for you and want to work for a common goal is as valuable as knowing Xs and Os on the basketball court,” she said. 

Carlile feels that coaches who focus on Xs and Os and drill their kids to improve their skill and win games ultimately get unhappy kids who don’t want to play for them. “That’s an aspect of coaching that I love,” she said. “Trying to figure out how to get these kids to want to work together and want to work hard for you. I don’t know that every coach is even aware that’s a big aspect of the game. I think it is.”

 Part of the job can also be forging a path for the next generation of women coaches.

One of Cheetham’s former players at Merrimack, Abby Yuan, fits in that category. A solid player and good leader in high school, she has a scholarship at St. John’s University as a basketball manager. Yuan is graduating this spring and plans to pursue a career in coaching. Cheetham said Yuan will apply for different graduate assistant jobs at the Division I college level.

“She’s a great example of a kid who came up, wasn’t the best player, but was able to understand the value of female leadership and empowerment seen around her and then take it in,” Cheetham said.

Buskey talks about a former player, Ashley Hugh, who is one of her assistants. “She’s a sponge,” the coach said. “She’s constantly trying to take in our culture and how we approach things. I work really hard to build relationships with my girls. She’s also working to find a way to do that.”

Another woman who played at Pinkerton when Buskey was an assistant, Laura Pierce, is now the head women’s coach at Fitchburg State University. “I was around for her,” Buskey said. “She coaches at the college level and she used to work at my camps. She’s a fantastic coach. Coming back to some of those camps along the way helped her hone in on some of the advantages you can have to be a strong female coaching a female program.”

“For me, the mission is let’s play good basketball and let’s make you really great basketball players,” Buskey said. “So let’s make you even stronger, confident women to go out in the world and change it.”

In New Hampshire, the fraternity of women coaching girls’ basketball remains small but, for the most part, committed to their craft and the empowerment of their girls.

For feedback or story ideas, email jamsession@ball603.com.

Woodsville engineering a return to hoop greatness

By Mike Whaley

When Woodsville won the 2021 Division IV high state school boys basketball championship, it removed the proverbial monkey off its back. The Engineers celebrated their first hoop title in 44 years, dating back to the 1970s when legendary coach John Bagonzi prowled the sidelines.

It’s been a long journey back to the top for the little New Hampshire border school. For the uninitiated, the village of Woodsville (1,400 pop.) is located 40 minutes north of Hanover, N.H. It partially sits on the banks of the Connecticut River, the state’s natural border with Vermont, just across the Veterans Memorial Bridge from its neighbors in Wells River, Vt.

Legendary Woodsville coach John Bagonzi, right, is pictured here in the early 1970s conferring with his team during a tournament game in Durham. Bagonzi, who died in 2014, guided Woodsville basketball teams to five Class M state titles from 1969 to 1977. [Courtesy photo]

With four returning starters, Woodsville is looking to defend that title this winter. The top-seeded Engineers carry a perfect 18-0 record into the D-IV state tournament as the lone unbeaten boys’ team in the state. They will host No. 16 Hinsdale Monday night in the first round of the tournament, which culminates March 11 with the championship game at Keene State College.

With the exception of wins over their Vermont neighbor at Blue Mountain Union by 8 and 19 points, the Engineers have beaten every single one of their N.H. opponents by at least 21 points. They have outscored the opposition by an average of 69 to 33 in 18 games. Only twice in those 18 games has an opponent managed to score more than 50 points, and only seven times 40 or more.

Under Woodsville alum Jamie Walker’s guidance, the Engineers have been a consistent playoff participant in D-IV since the early part of the century. However, until last winter, Woodsville had been unable to collect the big prize, taking a backseat behind other North Country programs like Colebrook, Groveton, Lisbon and Littleton.

ENGINEERS FINALLY BREAK THROUGH

Woodsville coach Jamie Walker cradles some of the spoils of the Engineers’ historic 2021 state championship win. [Arinn Roy photo]

Walker knew he had something coming into last season, but not necessarily a championship caliber squad. “I thought we would be competitive,” Walker said. “We had done all right the previous year. By no means did I think we’d win it all. But I thought we had a chance to be really good.”

With a team made up of freshmen, sophomores and juniors, the Engineers did just fine in 2020. But things ended badly in the quarterfinals at Newmarket, a 63-26 pasting.

That loss left a bad taste in everyone’s mouth.

Woodsville’s Cam Tenney-Burt drives to the basket during the 2021 D-IV semifinals against Groveton. [Arinn Roy photo]

“I was really frustrated after my sophomore year,” said senior forward Elijah Flocke. “I felt like we had a good team with Cam Tenney-Burt coming in (a transfer from Lisbon). I felt like we could have gone further. Newmarket was a really good team. It was a wakeup call that there were bigger fish in the water. Coming into my junior year, I wanted to be that big fish.”

“We were unhappy with the year before, so we just wanted to come out and prove a point that we were one of the better teams,” said junior forward Cam Davidson.

Walker shakes his head about the Newmarket game. “I never told the kids this, but it was just men playing against boys,” he said. “We were sophomores and juniors playing against really rugged juniors and seniors. We couldn’t get a rebound, and they couldn’t shove us out of the way fast enough to grab another one.”

Although Walker’s son Brendan transferred to Kimball Union Academy in Meriden, N.H, to focus on baseball (he’s been recruited as a pitcher by NCAA Division I Stetson University in Deland, Florida), Woodsville returned most of its lineup intact.

Four of the primary players were talented underclassmen (three juniors and a sophomore). The one senior was indispensable point guard Corey Bemis. “At the end of games he was the one we put the ball in his hands,” Walker said. “He was the one getting us to that set or situation that the basket was made. He was the kind of kid every championship team needs. He does all the stuff that’s not noticed or isn’t in the scorebook. You know, without him on the floor, you’re in a lot of trouble.”

Woodsville forward Elijah Flocke, right, is pictured earlier this season during a game against Profile. [Arinn Roy photo]

The Engineers opened with an 84-48 win over Colebrook, the first of three straight wins, before they hit a road bump. They lost three of their next four, but two were against bigger schools (D-III White Mountains and D-II Kennett). There was a feeling that even though they lost to Kennett by six on Feb. 10, 2021, that was a turning point.

“After we played Kennett, I felt like we could contend with anybody in Division IV,” Flocke said.

Woodsville has not lost a game since. They won their final four of the regular season, collected five wins in the tournament and 18 this year to run their current streak to 27 – and counting. It’s the longest active boys’ streak in the state.

Woodsville guard Mike Maccini, right, twists to the basket during the 2021 D-IV quarterfinals at Concord Christian Academy. [Arinn Roy photo]

In the 2021 tournament, Woodsville (13-3) rolled through the first two rounds over Lin-Wood, 54-34, and Lisbon, 49-18. Flocke’s 22 points paced the Lin-Wood victory, while Mike Maccini and Tenney-Burt split 24 points vs. Lisbon.

Walker points to the 48-42 quarterfinal win at Concord Christian Academy as a critical moment in that run. “When you win a championship there’s one game that could have gone the other way,” Walker said. “That was definitely the game.”

Woodsville played nervously at the start. “We had never seen Concord Christian,” Walker said. “We knew they were big, but we didn’t know how big. They were 6-6, 6-4, 6-3. They were just big people.”

Indeed, the Engineers found themselves down 22-8 in the first quarter. Davidson was sitting next to Walker in foul trouble, and to make matters worse, Tenney-Burt rolled his ankle and had to leave the game for a short period.

It wasn’t looking good.

“I looked at my assistant,” Walker recalled. “‘I’ve got to put Davidson back in. It doesn’t matter if we sit him until halftime if we’re down 35-10. That’s not really going to help us.’”

Woodsville forward Cam Davidson (34) goes up for two points against Moultonborough earlier this season. [Arinn Roy photo]

The gamble paid off. Davidson sparked a 19-4 run that put Woodsville up 27-26 at the break. They widened the lead to 39-30 after three. In the fourth, CCA cut the lead to four, but Maccini hit a big 3-pointer and drained some clutch free throws to help secure the six-point win. Maccini, Davidson and Tenney-Burt each had 12 points.

Next up in the semis at Plymouth Regional High School was Groveton, the most successful team in the history of Division IV basketball with 10 state titles. Normally, the Engineers would have played Groveton during the regular season, but because of covid, they did not play some of the North Country schools, including the Eagles.

“Groveton and (coach) Mark Collins, nobody likes playing him in a semifinal or championship game,” Walker said. “He usually finds a way to win. It was good to get over that hump. It was good that we hadn’t played them. They didn’t know us.”

Of course, Woodsville had its predictable slow start, as had been the case in the previous three playoff games. They only scored three points to trail 8-3 after eight minutes.

“We didn’t score in the first four or five minutes of the game,” recalled Walker. “Kids were dribbling off their feet. One ball was eight feet over someone else’s head. We were just nervous.”

Walker called timeout, telling the Engineers to relax. “It’s just a basketball game,” he said. “Maybe a little more at stake here. Just settle down.”

Groveton presses all the time, that’s what they do. One thing Walker noticed was that Woodsville was breaking the press, but stopped at halfcourt and let all five of Groveton guys get back on defense, instead of exploiting a 2-on-1 or 3-on-2 advantage.

“In the timeout I said ‘you’re getting by the first four guys,’” said Walker, who played his starting five the whole game without subs. “‘Why are we stopping and letting them get back? Attack the one or two guys that are back’ We started doing that and we started scoring.”

Led by the two Cams (20 points each), they responded in the second quarter with a big surge to go ahead 25-16 at the half, and were able to maintain a cushion the rest of the way en route to a 56-50 victory.

“That game was just a big hump for us,” Davidson said. “So getting over that was a realization factor that we could make some history.”

Standing in the way of that first title since 1977 was Portsmouth Christian Academy, a southern team from the Dover area. PCA had never won a boys basketball championship, so it was chasing some history of its own.

Unlike the previous four playoff games, the Engineers actually started fast, going up 13-6 after the first quarter. But Flocke and Davidson each picked up their second foul and had to sit the entire second quarter.

“I didn’t know how long I was going to sit them,” Walker said. “The score was 19-17 (PCA) at the half. There was no sense of urgency of them pulling away from us to put those guys back in to try and keep it close. I didn’t have to gamble on their third foul being picked up.”

The two were reinserted in the lineup to start the second half. Woodsville immediately went on a run, and their defense locked down PCA. They regained the lead to go ahead 29-21 after three quarters, holding PCA to two points.

That carried over to the fourth quarter where their lead eventually expanded to 25 points before they finished off the 52-30 championship win. Flocke and Tenney-Burt had 15 points each, while Davidson added 14.

Woodsville was in a state of championship euphoria. 

“It was pretty crazy,” said Mike Maccini, a senior point guard. “The bus ride back from Plymouth to Woodsville wasn’t very long, but it’s a long, flat stretch. There were definitely fireworks. There was a pretty long parade. There was a really special feeling back in town.”

Walker laughs as he recalls some of those championship moments. “It’s kind of funny, my first assistant coach before Rob Maccini was Bill Grimes,” he said. “Bill Grimes was a player on the last (championship) team in 1977.”

Grimes coached with Walker through the 2019-20 season, but moved to Florida before last season or he would have been an assistant on the championship team. “He would have been on both ends,” Walker said. “One as a player. One as an assistant coach.”

Grimes followed the Engineers in Fort Myers, Fla. He works at a golf course and actually had the semifinal and championship game streaming on the course’s pub TV. “He coached everybody on that team,” Walker said. “He’s been a part of them as freshmen and sophomores.”

Speaking of connections, the Maccinis are related to the Bagonzis. Rob Maccini is a second cousin of the great coach, while his son, Mike, and nephew, Derek (assistant coach), are third cousins. Rob’s grandfather and coach Bagonzi’s mother were brother and sister. 

“Early this year I was coaching a JV game in Gorham and some old timer came up to me and said, ‘You must be a Bagonzi?’’ wrote Rob Maccini via email. “I bet I have had that happen at least five times over my coaching career. I always get a kick out of it.”

