This year’s basketball season has already been a ride. A few local schools still do not have the green light to compete, but may have that opportunity by the time games are scheduled later in January. The Monadnock Region saw four schools qualify for the shortened postseason last year, with Keene High and ConVal having their seasons ended prematurely due to the cancellation of the postseason tournaments. Every team across the region and state has had to make adjustments to prepare for a basketball season in the midst of a global pandemic, but the goal for all teams remains the same.
A closer look at the six boys basketball teams in the region:
“Bittersweet” is how fifth-year head coach Kevin Ritter described the end of last season. The Blackbirds were the No. 5 seed heading into the NHIAA tournament and won their first game before the tournament was canceled due to COVID. Keene loses four starters from last year’s team. Seniors Alex Charles and Christian Oxendine step in as captains this year to help fill that loss in production. Senior Isaiah Dunchus will make his varsity debut for the Blackbirds and “can really bear the burden of some of our playmaking this year,” Ritter said.
Coach: Kevin Ritter (5th year)
Last season: 12-6; won in first round of the Division 1 NHIAA tournament as No. 5 seed before postseason was canceled due to COVID
Top players lost: Noah Timmer (18.4 ppg), Liam Johnston (10.3 ppg), Jon Kelly (7.6 ppg), Logan Patnode (5.2 ppg)
Top players returning: Senior Alex Charles (7.0 ppg), Senior Christian Oxendine (3.6 ppg), Junior Jaheim Lancaster, Junior Nick Maiella
First game: Jan. 19 vs. Wilton-Lyndeborough at 6:30 p.m. — cannot compete until school returns to at least a hybrid model of learning
On last season:
“We had a very good year, we were very pleased with our year, but it was a little bittersweet the way it ended. On the one hand, we did get to end our year with a win, which, on a normal year, only one team gets to say that, but it was anticlimactic, and we didn’t really get to see through our goals for the season.”
“We had a really good group of kids last year and I think we were peaking the last two or three games of the regular season and our first playoff game, so I felt really good, but we’re moving forward. That’s in the past.”
On losing four starters:
“They were all key contributors and key parts of our system, so we will have to do work to replace their leadership and production.”
On newcomers on the roster:
“We have a steep learning curve here to acclimate the new guys and really get them used to our system. We’re still sorting out where many of the newcomers are going to fit, and we’re definitely excited about a lot of them.”
On preparing for a season with COVID:
“It’s business as usual, it really is. I haven’t approached this year any different than in years past, other than obvious protocols we have to follow, but from a coaching standpoint, practices look exactly like they have in the past, except we all have masks on. There’s not been one complaint out of the players. I think they’re all thrilled to be out and practicing. Working hard, being part of a team, experiencing the camaraderie. It’s really been a great experience to bring the guys together during this time and, like I said, it’s business as usual, so it’s been great.”
Seventh-year head coach Jim Hill believes his squad didn’t reach its full potential last season, losing to Mascoma High School in the first round of the NHIAA tournament. The good news is, he brings back four of his five starters from last season, three of whom were on the Monadnock team that reached the Final Four in 2018. Coupled with a few new sophomores and juniors who will see some playing time, the Huskies have high hopes for a run in the 2021 postseason.
Coach: Jim Hill (7th season)
Last season: 11-7; lost in the first round of Division 3 NHIAA tournament
Top players lost: Connor Brannon (12.4 ppg) — transfer to The Winchendon School
Top players returning: Senior Jake Kidney (18.4 ppg), Senior Tyler Hebert (3.9 ppg), Senior Nate Doyle (10.1 ppg), Junior Kevin Putnam (12.6 ppg)
First game: Jan. 13 vs. Hinsdale at 5:30 p.m.
On the team:
“They’re so coachable, this group. It’s the most coachable group we’ve ever had.”
“They understand what we’re trying to accomplish in practice. It’s rewarding for everyone involved.”
On the returning seniors:
“They know what it takes to get back to the Final Four and try to compete for a championship. It’s pretty exciting, regardless of who we play, when we play.”
On the potent offense:
“The kids really got it offensively in terms of our ability to get the ball down the court quick.”
