SWANZEY CENTER — The Monadnock boys’ basketball team was the Cinderella story of last year’s Division III tournament.
Coming in as the No. 9 seed after a 12-6 season, the Huskies started off with a dramatic, double-overtime victory over No. 8 Inter-Lakes, 53-49, then shocked the bracket with a 52-43 win over No. 1 seed Hopkinton to advance to the semifinals. Monadnock’s ride came to an end with a 79-53 loss to No. 5 Campbell in the semis.
But while the Huskies went further than anyone expected, they still felt a bit cheated; not by any bad calls or by an unlucky roll of the rim, but by Mother Nature’s cruel timing.
An early-March snowstorm postponed the semifinals, which not only moved Monadnock’s game to a different date, but also to a different site. Instead of playing at The Fieldhouse on the campus of Southern N.H., the Huskies had to travel an extra 20 minutes east to Exeter High School, missing out on the prestige of playing on a college court.
Now, having faced such a odd twist, this year’s mission is clear: get back to the semis, and this time, get to SNHU.
“It’s really sticking with us, because we really wanted that experience of SNHU, and we didn’t get it,” senior co-captain Tim Santaw said. “So that’s definitely carrying into this season, making us want to get to SNHU. We have a goal this year.”
The mission begins tonight when the Huskies open at Mascoma Valley.
The Huskies lost two starters from last year — All-State first-team guard Joe Minson and point guard Zack Morrell — but the increased experience of the rest of the roster and the addition of new players has given the team a level of depth that Coach Jim Hill hasn’t seen before.
“We’ve already had eight or nine different starters (in the preseason),” Hill said. “The first half starting five could be extremely different starting the third quarter depending on matchups. When you have this kind of depth, if one kid is off, like we had a kid struggle the other night, we’re able to just plug and play.”
Santaw is one of three returning starters providing a strong presence in the post as well as veteran leadership, especially after quarterbacking the Monadnock football team to a state title in the fall.
The other returning starters are a pair of sophomores in Quinn Grover and Jake Kidney. The two are coming off a strong freshman campaign, which included putting up 11 points each to lead the Huskies in their double-overtime win over Inter-Lakes.
And they’re just two of a list of underclassmen that could potentially stand out.
“I would definitely be looking out for a lot more of Quinn Grover,” Santaw said. “(Freshman) Kevin Putnam, (sophomore) Victor (Lotito), (sophomore) Nate Doyle, I could list off so many.”
Junior Tom Pouliot helps Santaw bring physicality in the post, while senior co-captain Matthew Dodd provides leadership and a strong outside shot. Senior Joe Morrell is expected to pick up the starting point guard position and provide some veteran leadership of his own after sitting out last year due to an injury.
“I feel pretty good,” Morrell said. “I’m still a little rusty in some things; my shot’s off a little bit; but as a group, we look phenomenal.”
Depth allows Hill to implement a full-court, up-tempo style that gets everybody involved.
“We’re asking each one of our players when they’re on the court to give us three to four minutes of everything they’ve got and get ready to come out,” Hill said. “I think the difference that we’re seeing is when we first started coaching five years ago, we could have a lead, but by the fourth quarter it would dissipate because we didn’t have the personnel to bring in, and it’s the opposite now, if we’re just close going into the fourth, we feel very good about our chances.”
Division III regulars Laconia, Pelham, Kearsarge and Stevens have moved up to Division II for this season. And though their destination is clearly in focus, the Huskies aren’t looking too far forward.
“We feel like we can compete with all teams, but the humbleness to prepare is going to be critical,” Hill said. “We need to remain humble enough that no matter who we play, we have to go in there and really make sure that that’s our Super Bowl in terms of intensity and effort. We can’t take anybody lightly, that’s for sure.”
Last year’s finish was a grueling experience for Conant.
After going 15-3 in the regular season, the fourth-seeded Orioles suffered a 53-49 upset loss in the first round at the hands of No. 13 White Mountains.
“They learned it’s not easy to win when it comes playoff time,” Conant Coach Eric Saucier said. “You’ve got to come prepared, and we played hard last year, and credit to White Mountains — they played a better game.”
But experience is the name of the game for this season. Not only do the Orioles carry the lessons of last year’s defeat, but they also carry a roster with more upperclassmen than underclassmen for the first time in three years.
One starter graduated: captain Ryan Smith. The others return, and figure to be bolstered by key players coming off the bench.
