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Malcolm in the Middle

It’s possible that Turners Falls High School junior Malcolm Smith has had one of the best years of any local high school athlete. More remarkable is that he’s still flying under the radar.

Smith helped quarterback the Indians’ football team to its best record in more than a decade, then helped the team knock off Turkey Day rival Greenfield, before finally guiding his team to the WMass Division IV Super Bowl, where it came up just short. Two days after playing that Super Bowl game, Smith was headed out onto the hardcourt to play forward for the Indians’ basketball team. Smith currently leads the hoop team in scoring and is averaging a double-double per game as the Indians have been the biggest surprise of the regular season, finishing second in the Hampshire League West and nearly beating favorites Greenfield and Smith Academy in the process.

That’s a pretty remarkable few months for any athlete. And while Smith may have been overshadowed at times by Ryan Wilder and John Ollari on the gridiron after those two players put together wonderful seasons themselves, Smith is starting to get the credit he deserves. On the basketball team he is one of a number of scoring options, but the kid has been in beast-mode for the past couple months. And he was recognized for his football talents as well recently, being chosen to play in this summer’s Australian Down Under Bowl.

I found out about the Down Under Bowl a couple of weeks back when I heard that Wilder had been chosen and that he would be holding a fundraiser Saturday night from 6-9:30 at Between the Uprights in Turners Falls. I hadn’t heard about Smith getting invited, but found out shortly thereafter. Apparently, Smith and his family were also surprised by the announcement, because typically only seniors are chosen to participate. And it’s a wonder that Smith has time for any of the on-field accomplishments, given that his off-the-field resume includes maintaining a 3.33 grade-point-average, being actively involved at Holy Trinity Church in Greenfield, and working at Sofia’s Pizza in Greenfield. It’s no wonder he was recognized to participate in the Down Under Bowl, which for those who missed the Wilder story, will send Smith over to Australia to play in a football tournament but will also give the student-athlete a sightseeing opportunity.

“I am really honored,” he said. “Out of all the quarterbacks from this area, like Zach (Bartak) and some of the others in Franklin County, I feel very honored to be chosen.”

The biggest problem for those chosen to participate is that the trip costs $5,000 and means the players will have to hone their fundraising skills. Wilder is selling T-shirts and has the fundraiser at BTU on Saturday, and Smith said he will also be selling the T-shirts soon and is in the process of setting up a fundraising event. I’ll be sure to get something in this space as soon as I know. The opportunity is unique and Smith said that any support from the community is greatly appreciated.

As for the Indians’ basketball team, I had to figure out why exactly many folks are picking the Indians as a team to watch in the postseason. Turners is currently 13-6 and should finish the season 14-6, which is far better than what I anticipated in the preseason, when I honestly viewed them as a .500 team that would likely win no more than a game in the tournament. And that’s not a knock. I wasn’t alone in that thinking, especially since power forward Ollari was going to miss the season due to a football injury, leaving the Indians without much of an inside presence. That meant the team would be without Matt Gibson, who led the team in scoring with nearly 17 points per game last season before graduating in the spring, as well as Ollari, who was second on the team in scoring at over 12 points per game to go with double-digit rebounding numbers. Throw in the graduation of Chad Galipault (10 points per game, third on the team) and Jeremy Mankowski (nearly 7 points per game, fifth last season), and the team was without four of its top five scorers from a year ago.

The lone returnee from the top five in scoring was Wyatt Bourbeau, so it was not far-fetched for someone to think the team might struggle. Then, after some of the basketball players were playing football late into the fall season due to the Super Bowl run, it seemed the team might struggle early on. Smith agreed that when he first started the basketball season, he struggled to make the transition.

“It started off kind of rough,” he said. “I was still in football mode and I just had trouble getting in basketball mode. I think it was the game against Mahar, where I just started doing well and it just kept going.”

Smith scored just five total points through his first three games of the season. He finally hit the 10-point mark in the fourth game before falling back to eight in the fifth game of the season. He got back to 10 points in the sixth game, but then, in the seventh game of the year, a game against Mahar, he scored 21 points, and in the next 12 games, Smith went on to average 18.2. Since netting that 21 against Mahar, Smith has scored 15 points or more in 11 of the 12 games he has played in. He sat out the Indians’ most recent game, but should be back in the regular-season finale tonight.

Smith is currently averaging 13.9 points per game to lead the team after averaging 5.7 points per game last season. He is not the only player to pick up the slack left over by the four missing players from a year ago. Bourbeau, the only returning top-five scorer from last year, has seen his numbers go up to 9.8 points per game, but the biggest jumper has been Liam Ellis and Melvin Moreno. Ellis, a sophomore, had what amounted to a strong freshman campaign last winter with 4.4 points per game, but this season he has taken a huge step and is averaging 13.4 points per game. Ellis also missed five games with an injury, making life further difficult for the team. He should be one of the top players in the HL for the next two years. Moreno, a junior, scored one point in the three games he played at the varsity level last season, but prior to the year, Indian coach Gary Mullins told me to look out for him and he was right on, as Moreno has averaged 11.4 points per game. Throw in a few role players, and you have the ingredients for what has been a very strong season.

“We have as big a heart as any team,” Smith said of what has made the Indians successful. “Coach Mullins has a great game plan going into every game. He uses our team speed to our advantage. He really emphasizes that playing good defense turns in offense.”

It’s been the perfect formula, so the rest of the WMass Division III field had better beware.

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Chris Lesenski had another strong marathon finish over the weekend.

The Greenfield native finished 43rd in Saturday’s 16th annual Myrtle Beach (S.C.) Marathon.

The 27-year-old ran the course in 3 hours, 2 minutes, 42 seconds, leaving him fifth in the 25-29 age group. The field consisted of 1,621 runners. Lesenski will be participating in the Boston Marathon in April.

Jason Butynski is a Greenfield native and Recorder sportswriter. His email address is jbutynski@recorder.com.

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