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February 28. 2014 10:41PM

John Habib's City Sports: Trinity High's Courchesne coaching 'em up

With the regular season now complete, it's time to make the case for Matt Courchesne of Manchester's Trinity High School as Division I girls' basketball coach of the year.

The official announcement from the New Hampshire Basketball Coaches Association won't be released for another two weeks, but a couple of prominent local coaches — while refraining from making their votes public — acknowledged that Courchesne is a worthy selection.

“Matt did a terrific job,” said Londonderry's John Fagula. “He's done a good job of getting his kids to play hard and believing in themselves. That's half the battle right there.”

“Matt coaches with passion, and his kids have bought into his coaching philosophy,” said Manchester Central's Mike Wenners. “They went from not making the tournament last year to a playoff team that could make some noise in the tournament next week.”

In his first year as head coach, Courchesne last year guided a young and inexperienced Trinity team to a 4-14 record. Entering Friday night's regular-season finale against Dover, Trinity was 10-7 and within range of hurdling a couple of teams for a possible first-round home playoff game.

The Pioneers lost consecutive games only once during the regular season, dropping back-to-back games against Salem and Pinkerton in early January.

Fagula, who went from 4-16 his first year as head coach at Nashua High to 16-4 his second season, said he didn't have Trinity in his top eight during the pre-season.

“As the season went along, I noticed they were playing well, even in defeat when they lost some close games to North, Pinkerton and Salem. Just before we played them last week, they beat Alvirne, which beat us. I told my girls, 'If we don't come to play, we'll be in for a long night against this team.'”

Londonderry beat Trinity by 18 points, but Fagula was still impressed with Trinity.

Wenners said winning six or seven more games than the previous season is not an easy thing to do.

“That's why Matt should be considered for coach of the year,” said Wenners. “He's got them playing well.”

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ONE REASON for Trinity's increased success is the development of sophomore guard Amanda Torres into an elite player.

Entering Friday night's game, she had 20 or more points 11 times this season. Two weeks ago, she scored 25 points against Winnacunnet, one short of her season-high, which came against Lebanon in a Christmas tournament game.

"Our offense goes through Amanda," said Courchesne. "She's not only a scorer; she distributes the ball and gets everyone on the floor involved in the game."

Trinity starters Lizzy Meehan, Ashley Hill, Hope Willard and Danielle Mackey all have benefitted from playing with their floor leader.

"It's scary to see what she's done this year as a sophomore," said Wenners.

What impresses Fagula most about Torres is her speed.

"She's faster than I expected her to be, and that's a tremendous advantage to have on the high school level," he said. "Angles and positioning against her are paramount if you decide to press her. If you don't have the right angle, she'll dart past you. She can shoot from the outside, and if you let her into the paint, she'll make the tough shot."

But, Fagula noted, there's room for improvement.

"If there's an area she really needs to work on during the off-season, it's her ball-handling skills," he said. "This year, the league is loaded with great guards, and I don't have her in my top five. But I do believe she will get better."

- - - - - - - -

THIS SEASON marks the the second time during Doc Wheeler's 14-year head coaching tenure that his Central program has won the Division I regular-season title. The other was in 2006, when Tyler Roche led the Little Green to a 25-0 championship season.

Coincidentally, John Rist was Central's principal in '06, and just this week he was announced as interim principal at the school.

"That's a good omen for us," said Wheeler, whose team will enter the state tournament Tuesday with a 21-0 overall record, including an 18-0 NHIAA mark.

Last season, Central won its first 15 NHIAA games before ending the regular season with three straight defeats. The Green beat Londonderry in the preliminary round but suffered elimination at home in overtime against Bishop Guertin of Nashua.

"To be frank about it, we lost to three tough opponents down the stretch," said Wheeler. "We lost to Nashua South and then to Trinity, which went on to win it all, in two close games. Then we just hit a wall and lost badly to Bedford, which had won 10 or 11 straight to end their regular season."

This season, Central returned everyone but Troy Pelletier, who graduated last spring. It added brothers Jon and Joey Martin, who transferred in from Florida.

"There's some big differences from last year to this year," said Wheeler. "There's no question the Martins have made us a better and deeper team. Minus Pelletier, we virtually returned everyone. Our kids are more experienced and, in some cases, have grown in size. Last year, Brett Hanson was a (5-foot, 10-inch) sophomore who averaged eight or nine points a game. This year, he grew to 6-2 and is averaging 20 points a game. As a team, we were winning games last year by a margin of 11 points. This year, we've won all our games by an average of 26 points a game."

Still, Wheeler reminds his players that they haven't achieved their ultimate goal of winning the state title.

"Stealing a quote from Chip Kelly, I always tell my team, 'We need to win the day,'" Wheeler said. "All it takes is for one team to expose our weaknesses and we're done for the year. So we're approaching the post-season with a workmanlike approach, making sure we're prepared for our next opponent."

- - - - - - - -

TODAY at 6 p.m., in a rematch of last year's Division I boys' hockey final, Memorial and Central clash at JFK Coliseum. The teams are heading in opposite directions.

Central (10-7) is peaking at the right time, winner of four straight games and currently in fifth place. Senior goalie Ian Beliveau has allowed one goal during the winning streak, an indication that he could lead the Little Green back into the championship game.

Memorial has gone 1-3-1 down the stretch. Thumped by St. Thomas Aquinas of Dover, 7-0, at the start of that span, the Crusaders also lost to a Nashua South team that had won only one other game, and they needed overtime to beat winless Bishop Brady of Concord.

"We're having trouble scoring goals, just not finishing on the offensive end," said Memorial coach Mark Putney.

At 7-7-3, the defending state champs are staring at a first-round playoff game against either Concord or Pinkerton, two teams playing well down the stretch. Unless Memorial can get its act together, the curtain could fall on its season sooner than later.

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


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