AFTER tonight’s slate of games, every Division I boys’ basketball team will have completed at least half of its regular-season schedule, making this as good a time as any to take stock around the league. At this point, we should have a good feel for teams, as well as which programs will have a shot at winning the title.
We start with Exeter. The Blue Hawks are 9-0 and have run their winning streak to 36 games dating back to a couple of seasons ago. They’re defeating teams by an average of 22 points and are led by senior Ryan Grijalva, who ranks sixth in Division I with 17.6 points per game.
“He’s one of those guys that has to do so much for us,” head coach Jeff Holmes said. “He plays all five positions and sometimes he’ll guard the other team’s best player. He has to sometimes play point guard for us, sometimes he’ll play power forward. He does it all for us inside and outside. He’s a great leader and he’s having a fantastic season for us to this point in the year.”
With nine players gone from last year’s championship team, Holmes has had to rebuild on the fly a little bit. Having Grijalva makes that easier and the club seems no worse for the wear as guys like senior Mike Leonard have stepped up in a big way. Leonard is a knock-down 3-point shooter and is one of many Blue Hawks who can light it up from beyond the arc on any given night, feeding perfectly into Holmes’ philosophy of spacing the floor on the offensive end.
The question is, where does this team turn if the threes aren’t falling? Holmes says there have been cases during the year where the Blue Hawks have had to find other ways to win and they have been able to do so, but it’s still something to watch moving forward.
“We’ve had a couple of cold shooting nights the last couple games versus Goffstown and Trinity,” Holmes said. “We’ve found ways to win and hit big shots when it counted down the stretch in the fourth quarter. We’ve tended to play well in the second half of games this year and we’ve had some first halves that haven’t been that great. But I’ve been pleased with the last couple of games where we didn’t shoot well. We defended well and were able to grind out a few wins.”
Preseason dark horse Nashua North looms as possibly the biggest threat to Exeter due to how well it defends. The Titans don’t shoot quite as well as the Blue Hawks, but they have their share of shooters in guys like Emeka Okorie, Nate Kane and Connor Dunning.
That group doesn’t even account for Brenden Choate and Curtis Harris, either. Both are capable shooters but are at their best when attacking the basket. Choate leads the team with 15.4 points per game while Harris averages 9.4 points and serves as the team’s primary creator. Harris’ vision on the football field translates seamlessly onto the basketball court and it’s hard to stop North’s offense when he gets downhill and either finishes at the rim or kicks out to shooters.
To his credit, head coach Steve Lane isn’t getting ahead of himself despite the 8-1 start.
“It’s so early in the season that you’ve gotta keep playing and play them all,” he said following North’s 63-52 win over Bishop Guertin on Jan. 31. “I tell everybody that there is no night where you can just show up and it’ll be ‘Oh, here’s your win.’ It just doesn’t happen (in this league).”
North will travel to Exeter on Tuesday. That game could show just how good North is.
After the two perceived top dogs are a triumvirate of 8-2 teams in BG, Portsmouth and Merrimack. BG and Portsmouth are similarly built with each having a top-tier scorer surrounded by solid second and third options while Merrimack is more evenly balanced across the roster.
Dylan Santosuosso is the guy for the Cardinals, ranking eighth in the division at 17 points per game, with Sam Mullett (13.3) and Mason Carroll (9.1) providing supplementary scoring. As for Portsmouth, Coleman Brewster ranks second in the league with 20.2 points per contest. He’s aided by Kevin Cummings (12.1) and Cal Hewett (10.3). Merrimack has five players averaging roughly seven points per game or more. Patrick Yudkin leads the way at 12.2 and Jack Tarleton is at 11.7. Tim Eckert (8.2), Adam Ellis (7.1) and Jared Dyer (6.7) follow.
Both BG and Merrimack have lost to North. Portsmouth has lost to Exeter and Merrimack.
Beyond them, Winnacunnet (7-3), Keene (6-3), Nashua South (6-4) and Windham (6-4) have enjoyed solid seasons, but it’s Bedford (5-4) that, personally, intrigues the most.
At 6-feet, 5-inches, Justin O’Neil (18.6 PPG) is a load to handle. He moves extremely well for his size and has the ability to pull up and knock down contested jumpers from all around the court.
The question for the Bulldogs is consistency from the rest of the roster. Timmy Greene is a knock-down 3-point shooter, Connor Butts does a good job running the offense at the point and Richard Ravenelle is a monster on the glass and scores well in the post. They have the pieces surrounding O’Neil. It’s just a matter of them getting consistent production night to night.
“It’s a good question,” head coach Mark Elmendorf said when asked about the team’s ceiling following a Jan. 24 win over Londonderry. “I told the kids before this game that a win tonight could propel us into something good. I’m glad we got out of here with the (67-60) win.”
Since then, the Bulldogs are 1-1 and have a tough schedule to end the year with dates against Exeter, Portsmouth, Winnacunnet and Merrimack still to come. Bedford is the only team to have beaten North so far, though. Keep an eye on Bedford as the playoffs draw closer.
Division II is shaping up to be extremely competitive at the top of the league.
Hanover (11-0) and ConVal of Peterborough (10-0) remain undefeated while Bow (9-1) and Lebanon (8-1) have suffered just one loss. Kennett of Conway (8-2) and Pelham (9-2) are champing at the bit behind them.
Hanover has been especially impressive so far this year.
Led by Charlie Adams’ 18.2 points per game, the Marauders have four players scoring in double figures on a nightly basis. Nolan Gantrish (16.2) and Hank Pikus (11.8) help spread the floor with the three ball while Jai White (12.3) gets most of his work done closer to the basket. All four of them rank among the top 30 scorers in Division II, with Adams’ mark placing him fifth.
Mather Kipka (16.3) and Connor Buffum (14.3) are pacing ConVal, and five others are putting up at least five points per game, giving the Cougars solid depth throughout the lineup. Del Bonsu-Anane is close to being in double figures himself, averaging 9.2 points a night.
Like Hanover, Pelham has four players averaging double-digit points in Drew Brown (18), Derek Crowley (16.2), Jake Dumont (11.7) and Matt Crowley (10.2) Bow barely misses being in that club with Matt Lamy (17.2), Ben Harris (11.9), Nick Kiah (11.8) and Shaun Lover (9.7).
This division seems could end up being wide-open come playoff time.