Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Boys Basketball 2011-2012 Season Preview - Division III

Our divisional season previews for basketball continue, and today we look at boys Division III. What a story Somersworth was last year. All year long all the talk was about Berlin, Mascoma, Bow and Conant - those were the 4 teams to beat, those would be the 4 teams to make it to SNHU for the Final Four.

It's a good thing they don't play the games on paper, because while those teams all had more individual talent than the Hilltoppers, nobody played like a TEAM better than Somersworth. They played hard, they played smart and, they were fast and they had a senior class which had been playing together for a LONG time. As a result head coach Lorne Lucas' team beat Conant in the quarterfinals, they beat Berlin in the semis on a miraculous buzzer-beating three pointer by Dillon Lanctot) and they beat Bow in the title game.

This year though it's a different story. Somersworth will still be a good team, they will still be a top 8 seed. But they graduated all 5 starters and 8 of their top 9 players. The door is open for a new team to take the trophy. And there's a pretty good chance that team will be the Berlin Mountaineers.

"9 of the 23 schools in our division have coaches with 2 or less years of coaching experience at their school" said one D-III coach. "How long will it take for these coaches and their teams to click?"

1) Berlin
2 years ago I went on record saying that Berlin would be the team to beat in D-III in 2011. Well, it looks like I might have just been a year off as these guys are definitely the team to beat in 2012.

"I don't think it's a secret, in listening to some coaches, that we have a target on our back to begin the season" said Berlin head coach Don Picard, who enters his 15th season at the helm. "Our starting 5 is solid and has a lot of post-season experience (finals in 2010 and semi-finals in 2011)."

It almost did happen for them last year, too. But in the semi-final loss their best player Curtis Arsenault fouled out with about 5 minutes left in the game. Then Lanctot (who rarely shoots the ball from beyond the arc) hit the buzzer-beating three to win the game. Don't get me wrong, Somersworth deserved the title. But if Arsenault doesn't foul out or if Lanctot doesn't hit that shot there's a VERY good chance that Berlin would be getting ready to defend their title right now.

So why are the Mounties so heavily favored to win it this time around? Well not only do they have the post-season experience from making it to the championship game and semis over the last 2 years, but they also have more returning talent than anyone else in the division.

6'1" senior guard/forward Curtis Arsenault is the best player in the division, no question about it. Last season he was the NH Notebook Player of the Year in D-III, and he's our preseason pick to win it again. He is a physical, relentless player who bullies his way to the basket and uses his strength to finish through contact inside. He's an excellent rebounder and defender, and over the last year he has also really improved his outside shooting and ball handling. Nobody plays the game harder and with more passion than Arsenault, he's a fun player to watch. He doesn't show boat, he doesn't try to do fancy moves or jack up ill-advised threes. He just plays good, tough, hard nosed, smart basketball - and he's a winner.

As good as Arsenault is, Berlin is much more than a one man team. The other 2 members of the "Berlin Big 3" are senior guards Sam Aldrich and Jake Drouin - the starting back court for last year's team. Not only did both of them start last season but they were both also key contributors to the 2010 team that made it to the title game. Aldrich is the team's point guard and creates match up problems because at 6'1" he has the ability to see up over the top of the defense to really see the whole floor to make good decisions with the basketball, especially vs. a press. He's a steady point guard who has a smooth pull-up jumper. Drouin meanwhile is one kid who you simply cannot leave open. He's the team's best long range shooter and can make shots off the catch or the dribble. Drouin is not afraid to take the big shot.

Completing the Berlin starting 5 is senior guard/forward Zach Bacon and junior guard Dimitri Giannos. Both of them were key players off the bench last season and look to take on a bigger role this year.

2) Conant
Conant gets the nod over Prospect Mountain (just barely) due to having more playoff experience and depth in the back court. Conant will not be a very big team, but they have A LOT of guards who are fast and skilled. The back court is led by 3 very good players with juniors Devin Springfield and Jake Carlson and senior Dan Sirois. Springfield and Sirois were both starters last year and Carlson got big minutes off the bench. Springfield is a preseason first team all-state pick. He's a natural scorer who can shoot the ball from the outside and can also slash to the rim. He's now an inch taller than last season at 6'2" and has also gotten physically stronger. Last year was a breakout season for Springfield, and this winter the guy on this team who is going to have a breakout year is Carlson - he was already a very good defender but has worked hard over the summer to improve his offensive skills to take his game to the next level. Teams won't be able to double team Springfield because if they do Carlson is going to have a field day. And if they focus too much on stopping those 2 guys than Sirois has the speed to be able to blow by his defender and make them pay as well.

