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February 21. 2013 7:12PM

Jim Fennell's High School Hoopla: Keene boys make great strides

Doc Wheeler can never remember a time when he traveled from Manchester to Keene to scout a game, but that's where the Central High boy's basketball coach was Wednesday when city rival Trinity played Keene High.

It's that time of the year.

With the Pioneers playing a makeup game and the Little Green having the night off, Wheeler and assistant coach Tom Dickson made the trek across Route 9 to do a little more scouting before Central plays Trinity in what might turn out to be the biggest regular season game of the year Tuesday at Central.

Both teams have one loss in Division I, so the winner of Tuesday's game - the penultimate game of the regular season for both teams - could end up with the top seed in the tournament. That's no small consideration when you consider there are six, maybe seven teams that have a legitimate shot to win the tournament. Avoiding one of those teams for as long as possible is a desirable position.

Keene is not one of those six or seven teams. In fact, the Blackbirds were a tenuous bet to even make the tournament before they won a couple of recent games.

But it says something about the job first-year coach David Sontag is doing with the Birds that Wheeler bothered to make the hour-plus drive to Keene. After all, Central has a bye date Friday, so Wheeler could see Trinity play Dover if he wants. He was in Keene because he remembers the way the Birds played his own team earlier, leading late in the third quarter before the Little Green eventually rallied for a 68-61 win.

As it turns out, Wednesday's game wasn't much of a contest. Mabor Gabriel and the Pioneers jumped out to a 14-0 lead and rolled, 70-24, to snap Keene's two-game win streak. Still, Sontag has earned the respect of Wheeler and other coaches around the state.

Remember, this is a Keene program that is on its fifth coach in four years. The program needed something and it turned to someone who had never been a head coach above the middle school level.

Wheeler said the Blackbirds are taking on the characteristics that defined Sontag when he was playing at Souhegan High of Amherst and Keene State College: showing some grit and working hard.

"He's making great strides," Wheeler said. "It's a huge transition in a lot of ways."

Sontag, for his part, said he's doesn't feel overwhelmed by the challenge of turning the program around or his lack of experience at this level.

"It's basketball, it's a simple game," he said. "It's playing hard and playing as a team. It doesn't matter if it's middle school or the NBA."

Keene has played several of the top teams close, losing by six to Nashua South, a point to Bishop Guertin and four to Alvirne.

"We have to develop a winning attitude," Sontag said. "There's no easy fix, it's hard work."

There have been some bumps along the way - a bad loss to Concord is one example - but Trinity coach Dave Keefe said that is to be expected when you're a young coach trying to develop a program. Keefe remembers going 7-11 his first season at Trinity and questioning himself.

"My only advice is you have to believe in yourself and do it your own way," Keefe said. "I'll listen to everyone. I listen to my 85-year-old dad, but the bottom line is you have to go with who you are. He's doing a great job."




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THERE was a noticeable lack of upsets in the first round of the Division IV girls' tournament as the top eight seeds advanced to tonight's quarterfinals. And there weren't even any scares as every team won by at least 13 points.

Don't expect form to hold again tonight.

In each of the four games, the teams will be playing each other for the first time. That unfamiliarity could be a key to an upset or two.




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ANOTHER MEMBER OF THE CLUB: Spaulding of Rochester star senior Dominic Paradis scored his 1,000th point Tuesday, and it couldn't have come at a better time. He had 17, 10 in the fourth quarter, as the Red Raiders turned back visiting Merrimack 63-51 in a key Division I game.




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PICK A DIVISION and, with the exception of Division IV boys, you're bound to come up with a game tonight that has some kind of tournament implications.

On the girls' side, Nashua North and Alvirne of Hudson play to stay in contention for a top-four spot in Division I, ditto for the Hanover-Windham game in Division II.

On the boys' side, a high seed in Division I is up for grabs when Bishop Guertin plays Spaulding. There also marquee matchups in Division II (Portsmouth at Souhegan of Amherst) and Division III (Berlin at Prospect Mountain of Alton).



jfennell@unionleader.com

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