The last three years we have been able to watch either the Woburn girls or Woburn boys make runs to the MIAA North basketball finals.
While it is not impossible that it will happen again, this year, our four local teams (two boys, two girls) may have to fall back on the traditional definition of a successful season in varsity team sports.
First, make the tournament. Second, win the first game. After that, everything is gravy.
The Reading boys and girls, the Burlington boys and the Woburn girls all have a shot at winning their first-round games, but as far as making it to the Tsongas Center for the finals? Well, Belmont stands in the way of three of our four contenders.
Both the Belmont boys and girls are the top seeds in Div. 2 North (boys) and Div. 1 North (girls), each sporting identical 19-1 records.
The Marauders have the potential to make this a very special postseason for the Belmont program, and it is unlikely that a Middlesex League team will get in the way of it happening.
As far as winning games though, the Reading boys are the one to watch in terms of winning more than one game and quite realistically can win two tourney games before running into Belmont in the sectional semifinals.
The Rockets (10-10) loom very dangerous despite being the 13 seed. Having begun 4-8, they closed winning 6 of 8 to make the tourney for the first time in three years.
First up is No. 4 seed Wakefield and while the Freedom Division champs have enjoyed an outstanding 14-6 season, Reading will not be intimidated.
This is the third meeting between the two schools (all in Wakefield) and the teams have split in those two games.
The Rockets won the second meeting, 61-55, which was a non-league game as part of a holiday tournament in December, and Reading did not have 6-3 senior forward Patrick Conroy in either matchup.
Conroy, who is bound for Merrimack to play football, has been a key contributor in the Rockets’ success over the latter part of the season. His strength and presence inside is enough to alter shots and grab rebounds while he provides just enough inside scoring (5.8 ppg) that people have to play him honest.
This should get Reading over the hump against the Warriors in the first game of the tournament, Tuesday night (7 p.m.) at Charbonneau Field House.
Reading is led by 5-11 senior guard and co-captain Matt Sannella (12.3 ppg) who is the team’s engine. But the Rockets, besides Conroy, also have additional players to provide a strong inside presence with the likes of brawny 6-3 Danny Bekkenhuis and versatile 6-1 Javon Nortelus who pride themselves on their defense.
Junior guard Taylor Marchand can fill many roles and 6-1 senior forward Owen Mulvey (34 threes) can provide a spark with instant offense off the bench which makes this .500 team a team no one wants to play.
If Reading was to prevail, Tuesday night, fifth seed Gloucester could be waiting in the wings. The Fishermen have a pretty good reputation as a program, but not enough to scare the Rockets into thinking they have reached their final destination before the opening tap. This would surprise no one if Reading found its way into the semifinals against Belmont because of the way the Rockets play defense and make clutch shots.
The Burlington boys are a wild card on the other side of the draw. The Red Devils, (11-9), the No. 11 seed, have a seemingly unfortunate first-round matchup with North Andover in the first round. Despite just a 13-7 record, the Scarlet Knights are highly respected coming out of the Merrimack Valley’s Div. 1 conference.
Burlington really didn’t want the regular season to end the way it closed it out, winning six of its last seven including three consecutive huge victories over Watertown, Melrose and at Wakefield.
If the Red Devils can maintain their hot outside shooting from the likes of Mike Melanson (39 3-pointers), Ryan Culhane (14.2 ppg) and Sean Hurley (25 threes) they can be dangerous. Al Wong, the team’s leading scorer at 15.8 and 31 makes from 3-point land, will run the show at point guard.
If Burlington was to get past North Andover, it would likely face No. 3 Salem in the next round, although the Witches did draw No. 14 Malden Catholic (9-11) which got in via the “Sullivan Rule.” The Lancers split two games with Reading so they should not be overlooked.
GIRLS TOURNEY LOOKAHEAD
The Revere girls have had a couple of bigs who carried them in recent years, but this appears to be the safest bet among our teams to be able to advance to the quarterfinals.
The Reading girls will be hosting their first tournament game since 2013 when Gatorade Player of the Year Olivia Healy was in their lineup.
The Lady Rockets have qualified for the Div. 1 North tournament the past two seasons but were not able to get past that opening game on the road.
This year they seem poised coming off a 16-4 regular season and earning the No. 5 seed. They are led by motivated senior leader Haley Lightbody (18.8 ppg) who does not want to see it come to an end too soon.
The Lady Rockets have a fine supporting cast with their other captains, Isabella Zagami and Alyssa Pryputniewicz, plus juniors Celia Capone and Nakeya Carr, sophomore Kiara Tangney and outstanding freshman sharpshooter Jackie Malley who has knocked down 41 3-pointers.
It will be a lot tougher for Reading if it wins tonight, as it likely will have to hit the road to face No. 4 seed Andover in the quarterfinals. The Golden Warriors have always been among the most successful girls programs around. The Golden Warriors beat Woburn in the North final, two years ago, and appears in position for another deep run this time around. Belmont would likely get the winner of that game.
The Woburn girls have already been to the deep end of the pool while participating in the Comcast Basketball Classic, where the Tanners were roughed up by Natick and Archbishop Williams. They recovered to pick up two nice wins while hosting their own tournament, and are now ready to go in the real tournament.
Woburn drew Cambridge Rindge & Latin in the 8-9 game, which will be played in Cambridge. The Falcons are a teams that started the season at 11-1 before stumbling down the stretch (3-5) to end up at their current 14-6.
The 13-7 Tanners are led by senior captains Marina Rufo, Julia Taylor and Courtney Cronin plus juniors Ashlyn Pacheco (8.3 ppg) and Megan Roderick (7.9), who are the team’s top scorers.
Woburn is going to need at least two of those players to have big games in order to keep moving forward in the tournament.
Good luck to the four local teams!
The last week of the regular season saw the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat for two of our teams competing for their last chance to get into the postseason. The Reading boys were able to pull it out late with a home win over Arlington, while the Winchester boys saw theirs end up a day late and several baskets. The Rockets’ student section rushed the floor after it was over, and are hoping shots like this are repeated throughout the tournament. The Sachems were on the road at Hamilton-Wenham and seemed to be in control against Arlington Catholic, a team it had already beaten at home earlier in January. Yes, the Cougars came up with a 15-0 run to start the fourth, giving them a seven-point lead halfway through, but the Sachems had their opportunities down the stretch, but just could not get anything going, even with the open looks. A very frustrating way to end the season.
Two of this area’s best recent high school players, Woburn’s Mat Catizone, and Winchester’s Michael Grassey, each saw their college basketball teams lose in their respective conference tournaments.
Catizone, a 6-0 junior guard for Endicott College, had a career high 18 points in 28 minutes off the bench. However, the Gulls, the No. 3 seed, were upset at home by No. 6 Western New England, 70-65.
Grassey, a 6-4 senior forward, chipped in 10 points and eight boards before he fouled out in the final minute of Hamilton’s 62-56 loss to Amherst in the NESCAC final.
The Continentals (23-4 overall), however, did earn an at-large bid into the 64-team field of the NCAA Division 3 tournament. Hamilton was the No. 2 seed for the conference championship and the Continentals were appearing in the NESCAC final for the first time since they joined the conference for basketball in 2011-12. Hamilton is ranked eighth in the D3hoops.com Top 25 poll and second in the Northeast Region by the NCAA.
(Mark Nadeau’s “Around the Rim” column appears during the high school basketball season.)