Steven Hodgson (Ezra's little brother) was one of the division's top JV players last year. He would have gotten significant varsity minutes for pretty much any other team. Now this year look for the 6'1" forward to make things happen inside, with the ability to beat the opposing team's big man down the floor en route to easy baskets in transition. As good a defender as Carlson is, the Oriole's best defender might actually be senior wing player Keegan O'Hern. O'Hern is a relentless defender and plays with a lot of energy. Another strong defender is junior guard/forward Justin Howe, and adding yet even more depth to the back court are sophomore guards Kyle Carland and Robert O'Brien who will both pressure the basketball defensively and look to run and make plays on offense.

This is definitely not the biggest team in the division, but there's a pretty good chance that they're the fastest. Rebounding will be key for them with their lack of size. If they can hold their own on the boards they will win a lot of games. They have lots of speed, and lots of kids who can get up and down the floor in a hurry and can score the basketball. And they have a coach in Eric Saucier who VERY rarely loses basketball games.

3) Hopkinton
Over the summer Hopkinton had their best player (6'6" forward Mike Auger) transfer to the New Hampton prep school. They also had 6'5" sophomore forward Andrew Thomson transfer to the St. Paul's prep school. Meanwhile Prospect Mountain had a big summer, making headlines by winning games over Division I schools. However last week when the 2 schools met in a scrimmage it was actually Hopkinton who came out on top.

"We had a good run at Prospect Mountain last Thursday night, beating them 75-53" said Hopkinton head coach Dave Chase. "We may have surprised them a little with our guard play."

I know that you typically can't put too much stock in preseason scrimmages, but when a team scores 75 points on a team that had previously been looked at as a top 3 or 4 team in the division you can't help but take notice.

"Dave Chase has these guys in mid-season form" said Prospect Mountain head coach Tom Bourdeau. "They're a very good team."

Hopkinton has one of the division's best players in 5'10" senior point guard Frankie Beane. The return 3 starters and 5 key players from a squad that went 10-8 last year in the regular season. Plus they also have an incoming transfer to add to the mix, in 6'3" junior center Harry Legier who comes over from Hillsboro-Deering.

Beane is fast, has a high basketball I.Q., knows how to run an offense and is very good at scoring as well as creating offense for his teammates. The other 2 returning starters are 6'1" senior forward Jay White and 6'0" junior guard Steven Auger (Mike's twin brother). 2 other kids who both got major minutes last year off the bench who are also back for the Hawks are sophomore guards Liam McNicholas and Colin Paraskeva.

Look for this team to get out and run and pressure the basketball defensively. They definitely snuck up on Prospect Mt. in that scrimmage, but now the word is out. Watch out for Hopkinton this season, they're playing some good basketball. Scary to think how good they'd be if Mike Auger (a Division I college basketball prospect) was still there!

4) Prospect Mountain
No team in Division III had a better summer than Prospect Mountain. The Timberwolves went 8-9 last season but they have 7 of their top 9 players coming back this season and these guys look like one of the most improved teams in NH.

Prospect Mt. not only competed but they won A LOT of games in the BST Summer League. They won games against Division I teams like Trinity and Manchester Memorial, before falling to defending defending D-I champion Bishop Guertin in the league's 'Tournament of Champions.' The experience these guys gained over the summer gives them a HUGE advantage as they prepare for their season in D-III.

The Timberwolves were carried by 4 players in particular over the summer - senior guards Zack Drouin (a preseason first team all-state player) and Pat Cassidy and junior forwards Jay Mousseau and Austin Perrin. All 4 of these guys are very good, but Drouin is the star. He's a fun player to watch - not afraid to take the big shot, and he can beat you off the dribble or from the outside. He makes some athletic moves going to the rim and can finish inside against bigger players as well. Cassidy is a tough kid who always gives 100%. He's also a good shooter and is quick off the dribble. The Timberwolves have a nice balance between their outside play with Drouin and Cassidy and their inside play with Mousseau and Perrin. Mousseau is 6'4" and Perrin is 6'3", and together they form the division's best 1-2 punch inside. Together these guys dominate the boards and are effective inside scorers.

