Thursday, October 18, 2012

JJ Donovan Fall Ball - Week 6 Recap

It might be football season, but in the Merrimack Valley they are always playing hoops. And on Wednesday and Sunday nights during the fall many of the top teams and players in the area play in the JJ Donovan & Sons Fall Ball, which is a highly competitive high school fall league for varsity squads looking to gear up for the upcoming winter season.

The league plays its games at the North Andover Youth Center and is run by Rick Gorman, the director of the NE Storm AAU program. This league is a good chance for kids from NH to get better, since overall the teams in the Merrimack Valley are faster, more athletic and play a more physical brand of basketball than they do in the NHIAA.

The teams from NH who play in the league are Salem and Pelham, and then you also have some NH kids who play for Mass private schools, like Central Catholic's Doug Gemmell and Ben Judson at St. John's Prep.

This Wednesday night they were all in action, and the NH Notebook was in the house to cover it. It was Pelham vs. Whittier Tech, St. John's Prep vs. Bishop Fenwick, Methuen vs. Salem and Central Catholic vs. Andover. Here's a recap of each game, with an emphasis on how the top NH kids played.

Game 1: Whittier Tech 56 Pelham 36
Tough loss for the Pythons in this one. It was close early, but Whittier just kept increasing their lead more and more as the game went on. Both teams pulled their starters with a couple minutes left to play and Whittier leading 50-34.

To be fair to Pelham, they only have 1 returning starter this season as the other 4 graduated (Erik Nystrom, Brett Bailey, Derek Defranzo, Anthony Spirou). Let's also remember that one of Pelham's top returning players (Kevin Cheam) did not play in tonight's game since he plays football.

As a result, Pelham had a lot of youth and inexperience out there, and they were going against a Whittier team that has 2 of the most athletic players in the Merrimack Valley. With that being said, you have to like the way junior guard Jake Vaiknoras played. Vaiknoras is the lone returning starter for the Pythons. He played his tail off out there, made some strong drives to the rim and played tough on-the-ball defense.

Others who played well for Pelham were senior forward Alex Newton, freshman guard/forward Keith Brown and senior guard Brad Pomerleau. Newton is a long, athletic player who can play inside and also hit the outside shot. Brown showed good maturity for a freshman, hit the mid-range jumper and rebounded well. Pomerleau is a quick, scrappy guard who is unselfish, always looking to hit open man.

Vaiknoras is the guy who really makes this team go, and you can look for him to be one of the top players in D-II this season. Throw Cheam in there and a full season of coaching under Matt Regan and this is a team that will once again compete for a top 8 seed.

So I said Pelham will compete for a top 8 seed in the NHIAA's Division II. Well who are the other top teams in D-II. Pembroke is the hands down favorite, they're the team to beat. The other top teams are Souhegan and Lebanon. After that you have a drop-off to the next tier of teams. That group includes Bishop Brady, John Stark, Windham, Merrimack Valley, Hanover, Portsmouth and Pelham. Those are the 10 best teams in D-II and then after that it's another drop-off to the rest of the pack, although Hollis-Brookline could be a sleeper team. Oh yeah, and if Gemmell was going to Windham High instead of Central Catholic, then the Jaguars would definitely be a Final Four team in D-II.

Game 2: St. John's Prep 66 Bishop Fenwick 47
The battle of the private schools here. It is also the battle of Sean Connolly - the school he played at vs. the school he now coaches at. Connolly is one of the best players to ever come out of Massachusetts, and in college played in the NCAA Final Four for Ohio State as a teammate with Michael Redd and Scoonie Penn. He played in high school for Bishop Fenwick but now coaches at St. John's Prep.

The lone NH kid in this game was Prep sophomore guard Ben Judson (Plaistow, NH). Prep has another NH kid on the team in Quentin Bullen (Exeter, NH) but he wasn't in the lineup for this one since he has the flu.

It was a close, back-and-forth game early, but then Prep went on a run to take a 30-19 lead at the half behind the strong all-around play of senior guard Tyler Dooley. He's a very fun player to watch - just goes all out every minute, the kind if kid who would run through a brick wall to help his team win.

Judson had a tough 1st half but kept his head up and did some really nice things out there in the 2nd half to help his team to the win. He got the ball up the floor on the break in a hurry and made some good dishes in the half court as well as in transition. Judson got in a nice rhythm in the 2nd half, making plays off the dribble for himself and teammates.

Prep pulled their starters with a few minutes left in the game, leading 60-35. They cruised from there for the 66-47 win.

