Boys’ basketball: What to watch as D-I and D-II playoffs near

By ERIC RYNSTON-LOBEL

Monitor staff

Published: 02-17-2023 10:14 PM

With less than a week remaining in the regular season, area D-I and D-II basketball teams will begin looking ahead to the playoffs.

Some will sneak in as 14th or 15th seeds. Others will snag top spots with hopes of winning a championship.

Pembroke Academy

Pembroke Academy thought about a championship since before the season even began. At a preseason practice, junior Joseph Fitzgerald said this year was “championship or bust. That’s kind of our motto here.”

Talks of winning a championship before the season even started surely gave head coach Mike Donnell some headaches – he said as much after his team snuck by Merrimack Valley in the season opener on Dec. 14: “You can’t just say, ‘Championship or bust,’ until you get to that big game. They gotta take every game one game at a time.”

But since then, the Spartans have generally taken care of business. At 15-2 through Friday, their only losses have come against Pelham (14-3) and Manchester West (14-2). They’re certainly a team to watch come playoff time. In addition to scoring from Fitzgerald, Mike Strazzeri and Josh Pilotte, Donnell’s also received strong contributions from Shondell Hadley, Adam Heldman and Jacob Boisvert. The Spartans have as much depth as anyone in the division, which will go a long way in helping them compete for a D-II title.

Coe-Brown

Coe-Brown doesn’t quite have the same bench as Pembroke, but the Bears do have Connor Bagnell, who put up 32 points in a game against Bishop Brady on Jan. 31.

Currently 12-4, the Bears will face Pembroke on Feb. 20 with both teams jostling for playoff positioning in a big test for head coach David Smith.

It’s been a momentous season for Smith – though he doesn’t like to talk about it much. He picked up his 628th career victory when the Bears beat Plymouth on Feb. 6, moving him to the top of the New Hampshire leaderboard for most wins by a boys’ basketball coach. Despite the magnitude of the accomplishment, Smith’s more concerned with his players and gearing up for a playoff run.

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“We need to get better every day,” Smith said on Jan. 31. “If we can continue to get better, then we’ll have a chance at advancing.”

Merrimack Valley

Merrimack Valley’s a team that might be able to pull off an upset. After Friday’s heartbreaking 52-50 loss to Souhegan, the Pride hold seventh place in D-II at 11-6 and could host a first-round playoff game. If the team can navigate through that, MV has a solid chance of taking down one of the top seeds in round two.

The top reason? Defense travels.

“It starts with defense with us,” MV coach Tim Mucher said after the Pride’s win over John Stark on Tuesday night. “I always tell the kids, ‘You can’t ever have a bad night on defense because you play defense with your head, your heart and your feet.’ I think a lot of kids have bought into that concept, and I think they enjoy playing defense.”

MV consistently plays a full-court trap defense, forcing opponents to bring the ball up the full 94 feet with fear of turning it over.

Though the Pride have come up short against top teams, their six losses have come by an average of about six points, so they’ve competed against everyone.

In addition, MV’s received consistent scoring contributions from Buddy Eddy, Brandon Dukette and Trevor Simonds to complement that stingy defensive play.

Bow

Further down the standings at 8-9, Bow continues to fight for playoff positioning. The Falcons have caught the injury bug this year and have had to rely on contributions from younger players like freshmen Jake Reardon and Brendan O’Keeffe.

Still, Bow’s done enough to piece together wins, most recently against Bishop Brady on Feb. 10 and Plymouth on Friday night.

“Proud of the way we stayed the course and played our game even when they got close,” Falcons head coach Scott Drapeau told the Monitor after that win over Brady.

Bishop Brady

The team the Falcons beat, Bishop Brady, currently holds an outside shot of sneaking into the postseason. At 5-12, the Giants are 14th in D-II and have one game remaining, against Lebanon (9-8). They’ll need to stay in the top 14 to qualify.

Throughout the season, Brady’s shown an ability to hang with top teams but hasn’t had enough in the tank to close out victories.

“We play well in spurts and not so well more than not,” head coach Brendan Johnson said after the loss to Coe-Brown in late January. “We just gotta put it together.”

The Giants have one game left to try to do that.

Concord

Over in Division I, Concord’s also fighting for its season over the final few games, at 6-11. Surely a playoff appearance for the Tide would be impressive, but it’s not something Tim LaTorra necessarily expected heading into his first year as the program’s head coach.

For a team that finished last year 2-16, simply reaching the playoffs would be an accomplishment in its own right. But the Tide still have work to do to extend the season beyond next week.

“You walk into our practice, you wouldn’t know if we’re 6-10 or 10-6,” he said. “They’re working hard every single day, and they’re still buying into each other.”

The D-II playoffs begin on Feb. 28, while the D-I playoffs get started on March 1.

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