Providing even more size inside for the Timberwolves is 6'6" junior forward Logan Roberts, and adding depth to the back court will be junior guard Ethan Henderson and sophomore guard Logan LaRoche. All 3 of these guys got varsity minutes last season.

"I've got enough height to be able to get the ball inside, and when teams try to stop us inside I have 3 very good players that can drain the 3 pointer" said head coach Tom Bourdeau, who is in his first year as coach after coming over from Farmington.

5) Mascoma
Mascoma is a perennial contender in D-III, and with one of the division's top returning players you can expect that to once again be the case. The Royals have made the semis each of the past 2 years. They have a winning culture of basketball at the school, similar to what you see at Conant (basketball is a BIG deal at both schools). Good luck finding a parking spot or a place to sit for a game at either school!

Mascoma graduated the division's Player of the Year from last season (according to the NHBCO) in Conner Torrey. But at times their best player was actually junior wing player John Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald is one of the most athletic, high-flying players in the division. He's a slasher who can get to the rim at will and finish in traffic. Fitzgerald has the ability to play inside as well as outside and he has a motor that's always running.

Other players coming back for Mascoma who played key roles on last year's team are senior guards Ethan Dickinson and Riley Green and senior forward Kevin Kosiorek. Dickinson and Green can both defend and shoot the ball well, and Kosiorek is a physical inside player who brings rebounding and interior defense. The Royals also had a very good JV team last year, so look for more quality players to emerge as the season goes on.

6) Raymond
Raymond was one of the state's most improved teams last season, going from a team that missed the tournament entirely in 2010 to one that finished above .500 and advanced to the quarterfinals in 2011. And considering they return 2 of their top 3 players, 5 kids who played major minutes last year and 8 total varsity players off last year's squad it is a safe bet that they will be at least a top 8 seed, if not higher.

Raymond will be a team similar to Conant this season - not much size, but a bunch of small guards who are fast and can handle the basketball and shoot it. The major difference between the 2 teams is that Conant is MUCH better defensively. Last year Raymond struggled with getting stops defensively at times. And while they had a lot of offensive firepower, they were a jump shooting team so when the shots weren't falling the points were hard to come by. These are surely things head coach Rich Winget will look to improve on this season.

One thing you can't deny is that the Rams have one f the division's top back courts, which is led by the dynamic duo of 5'10" senior guard Joe Morin and 5'11" junior guard Jordon Richard. Morin is a very good shooter, but was a streaky shooter last year. Look for him to be more consistent this season. Richard was the team's most consistent player last winter - he's a tough-as-nails point guard who makes good decisions with the basketball, gets his teammates involved but can also score himself. Richard is also a tough defender.

2 other speedy guards who take on bigger roles on the team this season are 5'7" senior Eric Desilets and 6'0" senior Mark Wysocki. Desilets is a fast as any player in Division III, an absolute blur in transition. The key for him is being able to play at that feverish pace while not losing control and turning it over. When he has that balance he's a very effective player. Wysocki is a slasher who takes it hard to the rim and likes to get out on the break and run. Ben Sytulek, Tom Daigle and Tyler Peer are also returning varsity players. Sytulek has a good mid-range jump shot and is a nice role player who fits in well with the rest of the team, Peer is a quick guard who adds depth and plays great defense and Daigle is the team's only player you could really classify as a forward and at 6'2" he's the tallest player on the team as well. He's a physical inside player who rebounds and defends well.

7) Campbell
Well, the Josh Morgan era is over at Campbell High, so now what? Morgan was a 4 year varsity player, he was the Cougar's leading scorer for each of the last 3 years and he was only a junior when he scored his 1,000th point. Morgan is now playing ball at NHTI. Campbell also graduated starters Andy Lepine and Tyler Syphers and defensive stopper Jason Paquin. So how good will this team actually be now?

