1 league, plenty of intrigue
Easthampton High School left the Hampshire League due to realignment during the offseason, leaving the HL with just nine teams. That has caused the league to do away with the East and West Divisions and instead put all nine teams together for one league this fall. And what a league it is shaping up to be.
Many coaches feel that this season could be one of the strongest crops of HL teams in recent seasons and that would be saying something. Over the past six years, the HL has produced three Western Mass. champions and two state champions, including last winter’s Smith Academy team that won WMass Division III before losing in the state finals to Danvers High School. Greenfield High School also made the WMass Division II finals last season but fell short to South Hadley.
Both Greenfield and Smith Academy bring back a number of players from a season ago and should once again be at the top of the league. Turners Falls High School and Mahar Regional School are also primed to compete for the HL title and both should make noise in the postseason. Hopkins Academy, with a new coach, is an up-and-coming program, while Pioneer Valley Regional School and Frontier Regional School are both teams that should not be taken lightly. Athol High School and Mohawk Trail Regional High School should also be improved over last season.
“I think it’s great,” Mahar coach Chad Softic said of the balance in the league. “There’s going to be competitive games every night. I think it’s going to be a great league this year.”
There is also the matter of the postseason and where teams fit into that now that the state has expanded to a Division IV. Franklin County no longer has any Division II teams. Instead, Athol, Frontier, Greenfield, Mahar, Mohawk and Pioneer fall into Division III, while Turners Falls, Hopkins and Smith Academy will play in the Division IV tournament.
Here’s a team-by-team look at the HL:
While Athol did not end its postseason drought, the Red Raiders did see improvement.
The Red Raiders ran their postseason-less streak to seven years last season, the last time the team making the tournament coming back in 2005-06, but the team did win seven games, the most it had won since the 2007-08 season.
“I think our program took a step in the right directions,” third-year Athol coach Jason Donovan said. “The kids worked and bought into the system and they are buying in to what it takes to win.”
The Red Raiders will be without a major offensive piece from a year ago in center Adrian Sexton, who averaged 17.3 points per game and was the top scorer from Franklin County in the HL. Donovan admitted that no team is able to replace a player of Sexton’s caliber with any one player, and that the Raiders will have to change up their style this season.
“We are not a post team this year, we are more guard oriented,” he said. “We want to get out and run, but we need to run with a purpose. Anybody can run, but you have to run smart. If it’s not there, you need to pull up and set up the offense. Don’t try to force things.”
The Red Raiders return their third, fourth and fifth scorers from a season ago in seniors Brad Bousquet (guard), Andrew Poor (forward) and Alex Page (guard), who all scored in the 5-6 points per game range. Forward Jerry Parker is the fourth senior on the team. Junior Zach Dodge was second on the team in scoring as a sophomore with over eight points per game and returns to play guard. Juniors Eric Aikey, Tanner Pavilionis and Kevin Hume are all forwards. Sophomore Mark Brighenti will see time at forward, and classmate Bryce Melanson is a center, and both are new to the team.
Frontier coach Ben Barshefsky will talk to a very different-looking starting lineup this season.
The fourth-year head coach lost all five of his starters from a year ago and will have his hands full if the Red Hawks plan to continue a postseason streak that has reached 14 years. The last time Frontier did not reach the tournament was the 1998-99 season.
Frontier will be without its top four scorers from a year ago including Paul Decker and Peter Watroba who combined for over 28 points per game between the two of them.
“We certainly did lose a lot of scoring and one thing that we’ve been stressing since Day 1 is that we need to share the basketball,” Barshefsky said. “It doesn’t matter who scores. I think the guys have taken that to heart and we’re seeing a lot of good things early.”
Senior Niko Ames will step into the point guard this season after coming off the bench last winter. He will be joined in the backcourt by classmate Ben Ruddock, who was another bench player last year. Sophomore Justin Farrick is a first-year varsity player that can play up to four positions and is likely to be a starter. Junior forward Tim Hoar is the top offensive returnee with 4 points per game, but that was coming as a bench player. Junior Dylan Talbot played sparingly last season but is likely to start at center.
Juniors Ian Blight (forward/center), Nick Olszewski (guard), Nate Deskavich (guard/forward) and Jeremiah Waite (point guard) are all bench players, as are sophomores Nolan Muzyka (forward) and Ayanda Himlin-Mayekiso, who is a 6-foot-5 player from South Africa that will play power forward and center.
Frontier lost in the first round of last year’s WMass Division III tournament to St. Joseph’s-Central High School.