THE LEGEND OF BAGONZI AND THE RISE OF WALKER

Any discussion of Woodsville sports is incomplete if the late Dr. John Bagonzi is not mentioned at some point and, to be honest, at length.

Bagonzi’s stature in Woodsville and, indeed, New Hampshire, is legendary. A native of the town, he starred on Woodsville HS teams in the late 1940s in multiple sports, teaming with lifelong friend Bob Smith to give the Engineers an imposing 1-2 pitching punch in baseball.

Both later signed professional contracts with the Boston Red Sox – Smith in 1948 and Bagonzi in 1953. Smith lasted 17 years in the pro ranks (1948 to 1964), including five seasons in the bigs with the Red Sox, Cardinals, Pirates and Tigers.

Bagonzi first went to the University of New Hampshire upon graduation from Woodsville where he starred in both baseball and basketball. While at UNH, he was considered to be the top collegiate pitching prospect in New England. Although signed by the Sox in ‘53 and assigned to the organization’s AAA affiliate in San Francisco, military service interrupted his baseball career. Bagonzi served two years in the U.S. Army as a commissioned officer.

He returned to baseball in 1956, briefly pitching for the Red Sox organization before arm trouble ended that dream after eight games.

With a Master’s degree from Indiana University and pursuing his Ph.D, Bagonzi returned to Woodsville where he went on to exert his remarkable influence as a high school coach and educator for more than a quarter of a century.

Bagonzi coached multiple sports, but his most significant impact came in baseball and basketball where he guided Woodsville teams to 12 state titles – seven in baseball and five in basketball.

Of particular note, 10 of those championships came during the span from 1968 to 1977 in Class M (Division III). On four occasions, Woodsville won the “Daily Double” – basketball and baseball championships in the same school year.

Two of his baseball pitchers – Steve Blood (1971) and Jim MacDonald (1977) – were drafted by major league teams. Blood pitched five years in the Minnesota Twins organization, while MacDonald threw for seven seasons with various Houston Astros farm clubs. Bagonzi also instructed Chad Paronto, a 1993 Woodsville HS grad and son of a former player, Dana Paronto, who at one time held the NHIAA Class M hoop tournament record for most points in a championship game (34, 1971). Chad pitched seven years in the majors with four teams, enjoying his best seasons with the Atlanta Braves in 2006 and 2007.

In 1964, when Woodsville won the Class M baseball title over Charlestown, 3-2, the winning run was scored on a squeeze bunt in extra innings. Hits were hard to come by in that game for the Engineers, who managed just two off Charlestown’s imposing junior ace, a strapping lad whose name still resonates across the state – Carlton Fisk.

Bagonzi won 361 games as a basketball coach and recorded 261 wins in baseball. He has been inducted into multiple halls of fame. In 1991, the year he retired from teaching, the community building in Woodsville was renamed in his honor – the John A. Bagonzi Community Building.

In 2001, Bagonzi wrote “The Act of Pitching” – a definitive study on what it takes to become an accomplished pitcher. Hall of Famer Bob Feller called it “The best book on pitching that I have ever read.” It was reprinted with updates in 2006.

Although coach Walker never played for Bagonzi, he knew of him and can recall as a kid growing up in Woodsville going to games coached by Bagonzi. In fact, the Bagonzis were neighbors of the Walkers, and later in life Bagonzi and his wife, Dreamer, wintered in central Florida. For a number of years, they would spend a week with Walker’s parents enjoying Red Sox spring training games in Fort Myers, Fla.

Walker himself played for the Engineers in the 1980s, graduating in 1988 as the school’s second player to reach 1,000 points.

He attended Boston University, graduating with a degree in Human Movement (essentially physical education). He eventually came back to Woodsville and then athletic director Mike Ackerman asked him if he had any interest in coaching JV boys basketball. Walker said yes.

It was 1998. The following year the varsity coach left for a position a little farther north at Profile HS in Bethlehem. Walker was hired as the varsity coach.

He had no long-term goals or aspirations. “I kind of took it year by year,” he recalled. 

In the first five years he remembers three of those years being pretty bad – one win, two wins, no wins.

Current Woodsville basketball coach Jamie Walker, center, is pictured during his playing days for the Engineers, circa 1988. [Courtesy photo]

“It was us and Belmont,” Walker said. “If we sweep the series we get two wins and they get zero. If we split we get one win. If they sweep the series we get zero. Those were our big games of the year. That was going to determine if we were going to win any games at all.”

At the time, Woodsville was still in Class M (D-III). Right around the end of those rough years the school moved down to Division IV and success followed. Although he was discouraged, Walker knew there were some good kids coming up. They won five games, then seven and eventually got to .500. They made the final in 2007, a 50-31 loss to Lisbon.

“As you know with any program, once you start winning, those kids who never played a game because (the team) was so bad, now want to play,” Walker said. “You start to go to Plymouth and they watch their buddies in a college gym. All of a sudden they want to play.”

Woodsville has been a constant in the tournament for the last 16 or 17 years, finally breaking through last year to win the title. This winter is Walker’s 24th with the Engineer program as a coach, 23 as their head coach.

Walker recalls interacting with Dr. Bagonzi. They both had the basketball connection at Woodsville as players and coaches, but their primary conversations centered around baseball.

Bagonzi, a respected pitching clinician, was the first person to coach Walker’s son Brendan, an aspiring pitcher, when he was younger. “He was the first one to work with him,” Walker recalled. “The second one who worked with him was a disciple of Mr. Bagonzi – Chris Lavoie.” 

Both had a lot to do with why Brendan will hopefully pitch for Stetson.

When Bagonzi was alive – he died in 2014 at 83 – he would drop by the Walker auto dealership in town. “He’d ask how the team was doing,” Walker said. Bagonzi would say, “I’m watching you” or something like that. Walker said they didn’t talk a ton of basketball.

But basketball was undeniably part of Bagonzi’s impressive resume. The five championships came in 1969, 1971, 1973, 1976 and 1977. There were also runner-up finishes in 1960, 1968 and 1975. Along with Bagonzi, names like Burrill, Blood, MacDonald, Pierson and Paronto are forever etched into Woodsville’s rich athletic lore.

The hallmark of those Bagonzi era teams was a fast-paced style. It featured withering full court pressure, which more often than not overwhelmed and demoralized the opposition. If you couldn’t figure out how to handle Woodsville’s vaunted pressure, it was pretty much guaranteed that a long and painful night was in store.

Knowing that history, it certainly made last season’s run to the title all the more compelling and satisfying.

“Growing up you heard a lot about those ‘70s’ teams coached by Mr. Bagonzi,” said Mike Maccini, a third cousin of the great coach. “They’re pretty legendary. There was definitely that 44-year (drought) hanging over us going into the tournament, especially when we got down to the final four and the championship.”

POISED TO DEFEND

Going into the 2021-22 season, Woodsville found itself cast as a favorite, something it hadn’t experienced since the Bagonzi teams of the 1970s.

“Last year there wasn’t much pressure on us,” Flocke said. “We weren’t expected to do much. This year it’s definitely different. We just have to play like we don’t have a bull’s eye on our back; play like the bull’s eye on every team we play against.”

So far, mission accomplished. The Engineers have maintained their resolve.

The Woodsville boys’ basketball team jubilantly returns home as 2021 Division IV state champions, the town’s first hoop crown since 1977. [Arinn Roy photo]

“Last season’s over,” Walker said. “Nobody cares about last season. Yeah, we’ve done well so far. The important season is coming up. We’ve got to stay focused for that. That’s what I think they do at practice. They have a long-term goal that keeps them going.”

It was good for Woodsville, in retrospect, that the one Lin-Wood game and the two Littleton games got postponed to the end. Instead of finishing their season on Feb. 15 and waiting almost two weeks for their first playoff game, the Engineers were able to stay active.

“It will give us a good idea of what we need to work on going into the playoffs,” Walker said.

The coach has worked hard to keep the team focused and not let them get too full of themselves. It’s been hard because the North Country usually has three or four top-tier teams. This year it’s Woodsville and, really, everybody else. The Engineers beat Littleton, the second best team in the north, by 24 and 21 points, respectively, in the past week.

Walker noted that the second Littleton game on Wednesday, although they won by 21, it was a five-point game in the third quarter. “It was good to have that game leading up to the playoffs,” he said. “Because you’re going to see those types of games in the playoffs.”

With its four starters back, and then a rotating trio of youngsters completing the set as the fifth starter, Woodsville is extremely good. Flocke made this concise analysis of why Woodsville is tough to play against. “We never let up,” he said. “We work hard every minute that we’re out there. One of the biggest things is that we put constant pressure on the ball. We’re always trapping, playing man to man defense as much as we can.”

Tenney-Burt is a bonafide scorer. In late January, he scored his 1,000th career point during a game at Colebrook. His numbers include his freshman year at Lisbon.

“He can shoot,” Walker said. “He can take it to the basket. He’s not just a jump shooter. He may have started that way his sophomore year, but now the last couple of years he’s been more active about taking the ball to the basket, scoring in different ways, instead of just relying on the outside shot.”

Davidson is the Engineers’ inside presence. “I think that’s something we were missing until last year,” Walker said. “I think we really started getting him in the post and getting easy baskets. We were a team that kind of relied on the outside game quite a bit. Last year he was able to get us layups and get to the foul line, get us easy buckets.”

Flocke is the team’s top defender. He always guards the best player on the other team. Walker said he has also developed his shot over the last couple of years. “He’s invaluable,” the coach said. “He is so good at both ends of the floor. He’s a worker.”

In December, Flocke missed four or five practices. “I told my assistants, ‘these practices are half what they are when you have Elijah here with his energy.’”

Maccini has done a nice job slipping into his new role as a dependable point guard. “He’s not going to hurt you,” Walker said. “He may not be the flashiest guy out there, but he makes the right decisions. He can hit open shots and play good defense. He’s a solid point guard. The key to everything is not turning it over. He doesn’t turn it over.”

Having those four back, a year older, stronger and better, has certainly elevated Woodsville’s status, not only in the north, but in the state.

“When you lose one player and you won it last year, you’ve got to win it again?” Walker said. “We told the kids obviously when you win it there’s a target on your back. There’s some good teams in the south that some people think are as good if not better than us. A lot of people think Concord Christian is better than us.”

Let them think that, Walker feels. “I’ll take my five and my team against those guys down there and see how we do.”

The other three who share minutes at the fifth spot as well as providing valuable minutes off the bench to spell the other four starters are freshmen Landon Kingsbury and Connor Newcomb, and sophomore Jack Boudreault. “They’re three kind of different players,” Walker said. “It all depends on what the other team is doing. … We use what the other team is doing to determine how we rotate those three. We mix and match with what we need at the time.”

The south does have some top-notch teams. Along with No. 2 Concord Christian (17-1), No. 3 Epping (14-4), No. 5 Portsmouth Christian (14-4), No. 6 Holy Family (14-4) and No. 7 Derryfield (12-6) have all been very solid.

“Is the talent in the south?” Walker asked. “It may well be. We’ll find out when the playoffs start.”

Truth.

RIM NOTES. Going into this week, Tenney-Burt was leading the Engineers in scoring (18.8 ppg). He is followed by Flocke (11.7), Davidson (8.7), Kingsbury (7.8) and Maccini (6.0). … Dr. Bagonzi coached Woodsville to 13 state titles in all. His last came in 1988 in girls cross country. … Since then and before last year, the Engineers have had some success in other sports. The girls soccer squads won back-to-back crowns in Class M-S in 1993 and 1994. Boys soccer hit pay dirt in Class S in 2004 and 2005, and softball is the most recent to capture titles in Class S (2010, 2013) as well as last spring. … Carlton Fisk is mentioned above for baseball, but he loved basketball and was quite good at it. In fact, he still holds a Class M (Division III) tournament record for field goals in a single game with 19 (drained in 1965 semis) that he shares with Woodsville’s Stephen Elliott, who hit the same number in 1964. Elliott also shares the tourney mark for most points in a game (45) with Farmington’s Tim Lee.

