We take one last look back at the 2016-17 basketball season.
Lingering thoughts from the four championship games…..
My pre-season prediction that Groveton would end the Division IV season as the #1 team was met with what could best be called a combination of perplexity and confusion.
Littleton after all was the defending champion and with pre-season player of the year Logan Briggs returning along with Cy Kezerian (who had hit the biggest three pointer of the 2016 championship game), Cooper Paradice (the starting point guard on the 2016 champs) and Gabe Anan (who we would learn was one of the most improved players in the division) Trevor Howard’s team was looking at a 16-2 finish in 2017. At worst.
Littleton had also beaten Groveton in 12 straight regular season games and just eliminated them at Plymouth State the previous March. That was followed up by a summer league in which Littleton continued to dominate a rivalry best described as The Hammer vs The Nail.
Littleton parents politely asked me if I had lost my mind when I spoke to them at the season opening game at Epping (another top 5 team that they would beat). The attitude was something akin to ‘We know you sleep in Mark & Louise Collins’ guest room every other February but….aren’t you even trying to be accurate?’
By the time we reached Plymouth State Friday night March 10th the narrative hadn’t changed a bit. Littleton had won both regular season games, including a 70-49 win in Groveton when the Eagles seemed to finally throw their hands up in the air in the fourth quarter, almost like a kid who feels like there are just too many leaves in the backyard to ever get this finished.
Groveton had symbolically slammed their rake to the ground; this was never going to get done.
Littleton’s confidence had grown to the degree of assurance. They didn’t feel that Groveton couldn't beat them they knew Groveton couldn’t beat them.
On this night though Groveton came out playing like there was nothing to lose. Mark Collins, he of six previous championships, told them to play aggressive. Go right at them and particularly, Logan Briggs, Littleton’s 6’4 center.
Groveton opened the game with a perfect outlet pass to Austin Lesperance for a lay-up…that he missed and followed that up with a perfect entry pass to Ryan Laverty for a lay-up…that he missed.
Groveton was being aggressive but the shadow of Littleton was too big for them. Or so it seemed.
Behind Briggs and Danny Kubkowski, one of the best freshmen in Division IV in some time, Littleton built a double digit lead deep into the third quarter. Groveton was still pushing at every opportunity and fighting for every 50/50 ball but Littleton was too big, too fast, and too precise.
Then things began to change.
Groveton got a bucket from Dylan Rogers, a senior who was saving his best stretch of basketball for his last three games. Perras, the emotional leader of the team, then hit Corey Gadwah, a three time all-state guard and five year starter who had beaten Littleton exactly zero times, over the top for a lay-up to cut the lead in half.
A crowd that had told me before the game (every ten feet I walked) ‘You’re coming north with us when we win’ now had a reason to believe.
Briggs, at 6’4 and the best athlete on the floor besides Kubkowski, stopped going to the basket and was instead looking for the dagger three to put Groveton away one final time. Littleton didn’t run offense; they started firing deep three’s.
Groveton responded by attacking the paint and running…pushing on every chance. Suddenly it was Littleton seniors not all getting back on defense and it was Gadwah pumping his fist in the direction of the 1,000 or so neighbors to his left as he raced back up the floor.
Littleton ran two full minutes off the clock with 3:30 left and a slim lead as Groveton chased and suddenly it was Littleton who looked like they just wanted to sneak away with the win.
Briggs missed at the buzzer and Groveton had forced overtime. All the momentum in the gym was with the team who had been down 12 late in the third.
In overtime Groveton kept pushing but Littleton made plays to win the game. Gabe Anan, their best player all night, scored to put the Crusaders back up but Groveton tied it when Perras knifed through two defenders as the Groveton crowd underneath us exploded and the Littleton crowd across the floor came to the realization that this wasn’t anything like the previous 12 games.