The en vogue pick to win the WMass Division III title this season, Greenfield will have its work cut out for it.
The WMass Division II runners-up from a season ago lost just one player in Tyler Miller, who scored 7.3 points per game but did a lot of the little things that go unnoticed. With just one player gone, the Green Wave has been a popular pick to make another deep run into the tournament. But that’s not going to be easy.
Forward/center Lew Borden is still nursing an ankle injury he suffered during football season and will be out until at least January. When he comes back, there’s no telling at what percentage he will be playing at. There is also the question of a hangover, which the team seemed to be suffering from early in the season, since at the writing of this, Greenfield is 0-2, including a loss to Taconic High School, which it beat in the WMass semifinals last season. Green Wave coach Scott Thayer said all these factors have not gone unnoticed to him.
“I told the guys that they can not feel entitled,” he began. “You’ve got to come to play hard and work hard. We are going to miss Tyler Miller. We don’t really have an identity right now. There was quite a bit of excitement here last season, and that was due in part to the hard work the kids put in. The one thing I tried to explain to them is that they should feel proud and understand what they did, but they should draw on those experiences and use them within the framework of this season.”
The loss of Borden early in the season, compounded with the loss of Miller, means the Wave will be without two of its starting big men from a year ago.
“Lew brings a lot, especially defensively, and he and Tyler were guys that could cover a lot of ground quickly,” Thayer said. “They covered a lot of our sins.”
The good news for Greenfield on offense is that it was among the least selfish in the league a year ago. Despite winning 20 games, the leading scorer on the team was Borden with just 11.7. However there was only a five-point dropoff between him and the sixth-highest scorer on the team, giving Greenfield multiple threats. Greenfield will also have seven seniors this season, including six with a good deal of varsity experience. Robin Marchese is the team’s point guard but may in fact be more of a shooting guard. The sharpshooter was second in scoring with 9.4 points per game last winter. Senior forward Garrett Hudson was fourth on the team with 7.1 points per game and will have to pick it up with Borden out. Senior Vincent Funari is another guard/forward that picked up his play late last season and finished with 6.9 points per game for the season. Senior Connor Eckstrom is another forward/center that will also have to pick up his play with Borden out after finishing with 6.7 points per game last season.
Parker Hickey is another experienced senior that can play guard or small forward and finished with 5 points per game last winter. Forward/center Paris Felogloy is a first-year varsity player and the seventh senior on the team.
Junior guards Ryan Roberts and Tim Cooley are to players that can help the Wave handle the ball and will score when needed, while junior Hazon Thomas is a first-year center. Freshman Connor Joy is the future of the program and should make his presence felt at the point guard this season.
The other loss facing Greenfield this season is former assistant coach Angelo Thomas who takes over the head job at Hopkins.
The Golden Hawks are a team on the rise, winning just two games last season, a number they should surpass with ease this season. As of this writing, Hopkins already has one win this winter and it should only get better.
“It’s exciting right now,” Thomas said. “The kids are working hard. They are really listening and paying attention to the details and following through with understanding what team is all about. They work hard, they listen, and they do everything that is asked of them. For a coach, it doesn’t get any better.”
Hopkins has all five of its starters back this season and the reason for the growing excitement around the program is that the starting five still only contains one senior and one junior. It’s the not-so-classic case of a very young, but experienced team that should have no problem easily building on the two-win season from a year ago.
“It’s the old cliche that you’ve got to learn to lose before you can learn how to win,” Thomas said. “They weren’t losing because they were not talented, they were just young. It’s their time now to make their mark in the league and establish themselves as a quality team. Somebody that other teams don’t want to play.”
The team returns a pair of sophomore guards in Spencer Butterfield and Brett Morrison, as well as sophomore center Greg Pipczynski. Junior Zach Kelly and senior Andrew Omer will play at the forwards.
The bench is made up of five players, all back from a season ago. Juniors Ethan Sanderson and Alex Curran are reserve guards, while juniors Matt Pipczynski and Joe Yusko joined sophomore Patrick Michalak as the forwards on the bench.
The 2007-08 season is now a distant memory for Mahar.
That winter the Senators finished an abysmal 1-19 and were the worst team in the Hampshire League. Since that time, the program has qualified for five consecutive western Mass. tournaments, winning one WMass and one State Division II title, both coming in the 2011-12 season. Last winter the Senators went 15-5 and again made the Division II tournament, but the team fell to Taconic High School on the road in the quarterfinals.
