Milford’s “Big 3” make them the favorites
Class I has been topsy-turvy in recent years. Two of the past three champions entered the tournament as the #10 seed, and last year’s winner was 6th ranked Portsmouth. That makes it easier to fathom how this year’s favorite is a team that not only failed to make it to the semi-finals a year ago, but also lost their best player to graduation. Below is a breakdown of Milford, as well as the other top teams in Class I.
Ok, before you read any further, I'll warn you. This is a long, detailed post. If you want to read the whole thing keep reading. For a more condensed version of this post, check out my Class I preview on the New England Recruiting Report. It's right here.
The Top Dogs
1) Milford – The Spartans are the consensus top team heading into the season. Although they graduated Jasmin Handanovic, who was a 2009 first team All-State player and a 1,000 point scorer, the return plenty of talent. This year’s squad is led by the best trio of guards in the entire state in Mike Mitchell, Jamie Holder and Mike O’Loughlin. All three players are only juniors, but are extremely talented, and can put up points in a hurry. All three played high level AAU ball over the summer with the Granite State Jayhawks and Mass Rivals, respectively. Milford also returns two other key contributors from last year in senior guard Kevin Cyr and junior forward Kyle Nelson. Others who will contribute are junior forwards Scott McCallum and Dan Desmairas and sophomore guard Jovi Philbrick.
My Take: This is not only the favorite in Class I, but they might even be the best team in the state period. That's right, I think they would have a legit shot at winning Class L. They're that good. And they should be even better next year, with everyone returning except for Cyr. There are a couple things that could hold them back. One is the rotation that is used by Coach Dan Murray. Does he play he try to play everyone, keep everybody happy, give them all equal playing time, or does he stick with his top eight kids? If he sticks to his top eight kids, and sits his "Big 3" sparingly they will be VERY tough. This is Class I High Hchool varsity basketball. This isn't middle school. You don't play everyone. You play to win, especially with a group this talented. The other thing that could hold them back is defensive rebounding. Tonight vs. Keene, they gave up way too many offensive rebounds to the Blackbirds. They have to focus on getting defensive boards, and then getting out and running the break. Nelson and Desmairas will be key in that area. If they can answer both of those questions, watch out.
2) Pelham – Pelham has been a perennial contender in Class I ever since they made the jump from Class M a few years ago. Last season they lost in the title game to Portsmouth. Like Milford they also lose their best player to graduation. Justin Hojlo led the state in scoring last year with over 28 points per game, and now takes his game to Plymouth State. This year the team will have a more balanced offensive attack, and like Milford, Pelham will also be led by juniors. Forwards Stephen Spirou and Michael Lombard gained some valuable experience during last year’s title game run, and look to lead the Pythons back to UNH once again this season. Also adding size and muscle inside are seniors Josh Boissonault and Conor McColgan. Senior Sean Sweeney is another returning starter who gives them experience and is a lock down defender. The key newcomer is sophomore point guard Derek Defranzo. Defranzo, also a solid defender, is a tough kid who can handle the ball well and run the offense.
My Take: All of the parts are there for Pelham. They have size, toughness, defense, experience and rebounding. They have an excellent coach in Todd Kress, and two very capable scorers in Spirou and Lombard. Only question is can someone else step up and give them a third scoring option, because other than Spirou and Lombard the rest of the players aren't looking to score. The better question is, since the Pythons are so good at all of the other facets of the game, will it even matter? And finally, Defranzo will be forced to play A LOT of minutes. He played a ton of minutes vs. Trinity the other night, and that was just a scrimmage. And he has to play a lot, because when he's not out there, Pelham doesn't have anyone else who can run the point. That's a lot to ask of a sophomore, who played JV last year. Will he be worn down come March when the games matter most?