For feedback or story ideas, email jamsession@ball603.com.

Holmes court advantage: Passion and consistency

By Mike Whaley

EXETER – Jeff Holmes’ enthusiasm for basketball, which spans 50-plus years, shows no signs of diminishing.

“I’ve always been passionate about basketball,” said Holmes, who recently completed his 25th year as the head coach of the boys team at Exeter High School and his 34th overall. “I played a lot when I was a kid. I really enjoyed the sport. I’ll watch it on a Saturday or go to a game and drive my wife nuts with basketball. I like it.”

Holmes has enjoyed a pretty good run. After playing three years at the University of Maine in Orono, in the late 1980s, his first coaching stop in northern Maine at Caribou High School yielded seven playoff appearances in nine years. In his 25 years in Exeter the Blue Hawks have made 24 Division I playoffs, winning back-to-back D-I state titles in 2019 and 2020. The 2019 team went 24-0, winning the school’s first state title in 42 years. 

His overall coaching record is 439-311.

Exeter High School went undefeated during the 2018-19 season to win the Division I state boys basketball championship under Jeff Holmes, its first title since 1977. [Courtesy photo]

After going 53-2 the previous three seasons, this past year Holmes had to completely revamp a team that lost its first six players. He did so with great success. No. 7 Exeter went 13-7 overall, beating 10th-seeded Nashua South in the first round of the D-I tournament, 67-58, before taking No. 2 Nashua North to the wire in a tightly contested 57-54 loss.

“I like to get a team to the next level,” Holmes said. “If it’s an average team, get that team to be a good team. If you’re a good team, try to get that team to be a very good team. My mindset is to try and get better every day in the gym.”

At 57, he is also one of the elder statesmen in the state’s coaching circles. Holmes remains involved outside of his own program helping to grow the sport around the state as a long-time member and past president of the New Hampshire Basketball Coaches Organization and past member of the NHIAA Basketball Committee.

Three generations of Holmes are pictured in 2012: Jeff, right, with his daughter Hillary and dad, Steve. The trio celebrates Exeter’s Division I spring track and field championship, which Hillary helped win by scoring 38 points. [Courtesy photo]

“When I first started out he was a guy I was able to talk to about the challenges of being a varsity coach,” said Jay McKenna, who recently completed his 17th year as the Winnacunnet HS head coach. “He was very helpful and he’s a guy I consider to be a very good friend.”

Holmes’ formative years in basketball date back to the early 1970s growing up in the southwest corner of the state as the son of a coach.

His dad, Steve Holmes, was the head boys hoop coach at Fall Mountain Regional High School in Langdon where he coached the team from the late 1960s until the late 1970s. His 1973 team won the Class I (Division II) state championship.

“I was always going to the gym with him,” Jeff remembers. “I got into basketball basically because of my dad.”

Steve Holmes at 85 is in his 60th year of coaching. He is a throws coach with the track and field team at Phillips Exeter Academy.

He remembers Jeff, the youngest of the three Holmes’ children, always having a real affection “for anything round. He was shooting nerf balls when he was 2 or 3 years old.”

The Holmes family lived off the beaten track on a dirt road in Westmoreland, a small town west of Keene. Steve recalls building a nice hoop on the back side of the garage and asphalting the area around the basket. “For the next 10 to 12 years (Jeff) would just go outside and shoot non-stop,” Steve said. “There was no one close by, so he had to make up all these games. He had a lot of fun doing that. He became an amazing shooter.”

Exeter coach Jeff Holmes, right, confers with Josh Morissette during the undefeated 2018-19 season. [Mike Whaley photo]

Steve, of course, got to follow his son’s evolution first hand. He even coached a Westmoreland team of fourth and fifth graders when Jeff was in fifth grade. He recalls one game vs. St. Charles of Bellows Falls, Vermont, a game Westmoreland won 31-29. Jeff scored all of his team’s points.

“That was a precursor of things to come,” Steve said.

His dad added,” I knew Jeff had a good competitive edge. When he was in third grade, he’d come up to Fall Mountain if he had a day off. He would take on some of the (high school) players in a game of HORSE. I don’t think he ever lost. He was only 9 years old.”

Jeff went on to star at Keene High School, becoming the school’s first 1,000-point scorer in the days before the 3-point shot. As a senior in 1983, the Blackbirds earned the No. 1 seed in the Class L tournament, but were upset in the quarterfinal round.

He drew plenty of college interest, including from Rick Pitino, then the coach at Boston University. Pitino, of course, is still coaching, having guided teams at both the college and pro level in a nearly 50-year career. He has two NCAA national championships under his belt.

Pitino came to the Holmes house in Westmoreland to recruit Jeff, decked out in a pinstripe suit. He walked into their house and, as Steve recalled, said,” This is the first recruiting trip I’ve ever made on a dirt road.”

Jeff accepted a scholarship to Boston University, but never played under Pitino. On the eve of the season, the coach took a position as an assistant with the New York Knicks – a season that Jeff ended up spending on the BU bench.

He transferred to Maine the following year, where he played from 1985 to 1988, serving as a captain in his senior season.

One of the highlights that Steve enjoys relates to a game with visiting Michigan State, coached by Jud Heathcoate, during Jeff’s sophomore season.

Michigan State had a 15-point lead with a couple of minutes to go, and both teams began clearing their respective benches. Jeff went in.

“Jeff took seven shots, all 3s, and drained them,” Steve recalled of Jeff’s 21 points in three minutes. “Jud didn’t know what happened. The eighth (shot) was a toilet seater – it went around the rim two or three times and bounced out.”

Michigan State reinserted its starters, but it was too late. Jeff’s heroics had ignited a late game-winning surge for Maine.

Not long after that, Jeff appeared in Sports Illustrated’s “Faces in the Crowd” section, and was also mentioned in the publication’s story on the 3-point shot changing the complexion of the game of basketball. “Jeff was a pioneer,” his dad said.

Jeff graduated from Maine in 1988. He applied for and got his first job as a physical education teacher and basketball coach in Caribou.

It was a great experience. It’s where he met his wife, Janel.

“They love basketball in Aroostook County,” he said. Caribou is located three hours north of Bangor, so it’s not a place where you can jump in the car and easily drive to a college or pro game. “They had a nice gymnasium, similar to Exeter’s now,” Jeff said. “We had great crowds. They loved hoop.”

The chance to return to New Hampshire was alluring, so when a teaching and coaching post opened in Exeter, Holmes jumped at it. “It’s worked out well for me,” he said.

“It’s been a good fit for me,” added Holmes, who also coached track and field for 29 years in Maine and N.H. “Both are very different. One is more blue collar – farm boys. Exeter is not that way.”

Holmes immediately stepped into a competitive situation his first year (1997-98). “We were really good,” he said. “We made it all the way to the state finals. We lost to (Matt) Bonner and Concord. I was fortunate. I came in and we had a quality team.”

It was a good lesson, too.

During the regular season, Exeter lost to Concord by 10, but it was a two-point game with three minutes to go. Bonner, who went on to play at Florida and then enjoyed a long career in the National Basketball Association, scored 40-plus points.

“I outsmarted myself in the finals,” laughs Holmes as his team lost to Concord, 73-44, despite holding Bonner to 17 points. “I devised some defense to double team Bonner. They still beat us by 30. They had a good team. It wasn’t just him. I won’t do that again. You don’t change what you are come tournament time.”

Holmes continued to try and get better. “I went to a lot of clinics to try to improve and learn stuff,” he said. “Sometimes I get myself doing too much. You do too much, you can overload the kids. You kind of go backwards. That old saying: “Keep it simple, stupid.”

Holmes believes he had some good years up in Maine because he kept it really simple.

“Sometimes you learn and try to incorporate more stuff,’ Holmes said. “You can put too much in and be too complicated. I’ve caught myself doing that as I’ve gotten older. … You still have your nuts and bolts, what you do offensively and defensively, and get good at that.”

Holmes said he learned a lot from his dad and Exeter’s athletic director Bill Ball, who is also the school’s football coach.

“He was a real energy guy,” Holmes said of his dad. “He loved it. He was knowledgeable as a coach. I try to incorporate those things into my coaching. Be enthusiastic. Work the kids hard.”

From Ball he learned how to run a program, including how to increase your participation numbers. “I developed that over the years,” Holmes said. “We’ve got good numbers for freshman and JV. We have a lot of competition for spots.”

One thing Holmes has gleaned over time is that you have to coach the personality of the kid, and not treat everyone the same. He has also understood the value of embracing the whole program. “In basketball, sometimes you get caught up with your three best players,” Holmes said. “I try not to do that. To run a program, you’ve got to coach the 45 kids. I’ve learned about emphasizing the program, doing things the right way, the wins will come.”

Consistency has been key. “I have the same philosophy,” Holmes said. “I coach for the program; not just the top guys.”

Holmes is not a loud coach. It’s not his style. “It’s hard to be a yeller and a screamer these days,” he said. “You’re not going to last too long. … The way I look at it I’m more of a teacher. I don’t have to yell and scream at my kids if they’re playing hard. For the most part they play really hard.”

His dad sees that as a huge strength. “He has a really good demeanor and knows how to interact with the athletes really well,” Steve said. “To this day, he’s only got one technical (foul). He’s involved with the game and very close to the kids, but not enough where it spoils the coach/athlete relationship.”

McKenna thinks consistency is what has helped Holmes to stay in the game so long at the high school level where coaching attrition runs high. “He’s even keeled, he’s good with the kids, and the kids respect him,” McKenna said. “That goes a long way. … It’s Jeff’s consistency. You know what you’re getting with Jeff. The kids understand that.”

Holmes has also been a proponent of kids playing multiple sports. When he coached track and field, he’d try to get basketball players to give it a try. “A lot of times they found a lot of success in it,” he said.

There’s been a lot of positives over the years. Holmes’ teams have done well, and he’s even had the chance to coach both of his children – Hillary in track and field and Bryant in basketball.

When the state championship teams came along, he recalls those squads being set up to some extent by the agony of defeat.

In the 2018 semifinals at UNH, No. 2 Exeter had a lead at halftime against No. 11 Dover, but somehow lost a point when the game’s two official scorekeepers inexplicably counted a 3-pointer by Cody Morissette as a two. They actually went to the locker room up nine (38-29), and when they returned it was 36-29, although the score should have been 37-29.

Exeter was not the same team in the second half. Dover was able to catch them and upset them by two points. “That really focused those guys for next year when we went undefeated,” Holmes said. “That experience can also help you.”

The 2019 state championship was Exeter’s first in 42 years. The undefeated Blue Hawks were dominant in a season where just two of their games had winning margins of under 10 points. “We had a lot of talent and the kids came to play every day for practice and games,” Holmes said. “That’s a lot of pressure when you’re the best team. The best team doesn’t always win it.”

He added, “We hadn’t won it since 1977. There was some pressure. I was feeling it a little bit from my end. It was a great relief when we did win it.”

Although there was success the two years after that, there was also frustration because of the pandemic.

Exeter ended up losing one game in 2020, sharing the D-I championship with Portsmouth when the pandemic forced the tournament to be canceled after the first round. Exeter earned a first-round bye as the top seed, but it never got the chance to play a single playoff game.

Last year, the Blue Hawks went undefeated during the shortened regular season (13-0). However, due to the tournament’s random draw format that was used they had to play rival Winnacunnet in the second round for a fourth time. Exeter had won all three meetings during the season, but the Warriors caught them in the tourney with an overtime win. Winnacunnet ended up advancing to the championship game where it fell to Bishop Guertin.

“In my opinion, we were the best and they were the second best,” Holmes said. “We just couldn’t beat them a fourth time.”

Something that refreshed Holmes’ coaching experience came along unexpectedly in 2016. His friend and former teammate at Maine, Jim Boylen, was an assistant coach at the time in the NBA with the Chicago Bulls. He asked Holmes to help out scouting games at Boston’s TD Garden.

