By Michael Muldoon
---- — NORTH ANDOVER — There may be more accomplished players but perhaps none will be more important than big men Aaron Hall of Central and Connor Merinder of Andover.
Those two pivot men will play pivotal roles when the two clubs square off Saturday night (8 p.m. at Merrimack College) for the Licare Division title of the Commonwealth Christmas Classic.
Hall, a 6-6 senior, was out against Haverhill with a hamstring injury.
Raiders coach Rick Nault said, “It’s very clear Aaron Hall is the X-factor for us. When he’s not in the lineup or playing well, we’re not the same team. If I were to pick the one kid who defines how our season will go, it’s Aaron Hall.”
Andover coach Dave Fazio was asked about Merinder, a 6-5 junior, being often overlooked.
“Connor is not overlooked in our program,” stressed Fazio. “He is the mainstay and backbone of our entire team. He’s a selfless warrior and only cares about wins. He’s the heart and soul and defensive catalyst of our team.”
The stat-stuffing Merinder is averaging 9.3 points, 11.3 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 2.0 blocks and 2.0 steals for the 3-0 Warriors, who are ranked ninth in the ESPNBoston statewide poll, six spots behind the Raiders.
COMING OUT PARTY
Fairfield recruit Tyler Nelson is a state player of the year candidate and 6-5 Nick Cambio is a consensus top 15 player in the state, so Hall isn’t asked to dominate.
“He brings so much to the table,” said Nault. “He has an ability to score and rebound at a high level.”
He showed that last winter. After averaging just 2.7 points off the bench in the regular season, Hall was forced into a starting role in the state tourney as Cambio and Christmas Tourney MVP Doug Gemmell were out with injuries.
He proved to be a big-game player, averaging 10.0 points including 21 points in the North final as the Raiders advanced to the Division 1 state semis at the TD Garden.
“It was pretty crazy,” said the Haverhill resident. “Dougie went down then Nick went down. Coach believed in me. That was a big confidence booster. He said I needed to fill some big shoes.”
Hall, who wears a size 15, was able to do it.
He said, “I just gave it my all. It was exciting.”
This should be a little easier for Merinder than the 2013 North semifinals, when he was playing hurt.
“I broke my wrist (scaphoid),” explained Merinder, who had surgery last December. “It took until about February when we found a weird tape job/cast that I could play in. I had to worry about not hurting it again.”
The towering goalie was hurt late his sophomore season in soccer. He thought little of it, though.
“I felt like I just sprained it but three weeks later it was still bothering me,” he said. “It turns out I had a fracture.”
He said his mother, a nurse, did all sorts of experiments to finally devise a cast that enabled him to play.
“It was layers and layers of tape, a soft cast, then more layers and layers,” he said.
He’s healthy now and wants to continue to live up to his three older siblings, who are all talented scholar-athletes.
Meagan Merinder is finishing up veterinary school at the University of Minnesota. The 6-foot super sub helped Andover to the first state basketball in school history (boys or girls) and was an Eagle-Tribune All-Star volleyball player who started three years at Holy Cross.
Jen, an accountant, was one of the area’s top three-sport athletes (volleyball, basketball, track) and starred in volleyball and track at Union. Bjorn was a three-time Eagle-Tribune All-Star tennis player who is a Dean’s list student at Fairfield, where he is a senior standout on the tennis team.
The family’s legacy of scholar-athletes goes way back. Connor says his great-great uncle is Ed “Doc” Farrell, a Penn grad who played 10 years in the majors, including on the Yankees’ 1932 World Series championship team.
“I definitely focus on academics as much as athletics,” said Merinder who made the difficult decision to give up his promising soccer career after the sophomore injury. “(My siblings) hold me to high standards on the academics.”
The well-rounded Merinder and Jen Camilo are the Andover representatives to the MIAA.
Hall is averaging 7.5 points, 7.0 points and 3.0 blocks for the Raiders, who are 3-0 heading into tonight’s 7 p.m. game at Tufts against famed St. Anthony’s of Jersey City.
Baseball is his first love. Last year he went 3-1 and batted .368 with 15 runs and 19 RBIs. He’ll be taking his 87 mph fastball to Division 2 Le Moyne College in Syracuse next year.
Year in and year out, Andover is one of the top 10-15 teams in the state but powerhouse Central, which has won five of the last six Christmas Tourney titles, has totally dominated the rivalry, winning 19 of the last 20 matchups.
Merinder and Co., though, won’t concede anything.
“I don’t back down from any challenge,” said Merinder, the only player listed taller than 6-3 on the Andover roster. “It definitely tests you to go against guys who are as good as Cambio and Hall. ... I want to show everybody what I’m capable of.”
Follow Michael Muldoon on Twitter at @MullyET.