3) Oyster River – The Bobcats have also been a consistent Class I contender in recent years. They have been able to lose quality players and reload, and this year is no different. Gone are starters Tony Brownell, Zack Benuck and Jesse Brown. But the team returns a pair of talented seniors in guard Tommy McDonnell and forward Jack Nadeau. At 6’2”, McDonnell has good size at point guard, and Nadeau is a versatile 6’4” player who can score inside and out. The Bobcats also have a pair of junior forwards in 6'4" Adam Goodwin and 6'3" Alex Hennessey who will contribute. Goodwin missed the tournament last year, and also couldn't play basketball all spring, summer and for most of the fall with a knee injury. Junior guard Chris Walker will also be a key player, providing solid outside shooting.
My Take: Three good bigs, a do-it-all point guard who also has good size, and a sharp shooting wing. This team has what it takes to make a run deep into the tournament. This team seems to really have good team chemistry. They seem to all really get along. When things go wrong, there's no bickering or finger pointing that goes on. And that's a credit to head coach Stuart Mitchell, a very calm, level headed guy. As for the questions with this team. One is tempo. For the last couple years, Oyster River has been an up-tempo team. They like to run, push the ball up court and use their speed to their advantage. They have done this because they have lacked size over the last couple of years. In fact one of the main reasons why they lost to Portsmouth in the quarterfinals last year was because Portsmouth was a half court team, and they were able to make it a half court game rather than a fast paced game like the Bobcats preferred. Now back to this year's squad. When I watch them play, it seems like you have some players who want to run, and you have some players who want to slow it down and play half court basketball. McDonnell is your classic up-tempo, run and gun point guard. He is MUCH more effective in transition than he is in the half court. Nadeau is a player I think who can play either style. But the rest of the team, especially Walker and Hennessey are half court players. Goodwin also wants to slow it down, particularly while he's still recovering from the knee injury. So this team needs to get on the same page tempo-wise and find an identity. The other questions with this team are depth and whether Goodwin is fully recovered from off-season knee surgery. If they can answer these questions they'll be right in the mix.
4) Pembroke Academy – Pembroke is another team that has been a tough out year after year, especially since former UNH guard Matt Alosa took over as head coach two years ago. Not only did Pembroke graduate three starters, but they also had another one of last year’s starters move. Taylor Vasquez, a junior guard moved to Virgina in the fall. Luckily for Coach Alosa, he has one of the Class’s best players returning in senior guard/forward Sheldon Benson. Benson is one of the state’s most versatile players, at various points in a game he’ll play each of the five positions for the Spartans. The team also has one of the state’s best freshmen, guard Rene Maher, and guard Coleton Neely, who sat out last season. Senior guard Dalton Cheney and sophomore center Tyler Morrison will also start. Off the bench will be senior guard Jackson Riel, senior forward Brad Freeman and freshman guard Matt Persons.
My Take: People wonder how Pembroke can be ranked so high given the fact that they lost so much and return so little off last year's team. But they have two of the best freshman in the state coming up, and Neely didn't play last year. Then Morrison comes up from JV. And Cheney and Riel were on varsity last year but just couldn't get minutes with so many other talented players on the roster. Yes, Vasquez moving hurts them. But there is still plenty of talent there, and a solid eight player rotation. The question is whether these parts will be able to fit together, and how will they play as a team, considering a lot of these kids have never played together before, or at least not in awhile. Teams will likely double team Benson or at least focus there defense on him, will the other players step up and hit shots? Will Morrison stay out of foul trouble, because without him on the floor they have a very small team? Alosa is one of the better coaches in Class I, my bet is he gets the most out of this team.
5) Portsmouth – Last season’s champs were hit hard by graduation. They return just one starter, and they lose five of the seven players in last year’s rotation. Gone is 1,000 point scorer John Mulvey, gritty point guard Mike Fransoso, tough forward Zach Abrams, inside scoring and rebounding machine George Tsougranis and the underrated Alex Sherrill. The good news for the Clippers is that graduation and transfers hit many Class I schools hard, so he's not alone. And Jim Mulvey’s team also has a pair of talented sophomores ready to step up. Point guard Billy Lane is one of the fastest players in the state, and wing Kyle DiCesare has a good all-around game. They join returning starter Mike Barton, a senior guard/forward, and senior forward Mike Montville. Barton is a good leader, a smart player and an excellent passer. And while Montville will be the first to tell you that basketball is his third best sport, he is still a solid defender and brings experience to a team that is lacking in that area. Completing the starting lineup is forward/center Riley McCarthy, a 6'3" junior.
