By Hector Longo
---- — The common theme in boys hoop circles, was that if North Andover was ever to make the mover to the Merrimack Valley Conference, 2011 was the year for it to happen.
Zach Karalis, Jimmy Warden, Mike Moroney and Colby Smith anchored a monster senior class.
The move comes one year too late, right?
“Forget it. In my eyes, North Andover, right now, is as talented as any team in our league right now,” said Central Catholic coach Rick Nault. “Believe me, they’re a team to beat. They’ll fit right in.”
Which North Andover team is more talented, 2011 or 2012? That’s a debate to be held at some alumni country-club affair, maybe in 2031.
But today’s Knights say they’re ready to lace them up and get after and boldly go where few North Andover teams (football, soccer, etc.) have gone before.
“Being the first hoop team to play in the MVC means a lot, to all of us,” said North Andover captain Derek Collins. “We’re happy to be in this league. We’re trying to establish ourselves as one of the top teams in the league right away.
“When we came in is something we couldn’t control. But this team will stay focused and together. I think we can do big things, if we put the work in.”
Don’t you dare attempt to empathize with North Andover as it attacks the new venture. The Knights enter MVC Division I – that is with Central, Andover, Lowell, Lawrence and Methuen – loaded for bear.
On board are the senior Collins, who coming in as a freshman before enduring brutal back issues, was said to be as talented a prospect to ever come out of North Andover.
He may not be at 100 percent physically, but said, “The back gets a little stiff from time to time, but I’m just glad to be playing.”
Up front might be the Valley’s top big man in St. Anselm-bound Isaiah Nelsen, a 6-foot-6 inside-outside threat, who just happens to be North Andover’s first full scholarship boys hoop prospect since Dick Licare in 1975.
Four other solid seniors in Alex Gorgoni, Aaron Straus, Garrett Upson and Chris Bardwell – along with talented junior Brendan Miller – have spirits soaring on the Turkey Town hardwood.
“So many people are excited about seeing how we handle the Merrimack Valley Conference,” said Nelsen. “I think, as a team, we want to know where we stand as well.”
Playing in the top division of the MVC assures a challenge not just for the team, but for the entire North Andover student body.
The “Crozier Crazies” as they are known affectionately, dominated the fan competition across the Cape Ann League. That was a pretty simple task, though.
Show up to overwhelm Masco and maybe one or two other challengers that year, and you are done.
The MVC presents a much broader and higher level of competition.
It’s no longer “any given night” that the Knights and their followers have to be on their game. It’s “every given night,” now, whether matching playful barbs with the boisterous bunch over at the Dunn Gym, or the tenaciously creative holy rollers at Central Catholic.
“My friend (and classmate) Dan Callagy has done a nice job of getting our student section prepared for the hoop season,” assured Nelsen. “Hoop is it. And there are so many great games that we all have to be ready for in a league like the MVC. I have all the confidence in the world that our students will be ready.”
With days before the regular season opener, Dec. 11 at home against Tewksbury, Collins says the time is right to bring it on.
“Better competition is a good thing,” said Collins. “I’ve always felt we have the potential to be a top team. Now, we just have to go out and show people. It’s a good thing that we were placed in the large division, too. We’re here now.”
And now the Knights are out to prove that they have indeed arrived.