The answer - they'll still be pretty good. Why's that? Well, because they have a nice young nucleus of returning players which includes junior guards Max Gouveia and Jacob Morgan (Josh's younger brother) and sophomore guard Jesiah Wade. These 3 players were all getting their first ever varsity playing time last year so there were some ups and downs but they got better as the season went on. A couple of seniors who return are guard Kyle Mun and forward Chuck Neild, which gives Campbell 5 returning players who all played BIG roles on a winning team last year.

Then you also have 1 player returning from injury and 2 incoming transfers which help things out as well. Physical forward John Houston missed his entire junior season last year with an injury suffered while playing football. This year though he made it through football season healthy so he's back in the lineup to provide toughness and rebounding. The 2 transfers are 6'7" junior forward Caleb McKearin (transfers from Mt. Zion Christian Academy a school which no longer has a basketball program) and 6'0" senior Mike Vigeant (who transfers from Nashua Christian).

In a division where VERY few teams have any key players over 6'2" the transfer of McKearin could be one that really shifts the balance of power in D-III. He is still a work in progress but for a kid who's 6'7" he's very athletic and runs the floor well. Campbell will be good this year, but next year is the year to really watch out for them with that young nucleus of McKearin, Gouveia, Morgan and Wade all coming back.

"You can argue that we certainly have one of the toughest schedules (relative to division) around" said Campbell head coach Pat Roye, who enters his 7th season at the school. "We have a stretch after Christmas where Berlin and Conant come to us and we visit Hopkinton and Prospect, sandwiched around a trip to Pelham. That being said I really look forward to this type of schedule and I hope it will have us tournament ready in March."

8) Somersworth
Somersworth and Bow met in the title game last March, with the Hilltoppers coming out on top. All 10 starters in that game were seniors. Bow's 6th man was also a senior, and 3 of Somersworth's top 4 reserves were also seniors. In other words, of the 15 key players in last year's D-III title game, only 1 of those 15 players is still playing in the NHIAA (Somersworth's Drew Francoeur). Bow is likely to fade back into the pack this season, because not only did they graduate their top 6 players but their JV team wasn't one of the division's strongest either.

As for Somersworth they got hit hard by graduation losses. To put the Hilltoppers athletic Class of 2011 in perspective, as seniors these guys advanced to the Division V semi-finals in football, they also made it to the D-III semi-finals in boys soccer, they won the D-III championship in boys basketball AND boys hockey (that's right, 2 championships in the same season!) and their baseball team advanced to the D-III title game. That's quite the class!

So who's left? Well, Francoeur figures to take on a much bigger role on this year's team. He'll be looked upon to do a lot of the ball handling and scoring after last year when he was simply an 'energy guy' off the bench as a sophomore.

The big story with this team however is the transfer of Terrance Herbert. Herbert comes to Somersworth from Portsmouth High. He was the Clipper's starting 2 guard last year and was one of the team's top scorers before being dismissed from the team late in the season. Herbert instantly becomes the Hilltopper's best player, and he will team up with Francoeur to form an exciting back court duo. Both players are only juniors so watch out for Somersworth next year when they're seniors!

Other returning varsity players for Coach Lucas' squad include 6'4" senior forward Matt Robbins as well as Josh Jacques, Josh Ream, Zach Hill and Tyler Kretschmar. Robbins is a kid with good size and he did get some pretty good minutes off the bench for last year's championship team. He's gotten better over the summer and Somersworth is hoping that him and Kretschmar can provide an inside presence to balance things out with Herbert and Francoeur on the outside.

This team won't be explosive or as deep as last year. They will also be young and inexperienced. But you know that they're going to run, and they're going to pressure you on defense and show you different defensive looks to keep you off balance - that's their style.

NH Notebook All-State Team
First-team: Curtis Arsenault (Berlin), Devin Springfield (Conant) Frankie Beane (Hopkinton), Zack Drouin (Prospect Mountain), John Fitzgerald (Mascoma)

Second-team: Joe Morin (Raymond), Jordon Richard (Raymond), Terrance Herbert (Somersworth), Sam Aldrich (Berlin) Caleb McKearin (Campbell)

Preseason Player of the Year: Curtis Arsenault (Berlin)

Championship Game Prediction: Berlin over Conant

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