My Take: There were rumors that Montville wouldn't play basketball this year, so as to not risk getting injured and jeopardizing his baseball career. But he's playing and that is huge for this team. He's not very talented offensively, but he brings toughness, defense, rebounding and experience. This a team that is a little rough around the edges right now, and they might start the season a little slow since so many of their players played football and haven't played basketball since last winter. But they'll get better as the season goes on. They will be very balanced offensively; any one of the five starters could lead the team in scoring on a given night. However they don't have a great bench, it's decent, but the starters will be relied on for a lot. Nate Jones is a good defender and shooter off the bench and Quinn Haggerty gives them a big body to defend and get some boards. Offensively, I can see this team going through some major dry spells, especially early in the year, or when they play against good teams.
6) Souhegan – With so many of last year’s top teams being hit hard by graduation, Souhegan is one team that was not. They have some talented players coming up from a JV team which went 17-1 last year, and that’s why they’ll be vastly improved from their 6-12 record in 2008-2009. The Sabers will be led by sophomore guard/forward Devin Gilligan, junior guard Seth Cordts and junior forward Ryan Redmond. Also contributing will be senior guard Stephen Daigneau and junior forward Brendan McKenna. Others providing depth will be sophomore guard Jack Nelson and senior forward D.J. Petropulos.
My Take: Coach Heaney has plenty of talent. Getting them to play together is another story. It will be difficult since some of these players played together on JV last year, and some played on varsity. Also, like Portsmouth, this team has a lot of football players still trying to get into basketball shape. It might take them awhile to not only get used to playing together as a unit but also to get back into basketball shape. But the talent is there, they have size and they have skill. How far will they make it?
7) Hanover – Hanover won Class I three years ago, and they are always competitive. They also return their best player off of last season’s squad, junior guard Sam Carney. Carney is a tough player and a good scorer. Hanover is a solid defensive team with good size, led by 6’7” center Keegan Dufty.
My Take: I kept hearing about how good this team was, and expected to come home from their scrimmage with BG and move them up to at least the 4th spot or at least to 5th. But I wasn't impressed. They gave me no reason to move them up. Don't get me wrong, there are some solid parts here. They have decent size, they play solid defense and they play hard. Offensively they still have some work to do. They have Carney and they have another kid who is a good shooter, but outside of those two they lack offensive threats. Even Carney struggles going off the dribble against good defenders. Dufty makes a difference defensively and on the boards, but is still a work in progress offensively. Hanover has an easy schedule, they'll beat up on the other teams up north like Laconia and Kennett. How they'll do come tourney time against the other top teams remains to be seen.
8) Lebanon – The Raiders were a top eight team a year ago, and they return two of their top three players. Guard Dillon McCarthy and forward Jake Woodward are both seniors and will be relied upon to lead this team to the promised land.
My Take: Woodward and McCarthy gives Lebanon a good one-two punch. They graduated the majority of last year's key players, though. They'll be a good team, but they'll need some other kids to step up in order to make it to Durham.
9) Bow – Here’s another team that will look to take advantage of other team’s graduation losses. Bow struggled last year, but they return the majority of their talent. They’re led by one of the state’s best centers, senior Tom Poitras. Poitras is a 6’6” player who can score and defend extremely well. The supporting cast is led by junior guard Connor Hill. junior point guard Erik Michaud is a smart player and compliments Hill in the backcourt well.
