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December 14. 2013 12:28AM

John Habib's City Sports: Hoops opener a possible championship preview

Like many others who follow Division I boys’ high school basketball in this state, Manchester Memorial boys’ basketball coach Jack Quirk believes the two city teams who open the season against each other on Bridge Street Tuesday night will close the season facing each other in Durham come March.

And Quirk takes his prediction one step further. He believes the loser of Tuesday’s Manchester Central-Trinity game, if it loses again, won’t lose again until the state tournament — if it loses again at all.

“The winner on Tuesday is going 18-0, and the loser will finish at 17-1,” Quirk said. “I really don’t see any other team around the state that matches their talent.”

Bedford coach Mike Fitzpatrick, who led Central to two state titles and took Memorial to a state final, isn’t making any predictions, but he shares Quirk’s general assessment of the Little Green and the Pioneers.

“They’ve earned the distinction of being early-season favorites, no question about that,” Fitzpatrick said. “Central has the ability to shoot the daylights out of the ball, and you’re always concerned driving the lane against Trinity.”

Trinity’s Wenyen Gabriel remains questionable for the opener. He’s still healing a fractured tibia injury, Pioneers coach Dave Keefe has been describing the junior forward’s status as day-to-day.

“If Gabriel doesn’t play, I’d give Central the edge in that game,” said Quirk.

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THE NHIAA schedule-maker has Quirk’s team playing seven of its last eight regular-season games on the road. Throw in road games at Keene, Winnacunnet of Hampton and Spaulding of Rochester, and Memorial will be a well-traveled team this season.

The schedule doesn’t faze Quirk.

“Given my background as a head coach at Hesser College, going to Keene, Winnacunnet and Spaulding is a walk in the park for me,” said Quirk. “When I was coaching at Hesser, I had to drive the team van, and we’d average about 400 miles a week. In one week, we’d have road games in Pittsfield, Maine; Burlington, Vermont; and New Haven, Connecticut.

“So I’m not complaining about our schedule. At least I know I’ll be home well before 3 o’clock in the morning.”

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FITZPATRICK’S Bulldogs are considered an up-and-coming Division I team.

“They’ll be a team that should win many games and challenge for the title, but I think they’re still a year away,” said Quirk.

Bedford seniors Cam Meservey, Taylor Grande and Jake Capistran, along with junior Ryan Brown, are the nucleus of the team.

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BEFORE Southern New Hampshire University played its NCAA men’s soccer tournament semifinal in Evans, Ga., former Penmen head coach Rob Grabill sent me an e-mail.

Marc Hubbard currently has 98 career wins,” Grabill wrote. “Can you imagine how cool it will be for him to win these last two and hit #100? I would be thrilled to drop to third behind Marc and John Rootes, the all-time win leader.”

As we now know, SNHU won the Division II national title last Saturday, with Hubbard moving past Grabill (99-59-12 overall record from 1979-87) into second place on the school’s all-time list.

Rootes, meanwhile, remains SNHU’s all-time leader in coaching victories, having gone 169-30-10 from 1988-89. Coincidentally, Rootes — who led the Penmen to their first national title, in 1989 — led his current team, Lynn University of Boca Raton, Fla., to last year’s 2012 Division II championship.

Grabill, an NCAA Division II Region 1 Coach of the Year in his final Penmen season, has been nothing short of dominant on the high school level. In 11 seasons with Hanover High, the last eight as head coach, he has posted a remarkable 135-9-10 record with six state titles and two runner-up finishes. This fall, Hanover (19-0-1) won its first title as a Division I school, outscoring its opponents 66-5 with 16 shutouts.

Grabill had high praise for Hubbard.

“People have to know Marc Hubbard is a Seacoast kid who won a state title in high school with Oyster River (of Durham),” Grabill wrote. “Throughout the years coaching in the Seacoast area and now at SNHU, he has been a promoter and active servant of the game. He cares about soccer at all levels.”

Of SNHU’s season-ending 23-game winning streak, Grabill said, “It’s an incredible streak because it’s so hard to do at that level. There are no days off in the Northeast-10 because every game is a battle. Marc also doesn’t shy away from challenges. His non-league games against regional and New York opponents really helps his program prepare for the postseason.”

Grabill called the Penmen’s NCAA quarterfinal shootout win over Mercyhurst “poetic, because Mercyhurst ended their season last year in Manchester. Everything came full circle, and I guess what I loved the most from watching Marc was how he juggled a talented roster. Each player had a role and they executed it.

“That team had depth. I mean look at how many players on the team scored their very first goal of the season during the postseason, when the games meant the most. To me (goalie) Dom DiMaggio was outstanding, especially in the final four. He exuded calmness during tense moments, and positionally he came off his line making big save after big save. Just a tremendous season for the Penmen.”

Grabill said win No. 100 as the Penmen head coach eluded him in Worcester, Mass.

“During my final season, Assumption was not very good,” he said. “We never played our scheduled game with them because Assumption and the league forgot to assign officials. There was no forfeit or anything. We just never played it, so ultimately I really believe it cost me my 100th win.

“Now if Coach Hubbard ever has to attend a family wedding that will force him to miss a game, I would be more than happy to sign a one-day contract to serve as head coach.”

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HUBBARD and his team will be honored during halftime of today’s SNHU men’s basketball game against Merrimack College at the SNHU Fieldhouse. Tip-off is at 3:30 p.m.

Admission is free to any fan who brings either non-perishable food items for New Horizons for New Hampshire or a new unwrapped toy for Toys for Tots.

“City Sports” is published Saturdays in the New Hampshire Union Leader. Email staff reporter John Habib at jhabib@unionleader.com.


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