This is the 86th team I have had the opportunity to coach since 1982, so even after getting destroyed in Salem in our first game of the year I believed that we could be a .500 team, and maybe even better depending on the competition. Well, we did finish at .500 with a 7-7 mark, tied for fourth place with Windham and Timberlane, but our record doesn’t tell the story of our season.
After losing to Salem we beat Nashua Catholic and Rundlett of Concord, but both those teams were weak. We only scored 23 points in Windham with Cam Champa getting 6 of them in an embarassing loss, then got hammered down in Timberlane with only 6th grader Ethan May’s 12 points keeping us from getting steam-rolled by the much bigger and more physical group from Plaistow. Then a week before Christmas we got crushed in Merrimack, even with 8 different players scoring we only managed 27 points. We had no answer for their superior size and speed. Six away games to begin the season, a 2-4 record, and a solid beating by four good teams.
Then three days after the Merrimack debacle, Salem came in to LMS for our first home game, and things changed. Suddenly, things clicked. The game began with Kyle MacEachern nailing two 3-pointers. Co-captain Sean Holland made several steals of passes, which we had been focusing on in our practices – anticipating the movement of the ball and moving into the passing lanes. May and Ethan Garofalo stole the ball off the dribble which led to some fast break baskets. Our defense suddenly was tough. Co-captain Dylan Jones scored all of our 2nd period points and we led 14-11 at the half.
Second place Salem made a solid run at us after the half. Sean Holland covered their big gun who had scored 16 points against us in the first game, but only 3 with Sean on him. And then center Jack Connors took over the game, and our season changed. We scored 21 points in the second half, Connors had 14 of them. He had almost 20 rebounds in that game, and close to that total, or more, every game after that. Often against bigger people. We won that game 35-33 when May and MacEachern stole the ball on Salem’s final play.
We then beat Nashua Catholic by 15 and Rundlett by 19. Our defense kept both teams under 30 points. We got some good ball movement from Landry Broadhurst in the new offense we were running which we put in to help our smaller guys get off their shots. And it was working. Kyle Dickson’s shots started falling and Shane MacNamara had open lanes to the hoop as they hit for 24 points in the two victories.
But the next two teams who were coming into LMS – Windham and Timberlane – had embarassed us and I was eager to see how this young team I had would respond. Against Windham we took a half-time lead and then in the third we scored 22 points to crush them. Final was 57-23. We were flying. Tight defense. Dickson had 8, May 9 and Connors 17. Jeb Collins was hitting from the outside. And big forward 7th grader Pat Zepf began playing very aggressively. He ended with 4 fouls, which was good. We needed him to be tough on the boards and from that game on he was. We were now 6-4 and Timberlane was coming in.
The Timberlane game was a real dog fight. They are big and physical. They intimidated us down there, but not in our gym. We led 24-19 at the half behind May’s 10 points.Timberlane roared back to tie the game 32-32 after three, and then went ahead by five late in the fourth period. I called a time out then sent 5 guys out with the simple instruction “Time to play with the big boys. Go out and win the game”. Sean Holland hit a two and a three. Jones and Connors hit two hoops each. Defense got tough. And May hit 3 of 4 free throws to ice the game and we had 5 in a row with a 50-44 victory.
Three games left and we needed one win to secure a play-off spot. Goffstown came in on the 22nd. We had not played them yet. Both the Windham coach and the Timberlane coach told me they were a football team. Just banged the heck out of you. And that is what they were.
Knowing that, our game plan was to drive on them, get them in foul trouble and win the game at the free throw line. The first 8 games of the season we shot free throws at a 35% pace. But we worked on them every day and the last two games we were at 65%.
Goffstown starters were much bigger than we were and so much more physical. Faster, too. They led 32-14 at the half, but some of their guys were in foul trouble. I got a technical foul for complaining a little too loudly that we were getting banged and thrown down all over the floor with no calls. And we were! As the third quarter progressed Goffstown had guys in trouble and we started the long comeback on their subs. We made up the 18 point deficeit and tied the game at 37-37 mid-way thru the fourth. Ethan Garofalo with the quickest 14 points I have ever seen in the third was a one man gang. Once again during a time out I sent the guys out to “win the game”. But this time we made a few turn-overs and Goffstown took a two point victory. Our strategy was solid. We got them in foul trouble and we went to the line. But we only hit 5 of 23 free throws. You do that and you don’t deserve to win. It cost us the game and a chance at the play-offs.
We lost in Goffstown 2 days later by 10 points. We now had to beat undefeated Merrimack to guarantee a play-off spot. Merrimack had not been seriously challenged all season. They were a lot bigger than us with four guys as big or bigger than my biggest guy. They shot the ball well. They are a solid basketball team. They went up 13-2 after one quarter. We couldn’t match their speed or size. Then Jake Holland drove hard twice to the hoop, hitting a running shot, and MacNamara hit from the outside, and when the third period ended six guys had scored and we were only down by 7. Broadhurst made some nice plays, and Zepf and Connors began to control the boards, but Merrimack added three to their lead 38-28. The fourth period was all Dylan Jones. He drove to the hoop for ten points and ripped down rebounds. With 18 seconds to go and down 44-41 we had a three point shot clang off the front rim. Merrimack got the rebound and the game. I could not have been prouder of these guys, even had they won. I played every player on my squad. Merrimack played only their starters and two other players who saw just a few minutes. Their height advantage was huge. They were faster and stronger. Yet we almost pulled it off. And not because Merrimack played poorly, but because we played terrific basketball.
As I have said before, this is the smallest and youngest team I have ever had. But the biggest problem was not having a returning player. Not having players that knew how fast and physical this level is. It took a while for the boys to grasp what was needed to be successful at this level, but we were playing good basketball the second half of the season.
Not all the boys will move on to the L team next year. The 5th and 6th grade LBC team has some talent. I am already looking forward to next year.