ENDING A 42-year title drought was something special for the Exeter High boys’ basketball team on Saturday in Durham. Making the feat even sweeter was helping end a personal titleless run for Exeter coach Jeff Holmes.
Before Saturday’s 53-30 Division I championship game triumph over Salem in Durham, Holmes hadn’t won a title in 31 years of coaching, including the last 22 with the Blue Hawks. Holmes also fell short of hoisting a trophy as high school player at Keene before the drought continued as a D-I college player the University of Maine.
“I feel a lot lighter. The monkey is off my back,” Holmes said. “These aren’t easy to get. I don’t care what anybody says, winning a championship isn’t easy. There’s a lot of good coaches and teams out there. We had a great year and I feel great about it.”
The Blue Hawks were a game away from a title a year ago and hadn’t taken part in a championship game since 1998. With the cyclical nature of high school sports, Holmes has seen his fair share of ups and downs with Exeter’s title hopes over the years. One thing that’s never been left to question is Holmes’ confidence in his players, which might’ve been the difference with this year’s group.
“There’s the experience and the fact that he trusts us,” said Exeter forward Josh Morissette. “In a timeout during a state championship game he goes ‘You guys pick the play you want to run right here.’ We did and it worked. That kind of trust and that belief in us makes it great being able to do this for him.
“He’s worked so hard all of his life. I’m his neighbor and grew up in his driveway playing with his son, my brother and our other neighbor. To be able to do this for him is unreal.”
Holmes’ commitment to the players has been reciprocated with a commitment to a coach and his program. Exeter rostered eight seniors this season and Holmes credited that group for rebuilding a winning brand for the program.
“These kids have been the core of our program the last four years as far as numbers go,” Holmes said. “They’ve been successful as middle schoolers, freshmen and JVs. Now for them to win a title here as seniors is just great. We kept those guys and they’re all great kids. I’m very happy for them.”
Sending off the outgoing seniors was a priority for Holmes and the underclassmen, but there’s already talk about what’s to come next season as key pieces like Morissette and Ryan Grijalva are back in the fold.
“I think we have a pretty good program going right now with our JVs and freshmen both being solid this year,” Holmes said. “Hopefully we can establish some tradition of getting (to the semifinals and finals at UNH) instead of getting here once every six or seven years. We’ve been here two years, but it’s not easy.”
FOUL TROUBLE, as much as anything, plagued ninth-seeded Kearsarge in its 47-35 loss to third-seeded Pembroke in Saturday’s Division II championship game.
Center Kyle Hernon, forward Jak Jallah and guard Noah Tremblay all got into foul trouble and fouled out of the contest. Jallah and Tremblay each picked up three fouls in the first half, and Hernon was called for his third foul early in the third.
“We needed to be at our best tonight and that includes everybody staying foul free,” Kearsarge coach Nate Camp said. “When you have to limit minutes it’s tough. I think at one point I had Noah and Jak on the bench at one time. Other kids stepped up, but we just couldn’t finish.”
Tremblay and Hernon, each of whom started for Kearsarge when it won the 2017 Division III championship, were each limited to nine points.
“Our game plan was to try and attack those two defensively and try to get them in foul trouble,” Pembroke coach Rich Otis said.
Tremblay, a First Team All-State selection, was called for his second foul with 5.11 remaining in the first quarter. He played 25 minutes before he picked up foul No. 5.
“I think if Noah could have gotten into a rhythm, it’s a little closer and then if we make a run in the second half Pembroke gets a little tighter,” Camp said. “It was just a little too much to come back from tonight.”
WHEN YOU think about a team winning four straight state titles, the first assumption is that they’ve made the most of two players’ skills for three to four years. That couldn’t be farther from the case for the Bishop Guertin of Nashua girls’ basketball team.
“It’s really never been about any individual kid here,” BG coach Brad Kreick said. “I find that unusual in this day and age. It’s something we’ve been very fortunate to build on.”
While the success isn’t tied to one player, it’s certainly tied to one class for the Cardinals. BG’s class of 2020 has been instrumental in the last three titles while compiling a 56-7 record. All but one of those losses came to NHIAA opponents.
Juniors Erin Carney, Hannah Muchemore and Addi Smith have pitched in most over the last three years while classmates Ava Owens, Bri Wilcox and Aaliyah Forman have come on strong the last two years.
“Even when they were freshmen, we’re talking about some of them playing big minutes to help us win a title,” Kreick said. “I tell people all the time that they have the ‘it’ factor. It’s hard to describe or characterize what it is, but you just know they have it. You can tell when we play big games because they always show up.
“When they bring it, they really bring it. They’re not perfect, and nobody is, but I know they’re going to be there when it matters most. That’s probably what’s most special about them.”
It’s no secret that this year’s success came in large to a concerted effort by BG’s juniors to become more consistent shooters from beyond the arc. The Cardinals were 14 of 37 from 3-point range between the semifinals and finals. Muchemore had six of those conversions while Carney, Smith, Wilcox and Forman had at least one in each of BG’s last two games.
“They made more shots tonight than they did during the regular season,” Portsmouth coach Tim Hopley said after the Cardinals downed his Clippers in the finals. “When I say normal high school teams, you’re talking about one or two (shooters). With them you have Muchemore, Carney, Aaliyah. You’re talking about four on the court most of the time for them. Then Addi Smith comes in and you say to yourself ‘What the hell do we do?’ We tried to switch it up with different defensive looks, but they adjusted.”
SPORT SPECIALIZATION is one of the hottest topics and greatest issues facing high school sports in New Hampshire and around the country. Playing a sport year-round continues to kill participation in different sports from state to state.
Folks who think specializing is the way to go may want to look at Division II girls’ basketball champion Hanover and reconsider. Four of five starters for the Marauders will forego collegiate basketball careers while playing other sports at the next level.
Senior Julia Golder will row for UCLA next year while Diana and Lois Schwarz will join the Wesleyan University field hockey team next fall. Junior Maddie McCorkle has another year with the Marauders, but she’s committed to playing D-I lacrosse at Duke.
While each could’ve focused on the sport they’ll play in college, the Hanover quartet were more compelled to break up the monotony of playing a single sport.
“It shows our work ethic more than anything,” McCorkle said. “We’re not playing basketball in college, but we give our all when we’re on the court. We know what it means to be on a team and we value the idea of a team, but we also value hard work and what it can get you.
“So basketball might not be our first sport, but we do it for each other. It doesn’t matter that it’s not our favorite because we are out trying to win for each other.”
ANTHONY GAUTHIER and Connor Hart had some sneaky good performances for Conant of Jaffrey on the way to a D-III boys’ title. While fellow starter Peyton Springfield, Jake Drew, Gavin Motuzas were no slouches, Gauthier and Hart brought something extra.
Gauthier was a well-rounded performer in Conant’s semifinal and final victories, averaging 10 points, 8.5 rebounds and 3.5 assists. The senior was responsible for facilitating the offense but the 6-foot-1 guard had knack for the boards, which was evident in his 10-rebound performance in the title game win over Somersworth.
While Hart didn’t stuff the stat sheet like his fellow starters, the junior was timely with his contributions. Hart went 4-for-4 from the field in the championship game for the Orioles and scattered a trio of no-hesitation baseline jumpers from 12 feet that fueled Conant momentum in the second and third quarters.