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Joe Duball's H.S. Basketball: Merrimack Valley pulls together through trial

New Hampshire Union Leader

December 14. 2017 12:56AM

NHIAA boys’ and girls’ basketball have seen a few coaching changes. The Merrimack Valley of Penacook girls are among those under new leadership, but it comes under unfortunate circumstances.

A change was necessitated by the death of late Pride coach Dave Huckins, who passed away in September following a battle with cancer. Huckins coached five seasons at Merrimack Valley, led the Pride to the Division II title in 2014 and immersed himself in the community.

Bob McNutt, who previously coached the Winnisquam of Tilton girls, was hired to replace Huckins last spring. With Huckins’ health and well-being taking precedent, he and Merrimack Valley athletics director Kevin O’Brien decided it was right to hire a new coach. McNutt said he knew nothing of Huckins’ condition when he saw the posting for a new coach.

“I went to Merrimack Valley and played for Kevin while growing up in the school district,” said McNutt, who won a boys’ basketball title at Merrimack Valley in 1993 under O’Brien. “I really just inquired and Kevin laid out what was going on there. I asked him if he already had somebody in mind and he said no. He then just told me to send in my stuff.”

The move worked out perfectly for McNutt as Merrimack Valley Middle School hired him as a physical education teacher shortly after being named Pride coach. McNutt’s commitment to Merrimack Valley came with an understanding of the situation he was walking into.

“Kevin laid everything out to me,” McNutt said. “I was taking over for a guy that the community loved and would be coaching his daughter, as well as taking on kids he’s coached since fifth and sixth grade. I was told it wasn’t going to be easy and there would be some expectations from the community.”

There was no bigger advocate for McNutt to take over and succeed than Huckins. McNutt said he and Huckins were merely acquaintances, however, Huckins pushed for the hiring of his fellow Merrimack Valley alum and helped get him up to speed upon taking the job.

Before and after Huckins’ passing, McNutt was concerned if players would accept him, even after getting a stamp of approval from Carly Huckins, Dave’s daughter, and fellow captains Abi Grandmaison and Sara Osborne during the interview process. McNutt said O’Brien and Tracy Huckins, Dave’s wife, have helped him build a rapport with players, but having a full offseason certainly helped as well. The Pride participated in offseason leagues while McNutt also offered team bonding activities like paddleboarding and trips to Southern New Hampshire University basketball games.

“There’s just been a lot of good conversations,” McNutt said. “I was nervous, but I knew I had to find a way to let them know who I was as a person. They needed to know I cared, wanted them to win, was here to win and wanted ready to be competitive.

“I never just made it about basketball though. Like it was never like ‘Here’s what we’re doing, whether you like it or not.’ I tried to ge to know the kids and learn what they like. … We’ve really come together here in the last three months.”

As far as the transition on the court goes, McNutt is pleased with where the team is at. McNutt said Dave Huckins planned to change styles from a full-court trapping defense to a man-to-man scheme, which was a change McNutt would’ve made as well. To combat the change in voice and presence, McNutt did try to keep things familiar to the girls.

“They told me some of the things Dave used to do and we kept some of those drills,” McNutt said. “I would be naive not to keep a lot of what Dave did because of how successful they’ve been. So we picked through what we could use and just kind of ran with it.”

Keeping the system relatively intact appears to have been the right choice if the Pride’s 55-36 season-opening win over Kingswood of Wolfeboro last Friday is any indication. Carly Huckins and Grandmaison combined for 43 of those points, scoring 23 and 20.

McNutt said Carly Huckins, an All-State first teamer last year, took the fall off to be with her family but never missed a beat upon rejoining the team. The trio of Huckins, Grandmaison and Osborne certainly gives McNutt options on a given night.

“They’re going to be the players team’s look to shut down,” said McNutt, who also has in the fold Kylie Marquis and Ashley McDonald. “There are going to be games where they went to stop Carly or Abby, but then we’ll have the other two picking up the slack along with a great group of sophomores.

“The girls have really bought into the 10-player rotation and Carly, Abby and Sara have done a great getting them involved while trusting and believing in them.”

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WHILE WE’RE on the topic of coaching changes, there really has been quite a bit of turnover. Some of the major changes were noted in the Union Leader’s boys’ and girls’ basketball previews published over the last week, but there are some others worth mentioning.

Boys’ basketball

Jim Migneault, Trinity: After taking a gap year following his resignation from Bishop Guertin, Migneault has resurfaced in Division I with the Pioneers. Migneault went 113-87 across nine seasons with the Cardinals, who made two D-I title games during those years. Trinity offers a similar situation to that of Migneault’s post with BG, in that the Pioneers’ enrollment and potential player pool stretches beyond Manchester. Zach Dagan is a notable holdover from last year’s winless Trinity club.

Justin Gorham, Manchester West: Gorham walks into a precarious situation with the Blue Knights. Not only does Gorham shoulder the task of following a solid 15-year run by Danny Bryson, but he’ll do so with a depleted roster. Gob Gob is the lone returner Gorham has to work with, which might be a positive while he installs his own brand of basketball.

Other notable hires: Marty Edwards, Alvirne; Rich Otis, Pembroke; Tim Lee, Bishop Brady; Leo Gershgorin, ConVal; Kevin Ritter, Keene.

Girls’ basketball

Tim LaTorra, Concord: LaTorra talked about how his Sunapee girls might do in Division I after he led them to their second D-IV title in as many seasons last winter. He’ll find out what life is like at the highest level now with the Crimson Tide, who failed to make the playoffs last season. LaTorra’s presence alone gives the Crimson Tide a chance to take take big steps towards improving

JP Sanborn, St. Thomas Aquinas of Dover: Sanborn is the founder and president of Journeyman Basketball, a club program based out of the Seacoast. His program has developed some of the top boys and girls in that neck of the woods, which makes him an ideal fit for a developing Saints program. St. Thomas is in its second season competing in Division III, a place where Sanborn will look to capitalize on the wide-open landscape.

Other notable hires: Frank Girginis, Trinity; Gerry Haynes, Manchester West; Michaela Champlin, Pembroke; Stephanie Larpenter, Sunapee.

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I GOT ahead of myself while previewing the Kearsarge boys this week. I said 6-foot-7 Tayler Mattos was a University of New Hampshire commit when in fact he remains uncommitted. UNH is in the hunt for Mattos’ services, according to Kearsarge coach Nate Camp, but he has several Division I offers on the table. Among the other schools linked to Mattos are Boston University, Kennesaw State, Bryant, Albany and Rider. Camp said the University of North Carolina-Wilmington has also made its way into the mix of late.

There’s also the possibility that Mattos does a post-graduate year at a prep school to further refine his skills. The big man has come a long way in recent seasons, but Camp said one more year to tune up a consistent outside shot wouldn’t hurt Mattos and might land him more offers from bigger schools.

High School Basketball appears Thursdays in the New Hampshire Union Leader during the season. To reach Joe Duball, e-mail