‘The kids are having a ball’: Pembroke boys’ basketball just loves spending time together – and winning

By ERIC RYNSTON-LOBEL

Monitor staff

Published: 03-03-2023 9:43 AM

Early in the season, Pembroke head coach Mike Donnell emailed the team parents asking if one of the families would be kind enough to host a team dinner. Little did he anticipate the response.

“We had seven straight weeks of team dinners,” said Donnell. “I’m not talking hot dogs and beans. We’ve had three-, four-, five-course meals. It’s been incredible. … The kids sit all together, and we’re not talking basketball. They’re just having a great time.”

Eating multi-course meals together in each other’s homes nearly two months in a row might not sound like it has much to do with becoming a top-tier basketball team. But for Pembroke this season, it’s just one example of the togetherness they’ve felt since the start of the season.

“We’ve all been hanging around each other since we’re in first grade, so it’s that much better,” senior Josh Pilotte said.

Players on great teams often describe the group as a family. The Spartans are no exception, riding their love of playing basketball together and hanging out with each other to a 16-2 regular season and second-place finish in the Division II standings.

As they prepare for their quarterfinal matchup on Friday night against No. 10 Kennett, it’s business as usual, with a laser-like focus on continuing to improve and never taking anything for granted.

“If I see guys dogging around, not trying as hard, I tell them it’s not a regular season practice anymore,” senior captain Shondell Hadley said. “This is our championship practice. This is it.”

And if the last few months are any indication, Donnell can feel confident in his players to handle playoff basketball the right way. He’s rarely had to police bad behavior or rev the engines of the team; they do that themselves.

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“Right now, I like the place we sit,” he said. “The kids have high expectations. We’re going to take it one game at a time because that’s all it is now. It’s win or go home.

“It’s just a great time for the school. The kids are having a ball.”

If he’s doing it, we’redoing it

Back in early December, junior Joe Fitzgerald proclaimed that this season was “championship or bust.”

Perhaps he put the cart before the horse, but it magnified his – and his teammates – underlying belief in this group to contend for a D-II championship.

After Donnell refocused his players on the old cliche, taking it one game at a time, he’s seen that hunger to fulfill their goal every single day.

When he tells the team he’s headed over to Manchester West to scout opponents, they’re right behind him. And it’s not just three or four of the older players.

“We’ll all come,” Hadley said. “If he’s doing it, we’re doing it.”

When he tells the team they’re going to have a lighter practice, they urge him to provide the intensity.

“These kids are just self-motivated,” Donnell said. “I told the guys we were gonna go real light (last week), and I had 15 kids telling me that wasn’t happening. They wanted to work, and work they did.”

The family atmosphere fosters that desire to want to give it 110% each and every day.

“It’s more fun than it is work,” Pilotte said. “Obviously we work hard, but it all comes so effortlessly because we’re all just buddies, and we know how to play basketball. It’s just real fun.”

There’s a refreshing symbiotic relationship between Donnell and his players. His love for the team seemingly knows no bounds; his enthusiasm just talking about them radiates palpably; he’s having the time of his life.

The season so far has progressed even better than he thought.

“I’d be lying if I told you I thought we’d finish 16-2 when we first spoke,” he said. “You don’t know what to expect going in. Many, many things could happen. It makes it a lot of fun.”

Anyone can beat us

Only twice this year have the Spartans taken the court and not emerged from a game victorious: on Jan. 6 at Pelham and on Jan. 31 at Manchester West, both teams near the top of the D-II standings as well.

It can become easy in the midst of the season to have a letdown. But even in games when Pembroke wasn’t its sharpest, the team figured out how to win.

Take the Spartans last game of the regular season against Coe-Brown, the sixth seed in the tournament, as an example. It took a buzzer beater from senior Mike Strazzeri to send the game to overtime and clutch free throws from him to ice the 71-68 victory. It wasn’t their prettiest performance, but they won. And at this time of the year, that’s all that matters.

Now entering the playoffs, it’s almost as if they’re starting from scratch.

“We gotta show people that we are what our record is,” Pilotte said. “We have a lot of eyes to open.”

Added fellow-senior Adam Heldman: “We just need to realize that anyone can beat us on any night, so we need to show up every night.”

Pembroke has a long layoff between that game against Coe-Brown on Feb. 20 and the quarterfinal on March 3. So while the players keenly understand the need to remain focused, Donnell’s also trying to mix things up in practice to keep them on their toes.

In the middle of the season, they rarely have more than two practices before a game, let alone seven or eight. So for the last week and half, practice has consisted of a mix of 3-on-3 and 4-on-4 scrimmages, new drills and even some shooting contests.

Perhaps there’s another team meal in the offing as well.

Whatever the case, one thing’s remained clear throughout this magic carpet ride of a season for Donnell and the Spartans: They’ve shown up with high expectations for themselves and delivered on them. There’s little reason to think the playoffs will transpire any differently.

“We’ll get them ready,” Donnell said. “And they’ll be ready. I don’t think they need us, but we’ll make sure they’re ready.”

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