Over a two-year span, Holmes did 8 to 10 games a year when the Bulls needed him.

It was a lot of work, but a great gig. Most of the time, Holmes had to go on a school day during his basketball season. Often he’d have practice and then head to Boston.

There were a few times when he had to turn down an assignment when it conflicted with an Exeter game.

“I didn’t tell them you’ve got to guard Stephen Curry,” Holmes said with a laugh. “I had to jot down the time and the play they ran at the time. Just chart every possession they do. I learned a lot. It was kind of an eye-opener for me.”

The seating for scouts was courtside, which made it fun to be right on top of the action. He recalls that first season enjoying the games because the Celtics had Isaiah Thomas, and he was a pleasure to watch.

“It helped me out a lot as a coach,” Holmes said. “I had to do a lot of prep work before to learn the terminology that they use, and different sets that these teams run. It was pretty cool that way, at that point in my career to get rejuvenated a little bit, learning all this new stuff.”

Holmes said some of the NBA stuff rubbed off on his coaching. “The situational stuff,” he said. “After timeouts, end-of-game coaching. I run versions of a lot of stuff I learned as far as set plays.”

It was a different experience for Holmes from when he’d go to a game to watch for fun. “When you’re scouting, you really break it down,” he said. “What’s happening off the ball? What type of screens are they using? You’ve got to dive a lot deeper into it. That was good for me.”

He’s glad he got the chance. “Not only was it a great experience, but I got paid,” Holmes said.

In the twilight of his career, Holmes sees the end in sight, but it’s not immediate. “I enjoy it,” he said. “I think I’ll ride it out until I retire from teaching.” Which, he figures, is around 65.

“I don’t think I’d coach and not teach,” he said. “Being there in the school is a good thing.”

Speaking of good things, having Jeff Holmes on a basketball sideline certainly fits into that category.

Reese brothers at heart of Gilford’s rise to the top

By Mike Whaley

GILFORD – In the last couple years, Gilford has clearly emerged as the top high school boys basketball team in Division III. The presence of at least two Reese brothers in the lineup hasn’t hurt.

The Golden Eagles shared the 2020 title with Mascenic when the tournament was cut short after the semifinal round due to the Covid-19 pandemic. They won the title outright in 2021, beating Hopkinton in the final, 42-40.

With the current season set to wrap up this weekend, Gilford leads the D-III standings with a 15-1 record. Over the last three seasons the Golden Eagles are a remarkable 48-3.

Jalen and Isaiah Reese have played key roles in that continued success.

Jalen is a 6-foot-6 junior point guard, while Isaiah is a 6-2 sophomore wing. Last season, Jalen was named to the D-III All-State First Team, the only sophomore across all divisions in New Hampshire to earn first-team distinction.

Gilford has a very solid lineup that makes a shot at a three-peat well within reach. In addition to the Reeses, coach Rick Acquilano’s solid lineup also features 6-foot-2 senior point guard Riley Marsh, 5-11 senior point forward Austin Normandin and 6-5 junior big guy Sam Cheek. Senior Mitch Pratt is a dependable first player off the bench.

All six played on last year’s championship team.

Gilford plays a fast-paced game, pressing on defense and pushing the ball on offense. As a point guard, Jalen pilots the offense. “He can lead us in rebounding,” the coach said. “He leads us in assists. He can lead us in scoring on any given night.

“He’s a really complete player,” the coach said. “He has a good sense of the floor. He’s becoming more assertive, which is good for us.”

Acquilano succinctly calls Isaiah, well, a freight train. “He’s the quarterback on the football team,” the coach said. “He’s probably a little more physical.”

Both Reeses play football. Jalen was the quarterback two years ago, but missed this past season because of surgery. He plans to play next year, but won’t challenge his brother for the QB position. Jalen sees himself possibly at wide receiver, setting up a potentially dangerous Reese-to-Reese connection.

Coach Acquilano said that Isaiah runs the floor well and defends at a high level. The sophomore, who played valuable minutes last year off the bench as a freshman, is also able to hit the 3-pointer. “He just has a lot of energy on the floor for us,” said Acquilano, in his third year as Gilford’s coach and athletic director. He returned to New Hampshire after a long stint in Ohio, but has roots here as a coach. He was Bow High School’s inaugural hoop coach in 1997 when that school opened, holding the post for five years. He also coached at Belmont.

Acquilano replaced long-time coach Chip Veazey, who coached Gilford for 35 years and over 400 wins, including its first state title in 2004.

The brothers are 1-2 on the team in scoring with Isaiah leading the way (15.2 ppg) and Jalen right behind him (13.8 ppg). Jalen’s stat line, however, goes well beyond points. He is also averaging a team-high 8.5 rebounds, 5.2 assists and 2.4 blocks per game, as well as being second in steals (2.8). Isaiah chips in with nearly three rebounds and four steals, along with 3.4 assists per contest.

Last year the duo teamed with their older brother, Malik, to lead the Golden Eagles to the state title.

Two years ago, Malik and Jalen helped Gilford to win the 2020 title.

Malik was known for his defense, which has rubbed off on his younger brothers. “I liked (playing with him),” Isaiah said. “I learned a lot from him, mostly that defense is the most important part. That’s what his game revolved around.”

Jalen begrudgingly agreed. “He was definitely better at defense than me,” he said. “Last year at least.”

Although all three played multiple sports growing up, last season was the first time that all three played together on the same team. “We actually didn’t think we were going to get along,” Jalen said. “We don’t usually (get along) at the house. But it was fun.”

Especially being on the floor together to take in the championship moment. “It was exciting,” Jalen said. “It’s a memory I’ll have for my whole life.”

Gilford’s success can be tied to its defense, a halfcourt matchup zone press that can create all kinds of problems.

“It’s a nightmare trying to get the ball across halfcourt,” said St. Thomas Aquinas coach Sean Murphy. “They turn a turnover into two points quickly. It’s a perfect defense for their length and athleticism.”

That defense allows Gilford to play its uptempo game. “We really want to push the play and play in the open floor well,” said coach Acquilano. ”That’s what we’ve relied on the last two years. We run the floor and defensively work hard on holding people to one shot.”

Marsh is the key to the defense. He’s on top of the zone, a “one-man press harassing the ball,” said Acquilano. “He really sets the tempo for us defensively. He gets his hands on a lot of things. He has tenacity. A lot of the grit we play with is initiated by Riley.”

The Reese brothers create matchup problems for opposing defenses. “You put a big guy on them and they go by him,” Murphy said. “Put a small guy on them, and they take him down low.”

Additionally, teams can’t just focus on the Reese brothers, because Gilford has alternate quality scoring options in Marsh, Cheek and Normandin. Marsh is third on the team in scoring (11.5), second in assists (4.1) and leads in steals (4.1). Cheek is averaging a very tidy 8.6 points and 6.2 rebounds per game, while the scrappy, physical Normandin contributes 4.1 points and 4.3 rebounds per game. Pratt (5.4 ppg) is a solid sixth man.

“You try to take away something, you have to pick and choose,” Murphy said of Gilford. “It’s difficult. They have weapons all over the place.”

All teams at some point in a season face adversity. Gilford’s came in unlikely fashion. During a game with White Mountains on Jan. 21 (a 46-35 win), Jalen was surprisingly assessed with two technical fouls – one for hanging on the rim after a partially-missed dunk that he actually tipped in and the second for saying something under his breath to a teammate regarding the first technical. Coach Acquilano felt both Ts were questionable.

The bottom line, however, was that the two infractions carried an automatic one-game suspension from the New Hampshire Interscholastic Athletic Association (NHIAA). A Gilford school policy mandated suspension for a second game.

Three days later, without Jalen in the lineup, Gilford lost its first game of the year, 53-51, at Mascoma.

“We talked about resiliency,” coach Acquilano said. “In the course of a season that’s three and a half months long, things aren’t always going to go your way. You have to find a way through things if you’re going to be that team.”

Gilford battled at Mascoma, but fell at the end. Which may be a good thing. “We have our eyes on the prize,” Acquilano said. “I’m not sure if being undefeated in that pursuit would complicate things down the stretch or not. It didn’t change our outlook, but it actually helped us tighten up the ship.”

Acquilano said everyone took responsibility for going to Mascoma and not playing well, including Jalen for not being available.

In fact, since returning to the lineup Jalen has played even better. His scoring numbers have gone up. “He’s increased his game,” Acquilano said. “In missing that time, you can see him cranking it up a little. I want him to. He’s such an unselfish player. There are times when I want him to be more selfish.”

The Golden Eagles have stayed atop the standings, navigating the weaker part of their schedule without letting down after a tough loss. They also had statement wins over quality tournament teams in Winnisquam and St. Thomas by 30-plus points. Jalen had 17 points in each of those two wins, while Isaiah had 20 and 12.

“We’ve got to focus,” Isaiah said. “I think we can’t play down to the competition. We have to rise above anybody that we play.”

As an example, Isaiah said, the team, despite winning big, is able to reset the score at halftime to 0-0. “See if we can win that half,” Isaiah said. “Take it piece by piece.”

“We can’t become complacent,” Jalen added. “We’re not as good as we think we are. … We just have to realize that we have to get better every day. That’s our motto. We’ve got to keep working and getting better.”

For Jalen, getting better means, believe it or not, gaining more confidence, especially in his ability to shoot. “I don’t believe I can shoot sometimes,” he said. “I know physically I can. Sometimes it just comes down to confidence for me.”

Isaiah says he needs to work on his footwork and improve his ability to pull up and shoot off the dribble.

It’s all about getting better.

Both want to play sports at the next level: Jalen eyes college basketball, while Isaiah is leaning toward football.

Gilford plays its final game Friday at Berlin. The 15-team tournament starts Tuesday with opening-round games. The Golden Eagles will likely earn a first-round bye, which means their first game will be in the quarterfinals Friday, Feb. 18, at home. The semis are set for Feb. 22 at Bedford High School with the championship scheduled for Feb. 26 at Keene State College.

“I think there’s nine good teams out there,” Acquilano said. “Any of those teams can cause problems for anybody. We’ll get the winner of 8-9, which means a good team will be walking into our gym.”

As the first step towards a third straight state title, the Reese boys and Gilford wouldn’t have it any other way.

For feedback or story ideas, email jamsession@ball603.com.

GILMANTON VIDEO HIGHLIGHTS

Chinn music: Twins help orchestrate Pinkerton’s symphony of winning

By Mike Whaley

The first two games that Dave Chase coached freshmen twins Anthony and Tyrone Chinn made an impression.

It was 2019 and Chase was Pinkerton Academy’s new junior varsity boys basketball coach, his third stop in a 26-year career as a New Hampshire hoop coach (36 years overall). He has also coached at Concord (three years) and Hopkinton High School (20 years), where he still is a physical education/adventure ed instructor, and baseball and golf coach.

Those two games were played against two of the state’s stronger programs in Exeter and Portsmouth. “Both of them being freshmen, they were AAU players true and blue,” Chase said. “They tried to break everybody down. The first two games we lost by 25 and by 30.”

Chase recalls a discussion the team had during the Christmas break. “‘How are we as a team going to learn how to play together, instead of everybody watching you two trying to juke everyone and go by them?” was a hard question Chase asked. “You know what? They learned that lesson well. Today they are Nos. 1 and 2 on the team in assists. They are the most unselfish and nicest boys I’ve had the opportunity to coach.”

Two years later, Chase is now the Pinkerton head coach and the Chinns are integral members of the Astros’ resurgence – 12-2 in Division I (15-2 overall including 3-0 in a Lowell, Mass., holiday tournament). Anthony is a 6-foot-3 small forward, who is averaging 17.2 points per game, while Tyrone is a 6-1 point guard, chipping in with 8.9 points and 5 assists a game.

The twins, now juniors, recall that first lesson.

“It was frustrating at first,” Anthony said. “But then I finally decided to listen to (Chase) and see my game start to get better.”

