---- — The preseason polls ignored St. John’s Prep.
In the process, they ignited a fire under a couple unsung Eagles’ backcourt mates from North Andover.
“A lot of guys were pretty (upset) not being ranked in anyone’s polls. As captains, we took it personally,” said Eagles senior Drex Costello who, along with his close friend and fellow Turkey Towner Tyler Dooley, has helped propel the Prep to the top of the Catholic Conference standings. “We deserved some respect. We were a little surprised. I’ve been on varsity three years, one of which was a state title team. I could tell this was a good team, but we wanted to prove to people we are legit. It definitely gave us a little swagger.”
A little anger can go a long way.
Dooley has dominated the floor from his point-guard spot. Costello leads the team in scoring at just over 14 points a game.
And the Eagles, who lost their top six players from a 13-8, first-round tourney loser last year, are an amazing 13-0.
“For us to have a good year, we knew they had to be the guys to carry the load,” said Prep coach Sean Connolly. “Both played a bit off the bench last year, and I knew they had to be the guys. Dooley really has improved a ton. We didn’t expect him to play much as a junior, and he ended up winning us three or four games down the stretch. Drex has been with us for three years, and he’s just really come into his own.”
Terrific Tyler: Valley sports fans watched Dooley come into his own on the point, late last year in the IAABO tourney at Central Catholic.
Apparently, the nifty ballhandler wasn’t satisfied.
“He’s always had the athletic ability and quickness to be a point guard,” said Connolly. “And he’s worked at it every day and just gotten better.”
Drex in effect: The offensive void was gaping coming into the year for the Prep, but somehow Costello had to be the guy to enter the abyss and fill it up.
“He’s a skilled kid and is very tough, too,” said Connolly. “He’s shot the ball great this year.”
Of course, it’s helped that the two North Andover products have come into their own together.
Rivals in 5th grade when they were split on two travel teams — “One was his team, the other was my team,” said Dooley — they came together in sixth and have been friends on and off the court every day since. Together, and along with North Andover High sensation Derek Collins, they won 72 youth basketball games, losing only twice — both times to Andover.
“He’s crafty, athletic, and he knows how to get into the paint and distribute. Last night (against MC) he had a (fake-behind-the-back) Rondo move. You just don’t see that stuff around here.”
Says Dooley: “Our chemistry has been huge. It’s a great relationship. We really know each other’s game so well. He always finds the right place to be for my passes, and I know where he likes to get the basketball.”
How far can the Prep go? Remember, Dooley and Costello aren’t alone. North Andover juniors Max Burt and Max Butterbrodt have pitched in brilliantly, as has Plaistow sophomore Ben Judson.
We will definitely get a sense in the next seven days.
Today, they travel to 8-2 Waltham, Friday it’s a trip to 9-4 CM and Sunday the Eagles host the No. 1 team in the state, 11-1 Central Catholic.
“It’s a big week for us, of course,” said Dooley. “All I know is will play them like we’ve played all the others. We’ll play with a chip on our shoulders.”
THE HUNGRY HORNETS OF TITLE TOWN
The combination of a pretty depleted (and North Andover-less) Cape Ann League plus an influx of some serious athletes again has the folks in “Title Town” aka North Reading thinking pretty big once again.
Remember, this is a group of boys athletes that comes off a state title in baseball, a state runner-up in lacrosse and a football team that went 8-2.
“The kids see that success, the baseball team winning it all, lacrosse getting to the state finals and football having its best season in 25 years,” said coach Joe Casey. “This team is focused on going out and getting theirs.”
Casey’s crew throttled a solid Lynnfield group on Thursday night, making it 13-0 for the year.
They haven’t quite locked down a CAL title yet, but with six league games last, they own a 3-game lead over the closest competition, Hamilton-Wenham, with Masco, Newburyport and Triton now all four games out of the lead.
Of course, it starts with the players and with four starters back from a 7-13 team a year ago, Casey figured the group would be good.
But it’s been the additions that have put the Hornets over the top so far. Senior Dan Fitzgerald missed nearly all of last year with a fracture in his back, but he did the offseason work to get back in time and salvage senior year.
Meanwhile, Chris Mastacusa, a conference all-star for Malden Catholic last year, decided to return to North Reading High for his senior campaign. For the most part, the two have been sensational.
Mastascusa leads all Hornets scorers at 13.4 points a night, but nifty point man Tommy Hogan at 10.6, Fitzgerald at 8.8 and big man Chris Capozzoli at 9.1 have all been consistent.
“The league is down a little, and we do miss having North Andover, but this group has really come together,” said Casey. “It’s a great group. They enjoy playing the game together and it shows out there on the floor every day.”
HUGE TUESDAY TILT
Not this deep into Mike Trovato’s six-year tenure has a basketball game mattered so much at Haverhill High.
