EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

March 24, 2013

Saluting the soldiers, the shocker and the studs

Boys Basketball
Hector Longo

---- — The close of the 2013 boys basketball season took a chunk out of Central Catholic coach Rick Nault and Andover High’s David Fazio.

One reason is “breaking up” with four-year varsity seniors Joel Berroa and Sam Dowden?

Both athletes, who saw so much of each other the past four years, exit after providing the pulse for each team.

“He’s definitely one of my top five favorite kids of all time,” said Fazio of Dowden, the all-conference forward who scored 2,000 on his SATs. “He got everyone’s best and most attention. He battled every possession of every game without one complaint in four years.”

Dowden definitely leaves his own legacy as one of the top competitors in Warriors history. Few athletes have embraced Fazio’s way like he did.

And his opposite number on so many nights was the uncanny Berroa. How confident was Nault in Berroa’s defensive will and skill?

If Paul Pierce was on the opposite end of the floor, Joel would probably get the call.

“There’s nothing you can’t say about Joel, and the way he plays defense,” said Nault. “He’s given us everything he possibly could over the last four years.”

Both players are fighters who hate to lose. And each rarely did. But it was when the two collided that they each shined brightest.

It’s a matchup hoop fans in the region will surely miss.

BARDWELL’S SEASON SIMPLY UNCANNY

Can you imagine the pounding the Cape Ann League would have taken this winter if North Andover High had stayed, and senior transfer Chris Bardwell unleashed his fury there?

But Bardwell didn’t beat up the tiny CAL after transferring from Central Catholic to the Knights for his senior campaign. He rumbled through the big boys, the beasts of the Merrimack Valley Conference, leaving nothing but rubber treads on the way.

And to think, the move had nothing to do with hoops. It was for baseball, where Bardwell — a lefty who says he’s hit the mid-to-high 80s on the radar gun — had been marooned on the Raider JV team as a junior.

Destined to be buried on Central’s hoop bench, Bardwell found life in the frontcourt with the Knights, playing aside one of the region’s most complete big men, Isaiah Nelsen.

After playing sparingly for Central as a junior, Bardwell averaged 20.3 points a night, helping the Knights to a share of the MVC Division 1 title with the Raiders.

Throughout the season, Coach Mike McVeigh spoke of the learning process for both he and Bardwell.

“I have an awful lot of respect for Coach McVeigh and (Central) Coach (Rick) Nault,” said Bardwell. “But it’s definitely different.”

Bardwell talked of getting the best of both worlds, infused by the fire from Nault and poise he attained by watching McVeigh. Together, with Bardwell’s athletic ability and a sick scoring touch with the left hand, the combination proved unstoppable.

Now, you just have to wonder what he’s got planned for an encore on the baseball diamond this spring ... if the snow ever clears.

SIGN OF THE TIMES

Haverhill’s Noah Vonleh hasn’t stepped on to the Indiana University campus officially yet. He’s not enrolled in any classes, and hasn’t had a practice there.

That doesn’t mean that someone, somewhere isn’t exploiting the potential future NBA lottery pick. A quick “Noah Vonleh” search on eBay, yielded a slew of items, all autographed by Noah, ranging from a piece of autographed floor board for $29.99 up to official one square foot “IU” floor board chunks for $174.99.

Yes, Noah is making that kind of impact nationally. But he’s such a quality kid. I really hate to think that people already are out there exploiting him already.

RECORD-SETTER FOR CLASS

Perhaps, some came from the coaching. But something tells me his parents should receive the bulk of credit.

In over 20 years of covering the local sports scene, I’m pretty sure I’ve never run into a classier, more well-spoken athlete than North Andover’s Isaiah Nelsen.

Everyone in this era talks trash. Not Nelsen.

Everyone seems to beg, plead and whine on the court. Not Nelsen.

Saint Anselm is getting not only a quality athlete, but a top-notch human being in the big fella from North Andover.

SAUL OF THE MATTER

Haverhill High turned the corner under coach Mike Trovato this winter, winning the MVC Division 2 title and then stunning Westford Academy on its home floor in the Division 1 North first-round upset. The Hillies finished at 12-10 with the bulk of the talent being underclassmen.

League MVP Anthony Dionne and all-star Matt Jameson headline a core of juniors that will be back. And Trovato has dotted all the I’s and crossed all the T’s with the younger groups, assuring that the talent pool will be deep.

But the catalyst remains 6-2 freshman Saul Phiri, who came on to play his best down the stretch as the Hillies locked down the title and the state tourney berth.

Trovato has shown he’ll allow superstar youngsters to grow as we saw with Noah Vonleh. And talk has Phiri looking at the prep school route, too. But you have to wonder if the quality athletes around Phiri might help make the decision a little tougher.

There was an excitement around Haverhill hoop this winter. There’s a lot to be said for playing in front of your hometown friends and packed houses against the rival schools like Andover, North Andover, Central and Lawrence.

Also, it’s no longer a secret that his predecessor Vonleh endured some unhappy times away from home at prep school.

One thing is certain. With Phiri and the current crew, the sky could be the limit for the Hillies in the next couple seasons.

COMING ATTRACTIONS

If you have to take a look into the crystal ball at 2013-14, Central Catholic and Haverhill would be picked to repeat in their respective divisions.

The Raiders return the league’s top player in Tyler Nelson, along with a healthy potential scholarship guy in Nick Cambio.

Still, Rick Nault has some major gaps to fill. Can Andover bounce back after losing its heart, Dowden and soul, Chris Dunn, to graduation? A healthy Connor Merinder for a full year alongside David Giribaldi will go a long way in helping the Warrior chances. ...

In New Hampshire, there is no place to go but up for the local crowd in Division 1. But the group I’m looking at is Pelham in Division 2. With Jake Vaiknoras and Keith Brown back, the Pythons could be destined to flash back to the glory days.

ODDS AND ENDS

Talk about a closing statement, maybe it was a warning shot.

But Jackson Morton’s 44-point performance on closing night for the Sanborn Indians had coach Bob Ficker fired up and looking to a brighter future.

“It’s nice to know we’re going to have him back again,” said Ficker. “It just shows the type of athlete he can be.” ...

Calvin Wiles of Pentucket stepped into the void this winter when first-year coach Ed Hickey needed him most, going from role player a year ago, to go-to guy.

Wiles finished at 13.4 points a game to lead Pentucket and earn all-league honors. He’s hoping for bigger things this spring as well with the Sachem laxmen. Hickey reported that it looks like Wiles will take to the lacrosse field for Union College.