NORTH ANDOVER – Years of pain, one surgery, cortisone shots, physical therapy, rehab, a couple back braces and many, many tears later, Derek Collins finally had his night.
Oh, he got some help, plenty of it, from his North Andover High teammates, but as the final buzzer sounded here at Crozier Fieldhouse in the Knights’ 58-52 shocker over No. 1 Central Catholic, it was Collins who commanded your respect and the highest praise.
“The shot he hit to end the third changed the momentum of the game,” said classmate Isaiah Nelsen of the 60-foot banker by Collins at the buzzer. “From that moment on, the fourth quarter belonged to us. It was ours the whole way.”
If the prayer from Route 125 changed the momentum, the fourth quarter – owned by the Knights 25-9 – simply disrupted the entire Merrimack Valley Conference season.
And it all started with Collins, the cocky youngster turned sage senior, who probably shouldn’t even be here, at least in uniform.
“We had our share of differences back years ago,” beamed Knights coach Mike McVeigh. “But look at him now.”
Look at him now.
We all know Collins’ saga by now, a hoop phenom in the youth ranks, whose career was sucker-punched by a series of back issues.
So much of that is behind him … of course, the pain still lingers … but a night like last night proves how far Collins has come from that afternoon in the doctor’s office back in November 2011.
“That was definitely the lowest of low points, being told that we were at the last resort and it was surgery,” said Collins.
If only that surgeon could have seen Collins at work last night, helping will the Knights to victory.
For two-plus quarters, nothing had gone right. Overzealous officials popped Collins for two touch fouls in 88 seconds, sending him to the bench early.
When he was in the game, well, let’s just say, Central’s Joel Berroa was pitching a shutout.
Collins never pouted. He never quit, and when he finally found an inch of space, he rocked, fired and drained a 3-pointer midway through the third.
“Joel is an incredible defender,” said Collins. “And when I hit that shot I could hear coach Nault screaming at him, to not let me catch the ball.”
The 3 to end the quarter started with a great steal in the deep corner of his own end. Collins took a couple dribbles and heaved, just from above the opposite 3-point arc.
Talk about adrenaline. The back felt so loose and Collins was free in the fourth. Free to rebound (4 in the quarter), free to attack the hoop (with a sweeping baseline drive) to tie it at 52 apiece and free to defend and faceguard Central assassin Tyler Nelson down the stretch.
“I guess this makes it pretty much worth it,” said Collins. “There were so many times last year, watching (Zach) Karalis and the guys out there, I hated sitting and watching. This makes it all that worth it.
“There’s been no higher point than this.”
With Collins healthy and a band of Knights playing with this kind of resilience and grit, he might want to be ready to amend that statement.
Who knows what highs might lie ahead for this crew? And considering what Collins has been through, he deserves at least a few more.