This season is again shaping up for the Senators to make a run at the tournament, although they will now play in the Division III playoffs. Mahar lost just one of its top four scorers from a season ago and coach Chad Softic should have the players to put the team in position to win every time it goes out. He admitted that there are still some question marks, however, and it’s up to the players to play up to their potential.
“Talent-wise, we can definitely make some advances this season,” he explained. “I still haven’t figured out if they have grown up. We need to be more mentally tough this season than we were last year.”
The Senators top offensive threat is senior guard Brendin Woodard, who led the team with 12.2 points scored per game last winter. That number could be on the increase this winter because Woodard is expected to get a break from having to run the offense from the point guard position. Those responsibilities will fall on sophomore Malik Adams, who saw some time last winter on the varsity team. If Adams can handle the ball, it should free up Woodard for more of a scoring role, which the team will need with the loss of Joey Whitman from a season ago, who took 11 points per game with him and was the final starter left from the state title-winning team.
“I think Malik, with his play-making abilities, is going to take a lot of pressure off Brendin,” Softic said.
Another player that is tough to scheme for is senior forward Troix Adams, who scored 18 points in the Senators’ season-opening win on Saturday. He will be joined up front by junior Nick Slattery, who quietly finished last season with 7.9 points scored per game and could rise above 10 per game this season. The battle for center falls to seniors Jake Paul and Joey Verheyen.
Junior Drew Patria will be one of the first forwards off the bench, while senior Nick Zanga, sophomore Austin Leary and freshman Bryce Cleveland are other forwards on the bench. Senior Zach Adams and junior Brenden Walker are guards that will come off the bench.
Mohawk comes into the season as a bit of an anomaly.
The Warriors won just two games last season but that was with a mostly senior-laden team. The squad has a lot of turnover this season, but is comprised of four seniors and seven juniors, so it’s not exactly young. Besides the seniors, the Warriors also lost Josh Willis, who school-choiced to Pioneer and was a 5.1 point per game player last year, ranking him third on the team.
“We are obviously looking to improve,” coach Fred Redeker said. “We are a little more athletic this year, but we lack experience at guard. We also need to rebound the ball better to help us stay in games.”
Of the top five scorers from a year ago, the team returns just one, although it’s a big one in senior guard Mark Buck, who led the team with 10.6 points per game. Buck is not afraid to shoot, and the ball will be in his hands a lot as he starts at the point guard position this season. He will be joined in the backcourt by junior Stephen Reynolds, who was a bench player last season, but is an athletic player. Senior Sean Eckler will start at one forward, while juniors Alex Dekoschak and Jay Fortier will also start up front. Fortier is the top scorer of the bunch, averaging 5.4 points per game last season.
Senior center Javier Morales is a transfer from Athol who saw varsity time last season off the bench. Senior Rowan Jones and junior Dylan Williams will also come off the bench for the team. Juniors Levin Fink, Austin Reid and Levin Dupree will sub in at the guards.
Redeker hopes its the recipe to a more competitive season for the Warriors, who have not made the postseason since the 2008-09 season and have won a total of 14 games in the four seasons since that.
“We need to do a better job controlling the ball this season,” Redeker concluded. “I think we gave away quite a few possessions. For a team that has trouble scoring, we need to get quality possessions and take care of the ball.”
Pioneer has now come up two wins short of qualifying for the tournament in back-to-back seasons.
The Panthers have not made the tournament each of the past three seasons and bring back a number of top scorers that could get the team over the hump. They also return head coach Dave Hastings, who after some offseason turmoil regarding his future with the program, returns to the post this season and is excited at his team’s prospects.
“I would say we should be better this year,” Hastings said. “I believe we can compete with anyone in the league. I think the league as a whole is on an upswing. There should be many great battles this year.”
One thing Pioneer does not lack is a proven scorer, as the team returns three of its top five offensive players from a year ago.
“That’s the strength of our team,” Hastings said. “Anybody, on any given night, can be the leading scorer. You could see a bunch of people with 7 to 10 points rather than one person with 20 points.”
Seniors Lee Doiron and Lennon Robichaud are the top two returning scorers, finishing 1-2 last season. Robichaud, a forward, led the team with 11.9 points per night, while Doiron, a shooting guard, was second with 9.6 points per game. They will be joined in the starting rotation by sophomore Brad Hastings, the point guard on the team who sat fifth in scoring last season as a freshman with 4.7 points per game. Junior center Jake Hale will also start after seeing spot duty last season.
