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H.S. Basketball: Milford, Coe-Brown rebuilding

New Hampshire Union Leader

January 10. 2018 11:43PM

Kyshaun Russell of Coe-Brown Northwood Academy is part of a young core of players that is helping the Bears win games. (Mark Bolton/Union Leader)

The challenge to retool as opposed to rebuild in high school sports is an annual task coaches endure. There’s a fine line between failure and success.

Boys’ basketball teams from Coe-Brown Academy of Northwood and Milford seem to be on the right side of that line given their hot starts in Division II with untested rosters. The Bears, last year’s D-II runner-up, are off to a 4-0 start while the Spartans, a semifinalist a year ago, sit at 4-2. Both teams carry just one returning starter from those tournament runs.

Coe-Brown’s Dave Smith and Milford’s Dan Murray agreed that chief among the reasons behind the success stories are aligning their programs from freshmen teams all the way up.

“We have a good development system here and I think the same goes for over there with Coe-Brown,” Murray said. “We have a lot of kids playing and for us, I knew our JV crew was pretty good. We don’t play them much, but I guess (Coe-Brown’s) JVs are really, really good. It’s just a product of the system.”

Neither coach was necessarily surprised with the quick transitions their teams have undergone. Smith, who praised his program’s sub-varsity coaches, likened his kids’ mentality to that of the New England Patriots’ “Next Man Up” motto.

“Some of it has to do with talent, but a lot of it comes down to developing skills to a certain point where they’re able to compete at the varsity level,” Smith said. “It’s a progression, unless you’re a super gifted player or have these freshmen and sophomores that are creative, imaginative and skillful on the court. Usually though, it’s hard work and getting ready to take your turn.”

Beyond player development, amendability on a coaches behalf proves vital. Coe-Brown’s flawless start has come while Smith is still tinkering with a variety of lineups and schemes on both ends of the floor.

“As coaches, we have our favorite things that we like to do,” Smith said. “You want to try to be competitive though, because if you don’t show up in this league every night, it’s going to be a long one. That means you have to do what your personnel can do.”

Smith continued on about his players playing their role and to their strengths. With Scott Spenard carrying a target on his back after a strong showing in Durham last March, the rest of the Bears have had to ante up on nights Spenard gets phased out.

“Scott has assumed a solid leadership role, as have some of the other seniors,” said Smith, citing seniors Mitchell Wade, Ben Watson and Kyshaun Rowell. “We’re talking about some guys that maybe didn’t get a lot of playing time last year, but there was an opportunity and understanding that (having a role) was going to happen soon if you can be patient and work. So far, they’ve certainly done a great job of stepping up to the plate.”

The changes don’t appear to be drastic for Coe-Brown when you get a look from the stands. That’s not the case for Milford. Murray admitted his club is vastly different after losing his top scoring threats and his post presences. The Spartans are severely undersized these days with their tallest players standing at 6-foot-1 and 6-feet.

Despite it all though, the Spartans are still finding ways to win, albeit in not the most comfortable fashion on most nights. Recent wins against Kearsarge of North Sutton and Souhegan of Amherst called for heroics in the final minute. Comfortable wins are preferred, but Murray can’t ignore what close wins will do for his club when it plays in similar atmospheres with higher stakes late in the season.

“Especially in games like those, kids’ confidence and faith can go a little bit,” Murray said. “They start to question both those, but (when you win) you believe you can come back, which is half the battle. Early successes aren’t like failures that leave you saying ‘Oh, here we go again’ when things do get bad. It’s more like ‘We can do this.’

“They’re competitors. The team we have coming in here want to compete and play hard, which are big things.”

Milford’s lone returner is guard Jamie Pare, who assumes the lead role within the offense, where Murray hopes to have Pare utilize more options as time goes on. Jake Greska, Gavin Urda and Max Fortin have risen to the challenge of filling the shoes of their predecessors while taking turns lifting the Spartans on a given night.

The key going forward for Milford is learning to better prepare for games. Both of its losses this season, including Tuesday’s 57-51 setback to Pelham, came following weak efforts at practice the day prior.

“They need to learn how to practice properly with that intensity,” Murray said. “When we played John Stark (Milford’s first loss), we just didn’t show up for practice the day before. We got to halftime there and I told them it looked very familiar to yesterday’s practice and they agreed. … Work isn’t teachable. You can have the talent, but then you have to evolve into a team that works hard and that comes with focus, I guess.”

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ROGER BROWN’S State of Sports column on Monday touched on the Manchester Memorial girls’ success to start the season. The potent guard duo of Haleigh Shea and Mel Presseau was highlighted in the piece but star power is not all the Crusaders have working to their favor.

Role players are shouldering the load on nights where Shea and Presseau just don’t have it. The recent work of seniors Sydney Robinson and Ashley Mathieu-LaFrance best exemplify Memorial’s depth. Robinson torched Alvirne for a career-high 17 points in Monday’s win over Alvirne of Hudson while Mathieu-LaFrance was touted by Memorial coach Greg Cotreau as arguably the most important player to the Crusaders’ title run at at the Central Girls’ Basketball Christmas Tournament over the holiday break.

Both seniors are averaging a hair under five points a game, which doesn’t scream productivity. Points aren’t everything though.

Robinson is proving her worth with all-around play on both ends of the floor. Cotreau said an improved shot selection has increased Robinson’s offensive production while defense is her real calling card.

“She’s our best on ball defender and she knows that’s her primary role for us,” Cotreau said. “She’s really the heart of what we do on the defensive end of the floor.”

Mathieu-LaFrance’s best work doesn’t show up in the box score, according to Cotreau. The senior is taking charges, anchoring the defense when need be and showing her basketball IQ at every turn.

“Her role has changed a lot from last year, where she was a low-post presence for us and a defensive anchor,” Cotreau said. “This year she has become a primary ballhandler and I trust her to make critical decisions that I normally trust my guards to make. She has learned how to create shots for herself and also for her teammates.”

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