John Habib's City Sports -- Kelly to Little Green: Don't look back
He wasn't in Durham last Monday for the NHIAA Division I boys' basketball semifinals, but somehow former Manchester Central athlete and current Philadelphia Eagles head coach Chip Kelly got word his Little Green had outlasted rival Memorial High in double-overtime.
"It couldn't have been more than a half-hour after we won, around 10:45 (p.m.)," said Central head coach Dave "Doc" Wheeler. "We're in the basement at UNH, still in the locker room, and suddenly I get a text from Chip congratulating me and the team."
At 7:15 the following morning, Wheeler said, Kelly texted him again.
According to Wheeler, the text read, "For all great teams and true competitors, it's always about the next game, the next challenge. The greats are always looking to the next challenge, not living the past."
Wheeler, a friend of Kelly's for more than 30 years, said he took the message to heart.
"He's telling me and our team that we just won a great game against our intra-city rival, but now get over it and focus on the next game," Wheeler said.
The next game is today at noon when Central (24-0) attempts to close out a perfect season against third-ranked Merrimack (19-2) for the Division I title at the University of New Hampshire's Lundholm Gym.
"I'm speaking for many people who know Chip; he's really a friend for life," said Wheeler. "No matter where he is, he's always keeping in touch with friends back home in Manchester. I can't say I was surprised to hear from him because that's Chip."
As for Kelly's advice to move on, Wheeler said, "Believe me, we're past Memorial and fully focused on Merrimack."
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THERE'S NO getting around the fact that, at 24-0, the Little Green are expected to beat the Tomahawks.
"As a coach, I get that, and I understand if we lose folks are going to say our season was a failure," said Wheeler. "I get all of that."
Fortunately, Wheeler can draw back from experience. In 2006, another 24-0 Central team, led by Tyler Roche, went to Durham and completed its unbeaten championship season with a 54-39 victory. Its opponent that day: Merrimack.
"You basically tell your seniors, tell your team, that you live this journey only once in your life," Wheeler said. "You tell them to take advantage of the opportunity and play at your highest level.
"Now, the bounce of the ball, an official's call, a kid getting hurt — all of that comes into play. But if you stick together, execute and do your job, things more often than not will turn out well. I'll say this much about our team: We've worked awfully hard to get to this point, and we'll definitely be ready to play."
Central's roster includes seven seniors. Dawson Dickson, Mike Plentzas, Jon Martin, Jaylen Murchison, Nick Makris, Abe Madra and Collin Duffley will lace up their sneakers as members of the Little Green one more time.
"How many times can a kid say he played in 25 games and played on a team competing for a championship?" Wheeler said. "I've been blessed to coach them all."
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ONE CENTRAL senior who isn't on the roster but has been an integral part of the team is Nolan Flynn, who transferred from Manchester High West before the start of the season. According to Wheeler, Flynn lives in the Central school district but didn't receive the waiver from West required to make him eligible to play for the Little Green.
"He was allowed to practice with all us all season, and he never missed one," said Wheeler. "He's a great kid, and he loves to play basketball and baseball. I don't care what anyone says or feels; he's still a part of our team."
As the Green were preparing to face Nashua North during the regular season, Wheeler asked Flynn to address the team in a pregame speech.
"Everyone left that locker room with tears in their eyes," Wheeler said. "We all know what he's going through, not able to suit up and play. He just delivered his speech from his heart, and he touched every one of us in that locker room."
Wheeler said that no matter what happens today, win or lose, Flynn will get his shining moment.
"The NHIAA hands out medals, and believe me, Nolan is going to get one," Wheeler said. "I'll give him mine because that kid deserves one. He's part of our team."
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IN ADDITION to today's game and the 2006 final, Central and Merrimack met in the 2012 Division I title game. The Tomahawks, then as now under coach Tim Goodridge, won that one, 65-56.
"I can't say enough about Coach Goodridge," said Wheeler. "We're the best of friends. He always gets the best out of his teams, is always in the hunt for a state title.
"We're expecting a battle mainly because of Tim. He's very good in finding a team's weakness and attacking it. I told my kids this week, 'We've got to execute and play hard for 32 minutes.' That's what it's going to take to beat Merrimack."
"City Sports" is published Saturdays in the New Hampshire Union Leader. Email staff reporter John Habib at firstname.lastname@example.org.