“It was all about scoring,” recalled Tyrone. “So me and Ant were always trying to do it ourselves. Midway through the season we realized that (Chase) kept repeating himself, that it’s more than just scoring. You have to get your teammates involved and share the ball. That gives your teammates more confidence.”

After losing those first two games in which the twins scored three points each, the JV Astros won 16 of their next 18.

That success has followed them to the varsity. Last year as sophomores, the Chinns played active roles in the team going 9-3 overall, losing in the second round of the D-I tournament at Londonderry. The Astros were 1-37 over the previous two seasons.

Expectations are high this year on a deep team that has just two seniors. 

Other key players include talented 6-foot-7 sophomore forward Jackson Marshall, one of the top big men in the state who leads the team in scoring (20.7 ppg) and rebounding (10.8 rpg); gritty 6-1 senior guard Aidan Kane (6.3 ppg), improving 6-4 junior forward Sean Jenkins, and a couple of defensive-minded forwards in 6-5 junior Quinn Hammer and 6-4 senior Anthony DeSalvo.

The supporting cast has been more active as of late to look for their offense to take the pressure off Marshall and the Chinns.

The twins, both elected captains along with Kane and DeSalvo, have upped their game after Chase challenged them at the end of last season. “You guys have this wild thought of playing at the next level,” Chase said. “It’s going to take a little bit more than you understand. You’re going to have to start lifting; getting bigger and getting stronger. Working on your legs, so you can jump better. Working on your skill development. They took that to heart.”

Both hit the weight room and put on at least 15 pounds each.

“Tyrone went from being a six-foot guard who could barely touch the rim, to now he dunks fairly easily,” Chase said. “He takes the ball strong to the rim.” [VIEW OUR HIGHLIGHTS BELOW]

The two have combined for 16 dunks this season including a handful of Chinn-to-Chinn highlight-reel alley-oops.

Tyrone is also hitting his stride after missing the first four games with a separated shoulder. It was a struggle at first to play hard and not worry about reinjuring himself. “Coach Chase would say you’re not being yourself and attacking the rim,” Tyrone said. “I finally realized to forget about it. It’s really been getting easier, especially with the brace that I have now. I feel more supported.”

He is also the floor general a year after playing a secondary role behind Drew Brander, who decided to head to prep school at Bradford Christian Academy (Mass.).

Anthony has blossomed as an all-around player. “He’s become a beast with his strength,” the coach said. The 6-3 junior is second on the team in scoring, rebounding (8 per game) and assists (4 per game). When his brother was out with his injury, Anthony had to step up and handle the ball more.

“The thing that people don’t see is that (Anthony) only plays about 23 minutes,” Chase said. “We’ve had the opportunity to beat some people fairly comfortably. Both him and Ty are sitting down by the fourth quarter. So they’re playing 23 and 21 minutes each.”

The first part of the schedule was easier, but now the Astros are getting into the meat of their schedule. Losses to Nashua North (69-63 on Jan. 14) and Bishop Guertin last week (71-61) were good lessons.

“(Nashua) North took us away from what we do,” Chase said. “We got anxious and the guys tried to do it on their own. We kind of went into a funk because it wasn’t easy anymore. BG kind of did the same thing. They out-executed us.”

The twins, and the team in general, have responded well after losses, refusing to feel sorry for themselves or to make excuses. After their first loss this season to Nashua North (69-63 on Jan. 12), Anthony said, “We need to be more intense in practice leading up to big games like that. … They shot the ball really well. I think we let our emotions get the best of us.”

“I don’t think we came ready to play – especially in our own gym,” Tyrone said. “We just thought we were never going to lose. I think that was a lesson to us to come into games ready. Now we realize we’re beatable.”

The Astros bounced back from the BG loss to beat rival Londonderry, 64-58, and Bedford, 69-50. The Chinns combined for 23 and 24 points in those two wins. The Bedford win was particularly telling.

“(That) was probably our most complete game that we’ve had in a long time,” Chase said of the Bedford win. “We shared the ball. We had 19 assists in the game. Hopefully we can build on that.”

A willingness to share the ball has grown throughout the lineup. It’s certainly become a focal point for Anthony who has upped his assist numbers in the last four games.

 “He’s starting to make extra passes,” Chase said. “That’s a huge leadership thing that he’s done for us. The Marshall kid, the same thing. They’re all looking for each other now.”

Then there’s defense, where the Chinns are Pinkerton’s two defenders. They are both often guarding the opposing teams’ top players at their positions.

“I’m definitely defense first,” Tyrone said. “I have to lock down the other point guard to make things tough for them, which has been a goal all season for me.”

“They’re both kind of special kids because it’s not about me, me, me,” coach Chase said. “It’s about the team, and they are great leaders. They both defend the crap out of people. That’s even more important to our team, how well they defend people.”

Anthony agrees. “Our defense is really why we’re good,” he said. “All five guys can defend. We’re really good at playing team defense.”

The Astros wind up the season with four games against some pretty good teams, starting tonight at home vs. Exeter (10-4). They then play Monday at unbeaten Trinity, and end up with Alvirne (5-9, five losses by four points or less) and Nashua South (7-7, wins over BG and Nashua North). “We peaked early and then had a couple of valleys,” Chase said. “These (games) are going to prepare you for the tournament.”

So there’s still work to do. Plenty of it with the Chinns, of course, doing their part to improve.

“We’re pretty good,” Chase said. “But our IQ still needs to get a little bit better if we’re going to be able to pull this thing off.”

RIM NOTES: Pinkerton has a pretty good basketball tradition going back to the 1940s. The Astros won three straight Class B (now Division III) titles from 1947 to 1949, two in the 1950s (‘57 and ‘58), and then three in Class L (D-I): 1988, 1990 and 2010 – a 61-59 victory in double overtime vs. Winnacunnet. … As noted above, coach Chase has 36 years of HS hoop coaching experience, 26 in N.H. Outside of the state he coached in Richford, Vt.; Worcester, Mass., and Moab, Utah.

For feedback or story ideas, email jamsession@ball603.com.

PINKERTON VIDEO HIGHLIGHTS

The 2K mark eluded Brad Therrien due to sickness in 1970

By Mike Whaley

Note: This is the last in a three-part series on the elusive 2,000-point milestone.

Henniker’s Karen Wood became the state’s inaugural 2,000-point basketball scorer in 1983. The first boy to hit the milestone was Kearsarge’s Tom Brayshaw in 1989.

Brad Therrien would have beaten them all to it in 1970, if some bad luck had not befallen him during his final season.

The former Spaulding High School star missed six games due to sickness during his senior year of 1969-70, otherwise he’d have been a lock as the first to surpass 2K.

One of the finest players of that era, Therrien was a versatile 6-foot-3, 190-pound forward, who scored 1,700 career points for the Red Raiders from 1966 to 1970. That number was the Class L/Division I record until Concord’s Matt Bonner came along in the late 1990s to break it, scoring over 2,000 points himself.

Brad Therrien (40) scored 1,938 career points during his five years as a high school varsity basketball player at first Farmington and then Spaulding from 1965 to 1970. [Courtesy photo]

Fifty-plus years later, he remains Spaulding’s all-time scoring leader.

What is less known about Therrien is that he played on the varsity team at neighboring Farmington High School as an eighth-grader in 1965-66, scoring a team-high 238 points. That, coupled with his Spaulding numbers, puts his career total at 1,938.

Given that Therrien averaged 19.7 points per game as a senior, fourth in the state, it’s easy to speculate that he would have scored at least 120 points in those six games he missed to handily eclipse 2K.

Therrien was a three-sport standout at Spaulding, also excelling in football as a defensive end and tight end, and baseball as a first baseman/outfielder.

He grew up in Farmington, spending his first 14 years there playing sports with some pretty good players like Paul Moulton, Danny Reynolds, Alan Hagar and Tony Quinn. That collection of boys came together in 1969-70 to lead Farmington to its first high school basketball state championship. Their memorable tournament run was capped with a record-setting 95-83 win over Merrimack in the Class M final after a colossal upset of highly-regarded Woodsville in the semifinals.

Therrien recalled being a solid, mature 5-foot-11 as an eighth-grader, good enough, it was determined, to play with the varsity. “Some of the older players on the team weren’t too happy with me,” said Therrien, who retired from Eastern Propane two years ago. He still makes his home in Rochester with his wife, Bonnie. The Therriens winter in Florida near Fort Myers. They have two grown children, Nick and Callie.

“The big thing, honestly, is I could use both hands,” he said. “That was a great advantage.”

Therrien said a couple of the seniors quit the team when it was evident he was going to play. “They were pretty resentful,” he said. “I understood it. I’d be pissed, too.”

Therrien’s dad, Alfred “Bud” Therrien felt some pressure from outside forces to move his son to a bigger school. St. Thomas Aquinas and Spaulding both popped up on the Therriens’ radar. The Therriens had roots in Farmington. Bud, a Farmington HS grad, was instrumental in starting a boys youth hoop program in the early 1950s through the Farmington 500 Boys Club, which continues to this day.

“My father got me a book by Oscar Robertson about the fundamentals of basketball. I was the first kid to put the ball over his head (to shoot). They all kind of made fun of me, but it worked out.”

Brad Therrien

Brad Therrien recalls playing in the 500 program when everyone, at the time, shot the ball from the chest. “My father got me a book by Oscar Robertson about the fundamentals of basketball,” he said. “I was the first kid to put the ball over his head (to shoot). They all kind of made fun of me, but it worked out.”

Therrien remembered going with his mom to Spaulding’s 1964 Class L championship game, the school’s only appearance in a final. The Red Raiders lost to old Bishop Bradley High School (now Trinity), 48-46.

“I was hanging on the edge of the bleachers,” he said. “I couldn’t really see, but I kept boosting myself up. That inspired me. Of course, Denny Hodgdon was always a good player.”

Indeed, Hodgdon was Spaulding’s first 1,000-point scorer who later played in the backcourt at the University of New Hampshire from 1965 to 1968.

Watching that championship game leaned Therrien towards going to Spaulding. “I just thought St. Thomas was too far,” he said. “I don’t think I was really in the St. Thomas mode.”

It’s easy to speculate how well Farmington would have done had Therrien stayed. “I’m not saying we would have won another championship,” he said. “I’ll tell you one thing, we wouldn’t have lost a lot of games.”

Therrien enrolled at Spaulding as a freshman. Halfway through the fall, his family made it official when they moved to Rochester. He has mixed feelings about it all.

“I was kind of pressed by my father,” he said. “He was getting people telling him things.”

There were questions whether he was even eligible to play after playing as an eighth-grader in Farmington. But it was all hot air. His Farmington year was above board, and he was good to go in Rochester.

Although Therrien went on to star in three sports at Spaulding, he always had a sense of being on the outside. “I never felt truly accepted at Spaulding,” Therrien said. “I was always kind of the kid from Farmington.”

That being said, it was still a positive experience. “I developed some really good friendships through sports,” Therrrien said. “I played with some great guys.”

Some of those players were Mike Taylor, Steve Thompson, Paul Castonguay, Jim Cook and Peter Bebris. Bebris,a 6-3 point guard, teamed up with Therrien over the final two years to give the Red Raiders a imposing 1-2 scoring punch. It was Bebris, with Therrien out sick, who scored a school-record 54 points to beat Laconia in late January of 1970.

“Peter Bebris was a terrific defensive player and slick on offense,” Therrien said. “He was really something, like Spiderman.”

Bebris died young at age 33 in Las Cruces, New Mexico.

Those Spaulding teams were very good, winning 12 or more games in each of Therrien’s final three seasons and making the Class L playoffs.

“But again we were going up against Nashua,” Therrien said. “Honest to God, their second five was almost as good as their first five.”

As good as he was, Therrien feels in retrospect that he let himself down. “I wasn’t what you call a model citizen,” he said. “Honestly, I wish I had taken it more seriously. But sometimes you just waste your talents when you don’t apply yourself. You coast through.”

Still, Therrien remained a player that Spaulding’s opponents always took seriously.