When Groveton got the ball back with 30 seconds left in a tie game they weren’t holding for one, they were looking for the right shot. They found it when Gadwah got a clean look from the corner, but his jumper was just off. Perras chased down the long rebound and reset. He glanced at his head coach Mark Collins who motioned to play it out. No timeout,,,run our offense.
Perras found Laverty at the foul line with 10 seconds left and as soon as the Littleton defender to his left squeezed in he kicked it out to Austin Lesperance. The junior guard never hesitated and drilled the biggest three pointer of his life.
Trevor Howard called timeout and Littleton had one shot to erase what had to seem to be the impossible. They weren’t losing to Groveton were they?
Paradice found Kezerian, a very good shooter, in the corner for a clean look for the game winner. It was headed front rim though and Kubkowki positioned himself to tie the game with a tip in. Rogers and Laverty crowded him and Perras got his hand on the ball, as he seemingly had all night long.
As the ball bounced away and the clock expired this became the movie with an ending a little too far-fetched to believe.
Hickory over South Bend Central. Balboa over Creed. Scott Howard over Mick the Bully. Ralphie finally beating up Scut Farkus until his mom pulled him off of him.
The Littleton players and their coaches lost with class….but they were shocked. This was their 43-0 run and their second straight title. Someone just took it from them, and that someone was the team they had dismissed twice during the season and all throughout their careers.
At midcourt Gadwah, Rogers, Laverty, Isaiah Stone (their energy off the bench), Perras & Lesperance embraced. Laverty too tired to talk and Perras not wasting a breath not to.
Mark Collins had won his seventh title as head coach. Groveton had slayed the team that owned them their entire careers and I was heading north.
One more overnight stay in Mark & Louise Collins’ guest room.
For coaches it can turn from ‘Feel good story’ to ‘You need to get this done’ in a heartbeat, or maybe just a single off-season.
Nate Camp and Kearsarge barely got by Franklin in the 2016 Division III quarterfinals, needing a missed free throw after the clock had expired to get to overtime. Were never supposed to beat Conant in the semifinals and were given little chance against Keith Brown and Pelham in the final.
In 2017 they were the pre-season #1 with 6’7 Tayler Mattos flanked by Tommy ‘gets off the bus, scores 20, gets back on the bus’ Johnson and no one was supposed to beat them.
It’s never that easy and for Kearsarge it never was. A brutal early season schedule that saw them play six of their first seven games on the road. Kearsarge was beaten twice, by Hopkinton and Stevens, and tested by teams like Campbell & Mascenic.
Mattos and Johnson had lived up to all the hype, maybe even surpassed it, but no third scorer had emerged and no believed you could win a title with two players handling 95% of the scoring.
Winnisquam was a 16 seed that hung around just long enough to make Kearsarge look vulnerable. Campbell proved you could score on this Cougar team a lot easier than you could when Trent Noordsij was at the front of the defense and Somersworth was in the game all the way to the fourth quarter. Bryton Early drilled back to back jumpers and Kearsarge was on the verge of being the author of someone else’s underdog story.
But Mattos wasn’t allowing it. He and Johnson finished a good Hilltoppers team off and only Stevens remained. The same Stevens team that beat them in the season opener and led by the O’Brien brothers Zach & Nick who aren’t surprised Justin McIsaac wants to manage their wrestling careers they’re annoyed they haven’t been signed already.
Stevens had the players (Parker Smith & Noah Spaulding among them) and the attitude to beat Kearsarge and for three quarters they did. Tommy Johnson though wasn’t going to let them. He buried jumper after jumper and drive after drive. Mattos, swarmed by multiple defenders all week, made every play and Nate Camp helped lead his team to the first basketball championship in a much decorated history that included great players like Tommy Brayshaw and Steve Lavolpicelo.
Next for a team that returns 11 of their 12 players comes the encore…..but in what division?
