By John Orrell, Contributing Writer
Shrewsbury / Worcester — That the Annual Laska Yuletide Invitational Tournament held at Worcester’s Assumption College is hugely special for the St. John’s High School varsity basketball team is virtually indisputable. The Pioneers have been participants for each of the 12 years since inception and have won it all seven times.
But equally indisputable is that the St. John’s dominance in recent times is amplified by a streak of success including four straight tournament titles, the most recent of which culminating with a 47-39 victory over Wachusett Regional Dec. 28. Head coach Bob Foley knows that a championship earned at this stage of the season can be a bounce for his team as things move ahead into 2017.
“We needed some wins because we lost two in a row (Nashoba Regional, Marlborough High) which we don’t do very often,” said Foley. “These two wins were really good and just what we needed heading into the new year. It’s special for these kids because some of the kids are the same but there’s an awful lot of new kids here.”
“This (win) is really special,” added senior co-captain Cole Stairs. “I’ve been a part of all four tournament wins and it’s a fun tournament to be at especially with playing at a college court. This builds a lot of confidence. I thought offensively in the second half we did a lot better finding open shots. I thought defensively we talked a lot better and rebounded the ball real well.”
This one opened with an unexpected dearth of point totals particularly with the Pioneer offense sputtering while being held to just 10 in the first half. Wachusett employed heavy defensive pressure that overwhelmed St. John’s attack necessitating a major game plan adjustment in the final 16 minutes.
“The first half, I can’t give you any justification except that they (Wachusett) played very good,” said Foley. “They played good defense. Give credit to them.”
But all that would change immediately after the break with the Pioneer offense rejuvenated following a 14-3 run that erased the Mountaineers 18-10 halftime advantage. Foley shuffled his lineup adding sophomore guard Bobby Duquette whose presence opened up scoring opportunities for offensive sparkplugs Sean Burke (15 points) and Stairs (14 points). The restructured Pioneer offense held its opponent to eleven points to forge a 29-25 lead after three quarters.
St. John’s would continue to pour it on offensively in the fourth quarter with baskets by Stairs, Burke, Alex Bradley and Tyler Mola all chipping in to close out the win.
“Wachusett always gives us a battle,” said Foley post-game. “Tommy (Wachusett head coach Tom Gibbons) does a great job with his kids and it was just somewhere along the line we had to get ahead in the game. They were ahead and they were freezing the ball and if we’re ahead and they’re freezing, we’re fine, but we had to do something to activate the game so we went to the double-teaming man.”
Following the game, Mola was named Tournament Outstanding Player being honored as recipient of the Joseph M. O’Brien Memorial Award. Burke was named as a member of the Laska All-Tournament team.
The Pioneers advanced to the tournament finals with a decisive 65-43 victory over Worcester’s Doherty High 24 hours earlier. As so often happens in key games, it’s lockdown defense that is the difference- maker. St. John’s proved that to be true with a defensive execution that held down a strong Doherty offense, particularly late in the first half. Burke led all SJ scorers with 16 points while Stairs pumped in 16 and Mola added 13.
Members of the 2016 St. John’s High Annual Laska Yuletide Invitational Tournament championship team are seniors Cole Stairs (forward) and Alex Bradley (guard); juniors Tyler Mola (guard), Steven Bucciaglia (guard), Ryan Hardenbrook (forward), Denzel Darteh (guard), Sean Burke (forward) and Hunter Gorgas (center) along with sophomores Bobby Duquette (guard), Will Goss (center) and Ben Sanfratello (forward). Bradley, Mola and Stairs are team captains.