Senators, Falcons could be class of HL
For the second time in four years, the Hampshire League celebrated a state title last winter.
Mahar Regional School won the HL East and finished with a 17-3 record, then won five tournament games en route to the Western Mass. and State Division II championships.
Frontier Regional School had last celebrated a state title, winning Division III in 2008.
The Senators lost four starters from last year’s team, but rumor has it that coach Chad Softic has some up-and-coming players capable of filling those vacancies, leaving the Senators as one of the early-season favorites in the East. Smith Academy may have the best offensive player in the league, while Greenfield High School is another major player with a lineup full of juniors that are all back after the team went 13-7 a year ago.
The league season opens tonight with five games. Here’s a look at the league, starting with the East Division, in the order of finish last year:
It’s tough to improve upon winning a state title, but that’s exactly what Mahar is looking to do this season.
The Senators made an improbable run to the state crown, earning a 45-41 win over Brighton High School in the title game. The Senators were seeded No. 1 in the WMass tournament, but many thought the team to beat was No. 2 South Hadley High School. The Senators proved they were deserving of the top spot as they knocked off Easthampton (70-54) in the quarterfinals and Drury High School (44-43) in an overtime nailbiter in the semifinals, before completely shutting down a potent South Hadley offense en route to a 47-31 win in the WMass final.
The momentum did not stop, as they continued to use strong defensive play to topple St. Bernard’s High School, 58-36, in the state semis before edging Brighton in the title game.
The final four wins saw Mahar hold opponents to 43 points or less, a tribute to the defensive scheme used by Coach Softic, who lost some key components from that team but returns a strong squad that is looking to continue that success.
Softic’s biggest challenge is replacing the backcourt duo of Phil DiPhillipo and Jesse LaCroix. DiPhillipo has been Softic’s point guard for the past four seasons and was not only one of the top ball-handlers in the league last season, he also averaged a team-leading 17 points per game. LaCroix, meanwhile, was the most athletic player on the team, which made him tough to defend and helped him average 15.4 points per game. The Senators also lost underrated center Nate Martin and forward Travon Godette, who was a top defender. Despite those significant losses, Softic believes he has the personnel to fill some of the holes.
“To be honest, we’ve got guys that can step in and play similar roles,” he began. “We are not ready to concede anything. The guys we have had a great summer and they were a huge part of last year’s team. They are proud of what we accomplished last year, but now they want to form their own identity.”
The only returning starter is senior power forward Joey Whitman, who averaged 9 points per game. Classmate Rafael Silva will take over at the point, while junior Brendin Woodard will man the shooting guard spot and is arguably the team’s best shooter. Junior Troix Adams will move into Godette’s spot as the small forward, and classmate Joey Verheyen is developing as a solid center.
Senior Zach Watson will back up Whitman, while juniors Jake Paul and Kyle Gonyner are each reserve forwards. Sophomore Nick Slattery has a scoring touch and can also defend well as a reserve guard. He is joined by junior Zack Adams and sophomore Drew Patria as backup guards. Freshman Malik Adams will see time as a reserve point guard.
Can that translate into another title run? Softic believes it can.
“We’re sticking with what we did last season,” he began. “They’re certainly green, but we didn’t have to reinvent the wheel with what we want to do. And defensively, the kids saw what the rewards were to committing to defense every possession.”
It’s time for the Green Wave to cash in on the talent it has.
Greenfield returns all but one player from last year’s squad that went 13-8 and lost to Belchertown High School in the quarterfinals, but that was a sophomore-laden squad.
With an extra year of experience, head coach Scott Thayer said it is time that the team take advantage of the opportunity it has with so many strong players on the roster at one time.
“We’ve talked about that,” he said. “Last year we were a bunch of sophomores, but now we’re mentally a year more mature and the guys are understanding the opportunity that they have. We’ve been telling them that giving maximum effort will not necessarily guarantee success, but giving subpar effort will guarantee failure.”
Greenfield has three players back that averaged over 8 points per game and another that has the potential to be a big part of the offense if he can stay healthy. Junior point guard Robin Marchese may be one of the smaller players on the court, but his game has the makings to be huge. Marchese finished second in scoring last season with 11.7 points per game, and will need to distribute the ball as well as he shoots if the Wave is going to take it to the next level. Playing as a team is something that has become a theme for the squad this year according to Thayer.
“We’ve talked a lot about the word ‘team,’” Thayer said. “About giving up a good shot to get a great one. We have all the qualities to be a great team, but the handle that stirs the pot is cohesion.”
