NO OTHER TEAM in Division I has experienced the kind of turnaround Bishop Guertin of Nashua has this year.
After finishing the 2018-19 season with a 5-13 record and failing to qualify for the postseason tournament for the second straight year, the Cardinals find themselves in a battle for the No. 3 seed with in-city rival Nashua North. BG wrapped up its regular season on Tuesday with a 14-4 record and a half-game lead over North in the standings. North still has one game to play and, if the Titans win, they’ll take hold of the third seed by virtue of a tiebreaker established on Jan. 31.
Either way, BG will be entitled to a second home game should it make it out of the first round, which is pretty good in comparison to where the program stood roughly 12 months ago.
So, what’s changed? How have the Cardinals added nine wins to their output last season?
“One of the things that has helped this team get so far is the competitiveness in practice,” head coach John Fisher said. “Obviously, every day we have competitions at practice. Every practice, we don’t go two drills without a competitive scoring of whatever skill we’re working on, whether it’s offense, defense, press-breaking, pressing — there’s always that competitive piece to it.
“With this group, that’s easy to do because it’s not like the five players that ended the game the night before are always going to win the competitions in practice today. They might, but they might not because of how close our groupings are (in skill). That, probably of all things, has helped our team get better because they’ve made each other get better in each practice.”
Highly competitive practices aren’t always commonplace given the bridge often separating a team’s top players from its reserves. The fact that the Cardinals have been able to experience such practices this year is a bit of a luxury and speaks to the depth they have on their squad.
A lot of attention is paid to BG’s top-two scorers in Dylan Santosuosso (15.7 points per game) and Sam Mullett (10.3), and with good reason. But Fisher implores folks to take a closer look at the big picture. This is a team that has gone as many as 10 to 12 deep throughout the season.
“I’m always reluctant to call out any individual player on a team like this,” Fisher said. “There are teams in this state and obviously teams that I’ve coached in the past where talking about marquee players is appropriate. Yes, Dylan and Sam have led the team in scoring the most times this season. Those guys are one and two. But we’ve had six different players lead the team in scoring and, really, eight different players score significant numbers of points in games.
“Ten players have been in the game in vital moments. It’s a little difficult to talk about one player. I’m happy to reinforce that Sam and Dylan are incredibly important players to our program, but, at the same time, this is a basketball team. I don’t think any one of them would say otherwise.”
The question now centers on how this team will perform in the tournament. BG dropped its last two games of the season against the top-two seeds in the division in Exeter and Portsmouth, and, on top of that, Fisher admits that he doesn’t believe any of his players have NHIAA playoff basketball experience. But the Cardinals do have multi-sport athletes, which could help.
Various players have experience on the football team, including Santosuosso, who’s the quarterback, and Kyle Baker, the team’s tight end; two of them are captains on the soccer team (Mullett and John Sullivan); and a few others have competed for state championships on the lacrosse team (Mason Carroll and Sullivan). Not to mention the few who play AAU ball as well.
Fisher believes his guys will be able to draw from big-game experiences they’ve had in other sports to rise to the occasion on the hardwood. He’s also not concerned about the two losses his team suffered at the end of their schedule, citing a clean slate mindset for the postseason.
“Obviously we wanted to win those games but we also needed to try a couple of things in those games against the best competition in the state to see how different things worked,” he said. “Keep in mind that if we happen to see one of those teams it would only be at UNH. It’s a different way to play where we are in the season and who they are as a team. I think the best thing that we got out of that is we saw some of the best competition that we’ve seen all year our last two games. I think that helps us going into the playoffs. We saw some of the best individual players in the state and we saw two of the best teams in successive games to end the year.”
Ultimately, the work will speak for itself. Fisher feels this team is simply different.
“The drive of the players and the chemistry of the players (stands out),” he said. “That’s not to take away from any of the other players we’ve had in the program over the years. I just think that we have a good mix this year. These guys have put in the work to get themselves here.”
In last week’s column I alluded to the depth we’ve seen in girls’ Division I this season. Yes, BG is considered to be in a league of its own, but the rest of the division is extremely tight.
Already we’ve seen that rear its head as No. 10 Londonderry and No. 12 Nashua South came away with upset victories on Wednesday night. The Lancers took down No. 7 Pinkerton Academy, 46-43, while the Purple Panthers dealt Manchester Central a 44-40 loss.
Alongside No. 4 Bedford and No. 8 Concord, Londonderry is one of the hottest teams in the state having now won six straight games. The Lancers’ last loss came against Pinkerton at home on Feb. 8. South had a bumpier finish to its regular season in losing three of its last four, but it still managed to overthrow Central, who the Purple Panthers lost to by 15 on Feb. 5.
Catherine Covert (13 points) and Kirsten McIntire (10) led the way for South as the team’s two double-digit scorers.
Londonderry will visit No. 2 Merrimack on Saturday at 7 p.m. while South will travel to see No. 4 Bedford at the same time.
The other two quarterfinal matchups will feature No. 3 Manchester Memorial against No. 6 Goffstown and No. 1 Bishop Guertin against No. 8 Concord.
It all comes down to this
Tonight’s slate of Division I boys’ basketball games will determine how a lot of the postseason tournament bracket shakes out, particularly at the bottom where five teams — Salem, Concord, Central, Goffstown and Alvirne — are tied at 8-9. Concord and Goffstown will play one another in Goffstown at 6:30 p.m. while Salem and Central will go at it in Manchester at 6:30 p.m. Windham took an 8-8 record into Thursday night’s finale at home against Keene.