“He was a hell of an offensive player,” recalled Greg Kageleiry, who coached at Dover High School at the time, including the Green Wave’s 1968 Class L championship squad. “I remember off the top of my head that he could handle the ball, number one. He was a good passer, number two, and he was a good rebounder. Put those three together and you’ve got a pretty good player.”

Kageleiry remembers Therrien had a very good inside-outside game. “It seems to me he could shoot from the outside and go inside,” Kageleiry said. “That made him a tough matchup. I couldn’t put a little guy on him.”

Indeed Therrien’s game created all sorts of matchup problems for opponents. “I drove to the basket and had a mid-range jumper,” Therrien said. “I had a nice touch close to the basket.”

That he was adept with both hands around the basket made him an exceedingly difficult player to defend. On the occasional night when his outside shot wasn’t falling, Therrien would perch himself down low. “I’d hang around the basket and get some garbage points,” he said. One can see him now plucking a rebound and scoring, as the situation dictated, with either hand.

Therrien was a big scorer right from the moment he put on a Spaulding varsity uniform as a freshman, scoring nearly 20 points a game his first two seasons. To illustrate that fact, one need only look at the two games Spaulding played vs. rival Dover his freshman year. The Red Raiders lost both contests, 74-62 and 55-49, but Therrien was a presence even then with 21 and 25 points. 

By his third year, he was one of the top players in the state. As a junior, he led Class L in scoring, averaging over 26 points per game. He eclipsed 1,000 points in January of 1969 in an 84-71 win over Concord.

Before his senior season, Therrien was recognized as one of the top 100 players in the country by Sunkist Magazine.

His final year began just fine. Therrien played a couple games, but then he got sick and missed the next six in which the Red Raiders suffered the bulk of their losses. When he came back, it took a couple of games to regain his groove. Therrien was still in the top-five in scoring, leading the Red Raiders to a 14-6 record and the No. 4 seed in the 12-team Class L tourney. Had he not fallen ill, Spaulding might have gone 17-3 or 18-2.

In the tournament, the Red Raiders beat St. Thomas Aquinas in the quarters, 61-55, before falling in the semis to Nashua. In that game, as Therrien recalls, Spaulding fell behind 16-1 in the opening quarter, but responded to take a 32-31 lead at the half. Therrien made an ill-advised foul on a breakaway layup by Nashua with six minutes to play in the game. It was his fifth. With Therrien on the bench, Nashua broke it wide open, winning by 30.

Manchester Memorial beat defending champion Nashua for the title, 68-65.

Therrien recalls that era being loaded with talent. Nashua was a beast with great players like Gureckis, Briggs, Terrell and Kopka, while the Manchester teams were always good. Memorial, which won back-to-back titles in 1970 and 1971, had a couple of big stars in Ron Beaurivage and Mike Flanagan. Flanagan, of course, went on to excel in baseball for 18 years at the major league level as a pitcher. He won the 1979 Cy Young Award and was part of a World Series championship in 1983, both with the Baltimore Orioles.

Therrien had no big-time basketball aspirations. “I could have played D-3, mayber D-2,” he said of college. “I was a white guy playing against white guys, which hurt my development.” He cited his lack of quickness and height as a setback from playing at a higher level.

He got some letters of interest from colleges, including one as a senior from the University of Hawaii. “That would have been fun,” Therrien said. “To go there and even sit on the end of the bench. I would have liked that.”

Therrien did play a couple of seasons of ball at a pair of defunct small colleges – Leicester Junior College (Mass.) and Concord College in Manchester, N.H. He teamed up with Dover’s Dave Feeney on the Concord squad, which went undefeated in the Northern New England Small College Conference. Concord won the conference tournament with Therrien earning MVP honors.

But that was it. He did not pursue college further. Therrien made Rochester his home and eventually found his way, raising a family and working 31 years with Eastern Propane.

Therrien doesn’t think a lot about missing 2,000 points. “You know,” he said, “I’d trade in all those points for a state championship.”

RIM NOTES: A few final thoughts on the 2,000-point club. Of the 16 members, 10 were on teams that won at least one state championship, and five played on squads that captured multiple titles: Karen Wood (4); Matt Bonner (3); Ryan Gatchell (3); Keith Friel (2) and Scott Drapeaul (2). Winning single titles were David Burrows, Matt Alosa, Jason Waysville, Tonya Young and Kerry Bascom. … Waysville and Burrows are the only club members to score their 2,000th point in a championship game. Waysville did it in his last high school game, a 67-55 win over Inter-Lakes in the 1994 Class M final. Burrows’ milestone came from the foul line in the 1989 Class S championship when he was a junior, a 57-39 loss to Epping.. He had 30 of his team’s 39 points. … Bascom and Julie were not only fierce rivals in the mid 1980s, but they were also recruited by UConn’s Geno Auriemma. Bascom went on to become the Huskies’ first big star under the legendary coach, while Donlon decided to remain local at the University of New Hampshire.

For feedback or story ideas, email jamsession@ball603.com.

Cool-hand Luke Merrill’s quest for 2K points fell just short

By Mike Whaley

Note: This is the second in a three-part series on the elusive 2,000-point milestone.

During the winter of 2007-08, Luke Merrill might have been the best kept sports secret in New Hampshire.

The then Pittsburg High School senior was making a serious run at the elusive basketball 2,000-point club – not that anybody knew about it.

Merrill ended up falling just shy in his bid to hit the milestone, finishing with 1,975 points. One more game would likely have pushed him over.

New Hampshire has sixteen 2,000 point scorers, but only one (Mascoma’s Tonya Young, 2007) has reached that milestone in this century.

Merrill laughs. “Everybody remembers (that number). That’s the year my dad’s (team) won the state championship. That makes it easy to remember.”

Merrill’s 2K assault was on nobody’s radar. “It really wasn’t,” he said. “Back then I don’t think we had Facebook. There probably wasn’t any of that stuff. If it was in the south (of the state) maybe it would have received more attention. We’re the northernmost town in the state. Not many people make it up there.”

Certainly not reporters.

Pittsburg is the end of the line up north, hardly a media hotbed. Once you leave town on U.S. Route 3, a winding, two-lane road, it’s nothing but trees and more trees until you hit the Canadian border. There is no daily newspaper that covers that area above Littleton and Lancaster. When Merrill was in school, the only coverage Pittsburg received was from The News & Sentinel, a small weekly newspaper in Colebrook, which is 13 miles to the south.

Pittsburg High School’s Luke Merrill celebrates his 1,000th career point in December of 2006 with his parents, Glen and Wanda. He ended his career at the small northern school 25 points shy of 2,000 points. [Courtesy photo]

“When I scored 1,000 and 1,500 points, (a picture) was in the local newspaper,” Merrill recalled. “I’m not going to say (2,000 points) was overlooked, but it didn’t seem like that big of a deal. I don’t really know why.”

Merrill was good enough as an eighth-grader to play on the varsity, something that the New Hampshire Interscholastic Athletic Association (NHIAA) permits for just the Class S/Division IV schools. “It’s a small school, so if you’re somewhat decent they bring you up because of the numbers,” said Merrill, who as a pretty good outside shooter scored 206 points that year.

To give you an idea of the school’s population, Merrill said at the time the whole school, K through 12, had roughly 130 to 140 students, of which half were in the high school. He had a graduating class of 14.

Merrill’s ability to hit outside shots got him in the lineup, and kept him there. He scored between 350 and 400 points in each of the next two seasons, expanding his game in his final two years as a 5-foot-11 guard.

He scored his 1,000th career point in the first game of his junior year, and then surpassed 1,500 in his last game of that season. His 1,000th point came on a rare four-point play. Perched at 996 points, he hit a 3-pointer and was fouled on the shot. He made the freebie to arrive at 1,000 on the nose. Merrill’s junior season was his most prolific as he averaged in excess of 28 points per game. As a senior he scored over 25 points a contest.

Those 1,000- and 1,500-point milestones are of particular note in the north country where there are no 2,000-point scorers. The northernmost 2,000-point scorer is Cynthia Thomson of Orford, who hit the mark in 1989. Orford, however, hardly qualifies as a northern school. It is located along the Connecticut River below the White Mountains, a 20-minute drive from Hanover to the south. Pittsburg is a two-plus hour trip going north.

With over 1,500 points going into his senior year, Merrill knew he had a shot at the mark. “There was certainly a chance,” he said. “We knew it was close. I was never told how close it was.”

The Panthers made the Class S Tournament that winter. They won their first game in the opening round over Profile, but the road ended in the quarterfinals at Plymouth State University to Colebrook, the eventual champion.

It was a tight game at the half, but Colebrook pulled away over the final 16 minutes to move on. Merrill scored 26 points in his last game, 15 coming from the foul line. He was still unsure what his final count was, although he knew he was knocking on the door.

“I was sitting in the stands with my dad after the game,” Merrill said. “There was another game. Groveton must have been playing because one of the fans from Groveton, someone who followed it closely, told me what I had. He was paying attention. It was 1,975. And my dad said, ‘Well, that’s going to be easy to remember.’”

Pittsburg’s Luke Merrill (3) scored 1,975 points for the state’s northernmost school from 2003 to 2008. [Courtesy photo]

Glen Merrill was the starting point guard on Pittsburg’s 1975 Class S championship squad, a 65-56 winner in the final over old Austin-Cate Academy of Center Strafford. The Panthers have captured four titles in all. Their first came in 1967 – Luke’s uncle Scott played on that team, scoring 1,000 points. In addition they won back-to-back titles in 1985 and 1986, but haven’t won one since. Both of those teams were coached by Glen Merrill’s teammate, Richard Judd, who was also Luke’s coach.

Luke became Pittsburg’s career scoring leader during his senior season, passing two other Judds – Kevin and Vince. He is, of course, believed to be the career scoring leader in the north country.

Merrill went to college where he played baseball for four years – two each at NHTI Concord and Plymouth State. He was pretty good, too. He was an all-conference pick at both schools, and at NHTI he was selected as conference player of the year. In 2019, Merrill was inducted into the school’s inaugural athletic hall of fame.

In 2012, with enrollment numbers dwindling, Pittsburg reached an agreement with neighboring Canaan, Vermont. The two schools formed an athletic cooperative to compete as Pittsburg-Canaan in New Hampshire’s Division IV, which they still do.

The two schools are likely headed to a full cooperative. Pittsburg’s enrollment numbers in 2016-17 were 101 students in K-12 and 33 in the high school.

Merrill now lives in Henniker, New Hampshire, with his wife, Danielle. They have a daughter, Emilia, 3, and are expecting a son later this month. Merrill works as an operations manager in Pembroke for a firm that sells cutting tools.

Now 31, he still thinks about what might have been.

“It’s just a game,” Merrill said. “I don’t care, but I do care. It would have been nice to have one more game to get it out of the way.”

RIM NOTES: Another member of the close-call club is Pelham’s Keith Brown, who played for the Pythons from 2012 to 2016. He scored 1,978 career points while leading Pelham to back-to-back D-III state championships in 2015 and 2016. He later did get some 2K satisfaction as a star at Endicott College in Beverly, Mass. He was a four-year standout for the NCAA Division III Gulls, winning numerous honors, while finishing with 2,046 career points. … Another name that recently surfaced is that of Brad Therrien (story coming on him). Therrien was a four-year star at Spaulding High School in Rochester from 1966 to 1970, and still holds the school’s career scoring record with 1,700. What is not as well known is that Therrien played as an eighth-grader for neighboring Farmington HS. Furthermore, he led the Tigers in scoring with 238 points, giving him 1,938 career points. Had he not missed six games due to sickness as a senior, Therrien undoubtedly would have been the state’s first entry in the 2,000-point club. He was also the Class L/D-I career scoring leader for nearly 30 years until a young fellow named Matt Bonner came along in the late 1990s.

For feedback or story ideas, email jamsession@ball603.com.

The evolution and de-evolution of the 2,000-point scorer

By Mike Whaley

Note: First in a three-part series on the state’s 2,000-point high school basketball scorers.

There was a time when it seemed like, well, it was raining 2,000 points.