Game 3: Salem 51 Methuen 44
I must say, I was very impressed with what I saw this evening from the Salem Blue Devils. It was my second time seeing them this fall, but this time they had their full compliment of players. It's only the fall, but this is a team that already has terrific chemistry and well defined roles for each kid. Rob McLaughlin enters his third season as the head coach at Salem. He has won the NHBCO D-I Coach of the Year in each of his first 2 years and he just might make it 3 in a row this season.

Salem has the look of a team that will once again be a top 5 team and contend for a championship in D-I. They are led by their 'Big 4' of 6-foot-2 senior guard Andrew Ruffen, 6-foot junior guard Michael Felix, 6-foot-1 senior forward Jack Hartman and 6-foot senior guard Steve Nugent. These 4 kids are all playing at a very high level right now and they all have excellent chemistry together. They're unselfish, they move the ball well on offense and they really get after it on 'D'.

Ruffen is the go-to-guy on offense, who can hit threes and put the ball on the floor and go to the basket. Felix is an extremely athletic kid who plays hard on both ends of the floor. I'll go ahead and say it right now - Michael Felix is the best defender in NH high school basketball right now. Hartman is a versatile kid who can score inside and out. And Nugent is the 'glue guy', who is tough as nails and makes big plays on both ends of the floor.

Salem jumped out to a quick 12-2 lead. Hartman scored inside, then faced up from the perimeter, took his man off the dribble, got to the rim and finished. But then Methuen really picked up their intensity and pressure on defense and got back in the game, cutting the Salem lead to 21-18 at halftime.

The 2nd half was a tight, hard fought battle. Nugent made a great steal, then Ruffen made a strong effort to clean up his own miss for a bucket inside. Then Ruffen hit a step-back three to put the Blue Devils up 32-26 with 9:06 left in the 2nd half.

As the game went on you started to see that even though Salem relies heavily on their 'Big 4' that they are also a deep team with a solid bench. Chris Carabello, Danny Nugent, Anthony Lopez and Brent Barrett all played well in supporting roles.

Nugent made yet another good steal, then made a solid pass up ahead to Carabello for a layup on the break. That came right after Carabello hit a nice turnaround jumper from 15 feet.After another Salem bucket they went up 41-30 for their largest lead of the game with 7:10 left in the 2nd half.

But once again Methuen turned up the pressure 'D' to get back in the game. Nugent made a strong drive and left hand finish, but Methuen had tied it up 44-44 with 2:14 left to play.

However Salem picked up their defense, holding Methuen scoreless the rest of the way. That's when Ruffen hit the shot of the game, drilling a clutch 3-pointer to put Salem up 47-44 with 2:00 left in the game.

Lopez then made a nice steal, and the Blue Devils made their free throws down the stretch to hold on for the win. Ruffen finished with a game-high 21 points.

So like I said, Felix is the best defender in the NHIAA. And guess what, folks? For the past 2 years the NHIAA's best defender has been Salem's Jonny Klecan who graduated in May. Felix is only a junior, so if he keeps playing tough 'D' then Salem could have the best defender in the NHIAA for a whopping four straight years. That's pretty impressive stuff if you ask me!

Oh yeah, and one other thing. So I said earlier that Salem has the look of a top 5 team in the NHIAA's Division I. So now you might be wondering who the other top 5 teams will be. Well I'll tell you. Manchester Central is the best team in D-I until someone beats them. After that you have Spaulding, Winnacunnet, Trinity, Salem and Manchester Memorial as the other teams that will be the top title contenders this season, with Nashua South and Manchester West also having strong squads.

Game 4: Central Catholic 69 Andover 47
By far the most anticipated game of the night, so it's fitting that it was the last game of the night. The head coaches for both teams might have been in the bleachers, and the game might not have counted in the standings. But make no mistake, these 2 teams went at each other hard and even though it's only October it had the feel of a regular season showdown.

The speed of the the game, the intensity, the physicality, the size of the crowd. All of it mad this seem like a regular season game. It was fun to watch.

The player to watch from NH in this game was Central Catholic senior forward Doug Gemmell (Windham, NH). He had a very good game, finishing with 17 points, 10 rebounds and 5 assists.

"Gemmell is the backbone of our team" Central Catholic head coach Rick Nault told the NH Notebook after the game. "He's one of our captains, and he's been with me on the varsity for 3 years."