Hastings said their is still an ongoing battle for the fifth starter. Senior Cody Celino is a reserve center that was a bench player last season, while classmate Devin Knecheter is a backup guard. Junior forward Kyle Artus is going to see plenty of time and could be the fifth starter after scoring 4.7 points per game last winter, while classmate Eric Pratt is another forward on the bench that averaged 2.6 points per game in a reserve role last year. Junior Josh Hill is a backup guard making his varsity debut, and junior Josh Willis is a center that comes over from Mohawk after scoring 5.1 points per game last winter and should be a major contributor.
“I think we’re hungry,” Hastings concluded. “They’ve missed the tournament the past couple of years and for kids like Lee, who is a four-year varsity guy, they don’t want to end their careers without making the tournament.”
Smith Academy (22-4)
The target will be on the back of Smith Academy this winter.
The Falcons went 17-3 and won the HL West, then won four games in the Division III tournament to win the WMass title. The Falcons defeated Littleton High School, 72-56, in the state semifinals, but dropped a 66-50 decision to Danvers High School to finish second in the state. Now, the team will have its work cut out to stay at the top, something that is not lost on coach Matt Zerneri.
“We say that it’s easy to get to the top, but it’s difficult to stay there,” he said. “I think the kids are really buying into it. We stressed the other day in practice that we’ve been the group that hasn’t had a bullseye. We’ve kind of flown under the radar. Now, no matter who we are playing, we are going to get that team’s best shot.”
The Falcons will also have to adjust to life after two major contributors from last season. Guard Mat Sulda developed into one of the most dangerous offensive players in western Mass. And big man Seaver Rickert was less talked about, but equally dangerous in the offense.
Senior Derek McMahon is back to run the point and he will be a big part of the team’s success this season. Senior Keith Natale is finally a senior and he will play forward but is dangerous all over the floor, with his ability to shoot from the outside, as well as his ball-handling abilities. He is cleared to play after battling mono and is ready to go according to his coach. He should be among the league’s top scorers. Junior Christian Smiarowski will take over for Sulda at the two-guard, while classmate David Longstreeth returns to play forward. Junior Zach Liebenow will replace Rickert in the post and is developing into a strong player that Zerneri has been impressed with early in the sseason.
Senior Will Halloran will be the first guard off the bench and will be a major contributor, while junior Tanner Natale will be among the first forwards off the bench, and junior Austin Rogers will give Liebenow a break. Seniors Trey Thompson (guard) and Bobby Gagne (forward), join juniors Joey Thomas (guard) and Joe Afflitto (guard) as bench players.
Turners Falls (14-7)
A sleeper by many, Turners Falls may have the look of a team that could compete in the WMass Division IV tournament.
The team returns its top three scorers this season, and was able to add a little size into the mix with the addition of junior Tyler Charboneau and sophomore Jalen Sanders, neither of whom played last season, but both tall kids. Size was the biggest issue facing the team last winter, and with the loss of center Summer Forest-Bulley, the team was not getting any taller.
“Our size is our biggest weakness,” Indian coach Gary Mullins said. “I think we’ve got some kids that can shoot the 3, so I think we have that option to help us spread some defenses. But the more I watch basketball, the more I see you have to protect the rim. The big Duke fan that I am, they don’t have anyone that can do that this season and they struggle against bigger teams.”
The Indians do return senior forward/center Malcolm Smith, who led the team with 14.2 points per game last season and is primed for another big year. The starting backcourt for the Indians is senior Melvin Moreno and junior Liam Ellis, who give the Indians one of the most potent scoring tandems in the HL. Ellis, who is developing into one of the top guards in the league, finished second on the team in scoring as a sophomore with 13.7 points per game, while Moreno was just back at 11.5 points per game.
One player the team will miss is Wyatt Bourbeau, who was a top defensive player in the HL last season and used his quickness to make up for his lack of size, leading him to average 10 points per game last year. One player that will try to pick up those minutes is junior Nick York, who has not only grown in stature, but has also developed into an even more dangerous threat from downtown. He will start as a third guard/small forward. Charboneau and Sanders are likely to battle for the final starting spot.
Eric Ferguson is a senior that gives the team some size and depth on the bench, while junior Zack Wright is making his varsity debut and will be a reserve forward. Junior Emmitt Turn and freshmen Tionne Brown and Ricky Craver are backup guards that will all see time.
“I think the last two years, we’ve really progressed as the year went on,” Mullins said. “We can’t get in foul trouble, either. We need to be tough defensively, and sometimes that means being physical, but we can’t afford to have kids going to the bench.”