EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

March 5, 2010

Central must slow down Prep's Connaughton

By Hector Longo

Now Rick Nault knows how all those other coaches feel.

Every night his Raiders walk into a gym, that perplexed look on the opposing coach tells the story.

Wrinkles, gray hair, acid reflux, all have been symptoms of having to deal with Central's Carson Desrosiers.

As top-seeded Central hits the TD Garden's parquet floor today (7:45 p.m.) in the Division 1 North title game, it is the fourth-year coach posing the question:

"What are we going to do about St. John's Prep's Pat Connaughton?"

Nault has spent the better part of the last three days thinking of the Catholic Conference MVP and the 26-point hurting he unleashed on the Raiders just two weeks ago.

"We always approach games like we're going to create matchup problems," said Nault. "But our focus is totally changed. This kid did to us what really no kid has done to us in the last 2-3 years."

Nault might have been overstating that just a bit. Ryan Woumn of Lynn English's performance in the 2009 North title game ousted the Raiders. And then there was American Heritage of Florida's All-American Kenny Boynton in January of 2009.

But the Raiders had shut down about everyone on the schedule this year, before Connaughton hit Memorial Gym in the regular season finale. Before that, opponents' leading scorers were averaging just 14.1 points a night vs. Central.

While the junior's effort went for naught, with Central surviving, 65-61, the Raiders, who pride themselves on their vise-like defense, took notice.

"He put up the best numbers against us this year, we take that pretty personally," said Central sixth man Andrew Ouellette, who'll spend some time covering the two-sport standout from Arlington. "When a player goes off like that, let's just say we're excited to get another shot at him."

So what can Central Catholic do against the 6-foot-4 Connaughton, who is averaging about 24 points and 15 rebounds a game?

"He's a monster, big, quick with the ball, a really good ball-handler," said Ouellette, an Eagle-Tribune All-Star defensive back in the fall.

Most likely, Central will attempt more of the same and hope for significantly better results.

The Raiders put athletes on Connaughton, starting with Jaycob Morales, then going to Ouellette and then the sophomore, "Lock-down" Luis Puello.

"We threw all our athletes at him, face-guarded him and tried to wear him down," said Ouellette. "He got us pretty good, especially in the first half, but we buckled down pretty good in the second."

Puello was thrust into the mix in the second half, and that could be key should Nault decide to use him there earlier.

Regardless, Central enters the fray tonight with a strategy on defense that it seldom, if ever, employs.

"It's not like the usual, 'How do we shut him down?' It's about we slow him down and try to find a way to keep him under 20," said Nault. "We tried. We worked hard at it, and we didn't have a ton of success."

The reason, of course, is Connaughton's athleticism. Most on the Prep campus, including football coach Jim O'Leary feel like he would have been a top quarterback if he stuck with it. As it is, in baseball, the lethal pitcher with a 90 mph fastball has already been offered a scholarship from Florida State.

"He's a matchup problem," said Nault. "You just can't put a guard on him and you just can't put a big on him, so we're game-planning. We have to change a little bit."

Stop Pat Connaughton and you stop the Prep, which is making its first Garden appearance since 1974. That's the challenge that Central undertakes tonight.

Easier said than done, a fact that Rick Nault understands all too well.