From 1983 to 1999, 15 of New Hampshire’s 16 double-century point scorers reached that milestone (see accompanying list). One has done it since.

While we may see 2,000-point scorers at some point in the future, there is simply no way that special basketball era will come close to being replicated.

THE GIRLS GOT IT STARTED

There is a symmetry to the list.

The first four players to reach the milestone were all female, and the last to hit the mark in 2007 was also a girl (Mascoma’s Tonya Young). In between, 11 guys hit the mark.

Those first four women all played in Class S/Division IV, and all played in the 1980s.

Henniker’s Karen Wood was the first player in N.H. to hit 2,000 in 1983, and she remains the highest scoring female with 2,677 points, and is second in N.H. overall. Only Nute’s David Burrows has scored more (2,845).

While her career was winding down at Henniker where she led the team to four consecutive Class S championships (1980 to 1984), Epping’s Kerry Bascom and Nute’s Julie Donlon were just getting started.

As was the case then and still holds true today, athletes in Class S/Division IV are allowed to play varsity high school sports in seventh and eighth grade. Wood, Bascom and Donlon, as well as Orford’s Cynthia Thomson, all played varsity as eighth graders.

While Donlon and Bascom had a long history playing against each other, they did meet up with Wood at least once – during the 1984 Class S tournament. Bascom’s Epping team was locked in a close game in the quarters down two points, but with 45 seconds to play Bascom injured her ankle and had to leave the game. Henniker was able to hold on for the win.

Henniker met Nute and Donlon in the final, claiming an easy 74-38 victory.

Mascoma’s Tonya Young scored 2,112 career points.

There is no doubt that these girls benefitted from an extra year to reach 2,000 points. But it should be noted that all five females who hit the milestone went on to play at the NCAA Division I level. Bascom is generally regarded as the state’s greatest female player having taken her college game to UConn where she played for Geno Auriemma as his first big star.

At the time, Donlon and Bascom not only played against each other, but also with each other on AAU teams, at a time when that concept was in its infancy. They played and more than held their own with girls from bigger schools, like Nashua with Celeste Lavoie, Becky Shrigley, and Stephanie Byrd.

“We just played together for five years. … We were playing with all those girls, so we knew we could play,” Bascom told Seacoastonline in 2021.

In fact, the first two years that Bascom and Donlon played AAU, there was no New Hampshire team. They traveled to Massachusetts to play on a team made up of N.H. girls, until Mass. said enough is enough. They had to form their own N.H. team, which happened with Nashua’s John Fagula as the coach

Epping’s Kerry Bascom (center) scored 2,408 career points.

It was a competitive rivalry between the two women.

“We were friends, but we were competitive when it came to Epping-Nute,” Donlon told Seacoastonline last year. “When we got on the floor, that was over. The gym was always packed. Standing room only.”

Bascom said they scored their 1,000th career point a game apart. Ditto for their 2,000th point.

BOYS GET THEIR GROOVE GOING

By the end of the 1980s, the boys started getting in on the act. Tom Brayshaw, who starred at Kearsarge for Marty Brown, was the first to hit the mark in 1989. Kearsarge was well known for its fast-paced style, reminiscent of the Loyola Marymount teams of that college era coached by Paul Westhead that routinely scored over 100 points and led the nation in scoring three years running.

Brayshaw was the state’s recognized top boys’ scorer for all of 10 months. He surpassed 2,000 points in February of 1989, and in December of that year, Burrows passed him, and still holds the record to this day.

It was a deluge at that point. Nine more boys followed until 1999.

“What it is, you had a perfect storm,” said Pembroke’s Matt Alosa, who scored 2,575 points, the most by a four-year player. “You didn’t have the social media scenario you have going on now. Kids only play when there’s some organized event. They no longer live in the park. I lived in the park, every day, 7-8 hours a day.”

Pembroke’s Matt Alosa scored 2,575 career points.

That was a common denominator. Players of that era had a passion for the game at a young age, and spent endless hours on the court. They not only played various forms of pickup games, but also worked individually to hone their games.

“When I was a little kid growing up – spring, summer and fall – I was in the park every day playing,” said Alosa, whose primary hot spots in Concord were the courts at Memorial Field and Fayette Street Park. “I got dropped off there. I wasn’t allowed to leave, but I could stay there anytime I wanted to, all day.”

Alosa said he knew when people were going to show up for games, whether it was full court or 3 on 3.

In the winter, he tagged along with his dad who was a high school coach at Bishop Brady and then Franklin at the time. “I can remember practicing when I’m 6, 7 and 8 years old,” Alosa said. “I practiced with the freshmen and the JVs, but I was in the gym for freshman, JV and varsity practices all day long.”

He recalls at age 13 playing with a bunch of college guys who he’d met in the park in a men’s league at the Concord prison.

As he got older, Alosa had a group of kids he played with. “I can remember being with my group of guys going from place to place to just play and find pickup games,” he said. “I was working out all the time. Sometimes pickup. Sometimes shootaround. I’d eat a sandwich under the basket with a Gatorade.”

Farmington’s Tim Lee recalls a similar upbringing when his dad was the high school coach. “I grew up in the gym at the start of my father’s career,” he said. That is where he developed his confidence and competitiveness.

“Part of that was growing up in the gym,” Lee said. “When I was in sixth and seventh grade, junior high, I was doing drills with the varsity players. … Growing up in a small town, I had the advantage of being able to run with the varsity guys and being around their summer leagues. I was always shooting at half time (of JV or varsity games) and after the games.”

Keith Friel also had a dad who was a coach, but his story is certainly different. Gerry Friel coached the University of New Hampshire men’s basketball team from 1969 to 1989, and the Friel family continued to make their home in Durham, even after Gerry finished coaching.

In addition to being able to walk to Lundholm gymnasium every day to play pickup, the Friels spent eight weeks of their summers in Exeter where Gerry ran the Phillips Exeter Academy basketball camp until Keith’s eight-grade year.

“I was born there during camp,” Keith said. “There wasn’t a ton to do so we did non-stop gyms. We did camp every week. And the girls’ week we would help out with officiating, running the scoreboard. We had a ball in our hand at all times. It was an overnight camp. They’d start at 8 in the morning and go until 9 at night. Since you’re around that, you’re around the coaches non-stop, picking up (things) from lectures from every angle. I was always asking questions.”

Keith recalls always playing against the UNH players when he was in high school, including Alosa and Scott Drapeau when they showed up in the mid 1990s. “They’d call or message with a time and we’d be there,” he said.

Merrimack Valley’s Scott Drapeau scored 2,260 career points.

That was a good challenge when he was younger playing against athletes who were bigger and stronger. “So how are you going to be able to stay on the floor to impact the game?” he asked himself. “So you start problem solving at a young age. I better box this guy out or I’ll have a grown man yelling at me. We have to win this game to stay on the floor.”

But that was a great way to get better. Alosa, Friel and Lee all played against older players, which is humbling but helpful in the long run.

Dave Burrows had two older brothers growing up in Milton. Steve and Scott were stars at Nute. Steve started on the school’s first hoop championship team in 1980 and went on to score 1,000 points, as did Scott, a 1986 Nute grad. “They let me play pickup with them,” Dave said. “My brother Steve would take me over to Farmington and we’d play pickup with the Muchers. That’s how I started understanding the game as far as keeping your mouth shut and playing and having fun.”

The pickup game toughened Burrows up, playing against bigger and older players. “That’s how you really learn,” he said. “I always tell players, 3 on 3 is the best way to learn basketball. You’re moving, you’re understanding how to pick, spacing.”

As he got older, he was always in search of a good game of pickup. “In Milton, I would literally go to the church,” Burrows said. “If there wasn’t a pickup game, I’d go to Rochester. If the pickup was bad there, we’d go to York (Maine) and play King of the Court. I could drive around Farmington, Rochester and see players shooting outside. You don’t see that today. No 3 on 3. No 4 on 4. No King of the Court. That’s how you learn.”

Nute’s Dave Burrows scored a state-record 2,845 points.

While Burrows had his brothers to push him, Keith Friel had his brother Greg, who was a year younger. “He was as hard a worker as I’ve ever seen,” Keith said. “I’d wake up in the summer and love to see that he was already dribbling and shooting and getting some drills in. I wanted to be the first one up.”

Tim Lee’s older brother, Josh, was essential in Tim being able to come into high school and have an impact. Josh Lee and Shaun Lover were talented, savvy senior guards, whose presence made it easier for him to play. “They helped a ton,” he said. “Especially with the attention that they drew. That allowed me to spot up and shoot. I didn’t have that luxury the last three years.”

Lee scored 33 points in his first varsity game, which gave him confidence going forward.

Burrows had those good Burrows genes when he was younger, which allowed him to play varsity in eighth grade. He grew six inches in seventh grade, so he was a skinny, but coordinated, 6-foot-3 in eighth grade. However, he could score from the get-go, regularly dropping 20 or more points. Coach Phil Mollica defined roles in the preseason, and Burrows’ role was to score. Everyone understood that. “Egos were checked at the door,” Burrows said.

Alosa recalls as a freshman beating out a senior who had started for two years. “I had to earn that spot, but it was a no-brainer,” he said as he went on to score over 400 points as a frosh. “It takes a courageous coach to say I’m going to play this kid over a senior. A lot of coaches are just against it. No matter how much better a kid is.”

Another factor, beyond being physically mature enough to play and score as a freshman or an eighth-grader, is that you have to remain healthy for four or five years.

Also, the 3-point shot, which was adopted at the high school level before the 1987-88 season, has helped. Friel and Lee certainly benefited from that shot, and might not have reached the 2,000-point club without it. It helped others as well.

It should be noted that Donlon, who went on to set 3-point shooting records at UNH, played in the era just before the 3-pointer came to high school. She scored 2,502 points without the three. Had she had it, then one can speculate that she would have passed Wood and challenged Burrows..

Donlon and Burrows are the only 2,000-point scorers from the same school to play at the same time at some point. Donlon graduated in 1987, so Burrows got to see her game during his first two years on the Nute boys’ varsity team.

“I loved her game,” Burrows said. “I learned a lot from Julie. She was very generous with her court. She was willing to help. Her ball handling was top notch. Passing and ball handling, she had it all. She was really good. She’s the best basketball player to come out of Nute, in my opinion.”

One point that is made by some of these prolific scorers is that getting to 2,000 wasn’t something they necessarily aspired to.

“It was never on my mind,” Lee said. “I was just trying to be a good teammate; trying to win a state championship and putting a banner on the wall. That seemed to be more significant growing up in that program.”

The same for Friel. “I think I was ultra-competitive,” he said. “That led to not just scoring points, I wanted to win. … The priority growing up as a coach’s son was never the amount of points. It was always ‘who won the game?’”

He added, “My end goal was never who had the most points. Obviously, I loved scoring. I still do to this day. I love shooting and hearing that net snap. That doesn’t change – the satisfaction of that.”

If you look at the 2,000-point club list, of the 16 players on it, 10 experienced at least one state championship, and five were on multiple title squads. “It was always what can we do to win the game,” said Friel, who played on back-to-back Class I championship teams at Oyster River (1995 and 1996).

Another important piece to consider is the evolution of AAU ball. When many of these 2,000-point players were in the game, AAU was in its infancy. In fact, there was just one team for a while for boys and girls, and the best players played on those teams. That’s not like today where there are multiple teams, and you do not see the state’s best together on one team. In some cases, the better players are competing with elite teams from out of state.

Case and point was an AAU team that Alosa, Burrows, Gatchell and Drapeau played on in the early 1990s and late 1980s coached by Frank Alosa.

Oyster River’s Keith Friel scored 2,148 career points.

Alosa recalls at age 13 going to a tryout for the AAU team at Dover High School. All three courts were in use with kids all trying out for the one team.

“That’s what it was,” Alosa said. “We had a group of 12 or 13 guys that went to the nationals and finished sixth out of 100-plus teams at Disneyland.”

