By Hector Longo
---- — METHUEN – First-year head coach Blane Gann couldn’t have been blunter.
“These boys certainly didn’t come to PMA for the basketball,” said Gann. “So we have a long, long way to go.”
The trek might be long, arduous and daunting, but Presentation of Mary Academy has made the move. A little over a year since the school invited boys into its institution, the Panthers boys are in the game, competing on an official sub-varsity schedule for the 2012-13 season.
“We are the first, and hopefully we do a good job with this,” said Danville, N.H.’s, Patrick Gallagher, a 17-year-old junior. “Being the first, we don’t want to stink. We want to set the example for all the teams to come. So there is responsibility, and maybe even a little pressure there.”
Gallagher came to PMA seeking the unique, small-school experience. To him, basketball was a major bonus.
“I hadn’t played in a long time, and I love basketball,” said Gallagher, one of the taller Panthers in the program at 5-foot-10. “Other than music (playing mostly guitar and a handful of other instruments), it’s my favorite thing to do.”
Basketball tryout week at Massachusetts and New Hampshire high schools try even the most savvy, stable high school ballers.
Suicides (four-stop full-court sprints) are run. Defensive slides are shuffled. And hearts are torn apart at cut-down time.
For the first-time ever for boys on the PMA campus, it happened to them, with a little bit of a twist.
“Let me tell you, I have made things tough on all these kids here, but they remain enthusiastic and excited about it,” said Gann, who spent time in coaching at both Dracut High and most recently at Nashoba Tech.
“So many of them are just learning about the game right now, and they just want to absorb as much as they can and get better. They’re attitudes have been sensational.”
A late afternoon trip to the hardwood at the Dupre’ Center yields an insight to the eclectic essence that is the new PMA.
In one corner of the gym, you’ll find Gallagher working on his ball-handling, with Sebastian Lopez, a 15-year-old sophomore and member of PMA’s first fully co-ed freshmen class from Lawrence and 17-year-old Ryan Zhao, a junior boarding student from China.
It is the boys hoop melting pot. And it feeds directly into what the school behind those Searles Castle walls on Lawrence Street is attempting to deliver.
“I came to PMA, because I wanted to be part of that new co-ed experience,” explained Lopez, who plays a savage saxophone in the school band and also is involved in student council. “I came here and had no idea what the high school experience would be like. So far, it’s been great. Basketball will make it even better. I think it will bring us together as teammates and classmates.”
Twenty of the 43 boys in the school turned out for Coach Gann’s first practice this week.
And the veteran hoop mentor, who took Nashoba, a small vocational school in Westford, from 2-18 in his first season to a Vocational School championship a couple years later, had no mercy on the newcomers.
“We really don’t have any funny moments at practice,” said Lopez, who hadn’t played organized ball since the fifth grade. “Coach isn’t the kind of guy who jokes around on the court. He pushes us, and I’m glad he does. We’re getting into shape, and we’re learning how to work together.”
While Zhao had played a little ball, he had no idea he’d be coming halfway around the globe to become a pioneer in two sports.
This past fall, he ran on the Panthers’ new boys cross country team coached by Brian Martin. And Zhao is glad he got that opportunity, too.
“I joined the cross country team, and competing was especially good in getting me ready for basketball,” said Zhao. “Basketball has become very important to me, and to all of us.”
Gann’s first task was to build a work ethic with his new club. The next step is building a fundament base in the program. This week, he decided there will be no cuts. He feels there is strength in numbers.
That philosophy is one that the PMA administration embraces and envisioned in the move from all girls to co-ed.
“As soon as the decision to go co-ed was made, the first thing we talked about was sports and giving the boys as many options as the girls have had here,” said PMA Head of School Rose Maria Redman. “Last year, there were 15 boys in the school and 10 played in a small program we started. The transition has been excellent, not just in basketball, but in cross country and track. There’s even been some interest in starting up volleyball for the boys, too. I think we’ll be ready for varsity basketball here.
“Our coach is very interested and excited in making that happen. I think we all are.”