Vin Sylvia: Souhegan's Kennedy already right at home at UNH
With less than a minute to play in Wednesday's NHIAA Division II boys' basketball semifinals and Souhegan High of Amherst leading Lebanon by a scant three points, Souhegan's Jake Kennedy took a feed in the paint and squared to the hoop. Without hesitating, the Sabers center lofted a soft jumper to make it 49-44 and all but lock up what eventually would become a 53-45 victory at the University of New Hampshire's Lundholm Gymnasium.
Watching from the corner of the gym, UNH football coach Sean McDonnell smiled.
Kennedy will return to Lundholm for today's division championship against unbeaten Pembroke Academy, and he'll be spending even more time there in the years to come. A 6-foot, 4-inch, 280-pound tackle, Kennedy is among McDonnell's 2013 recruits, a prospective mainstay on Wildcat offensive lines in autumns to come.
"It was my first time seeing him play basketball because of restrictions in the recruiting process that didn't allow us to watch him earlier in the season, before (letter-of-intent) signing day," McDonnell said. "By the time I got there, he already had four or five points. I was giving him a hard time after the game because he had eight or 10 points at the half and didn't do much scoring after that, but he hit a big bucket on that short jumper in the lane."
McDonnell will be back at Lundholm today to see if Kennedy and the Sabers can complete an improbable title run to the Division II title by spoiling Pembroke Academy's bid for a perfect season.
Souhegan (14-7) and Pembroke (21-0) tip off at noon, with the Division I final between top-seeded Trinity of Manchester (20-1) and No. 7 Bishop Guertin of Nashua (16-5) to follow in the all-Catholic-school Division I final at 3 p.m.
No word on whether white smoke will emanate from the Lundholm roof when we have a Division I champion.
Thinking McDonnell will be watching Kennedy with one eye closed, hoping the prized recruit doesn't hurt himself? Think again.
Like so many other college coaches who frown on sport specialization, McDonnell is happy to see his players exercise some complementary muscles and exhibit athleticism in something other than their primary sport. Moreover, seeing an athlete perform in the type of pressure situations a state tournament game presents tells provides a glimpse of what the athlete has on the inside.
"Whether it's a wrestler in a championship round, a track kid in the anchor leg of a relay or a basketball player shooting a one-and-one with the game on the line, you want to see what he does when the pressure's on," McDonnell said.
He was pleased by what he saw of Kennedy.
"I like the way he competed," he said. "I like the composure he showed in the fourth quarter."
Watching Kennedy in the semifinals brought to mind two other UNH linemen he'd seen play in NHIAA tournament games, McDonnell said. Nick Couturier made it to the 2003 Class L (now Division I) basketball final with Dover High before becoming an all-conference football center for the 'Cats, and Seamus O'Neill was a basketball standout before becoming a 2012 all-Colonial Athletic Conference tackle.
Whether Kennedy turns out to be an all-conference lineman remains to be seen. His immediate priority is helping Souhegan win its first basketball state title since 2004.
Kennedy, by the way, is one of three players who will be vying for a title today after earning New Hampshire Union Leader All-State football honors last fall. The others: Souhegan guard Tyler Ford, who lined up behind Kennedy as a quarterback and defensive back for the Sabers, and Carmen Giampetruzzi, who excelled as a QB and punter for Trinity.
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McDONNELL - whose younger son, Tommy, played in then-Class I tournament for Oyster River High of Durham before becoming a current member of the UNH varsity - hung around Lundholm long enough Wednesday to see Pembroke junior guard Pat Welch score 21 of his game-high 28 points in the first half of a 62-31 rout of Coe-Brown Northwood Academy.
"Wow," McDonnell said. "For a Division II kid to play the way he did ... He's the best high school basketball player I've seen on that court in a while."
As good as he is, though, Welch is no one-man show. Pembroke coach Matt Alosa's team has won its 21 NHIAA games by an average margin of 16.3 points, its three tournament games by an average of more than 20.
And it can't hurt that Alosa knows a little bit about playing in Lundholm. In two seasons after transferring from Providence College, from 1994-96, Alosa averaged 23.1 points, more than anyone else in UNH history.
Vin Sylvia is a deputy managing editor of the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.