Shooting guard Vincent Funari is a junior that averaged 8.6 points per game last season and should see that number rise this winter. While those two are the likely starters, the Green Wave has plenty of other bodies to fill in. Junior Garrett Hudson is an athlete that averaged 2.5 points per game last season, and classmate Parker Hickey also saw limited time but figures to play a bigger role this season. Senior Raul Malik and sophomores Tim Cooley and Ryan Roberts are newcomers to the team.
Junior Lew Borden could develop into a dominant low-post player. Borden is tall and strong and led the Green Wave in scoring last season with 13 points per game. He could be even more potent if classmate Connor Eckstrom can remain healthy. Eckstrom is another forward that has great height but missed all of his freshman season and more than half of last season due to injuries. Senior Tyler Miller quietly averaged nearly 6 points per game last season as a forward. Junior Riley Phelps is up from the junior varsity team and will serve as a center with his 6-foot-7 height.
After a successful career, guard Casey White graduated from Easthampton High School in the spring.
White took with him the HL scoring title from a season ago after netting 21.6 points per game to help the Eagles finish third in the East and earn a WMass Division II tourney berth, where they eventually lost to Mahar.
The Eagles return just two starters and will have to find offense elsewhere in order to return to the postseason. Senior center Chris Starcun (16.3 ppg) will have to shoulder the offensive load and fill the gap left by White’s departure. Other returning players include senior guard Jeremy Hughes and juniors Tom Palaschek and Dan Brandt, who both will play down low for coach Brian Miller.
Newcomers to the squad include junior center Matt Rood and sophomore guards Erik Flickett and Kevin VanOudenhove. There are two freshmen on the Eagles roster this season and both guard/forward Dakota Wheeler and guard Shaheim Torres are expected to see game action in their first year.
It’s been a tough couple of years for Mohawk Trail Regional High School.
The Warriors, who have qualified for the tournament since 2009, struggled to a fourth-place finish in the East.
Compounding the problems for this year’s team is that the Warriors graduated 50 percent of their scoring from last season, as Zach Flaxman and Cam Mickuki both averaged slightly over 10 points per game.
That leaves head coach Fred Redeker with a team that must play solid defense if it is going to have a look at the tournament. Redeker said his players will work hard and that they don’t want to be looked at as an easy win for their opponents.
“We’re going to struggle to score at times,” he explained. “But I think we will fight to scratch out some wins. We’re hoping to build on last year, but we are still a young team.”
Senior captains Connor Maloney (point guard) and Alex Buntin (forward) both started last year and will have to increase production after combining to average 7 points per game. Classmate Dustin Brown is the third captain and will join classmate Kyle Leger as reserve shooting guards this season.
Junior Mark Buck is the top scorer on the team, averaging 7 points a game last season from his two-guard spot. Classmates Rowan Jones, Ryan Spitzer and Sean Eckler are each battling for time at forward, while Donte Gardner is a junior guard.
Sophomore Josh Willis is likely to start at center this season after averaging nearly 4 points per game last season. Classmate Stephen Reynolds can play guard or small forward, and freshman Levin Dupree will backup Maloney at point guard.
Could Athol High School be the sleeper of the HL this season?
Last season, a young Red Raiders squad struggled to find consistency on a game-to-game basis and dealt with personnel issues off the court with players quitting. It led to a disastrous last-place finish in the East.
But there is hope in the Tool Town this winter. The Red Raiders seem to have worked out those issues and return a solid nucleus of players that worked throughout the year in order to grow the program.
Second-year head coach Jason Donovan may sport the players necessary to get back to the playoffs after going 3-37 in the past two seasons.
“We are looking to build the program and make progress in the right direction,” Donovan said. “I’ve been seeing progress at practice and in scrimmages, now we need to see it for real in our games.”
Donovan has a player in senior Adrian Sexton who is capable of driving opponents mad underneath the hoop. The center can be a load and he was one of the lone bright spots last season, averaging over 13 points per game. He could see that number increase as the play of those surrounding him continues to improve.
“He’s a big kid in the middle,” Donovan explained. “He’s tough to move and he’s a very good defender. We need him to be more consistent this season, but he’s been working very hard for us.”
Another spot that Donovan should be pleased with is at the point, where sophomore Zack Dodge is back after getting his first full taste of varsity last season. Dodge struggled at times as any freshman would, but still finished second on the team in scoring (8.2 ppg).
“He went through some tough times last year, but Zack plays year round and he’s gotten much better,” the coach explained.
Junior Andrew Poor is also slated to start at forward this season, but from there, the rest of the positions are up for grabs. Juniors Brad Bousquet, Jerry Parker, Alex Page and Jordan Rivera will each see time at guard, while seniors Dakota Melanson, Garrett Hall and Tyler Guerin all each vying for forward time. Sophomore Tanner Pavilionis is a reserve guard and rounds out the team.