Similarly in the late 1990s, Frank Alosa coached an elite N.H. AAU team with Bonner, Lee, and Steve Lavolpicelo from the 2,000-point club, as well as some other big names like Billy Collins, Marshall Chrane and Mark Yeaton. “That team was loaded with Division I and 2 talent,” Lee said. “We finished in the top-eight in the country in Florida.”

Players of that era did not go to prep school at the rate they do these days. Burrows said he has a chance to play with Alosa at Pembroke Academy after his sophomore year. “I just made the decision I was happy in Milton,” he said, which worked out as he led Nute to the 1990 state title in Class S. “To be totally honest, I figured if I transferred, I’d lose my girlfriend.” Burrows has been married to his “girlfriend” (Lisa Dube) for 26 years.

After his sophomore year, Alosa came close to going to DeMatha Catholic High School in Hyattsville, Maryland, a prominent national basketball power. “I started getting a lot of attention,” Alosa said. “I went to the nationals my sophomore year. I played really, really well. The letters started pouring in. We decided I didn’t have to go.”

Bascom contemplated going to a bigger school midway through her Epping career. She was courted by Class L schools in Exeter and Dover (where her dad played), but in the end decided to stay true to her hometown.

Friel had an offer to attend Phillips Exeter Academy on scholarship after eighth grade, but his mom said no to that, not wanting her son away from home at a young age.

Looking back, Friel wonders if maybe he should have gone to prep school for his senior season. “I wasn’t challenged very much from a competitive standpoint,” he said. Although Oyster River defended its championship, Friel recalls many, many blowouts in which he was lucky to play half the game. He felt it stunted his development to some degree. But it still felt good to stay and help Oyster River win another title. Winning, in Friel’s mind, has always been the end goal – not the points.

2,000-POINT CLUB WEIGHS IN ON THE GAME TODAY

Alosa, Burrows, Friel and Lee have their own opinions on why it is harder today to get to 2,000 points.

Here are some of the factors: Kids play less pickup and more AAU. Some of the better players opt for prep school. The game is slower. Kids lack fundamentals. Social media.

“When I played, players were playing,” Burrows said. “What I’m watching today is too structured. You go to a team. You travel around to tournaments.”

“There’s a significant decline in recreational pickup,” Lee said.

“I just don’t see (pickup) anymore,” said Alosa, who coached at his alma mater for 10 years, winning two state championships. “It’s a skilled event. It’s a motor skill that you have to do over and over again. You have to log the hours. If I play seven hours and you play one, I’m going to be better than you in a year.”

He added, “The organization for good or bad is that kids don’t do anything unless their parents bring them to practice for an hour and a half a couple of nights a week. That’s basketball.”

“It has to be organized,” said Friel, who runs Friel Basketball, offering team and individual instruction. “You’re playing in your grade and age group. You’re playing so many games year round. They’re playing all these games. When are they working on their skills? You have four or five games and maybe one or two practices. When are you working on your weaknesses?”

He thinks kids are not taught much about fundamentals. “Everybody has a team,” Friel said. “There’s a lot of dads coaching at a young age.”

Burrows agrees. “I think a lot of the skills just aren’t there,” he said.

In the 2,000-point era, it was more likely that the best players would play together on one AAU team. Not so today. With so many teams, the talent is spread out, or even gone to play out of state with elite regional teams.

Top players are also more likely to go to prep school today. It’s not uncommon to see good players competing one, two or three years of high school and then going prep, often reclassifying.

Farmington’s Tim Lee scored 2,146 career points.

 

Social media may have also played a role as a distraction. Lee said you have young kids before they get to high school, ages 12, 13 or 14, have more pressure to look good for the highlight clip. “Technology becomes a distraction,” he said. “Video games. Cell phones.”

The pace of the game has changed. Games are slower and the scores are lower. As an example, if you added the four 2021 boys championship games together you get a total of 313 points. It is the lowest combined point total for the four championship games since the NHIAA went to four divisions for the 1963-64 season. One team scored more than 50 points, while four scored 40 or more and three scored in the 30s. The overall average was 39 points.

“A lot of coaches like to control the environment more,” Alosa said. “I think some of that has to do with the level of confidence in talent.”

“But with no shot clock and lack of fundamentals coaches think ‘I’ll take my chances. We don’t have as much talent right now. Let’s work the ball,’” Friel said. “You’re seeing these possessions of a minute and a half. I don’t fault the coaches. They’re trying to win. But 4-2, 8-4 quarters. That’s ridiculous. How much fun is that?”

In his era, Lee said the 2,000-point scorers and their peers managed the game clock. “There was little time between possessions,” he said. “The ball was being taken out at a quicker rate. The players had a greater understanding of how to move the ball faster up the court. There’s more dribbling today. It’s more a perimeter, spread-out offense.”

The consensus, of course, is that a shot clock could help remedy the pace of the game. It’s a debate that continues to rage across the state. The financial piece remains a major stumbling block for schools. Whether its implementation would translate into getting some more 2,000-point scorers to surface is anyone’s guess. It couldn’t hurt.

In recent years there have been some close calls. Luke Merrill (story on him next week) scored 1,975 points for Pittsburg, the state’s northernmost school, where he played five years from 2003 to 2008. Keith Brown, a 2016 Pelham HS grad, filled it up to the tune of 1,978 points, leading the Pythons to back-to-back D-III titles. Essentially, one more game would likely have gotten either player over that milestone hump. Almost.

Getting there, however, remains elusive.

Aiden Hefferon: At the point of a ‘Topper turnaround

By Mike Whaley

SOMERSWORTH – Last year was a down year in many ways for the Somersworth High School boys basketball team. The young Hilltoppers, led by sophomores, went a Covid-19 shortened 1-9, losing in the opening round of the Division III tournament to St. Thomas Aquinas.

Coach Leon Shaw believes that was an aberration and that Somersworth has the necessary personnel to return to form, fitting of its winning tradition.

The ‘Toppers have won six state basketball championships since the 1960s. They captured Class I titles under late coaching legend Ed Labbe in 1969 and 1979; went undefeated to capture the 1984 Class I crown, coached by Larry Francoeur, after back-to-back runners-up finishes, and then in 2005 got back to the top again in Class M/Division III, guided by John Langlois.

In recent years, the success has continued. In 2011, Lorne Lucas coached the team to the D-III title, while in the five years preceding last year, Rob Fauci was at the reins as the Hilltoppers made four trips in a row to at least the D-III semis, winning the whole enchilada in 2018.

Shaw feels this team, which is led by a trio of juniors – Aiden Hefferon, Jeff DeKorne and Dante Guillory – has the potential to get Somersworth back to the top tier again.

Hefferon, a six-foot junior point guard, is the key. Early in this season, he has already displayed his vast potential as one of D-III’s top scorers (20.5 ppg), although the ‘Toppers are off to a lukewarm start with a 2-2 mark.

“He’s been handling every challenge that I’ve given him so far,” Shaw said. Hefferon is ready to set into that rarified air with previous all-state players like Bryton Early and Evan Gray, who led the ‘Toppers to the 2018 title.

Shaw said that even before Hefferon was in high school, townspeople were speaking about him in the same sentence with Early and Gray. There has been that kind of expectation.

“He’s had to deal with everyone saying that since he was in seventh and eighth grade,” Shaw said. “‘Wait until Aiden gets here.’ I don’t have to put any pressure on him because everyone in the community is already looking at Aiden as the next marquee player.”

Shaw’s preseason speech to Hefferon was pretty simple: “We’ll probably win or lose based on you.”

Hefferon, who grew up watching Early and Gray play, has embraced that role. Watching those two former stars “definitely inspired me for my future years,” he said. “Watching them, they were the face of Somersworth. I tried to learn from them; seeing how they pushed their teammates. Little stuff that they did off and on the court. I just followed them.”

It’s been a growing process. As a freshman, Hefferon saw time off the bench for a team that advanced to the D-III semifinals. “That was game-changing and fast-paced,” he said. “I loved it. I loved how fast the game was at the varsity level. I definitely had some things I needed to work on.”

Last year was by far the most difficult challenge. “We were focusing on a lot of things,” he said. “It wasn’t just basketball.”

Covid was the X factor. Players were constantly getting sick. He recalls going to some practices with only five or six players in the gym. “We couldn’t run full drills sometimes,” Hefferon said. 

It was a tough stretch for Hefferon who tried to keep his mind in a good place by focusing on basketball, but he admits stressing out over covid.

The team had no trouble offensively, but defense was a different story. Hefferon said they struggled on defense because other teams were able to push them around physically. They had trouble coping with bigger, taller players.

It’s been a point of emphasis going forward, one that is a work in progress. Shaw said two things that need to get better are defensive rebounding and getting back to defend opposing transition offense. “It’s little things we need to improve,” he said.

Which should come with time.

Hefferon will be at the forefront of that renaissance – the point man leading the way.

“Going into every game, (opposing teams) are probably going to put their best defender on (him),” coach Shaw said. “Every game we need you to score at least 20 points. You have to have close to 10 assists a game.”

Hefferon has delivered for the most part. After an overall offensive off night at Conant in the opener (a 56-42 loss), he has risen to the challenge. In a 78-60 win over Raymond on Dec. 14, he nearly had a quadruple double with 34 points, 12 rebounds, 12 assists and nine steals.

He followed that up with 20 points and six steals in a 69-51 loss to Winnisquam and 21 points, 10 steals and five boards in a 66-62 win over Berlin.

DeKorne, the quarterback for the state championship football team, has been a solid No. 2 scoring option, averaging 14.5 ppg. He had 21 points in the win over Berlin, and 17 points and 13 boards against Raymond.

Hefferon may need to get to a higher level as the Hilltoppers have a brutal stretch looming ahead in January with difficult games with Campbell, Gilford, St. Thomas and Mascenic.

“Those teams are in the top eight,” Shaw said. “We need to come out of the positive end of wins and losses.”

How the Hilltoppers do will likely rest on Hefferon’s shoulders. “He plays well enough in every game to usually surpass who is guarding him,” Shaw said. “But when he gets irritated, he puts it at a level that is equal to a Bryton or an Evan.”

That is Shaw’s next challenge. “(Aiden) needs to be at that level more often,” the coach said. “Being better than the guy in front of you is great. But how about we be way better than the guy in front of us every time we touch the ball.”

Hefferon is ready to get the Hilltoppers back to the top. He wants to be that guy leading the way. “I always make sure if (my teammates) make a mistake that they’re all good and I make mistakes too,” he said. “No one cares. Work hard on defense. You can get the ball right back. If you shoot an airball, I don;t care. I’ve missed eight shots in a row and I keep on shooting. Leave that behind you. Keep on moving forward.”

That’s the way to success. “I just play at 100 percent,” Hefferon said. “I know I have to play a big role. I always try to get my teammates involved.”

But when Somersworth needs a score, Hefferon knows he has to be that guy. “I’m willing to step into that role,” he said. “I know I need to do the little things. On defense I need to put a body on a guy. I need to go up for rebounds. It’s not just scoring.”

RIM NOTES: Since 1950, Somersworth has appeared in 11 championship games and won six state titles. The first was in 1969, a 66-56 win in Class I over Milford. That was followed by the 1979 title win in I over Pembroke, 77-51; the 1984 perfect 1984 crown, also in I, over Pembroke, 55-51. … Three Class M/D-III championships came in 2005 (55-48 over Conant); 2011 over Bow, 45-39, and 2018 over  Campbell, 53-38. … There was a little bit of controversy with the 2005 win. One of that team’s stars, DJ Gregoire, transferred to Somersworth from Kingswood after the Christmas break, raising questions about his eligibility. He played the rest of the season with the ‘Toppers, and then after the championship win, finished up and graduated from Farmington High School. … Somersworth’s 1,000-point scorers: Chuck Favolise (1976), Marc Roy (1979), Jim Perron (1982), Kyle Hodsdon (1985), Diane Soule (1991), John Coggeshall (1994), Larry Francoeur Jr. (1997), Melissa Heon (2000), Katelyn Rideout (2002), Rachel Hill (2013), Bryton Early (2018).