Leading the squad this year is senior captain Jake Drew, a four-year starter and a D-III All State honorable mention last year who can provide slashing drives to the hoop and veteran leadership. Junior Peyton Springfield — last year’s leading scorer and an All State first-teamer — will again be looked to for points from all over the floor.
The team’s other senior is Gavin Motuzas, who will be looking to expand his game beyond just being an outside shooter and defensive specialist and drive more to the basket, Saucier said. Junior Anthony Gauthier returns to the point guard position, and junior Connor Hart moves up from the sixth-man role to try to fill Smith’s role as the hard-nosed post player.
As a surprise addition, senior Aaron Rich has moved back to the area after spending the last two years in Florida, and Saucier said he expects him to be a useful asset off the bench.
The team doesn’t have much height, with Springfield standing tallest at 6-foot-3, so Saucier expects to continue his tradition of relying on his team’s speed and an up-tempo, full-court approach.
“We’re going to get out, we’re going to run, we’re going to pressure the basketball,” Saucier said. “It’s not anything new, we’re not going to surprise anyone with how we play, that’s what Conant basketball is.”
The Orioles once again enter the season as one of the top picks in Division III, but after last year, they know that it’ll take more than a favorable projection to make a deep playoff run.
“I think the guys know what it takes and what they need to do,” Saucier said. “Hopefully we’ll be ready to do that next time around.”
Conant starts its season tonight at Newport.
The Wildcats’ rebuild included a 9-9 record last year and their first playoff appearance in four years, but now the team may have to reload again, having graduated six seniors and coming in with just four players from last year’s roster.
“I feel like every year when you’re losing a group of seniors, those are your leaders, no matter if they were your starters or your bench players or even just the guys that pushed each other at practice and on the sideline,” Fall Mountain Coach Justin Cassarino said. “So every year it’s hard to replace your seniors, but it’s always next person up, and that’s what our mentality is all season.”
The Wildcats do return three starters in senior co-captains Owen Marandino, Jacob Bardis and Joey Murdoch, and Cassarino said he expects them to provide the same veteran leadership their predecessors did. Junior Lucien Hagland also returns after seeing some playing time off the bench.
Another junior, Elijah Gould, has impressed Cassarino so far with his willingness to take on whatever role he’s needed for, but the coach said the team’s lineup could vary as the season goes on.
“We go into every game saying we don’t have a starting five; it’s the guys that work hard at practice and prove themselves,” the coach said.
Similarly, he said he doesn’t expect his team to run one distinct scheme, instead changing things up to suit their opponents.
“We have a very smart group of kids that can pick things up quickly, so we’re able to put in different types of defenses, and whatever the opponent throws at us, we obviously can adjust to it,” Cassarino said.
But even with all the questions facing the team going into the season, the goal is still the same: to keep improving on years past and move the program forward.
“The team said they obviously want to make the playoffs, but the big one they set for themselves is to host a home playoff game, because we can’t remember the last time that’s happened for the Fall Mountain boys’ basketball program,” Cassarino said.
The Wildcats start their season tonight at home against Winnisquam.
Last year, the Pacers’ offense ran primarily through seniors Caleb Steever, Ryan Boggio and Peter McCosker, isolating whoever had the biggest opening or the hottest hand.
That strategy was good enough for a 10-8 record and the No. 12 seed in the Division IV playoffs.
But those three key players are gone, and a new strategy is required. It will take advantage of a deeper lineup and good team chemistry, Coach Carl Anderson said.
“We don’t have just three guys as a focal point,” Anderson said. “We have a lot more options this year.”
The Pacers return two starters in seniors Ryen LeClair and Danny Roberts, who can get to the rim and shoot the three. Fellow senior Garrett Carrier features a nice mid-range jumper.
Junior Ryan Lee came into his own late last year, and figures to be a big help on the boards and in the mid-range game, but Anderson said junior Dylan Harden, an inside-outside option, could be the piece that brings everything together.
Sophomore Arth Patel and freshman Dan Tetreualt come off the bench to add more outside shooting, and juniors Greg Howard and Calvin Atkins contribute a more well-rounded game, Anderson said.
With more emphasis on outside shooting, Anderson knows that speed, finesse and ball movement are going to be the keys to making the new offense run.
“For us to be successful this year, we’ve got to utilize our ball movement,” Anderson said. “We’ve got to identify the weaknesses of other teams and exploit it.”
Hinsdale opens its season tonight at home against Moultonborough.