Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Central title caps tremendous Manchester's tremendous tournament run

It was another memorable season for boys' basketball in Manchester, as the district saw all three high school teams advance to the semi-final and final rounds of the NHIAA State Tournament.  With Memorial and West’s title aspirations falling short in the semis, all hopes for a Manchester state title fell on Central, and its head coach David “Doc” Wheeler, whose team came through with a thrilling 60-58 overtime victory against Merrimack, claiming its second state title in three years.
For Division 1 Basketball in New Hampshire, many pundits will tell you it was a year like no other, as the parity across the state contributed to a wide-open tournament.

“I have never seen a tournament where as many as 14 teams had a legitimate chance to win it all,” said Wheeler, who claimed his fifth state championship at the helm of Central Basketball. “We certainly didn’t put the fear in anybody this season, but we certainly didn’t fear anyone either.”

Two of the four Central victories went to OT, and the team's semi-final victory saw them go on miraculous 27-4 run in the final 5 minutes of the game to erase an 11 point deficit to Winnacunnet.

“Quarter and semi-final games are always hard fought victories, and the finals are just simply brutal,” claims Wheeler.  The coach was also quick to credit the performance of his players, specifically his seniors. “They were tough enough to make plays when it counted; they certainly had courage to make plays at critical junctures in a game. You simply can’t teach those intangibles. ”

If there was one school which earned the label of “spoiler” it would be Memorial, which finished the season at 11-7, and advanced to the semi-finals at UNH as the #9 seed in the tournament.  The Crusaders raised eyebrows across the basketball community by beating both Nashua schools, and doing so in dramatic fashion.  Down by as many as 20 points in the third quarter, the Crusaders went on a 38-18 run to defeat the #8 seed Panthers of Nashua South, 75-72, for a first round win.  The dramatics continued in their quarter-final match, as Memorial erased a 12 point deficit midway through the 3rd quarter, and went on to win 81-79, and defeat the #1 seed Nashua North Titans.

“We had a lot of players make contributions in both games, it wasn’t just one person,” said Memorial coach Jack Quirk.

For Division II West High School, which came off a 17-1 season a year prior, the expectations were a little higher going into the 2015-2016 campaign.

“We had made steady progress over the last few years to get to a place where we thought West could be mentioned in the conversation of front-runners in D2 basketball,” said Danny Bryson, head coach of the Knights since 2010.

The program’s steady progress includes a 35-5 record over the last two years, which was highlighted by this season’s spectacular quarter final contest verse Hollis-Brookline. West center  Akok Akok put in a rebound with less than one second in the game to secure 43-42 victory, and send West to its first semi-final match in 13 years.  Bryson uses his program’s experiences to serve as building blocks for success.

“Last year it was the first time we hosted a tournament game in 14 or 15 years, and our players were simply too relaxed for the experience, thus we were upset by the 15th seed St. Thomas.  This year we preached to our kids to play like this your last game of your career, and without that mental fortitude we don’t pull out the victory versus Hollis-Brookline.”

According to Coach Bryson, it’s all about progress, and the UNH experience served as another stepping stone for the program.

"If you look at Lebanon, it took them the fourth time around to finally get to the final. It’s a progression, and with each year we set the table higher from the year before.”

The coaches also recognized that there were teaching moments through the course of the season.  After a double-digit defeat to Londonderry in January, Coach Wheeler decided it was time to circle the wagons.

“We made adjustments, both coaches and players. Our players realized they needed to place more emphasis on teamwork, and we as a staff decided to put players in situations they could handle. It certainly helped their self-confidence coming down the stretch.”

Having an experienced team, Coach Bryson’s players were well aware of both his on-court and off-court expectations.

“On the court, it’s about being coachable, and trusting your teammates. Off the court, it’s about being good students and outstanding citizens.  We’re family. What they do off the court certainly affects what they do on the court.”

Moving forward, Coach Quirk is not only optimistic about his team next year, which returns 10 sophomores and 3 juniors, but is also extremely optimistic about the future of basketball in the city.

“To win a state title in New Hampshire, you are simply going to have to go through Manchester,” he said.

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