The Hillies, 6-7 overall and 4-5 in the MVC, host Chelmsford, also 4-5 in league play, for the outright lead in the Merrimack Valley Small division.
“It’s a huge game for us, one every one of our guys will have to be ready for,” said Trovato.
The stakes are high, not just to pull Haverhill back to the .500 mark, but the victor will have the inside track on the conference and the accompanying automatic state tourney berth.
“So much is at stake. It’s a game we really have to have,” said Trovato, who will be relying on the Hillies’ frenetic defense to cause the Lions some problems.
“They’re a good team, and they like to spread the floor with their guards and break you down,” said Trovato. “But like every other game, it’s really not about what the other team does. We have to worry about what we do, and that’s defend. It’s what has gotten us here to this point. Our defense has kept us in games, and it has won us some games, even when we’ve really really struggled offensively.”
The Hillies have turned it up recently, much in part to the play of their only deadly guard trip. Freshman Saul Phiri and junior Anthony Dionne have split time on the point. Either can create on the fly and go to the basket hard. Dionne leads the team at 13.1 points a game, and Phiri is the lone other double-figures scorer at 10.7 a game. Deadeye jump-shooter Matt Jameson averages 9.7 points a night and has drilled a team-high 35 three-pointers this year.
“Games like this, with the league lead on the line, are the reason we put in all the hard work we do,” said Trovato.
“We play 11 kids at different times, so it has been taking a total team effort. We strive to be more consistent, but because we are so deep it hasn’t hurt us much. We just need to keep playing the game as hard as we have on both ends.”
NOTHING COMING EASY
Even at 7-5 at this point, Lawrence High School won’t have an easy road to the state tourney.
First-year coach Ray Nunez and the Lancers could have their hands full down the stretch, with Central, Lowell, North Andover and a pair with Andover left on the agenda. Add in a game with Methuen, which beat Lawrence already (albeit without Roberto Speing and Tre’von Farley) and the Lancer tourney hopes could depend on season-closing non-leaguers on the road at 7-5 Dighton-Rehoboth and 12-1 Hockomock-leading Mansfield. ...
On the flip side, we have the Valley’s newest competitor, North Andover, which has locked up a tourney berth at 11-2, and still figures into the league race.
Credit the Knights, who are getting the bulk of the dirty work done without Brendan Miller, who remains on the injury list with mononucleosis.
“If you understand this mononucleosis stuff, you’re better than me,” said Knights coach Mike McVeigh, who continues to play the waiting game for Miller, who has been out since the Christmas Tournament. “All I am is the guy who waits.”
McVeigh has done plenty of mixing and matching, trying to piece together five guys into two spots behind the big three of Isaiah Nelsen, Chris Bardwell and Derek Collins.
“We’ve got five kids — Alex Gorgoni, Kyle White, Brett Daley, Jeff Warden and John Enright — all with different strengths, all five working really hard, that we’re trying to use in different spots, depending on situations.
“For me, it’s an incredibly challenging ending,” said McVeigh. “We’ve got Central twice, Andover Lawrence and Lowell. As I tell people, it’s like the Christmas Tournament every week.”
REGGIES NOW A FACTOR
What a difference a 2-0 week makes.
Now at 7-8, Greater Lawrence Tech finds itself in a familiar position, fighting for its postseason life.
“I really didn’t think this team had a shot at it,” said Reggies’ coach Dan Habib. “I thought we’d be close, and right now we’re close. It will be a struggle.”
The Reggies have Chelsea, Notre Dame and Greater Lowell — all whom they defeated the first time — remaining along with Lynn Tech, which beat them earlier, and Methuen.
The Greater Lowell and Lynn Tech games were one-point decisions.
Oscar Reynoso continues to power the offense, but the Reggies have gotten a serious boost on the defensive end by Cristian Rivera, and the return of Frankely Estrella to the fold.
“Cristian draws the other team’s top player every night and has done a great job, attempting to shut them down,” said Habib. “And having Frankely really helps out. He played one game in the Christmas Tournament, then went to Orlando and then he came back. We had to sit him a couple games because of it, but he’s really playing well right now. He had games of 11 and 16 points this week.”
THREE GAMES TO GET TO
Tuesday, Central at North Andover, 7 p.m.: The MVC small showdown with Haverhill and Chelmsford is a big one, but don’t forget the twice-a-week large showdown, that has to make you get off the couch and to a local gym. Central continues a brutal stretch with a trip to Crozier.
Friday, Londonderry at Pinkerton, 7:30 p.m.: Both clubs are hungry for wins as the Granite Staters begin the shuffling for playoff position. These two rivals don’t need a reason to tangle with each other.
Sunday, Central at St. John’s Prep, 1 p.m.: Both have monster weeks ahead, but this could ultimately Game of the Year I in Division 1 North with the 13-0 Prep hosting the 11-1 Raiders.