There’s been a lot to love about each of the first five John Walsh-coached Danvers High boys basketball teams.
First off, they surprised us in beautiful ways each season, from winning two tourney games for the first time, to winning back-to-back (“Can you believe it?”) state D-3 titles, to winning 20 games when only 10-12 were expected and reaching the Division 2 North title game, then to winning ALL 27 games , including the D-2 state championship.
But I have loved this sixth Walsh-guided, Fantastic Falcon team the most — and for the obvious reasons. They had some good players returning, but they did not have any of their Big 3 frontline fortress back. They’d all gone to college. That meant mucho points and rebounds and feet no longer part of the mix.
The Falcons went from being the biggest, most feared quintet in the Northeastern Conference and Division 2 to one of the — supposedly — less dangerous groups in the NEC; especially since they were switching places with Salem in the NEC alignment, with the Falcons moving up to the NEC Large Division and Salem moving down, based on a regularly scheduled review of enrollment numbers.
To the surprise of none, the Witches ran roughshod over the NEC Small, though they barely got past Danvers in their one meeting (68-63 at Salem). As this is being written Coach Tom Doyle’s kids are prepping for tonight’s (Thursday’s) D-2 North semifinal showdown with Brighton at Beverly.
To the surprise of almost everyone, but not this observer, the Falcons were not expected to put up much of a defense of their NEC title (four straight NEC Small crowns, four straight NEC overall titles), not without any size, their tallest regular standing only 6 feet, one inch.
But powered by Walsh’s brilliant direction and the players’ maximum clutch effort, three-point shooting and trademark in-your-face defending (despite little or no bench depth, depending on the opponent), they captured the NEC Large in their first attempt, lost three NEC games by a combined nine points and finished a stunning 18-5.
Walsh had some serious talent to work with, thanks to the improved skills of whirling dervish Rashad “Rudy” Francois, Kenneth “Tre” Crittendown, Mike Nestor, Kieran Moriarty, Devonn Allen, Tahg Coakley and Justin Roberto.
It is not a stretch to declare the Falcons — the target of every team they faced this season as defending state champs — could have gone undefeated this past regular season as well. A controversial two-point loss at Lynn English, the team they beat out for the NEC Large title by one game; a one-point loss to Malden Catholic in the Saugus Christmas Tourney final, made possible by a missed long-shot miss, then an in-close put-back at the buzzer; the five-point defeat at Salem that went right down to the wire after the Falcons trailed 20-3 early; and the two-point loss at Beverly (68-66) in which the Falcons had good shots in the final minute that might have swung the pendulum their way.
They could have been 21-0. But 17-4 ain’t chopped liver.
It was pretty much inevitable that the team’s lack of depth and height would catch up with them in their MIAA D-2 state title defense. No matter how extraordinary was the six-man rotation’s endurance, team defense and team rebounding during the regular season, March Madness would likely lead to one game where those shortcomings would be obvious.
It happened against Brighton in the D-2 North quarterfinals. Leading 42-39 midway through the third quarter, the Falcons appeared to be sitting pretty. But from that juncture on, Brighton, with depth, speed, size and a Danvers-like pressing defense, was in control, The Falcons hung tough, tied at 53-53 for the last time, but Brighton rolled from their, even when Danvers closed within 63-59.
An unpleasant way to end their title defense, but the Falcons stood tall in defeat.
So yes, this is, honest to goodness, my favorite of these six historically successful — all lovable — DHS teams that made them one of four of the most successful programs in Massachusetts high school basketball annals dating back to the start of the divisional alignments in the early 1970s. And maybe next year’s group, led by Allen, Moriarty, Tagh Coakley and Justin Roberto, will surprise us as well with another strong team we love to watch.
For the moment, I salute Francois for his incredible energy level, his eclectic offensive repertoire and his ability to defense, make steals and rebound like no one else on the team.
I salute Mike Nestor for his gorilla-like defense and rebounding and mightily improved offense. If not for there being several teammates who could take over games offensively, he would have more than those two memorable offensive games.
I salute Tre Crittendon for his all-around intelligence, his three-point radar, his magnificent defensive thievery.
I salute Kiernan Moriarty for his underrated defense against bigger rivals virtually every night, his rebounding tenacity and his inside scoring threat.
I salute Devonn Allen for his electrifying ability to cash in those pullup threes a la Stephen Curry, his, like Francois, indescribable penetrations to the basket, his reliable rebounding and 150% defensive effort; and his ability to win more center jumps to start the game than his opponents.
I thank Tahg Coakley for his sixth man ability to shake things up and get the Falcon engine humming at both ends. He could prove to be a major offensive force next year, combining his three-point efficiency with his desire to plow his way to the basket inside.
I salute Justin Roberto for coming up huge the two games he filled in for the injured Allen and on other occasions when he canned a three here and there that made a difference.
I salute the little-used bench players for their patience, for pushing the regulars in practice and for their commitment to next season, when they will get the chance to become part of the playing rotation.
Lastly, I salute Walsh (and his staff) , for giving us a sixth consecutive team who exceeded virtually everyone’s expectations (yes, even the Year 3 and Year 5 state champions). It’s been a stretch that compares with the Larry Bird/Celtics era.
Six seasons for the ages. Nothing less.