On preparing for a season during COVID:
“Absolutely no issues. Not one. We have all our protocols in place. We take our temperatures out in the parking lot, we wear our masks. Our team has embraced wearing masks. There hasn’t been one person who has complained about wearing a mask. Nobody’s ripping masks off. They haven’t even questioned why we’re wearing it. For them, it’s almost a privilege to play basketball. If we have to wear a mask, we have to wear a mask. It doesn’t bother us one bit. If that’s the worst thing that we have to deal with this year, is wearing masks, then so be it.”
ConVal earned the No. 1 seed in last year’s NHIAA tournament, but never had the chance to play a tournament game before the season was canceled. They were awarded the co-championship, but lose six seniors heading into this year, including two of their top scorers from last year. Now it’s up to senior captain Wyatt Davis and classmate Isaiah Michaels to lead the Cougars. Junior Owen Michaels, Isaiah’s brother, will have an opportunity to log some more minutes this year, and could become an impact player for ConVal.
Coach: Leo Gershgorin (4th season)
Last season: 16-1; No. 1 seed in Division 2 tournament, awarded co-championship after tournament was canceled due to COVID
Top players lost: Mather Kipka (15.2 ppg), Connor Buffum (11.1 ppg), Del Bonsu-Anane (8.0 ppg), Trevor Faber (3.7 ppg), Taylor Burgess (6.1 ppg), Owen Collins
Top players returning: Senior Wyatt Davis (5.4 ppg), Senior Isaiah Michaels (6.6 pgg), Junior Owen Michaels
First game: Jan. 29 at Milford at 4:30 p.m. — ConVal winter sports are paused until at least Jan. 19.
On preparing for the season with COVID:
“We’ve stayed in contact all year. While we weren’t able to use our own gym, we definitely stayed in contact. We were always on the phone, especially myself and Wyatt, just talking about this season. We’ve been Zooming as a team, they’ve got an at-home conditioning workout that they’re doing. Obviously it doesn’t mimic the conditioning they get out on the court, but hopefully it helps a lot so that way when you get out on the court we’re ready to go.”
On the younger group:
“We’re excited because, when I first came in, my first year, we had a youth movement. We had a lot of … freshmen and sophomores, and so we got to really build, somewhat, from the ground up, and we’re kind of getting that again, even though we have some really good senior leadership … there are definitely a lot of young guys that are really hungry so we’re really looking forward to getting those younger guys experience for the next couple years.”
The Orioles return three starters, but lose All-State First Team point guard Anthony Gauthier, who led the team in scoring and assists. He was also the team’s second-leading rebounder. Connor Hart was the other loss to the starting five. Between Gauthier and Hart, Conant loses a lot of firepower on offense, so it’ll be up to this year’s upperclassmen to fill those voids in hopes of repeating the Orioles’ 2019 championship run.
Coach: Eric Saucier (13th season)
Last season: 9-9; lost in second round of D3 tournament
Top players lost: Anthony Gauthier (21.9 ppg), Connor Hart (8.4 ppg)
Top players returning: Senior Colson Seppala (4.5 ppg), Senior Hayden Ketola (5.5 ppg), Junior Garrett Somero (4.1 ppg)
First game: Jan. 12 at Wilton-Lyndeborough at 7 p.m.
On only having nine players instead of 12:
“I’ve always had 12. We only have nine this year, for whatever reason, so we’ve had to change up a few things but we’re finding ways to do good. The one benefit is, we’re going to be in better shape than we usually are, and we’re usually in pretty good shape. Now, we’ll be in even better shape. We’re not really changing much, we’re just happy to be playing.”
On preparing for the season with COVID:
“It’s been great. This is the first year in 16 years that I haven’t done anything in the summer with the guys because we weren’t allowed, for good reason. So, usually I take that time to work with the young guys … so we weren’t able to do that this summer, but the practices we’ve had with only nine guys, I couldn’t be happier. They’re working their tails off, they’re playing hard, they’re not complaining, they’re not making excuses. We said from day one, there’s no excuses. We don’t really care what the outcomes are this year, we’re just happy to to be playing. We’re going to play hard, like we do at Conant.”
After missing the NHIAA tournament last season, it’s up to first-year head coach Mitch Harrison to try and turn the program around. Offensively, the Wildcats bring back senior Tristan Spencer and junior Brady Elliot, who led the team in three-point shooting and assists last season. On the defensive end, senior Noah Guttierez is someone Harrison said he feels comfortable matching up against opponents’ top offensive threats. Seniors Tyler Swain and Alex Flynn decided to opt of this season, which will hurt the team on the rebounding front. Junior Jack Wildes, who played on JV last season, could jump up to varsity and potentially help make up for that loss in rebounding.