Central really came out strong right from the opening tip. Andover got on the board first at 2-0, but then the Red Raiders went on an 11-0 run to take an 11-2 lead early. Gemmell was a big part of the run, as he made a great entry pass to the post for an assist, then followed that up with a strong move to the rim, splitting 2 defenders and banking in a shot in traffic.

Central's size and speed was too much for Andover to handle. Central goes 6'4" (Gemmell), 6'5" (Joel Berroa), 6'6" (Nick Cambio) up front, and even both of their guards are 6'2" (Tyler Nelson and Lucas Hammel). And the Red raiders just play a very fast, up-tempo game. You have to be able to match that speed and intensity or you will get blown out.

Andover went down big early, but then they slowly crept back in it as they started to hit some shots and started to match the speed Central was playing at. Andover got the lead down to 10, but then Central went on another run to take a 41-22 halftime lead.

Gemmell continued to play some great ball in the 2nd half. He caught the ball just outside the right elbow, made 1 power dribble towards the bucket, made a spin move and then banked in a shot from 12 feet away.

Central then really extended the lead, going up over 20. But once again Andover refused to quit. Senior forward Sam Dowden had a big 2nd half for Andover, with a wide array of moves and finishes on the low block while also hitting the outside shot.

Led By Dowden, Andover crept back in the game and cut the Central lead to as little as 10 points. But then Central would again answer back with another run of their own and cruise to the 69-47 win.

Andover is a good team, and there's no question they would beat pretty much anyone from the NHIAA. But hey, what can you say? Central is just better. They're too big and too fast. They're not terribly deep, but the Red Raiders' starting 5 is extremely good. Not only that, but they're unselfish and move the ball well. Central is the best team in the Merrimack Valley, the only question that we will have to watch as we get into the season here is how will they stack up against the other top teams in the MIAA?

One thing is for sure, Gemmell will be a big part of the success of this basketball team. He's a kid that doesn't get a lot of press but he should be. He plays hard and plays the game the right way. He's a tough, strong, physical kid who plays smart and has a well rounded game. he will play somewhere at the next level for sure.

Prospect watch: a closer look at who we saw tonight for NH kids who are college prospects...

Doug Gemmell, 6'4" Forward, Central Catholic (Class of 2013) - Central is one of the top teams in the entire state of Mass, and like Coach Nault says Gemmell is the backbone of the team. He has a strong, powerful, college-ready frame and uses that strength to muscle opponents on the low block for points and rebounds. He is also a very tough, physical defender in the post. Gemmell took his man off the dribble, hit mid-range jumpers, made good, smart passes and just plays a solid all around team game. What more could you want from a power forward?

Andrew Ruffen, 6'2" Guard, Salem (Class of 2013) - Ruffen missed his entire junior season last year with a knee injury, so it is very important for him to play well right now and into the beginning of his senior season to get the recruiting buzz going again. On Wednesday night he did just that, not only dropping a game-high 21 points on Methuen but more importantly his knee wasn't holding him back at all. He hit clutch threes, made plays off the bounce and really extended his defense and played tough pressure defense.

Michael Felix, 6'0 Guard, Salem (Class of 2014) - like it says above, this kid is the best defender in the NHIAA. Why do I say that? Because he's quick, he's tenacious, he jumps the passing lanes to tip passes and force turnovers. And simply put, he is all over the place, sprinting all over the court to wreak havoc on 'D'. Offensively he needs to improve his jumper but he is a very good slasher with an improving handle. Felix is a combo-guard who excels in an up-tempo style game.

Jake Vaiknoras, 6'0" Guard, Pelham (Class 0f 2014) - tough as nails is the best way to describe Vaiknoras. He's only 6-foot but plays much bigger due to his strength, toughness and fearlessness. Has the ability to get hot from the outside but in this game he focused more on pushing the ball on the break and attacking the rim off the dribble. Vaiknoras had some tough finishes, rebounds and steals. He's a small forward in a point guard's body, so it will be interesting to see how he develops over the next couple of years.

Ben Judson, 6'4" Guard, St. John's Prep (Class of 2015) - like I mentioned in the game recap, it was a tough 1st half for the young Judson vs. Bishop Fenwick. Fenwick was definitely keying on him, and some of the defense they were playing on him was good, clean, tough, hard defense while they also did a fair share of hacking and shoving that wasn't getting called. To Judson's credit, he kept his head up and his mouth closed. The in the 2nd half he got into a groove, creating a number of scoring opportunities, both for himself and his teammates. Judson's upside is undeniable, as he is only a sophomore but is already 6-foot-4 and can play the 1, 2 or the 3.

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