When the final buzzer sounded on Lebanon’s 59-42 championship game win over Coe-Brown KJ Matte didn’t fling the basketball to the top of the rafters, he simply placed it on the ground. KJ shared a hug and a kiss on the cheek from his dad Kieth Matte because they both recognized a long run was over. It’s neither easy to coach to your son or be coached by your dad but this seemed like two people who had pulled it off.
It is a very short list of kids who can say they advanced to at least the Final four in all four seasons of their high school career but for this Lebanon team it had come down to winning their last game.
Three straight losses to Portsmouth (twice in the semifinals and last season in the title game) had made a senior season for KJ, Ryan Milliken and Graham Chickering more about unfinished business than a dynasty.
So when it ended Lebanon smiled for the cameras and they hugged as ‘The voice of God’ (as McIsaac calls him) Sherm Chester called out their names one by one. For a team that probably felt judged for the rare losses more than the mountain of wins though it was only in the locker room, alone, save for Pete Tarrier & Jen Chick-Ruth, when they finally seemed to exhale.
The kids did their goofy dance and mugged for the video camera but more than that they finally let loose and seemed to catch up to what they had just accomplished. A 42-2 record over two years, with KJ Matte missing most of the 2017 season with a foot injury.
Lebanon is one of the smallest school’s enrollment wise in Division II, so their dominance speaks volumes.
After three tough shooting performances at UNH over two years KJ found himself with the ball in his hands in the second half on the left wing 22 feet from the basket. He went up in rhythm, just as he had so many times before, and this time drilled the three to extend an already double digit lead over a very good Coe-Brown team.
KJ never took another shot in the game. Put the ball on the floor after in ended and walked away. Hitting his last shot and winning his last game.
Putting the perfect finishing sentence on the careers of a very special Lebanon senior class.
The same kid who missed the front end of three one & ones against Bishop Brady in the 2015 Division II championship (chronicled here in our 'Four Greatest Games' special) as a sophomore was now shooting imaginary arrows at a packed Portsmouth student section as a senior. Christian Peete buried his fourth, of what would be five, three pointers against Bedford last Saturday afternoon and soaked in every second of his last high school game.
When the NHIAA two year scheduling cycle provided an opening for Portsmouth to petition up and Pembroke Academy to come back down Jim Mulvey jumped at it. The Portsmouth head coach who had been to eight Final Fours in ten years and won three titles wanted his team to play the best in the state. The only place to do that was in Division I, and so with the NHIAA’s blessing the Clippers moved up.
They began with a double digit win over the Boston City champions from New Mission high school in our Coaches for a Cause jamboree and rolled into the season with a 40 point win over our defending champion Manchester Central.
Surviving the loss for part of the season of 6’4 all-state center Joey Glynn the Clippers won every big match-up in front of them; Spaulding, Bedford, Merrimack, Winnacunnet & Exeter.
Every game Portsmouth played was treated like its own individual playoff game. Mulvey and his assistant coach/son John Mulvey had every team scouted and set recognized. When I joked about that in a column Jim said to me, “ People always talk like our film work is a bad thing. Here’s the thing…these kids work so hard, they deserve to be put in the best position to win.”
Win they did, relentlessly.
The rotation shrank as the season went on, leaving players like AJ MacManus and Jamel Shaheed, who would start for other Division I teams, largely on the bench. Glynn was the best player in the state, Cody Graham, playing with a painful PCL injury all season long, had a first team all-state campaign, Shon Parham was so grossly underrated that he finally became properly rated, Alex Tavares was the most improved player in the division and Christian Peete…where do you even begin with that kid?
Peete took every game as a challenge to shut down the best scorers in the division. He read the Division I scoring leaders on NHsportspage and took pride in knowing their average and maybe even their ranking was going down after he got done with them.
Every player knew their role and each one knew that if their coaches told them the other team would run a certain play, it was going to play out exactly as it had been explained to them. The kids didn’t have to worry about recognizing what was coming. They had already gone over that yesterday.
Portsmouth finished off a 43-0 run (the first round bye keeping them from 44-0) with MacManus drilling a three and an undefeated dance with Pete in the locker room.