My Take: Don't be surprised if this team finishes even higher than their preseason #9 ranking. They really get after it on defense, pressing their opponents for the majority of the game. They have good size, with three key players 6'4" or taller, and they also have good team speed. They take good shots and run the offense through Poitras and Hill, a pair of talented scorers. Poitras is also a very good shot blocker, and along with the Falcon's other big players, they'll be tough to score on in the paint. Their achilles heal is experience. Most of their team is back from last year, but they were a bad team last year, and have not played in any big games yet. I saw them scrimmage and dominate a bad Plymouth team at home, how they can do on the road against some of the better teams in Class I is yet to be determined.
Other Teams to Watch
10) John Stark – Junior guards Greg LeBlond and Steve Johnstone lead a feisty team that plays hard and is well coached.
My Take: LeBlond and Johnstone are a formidable backcourt, but are they enough? John Stark has some big bodies on its roster, but are they skilled enough to make an impact? This is a well coached team that plays hard, hustles, and gets after it on defense. They like to push the ball up the floor and create some easy baskets in transition. They will have to do that, because otherwise they will struggle to score against good teams. Johnstone is a good slasher, but isn't a great shooter. LeBlond is one of the state's most underrated shooters, but isn't great off the dribble. Clearly these two guards compliment each other well. But are they good enough, and will they get enough help for this team to finish higher than 10th?
11) Bedford – The transfers of Connor Green and Jared Fahmy hurt this team, but for a program in just its second year playing varsity ball they’ll be competitive. Key players for them will be junior forward Joey Maher, senior forward Tyler Weber and senior guard Mike Marinelli.
My Take: The major question for them is when will Joey Maher return from his ankle injury? He was their best player in their scrimmage vs. West. He is a very good inside player when healthy. But how long will he be out? He was walking around with a cane as late as Saturday afternoon. Also, this team has a lot of pieces, but can they get those pieces to fit together? I saw them scrimmage three times, and sometimes they play some great basketball, and sometimes it's like they've never played together before. This will be an interesting team to watch as the season goes on. I could see them finishing as high as 6th or as low as 14th.
12) Bishop Brady – Tyler Penney and Eric Feehan give Bishop Brady a pair of talented senior forwards to build around. The question is what kind of depth do they have, and will the guards step up?
My Take: Bishop Brady is the Pinkerton of Class I. They have a pair of dominant senior forwards, but little else to get excited about, and some definite coaching issues. Now I'm not saying Penney and Feehan are as good as Mathieu and Proulx, just making the comparison. Can this team get along, stay on the same page, and get some quality guard play? That will determine how many games they win.
13) Merrimack Valley – This team will be led by another good 6’6” center in Kevin Cressy. Neely played with Merrimack Valley all summer, but instead will be playing for Pembroke. That will hurt the Pride, since they lack depth.
My Take: Cressy is one of the best players in Class I, and one of the best centers in NH, but he can't do it himself. Neely was the only other player who stood out for MV over the summer, and he's now back at Pembroke. This team will need some other kids to step up, or it will be a long year.
Ranking the Rest
14. St. Thomas Aquinas
20. Plymouth Regional
My Preseason All-State Picks
First team: Stephen Spirou, Jr., Pelham; Mike O'Loughlin, Jr., Milford; Tommy McDonnell, Sr., Oyster River; Sheldon Benson, Sr., Pembroke; Kevin Cressy, Sr., Merrimack Valley; Tom Poitras, Sr., Bow
Second Team: Sam Carney, Jr., Hanover; Jamie Holder, Jr., Milford; Mike Mitchell, Jr. Milford; Mike Lombard, Jr., Pelham; Jack Nadeau, Sr., Oyster River; Jake Woodward Sr., Lebanon
Honorable Mention: Tyler Penney, Sr., Bishop Brady; Mike Barton, Sr., Portsmouth; Devin Gilligan, So., Souhegan; Eric Feehan, Sr., Bishop Brady; Connor Hill, Jr., Bow; Seth Cordts, Jr., Souhegan; Greg LeBlond, Jr., John Stark; Dillon McCarthy, Sr., Lebanon; Joey Maher, Jr., Bedford; Coleton Neely, Sr., Pembroke