By John Orrell, Contributing Writer
Marlborough – Christmas was just days away when a palpable sense of something special was percolating within the Assabet Valley Regional Technical High School boys’ varsity basketball team. After a pedestrian 8-10 record a season ago, there were clearly doubters that this 2016-2017 squad led by head coach Ralph Grasso could turn things around in a measurable way, but for players and coaches there were never nonbelievers.
Move the calendar forward to mid-January and the compilation of an eight-game winning streak had Aztec fans taking notice with skepticism long since vanished. It seemed that the only early true-believers were team members themselves who knew that good things were going to come and come fast for this well-deserved group.
“We felt coming into the season that we were going to have a great team,” said senior team captain Ralph Grasso Jr., son of the team’s coach. “Not a lot of people thought we were going to do as well as we did. We had a lot of players come back and this year we got better. They improved in the summer and they worked hard. We’ve been playing together for a long time so we used our chemistry to our advantage.”
The team’s eight-game win streak morphed into an eventual overall record of 19-5, a far cry from the troubles of the season prior, although a playoff quarterfinal loss to Worcester Technical High School admittedly took away some of the shine.
“I think the good thing about this year is that we put Assabet on the map,” said Ralph Jr., who goes by “RJ.” “We were actual district competitors. Our goal from the beginning of the year was to put up a banner for the district title. Everybody had worked to that and now that the season is over, they’re working toward it for next year.”
RJ was one of a number of players who made good things happen in 2016-2017. He finished fourth overall in scoring in Colonial Large with a 15.8 per-game average, scored a career 1,313 points and notched 20 points in a game seven times this season proving that his prolific scoring touch was a factor for opposing teams. But one record he will always remember is one of the most coveted in high school basketball.
“I really wanted to get it at home,” said RJ of his 1,000th career point. “The game before I had a good game and scored 21 so I knew I had 18 left when we played [Montachusett Regional Vocational Technical School Dec. 20]. I knew it was realistic but I was nervous.
“It was a tie game going into the third quarter. They told me to relax. I got a pass coming out of transition and took a couple of dribbles and then I hit a pull-up jump shot. They stopped the game and gave me the ball. It was cool. It felt satisfying with all the hard work it took to get that.”
The assimilation into the world of sports came by love of the games but also by osmosis. His dad was an assistant basketball coach at Marlborough High School for 15 years and was always supportive of RJ growing up by enrolling him in camps and helping him one-on-one which eventually led to Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) competition. His cousin, Kyle, was another motivator. The two would compete for hours.
“We had a goal to be better than each other and that competition made us both better,” RJ said.
RJ was a team captain in his junior and senior seasons and relished the role of leadership. He knew when to help others, particularly the younger players, but was not onerous or vocal as some can be.
“I tried to emphasize constructive criticism and lead by example,” he said. “I would never be in people’s faces because that’s not me. I’m not a yeller.”
“RJ is all about winning and doing whatever it takes,” said coach Grasso. “Last year he was relied upon to score a lot for us to win. This year with some new players he did not have to score as much and adjusted his game to get more teammates involved and as a result his assists went up.
“He always put team before individual awards. When he scored his 1,000th point he was adamant that the whole team got in the picture. He has an incredible work ethic on and off court and that is why I am so proud of him. Although things did not end like we wanted and dreamed about it was the greatest time of my life coaching my son.”
RJ is undecided as to his post-high school college choice but plans to continue with basketball wherever he attends. At Assabet, he has accomplished more than sports to prove his well-rounded attributes. He is a member of the National Honor Society, Student Council and Principal’s Leadership Team and is well-liked and admired through school, say staff members. But as time winds down on his Aztec days, he shares fond memories of his four years at Assabet.
“Assabet has been awesome,” said RJ. “It was one of the best decisions I ever made coming here. It was nice to have been able to lead the team to success because we weren’t accustomed to having success in our basketball program. Being able to represent the school is something I’ll always be proud of.”