Smith Academy (18-5)
Mat Sulda comes into the season as one of the top players in the HL and he leads a Smith Academy team that is expected to be one of the top Division III teams in the area.
The Falcons advanced to the WMass semifinals last season and return all five starters, giving them one of their best teams since they won back-to-back WMass Division III titles in 1992 and 1993.
“I think we are really excited to get this season under way,” said Falcons head coach Matt Zerneri “I’m pleased with how the kids came into practice, they are in great shape, and are working hard each day.”
Sulda highlights the five returning players and expects to be one of the top scorers in the league. Sulda a crafty lefty has improved his scoring each season as he averaged 15.6 points per game as a sophomore and finished last season averaging 20.4 ppg as a junior. Sulda has shown improvement each season and coach Zerneri believes that trend will continue.
“Mat has come into practice and worked really hard,” Zerneri said “I think his game is more well rounded from a year ago and his ability to get to the hoop is much better. Mat is also a very smart, unselfish player who will take good shots and set his teammates up.”
The other returning starters include senior big man Seaver Rickert, junior point guard Derek McMahon, junior forward Keith Natale, and sophomore forward David Longstreeth. Natale comes in as the second leading scorer for the Falcons (14.6 ppg), and will be looking to complement Sulda on offense.
Others who will add depth to the Falcons coming off the bench include seniors Nathaniel Hanson and Michael Molloy and junior Will Halloran. Other younger players that will see the court include sophomores Zack Liebenow, Austin Rogers, Christian Smiarowski, and Kevin Banas.
The combination of Sulda and an experienced surrounding cast has the formula to make Smith one of the highest scoring teams in the HL, but the Falcons’ defense could be something to watch as the season progresses. The Falcons allowed over 66 points a game in their five losses a season ago.
If the Falcons can improve on defense and remian one of the top scoring teams in the area, it is reasonable to believe that the Falcons will find themselves atop the HL West by season’s end.
“It is definitely one of our goals to win the league,” Zerneri said “We know it is going to be a really competitive league but we want to keep improving as the season goes on and give ourselves a shot at a WMass title.”
After finishing one win away from qualifying to go to the Cage last season, Frontier comes into this season looking to put together a run in Division III.
The Red Hawks were a bit of a surprise last season, starting 15-2 before stumbling down the stretch and heading into the postseason on a three-game losing streak.
They managed to right the ship in the first round, knocking off a tough Turners Falls team before falling to eventual runner-up Lee High School in the quarterfinals.
The biggest issue in 2011-12 was that Frontier struggled at times in its half-court offense, and it’s something that coach Ben Barshefsky is looking for his team to improve upon, although he would also like his club to get some easy buckets.
“We’re going to need to push the ball to get some easy looks,” he explained. “When we do run our offense, we need to do a better job moving off the ball to better looks.”
The Hawks are missing some top scorers from a year ago as Nate Perret (10.4), Justin Mieczkowski (9.0) and Dan Kieras (7.4) all graduated. The team does return some talented players that should have contending in the West.
Senior Ryan Hoar (6.6 ppg) will be a bigger part of the offense this season, either playing power forward or as an athletic center. Classmate Paul Decker (10.3) finished second on the team in scoring and will play one of the guard positions this year. Senior Peter Watroba (5.7) also had a solid season, as he saw starter’s minutes and will be locked in to the small forward hole. Senior Sam Tillona is a big body inside and could likely start at center.
One area Barshefsky is uncertain of is who will definitely handle the point guard duties. While Decker is capable, the coach would prefer he play the shooting guard, leaving the position open to senior Tyler Pickunka and juniors Niko Ames and Ben Ruddock.
“We’re seeing who steps up and takes a leadership role at the point guard position,” Barshefsky said.
Seniors Josh Kennedy and Quinn Hickey join juniors Torsten Nelson and Tyler Miller as reserve forwards. Junior Adam Kellogg is a backup at shooting guard, and sophomore Tim Hoar is another forward.
Turners Falls (13-8)
Turners Falls will have its hands full if its going to make another run at the Division III tournament again this winter.
The Indians are missing their top four scorers from a year ago, including forward Matt Gibson, who was near the top of the league in scoring with nearly 17 points per game. Point guard Chad Galipault (9.5 ppg) and guard Jeremy Mankowsky (6.5) also graduated.
One person the Indians did not figure to be without was senior forward John Ollari, who averaged 12 points per game last season and was a physical presence down low. But a shoulder injury suffered during football season shelved him, leaving coach Gary Mullins with some inexperienced players to shoulder the load.
