By John Orrell, Contributing Writer
Marlborough – When third-year head coach Bryan Riley decided to take a leap of faith and leave his relatively secure position as junior varsity coach at Wachusett Regional High School to take over a struggling Marlborough High School varsity basketball program, neither he nor team supporters could fathom just how far he would take this group in a very short time.
The team before him had gone 1-19 and indeed his first season was nearly as forgettable at 4-16. But that was the launching pad campaign that has turned the Panther program into one of the tops in the state. Riley and a heady bunch of talented and dedicated players banded together by ignoring the past and focusing on the future with the end result being a Division 2 state final berth a season ago.
“We had a good group of young kids coming in and they bought in as a team and worked real hard,” Riley explained. “That’s brought us to where we want to be which is maintaining and keeping that hunger and drive and coming out every night and fighting for your life. These kids are willing to do this, which is why we have success.
“This team has great heart and character. They’re never going to give up and stop fighting. I truly love to coach and I’m sure they love to play for each other and that’s the most important thing. Most of the time, this game is won between the ears and not on the court. If we have the right mentality we can play and beat anyone.”
“Losing isn’t the greatest feeling,” admitted senior co-captain Jose De La Cruz, who was there in the lean years. “We started young and throughout the years we gained experience. Then we got great pieces like Owen (Cappadona), Chris (Doherty) and great contributions like Connor (McCabe) and Joao Mendes. It’s just a great overall team effort from everyone. Playing and practicing brings us even closer together.”
The Panthers (10-2, tops in Mid-Wach B) earned a berth in post-season play with its 56-41 home win over Quabbin Regional Jan. 22. The victory was a bounce-back after dropping a stunning and lopsided 60-26 decision at Leominster High three days earlier. The defeat was a wake-up call for the Panthers who admittedly were far from at their best against the Blue Devils.
“We coach mentality, we coach defense and fundamentals and that’s the way we try to play the game every night,” Riley explained. “If we get away from that we see things happen like [the loss to Leominster]. The last three days we’ve tried to get back to where we’ve come from which is back to the basics which is defense first, rebounding first, and I thought we did a good job tonight.”
The team is led by a talented lot but by their own admission, success revolves around the offensive skills of sophomore center Chris Doherty. Doherty is averaging 15.5 points per game and is on every opponent’s radar to either shut down or contain which occurs infrequently. Doherty was inactive versus Quabbin which called for extra effort from the remainder of the roster.
“Chris is obviously our best offensive player on the team so we’re going to him when we can and without him everyone has to pick up their scoring a bit and pick up their defense, too,” said senior co-captain Brian Short.
“Not having Chris on the court is a big difference offensively and defensively,” admitted De La Cruz. “We have a lot of talent and a lot of players who can light it up. Everyone came to play with energy.”
The Panthers fell just shy of the ultimate prize in 2015, a Division 2 state championship, dropping a heartbreaking 52-49 decision to Danvers High School. A return to a state final matchup is on the mind of players and coaches, but to focus that far ahead at this juncture would be counterproductive, they agreed.
“We like to take it one game at a time. You can’t get ahead of yourself,” Riley acknowledged. “We try to enjoy every moment and live in the moment you’re in. We can’t think of where we’re going to be at the end. We have to think of where we are right now and I think that’s what we’re getting back to taking it quarter by quarter, game by game and really focusing on the task at hand trying to get better each and every day.”
“This is the closest team I’ve ever been on,” said senior co-captain Joe Tirpak of the team’s unity. “Everybody on the team helps each other out and we pick each other up. Captains will be there to yell sometimes if needed but we’re all pretty much leading each other.”
Leading scorers on the night for the Panthers versus Quabbin were Joao Mendes (13), Brian Short (12) and Connor McCabe (8). Owen Cappadona and Jose De La Cruz each chipped in with five points.
Members of the 2015-2016 Marlborough High boys varsity basketball team are seniors Tirpak (forward), Alex Trombetta (forward), Andrew Keenan (guard), Short (guard), De La Cruz (guard) and Liam Shanahan (forward). Juniors are Cappadona (guard), Mendes (guard), McCabe (guard), Paul Wydom (center) along with sophomores Doherty (center), Kevin Short (guard) and Ethan Kirsch (guard).