Coach: Mitch Harrison (1st year)
Last season: 3-14; missed postseason
Top players lost: Senior Tyler Swain, Senior Alex Flynn — both opting out of season
Top players returning: Senior Noah Guttierez, Senior Tristan Spencer (6.0 ppg), Junior Brady Elliot (6.0 ppg)
First game: Jan. 19 vs. Newport at 5 p.m.
On preparing with COVID:
“It’s a challenging year to take over a program, for sure. But one of the messages I’m trying to get across to the kids is, adversity can bring opportunity, and we’re trying to build from that. They’ve been out of the gym for a long time and they’re really eager to get started as a team. It’s challenging any year under normal circumstances when a new coach comes into a program and it takes time for the kids to get to know that coach and the coach to get to know the players. So, even under normal circumstances, that’s a challenge. I have to say that I’m really pleased so far with how receptive they have been.”
On his gut feeling on the team:
“I think we have some good leadership there, for sure, even though we only have potentially a few seniors, still I think there’s some good leadership there and I’m hoping that will continue as the season goes on. So, I’m really feeling good about the start we’ve had even though it’s been delayed. Another message I have for them is that we have to be efficient and use our time on the court well.”
“I’m getting a good sense that these are kids that have been dying to get on the court, and that is always a good sign for me. I think with any program, what goes a long way is the team’s hunger for actually playing the game of basketball and the joy that they play with. And I just get this sense right now that they want to move this program forward and they want to be more successful. I just get a sense that this is a group that has the potential to gel and to sacrifice the ‘me’ for the ‘we,’ as they say, and come together as a team. That, I really like. You can do all the X’s and O’s in the world and talk about the size that you have and all that stuff, but if you don’t have that, it’s hard to be as successful as you can potentially be.”
On losing Swain and Flynn this year:
“We lose a little bit of size, but that’s part of the challenge, to see who you actually have on the team and how you can best utilize the players that you have. And we’re certainly going to run some stuff that taps into our strengths for sure.”
On the team’s offense:
“There are several players that are going to have to give us a lot. One of the things I’m trying to stress, and this is one of the areas we need to work on offensively, is sharing the basketball and really getting better ball and player movement. We really need to design offense where there’s going to be player movement and there’s going to be that sharing of the basketball. I think that’s something that’ll be important for us to succeed offensively. I think Brady Elliot will be a big part of that, but there could be other players too that I think could play a big role.”
The Pacers only return two starters from last season’s team. Arth Patel returns for his senior season and was Hinsdale’s second-leading scorer last year. Hinsdale will be without their leading scorer from last year, Dylan Harden. Senior Bobby LeClair will be joining the varsity team in hopes of helping to fill that gap and Hinsdale coach Carl Anderson said he’ll be “fun to watch” this year.
Coach: Carl Anderson (4th year)
Last season: 3-15; missed postseason
Top players lost: Greg Howard (8.5 ppg), Ryan Lee (4.6 ppg), Dylan Harden (21.3 ppg)
Top players returning: Senior Arth Patel (11.5 ppg), Senior Jason Cowan (2.3 ppg), Freshman Brayden Eastman (8.0 ppg as an 8th grader on varsity)
First game: Jan. 13 at Monadnock at 5:30 p.m.
On this year’s roster:
“This is a hungry group. They’re the type of kids that love basketball, so they’re loving the fact that they get to play right now.”
On losing three starters:
“Between the three of them, they had 495 rebounds. And they were each 6’1 or taller, so we lost a lot of height from last year, and a lot of athletic ability.”
On preparing for the season with COVID:
“We just absolutely love the fact that we’re back in the gym and we get to play basketball. I have 11 guys who love basketball, so we’re working hard, we’re getting after it, we’re having fun, we’re enjoying the fact that we get to play basketball. Obviously the biggest challenge right now is the masks, but we understand. We’re working on overcoming that. We’re working hard. Our energy level is high. We’re having fun. That was my message right off the bat. Let’s have fun this year. We know what’s going on outside the gym, so when we come in the gym, let’s just get away from everything in the world and do what we love and play basketball.”
— Stats and records compiled from nhsportspage.com