That being said, the Indians do have a number of players back and have some up-and-coming players. And after going 13-7 in the regular season last year before falling to Frontier in the first round of the Division III tournament, the Indians are hungry to get back.
“Our goal is to get to the WMass tournament and to get to the Cage, that’s the goal every year,” Mullins said. “We started off slow last season but we put together a nice run. We just put up a stinker at tournament time.”
Offensively, the Indians like to move the ball quickly in transition. It’s something that Mullins does every year, no matter what the personnel, and he’s not shy about admitting it.
“If I have buffalo, I would try to run,” he joked. “Those easy buckets build momentum and morale. Some nights we will walk the ball up the floor, but we like to get out and run.”
Senior point guard Wyatt Bourbeau is one of the smaller players in the league, but he is also one of the quickest, making him the perfect player to get the ball up the court quickly. Bourbeau is the top returning scorers after finishing with 6.5 points per game last year.
Senior Summer Forest-Bulley is a 6-foot-3 center that will look to get more involved in the offense this season. The senior class also includes forwards Tony Gonzalez, Tenzen Khenrab and Nick Fisher.
Junior Melvin Moreno has worked hard in the offseason according to Mullins and is expected to contribute in a big way after missing nearly the entire last season with an injury. Classmate Malcolm Smith is another player the team is expecting to be a big contributor after averaging 5.5 points per game as a reserve forward last season. Eric Ferguson is a strong player that will see time at center.
The sophomore class includes guard Liam Ellis, who averaged nearly 5 points per game as a freshman last season. Classmate Nick York is a much-improved player and will see time at both guard and forward.
Pioneer may have been the most middle-of-the-road team in the league last season.
The Panthers narrowly missed the tournament, but they beat every non-qualifier and lost all but one game to qualifying teams. Their only win that bucked that trend was a late-season overtime victory against Easthampton.
The good news for Panther fans is that everyone is back. Head coach Dave Hastings said that not having any seniors last year did contribute to the struggles at times.
“We lacked consistency, and I think that’s because we didn’t have any senior leadership,” he began. “There is a lot of upside with this team and I’ve been happy with what I’ve seen so far.”
Another reason for optimism is due to the fact that the Panthers have a lineup that doesn’t boast multiple guys who can light it up every night, but has many players capable of scoring 10 or more points on any given night.
And with a year under their belts, Hastings believes his team has the horses needed to make a trip to the postseason.
“We have the ability to have a lot of different people contribute,” he said. “This may be my deepest team in 11 years of coaching. But it’s going to take a collective effort. Everyone has got to pick up the slack both offensively and defensively.”
The only bad news entering the season is that leading scorer CJ Artus is likely going to miss the first month of the season with an injury. The senior forward averaged 13 points per game last season and was likely to be a top scorer in the HL this season. That will force other players to pick up the scoring.
Senior guard Drew Hastings averaged 11 points per game last winter, while senior center Tyrus Gould has been playing well and may be the biggest player in the league. Senior forward Brian Llewelyn averaged 8 points per game a year ago. Junior guard Lee Doiron netted 7.5 points per outing, while junior forward Lennon Robichaud averaged 5.6.
Reserve forwards include senior Matt Arsenault, and sophomores Kyle Artus and Jake Hale, whlie senior Ryan Wagner and junior Cody Celino are backup centers. Senior A.J. Krawczyk joins sophomore Eric Pratt and freshman Bradley Hastings as reserve guards.
Not much went right for Hopkins Academy last season. The Golden Hawks endured one of their toughest seasons in school history and finished in the West cellar.
The Golden Hawks enter this season with a young team that is looking to build talent and erase the memory of a year ago.
Hopkins does not have one senior on the roster entering the season. Leading the way will be juniors Andrew Omer, and Jake Kosakowski is a guard who averaged 3.6 ppg last year but emerged late last season as a player who could turn out to be a scorer and a player that head coach Tom Bell believes has to step up if the Golden Hawks are going to improve.
“I think Jake showed last year that he can score consistently and is able to make a 15-foot jump shot. I think he has to show leadership and be able to score for us on a nightly basis for the team to be successful.”
Another player that Bell has high hopes for is freshmen Brett Morrison. As an eighth-grader, Morrison saw time on varsity last season but Bell has seen improvement and thinks Morrison will be a strong player in years to come.
Sophomores Zach Kelly, Matt Pipczynski, Joe Yusko and Ethan Sanderson will all see time on the floor, as well as freshmen Spencer Butterfield and Greg Pipczynski.