They go down as an all-time team with Matt Bonner’s Concord teams, Tyler Roche’s Central teams, Corey Hassan’s Merrimack teams…the Memorial teams of the 70’s, the Portsmouth teams of the 50’s and every other team that stamped their place in history.
Portsmouth beat everyone in Division II put in front of them, moved up to Division I and beat literally every team in the division. Back to back titles, 43-0 and a team for the ages.
That’s what we all watched on Saturday.
The 12 seniors I’d send to represent the state of New Hampshire against Vermont………..
Bill Simmons yearns to be an NBA GM; I yearn to be put in charge of naming the New Hampshire Twin State Team. The selection process has been called a mess the last few seasons but members of the committee have been good enough to reach out to me to help with the event & the process.
This is a game we will have full coverage of but today here are the 12 players I would select to take on Bernie Sanders’ legion of high school all-stars to the West.
This year’s head coach will be Jeff Holmes of Exeter, who if he has enough practices to put in a couple of sets, will be a nice fit for a game like this. Future coaches should include; Matt Regan (BG), Eric Saucier (Conant, and how has he not coached this team yet??), Trevor Howard (Littleton) and Nate Stanton (Londonderry).
Center: Joey Glynn of Portsmouth
Easy pick. Glynn is the best big man in the state, he’s headed to play at the next level and is a true post player and rim protector. I can’t remember watching a player in the last nine years with better rebounding instincts than Glynn.
Forward: Cal Connelly of Spaulding
Connelly gives us size, at 6’5, to defend and his ability to knockdown shots from past the three point line will spread the offense out. He also is a very smart player with an ability to find the open man when the defense overplays him.
Forward: Jake Coleman of Londonderry
We’re going with a three guard offense and creating open space. Coleman can create his own shot, get to the rim when he’s overplayed and has proven, as a 2015 champion, to be a big game player.
Point guard: KJ Matte of Lebanon
Matte will be at his best with scorers around him. No one is better getting the ball up the floor with his head up and on this team every player he’s looking at is a scoring option.
Guard: Kevin Genao of Nashua South
Genao can handle the ball, get to the rim and he is an excellent passer. We want to attack Vermont off the dribble and have them chasing all game long..Genao fits that style perfectly.
Ryan Milliken of Lebanon
The best on the ball defender in the state. Milliken is a one man fast break and there won’t be a player on Vermont that can beat him up the floor.
Danny McKillop of Merrimack
You need an elite defender and McKillop can guard bigs that can shoot it. Last year’s Vermont team had a bunch of 6’4 shooters, that’s where McKillop comes in. When Tim Goodridge calls you one of the smartest players he’s ever coached…that’s good enough for me.
Alex Schwarz of Mascoma
Wait until you see what Schwarz can do with all of this talent around him…this kid is legit
Liam Viviano of Winnacunnet
Viviano could easily start, he’s a terrific passer who gets to the paint almost any time he wants. I’d be surprised if there were five players in the state who shot more free throws than Viviano did this season.
Logan Galanes of Keene
On every team I need a sniper…Galanes is mine for 2017. He plays hard and can knock down shots from all over. A player like this is itching to show everyone how good he is on the big stage.
Trey Carrier of Wilton-Lyndeborough
Very tough call. Logan Briggs was my player of the year but this game wouldn’t suit him, Jackson Rivers would fit well here but the pick is Carrier. He has the size and athleticism to fit right in with the Division I players.
Griffin Curtis of Salem
Last spot came down to Kyle Frank (Pelham), Matt Giroux (Concord..and he’s underrated) and Curtis. I went with Curtis because he gives us a little size, this is smaller team and we need rebounding. We’ll depend on Carrier, McKillop and Curtis off the bench to provide it.
Coming tomorrow: Part II which will include my rants on shot clocks & all-state voting, random thoughts on all four divisions and a look ahead to 2018)