TURNING THE TIDE: O'Brien, St. John's Prep riding three-game win streak after difficult start to season

·9 min read

Jan. 28—The St. John's Prep basketball team opened the 2021-22 campaign with a sound win over Lawrence back on Dec. 14. But due to COVID-19 related cancellations and postponements, the Eagles were then forced to endure a 17-day layoff.

That forced head coach John Dullea and Co. to virtually start from scratch the next time out. They returned to the court on Dec. 31 at Andover High, dropping a 22-point decision against what's proven to be one of the top teams in the state. The competition didn't get any easier from there as the Eagles fell to talented St. Mary's Lynn (52-42) and Central Catholic (61-42). Yet despite the losses Dullea felt his team was making strides, especially against such strong opponents.

Just as it looked like they were turning a corner, another setback ensued. St. John's would go 11 more days without a game, and although they were able to practice during that time, the lack of live action was certainly a downer.

"It's been a difficult season, I'm not going to lie," said St. John's Prep's leading scorer, Mike O'Brien. "When we first started the season we had COVID problems immediately heading into Christmas break. That really messed up our momentum, but we're starting to get back in a rhythm and really coming together as a team now."

Following that second extended layoff, a motivated Eagles squad went into BC High and nearly secured a monumental upset. They had a look from three to win the game in the final seconds, but ultimately came up on the short end of a 65-63 decision.

The fourth straight loss undoubtedly stung. But to come within one possession of beating arguably the top Division 1 team in the state was something they could use as a stepping stone — and that's exactly what they've done.

Finally sustaining a stretch of uninterrupted competition, the Eagles have proceeded to reel off three straight wins over Catholic Memorial (69-58), Lowell (78-46) and Xaverian (61-49). They're scheduled to face Malden Catholic on the road Friday night with a chance to climb above .500 for the first time this season.

"Those three games in a row we played Andover, St. Mary's and Central Catholic, that was obviously not an easy stretch," said Dullea. "But I think the BC High game kind of catapulted us in the right direction. We did a lot of good things against a formidable opponent ... they're ranked No. 1 in the state in pretty much every poll, so we tried to take that and build off of it."

In the early stages of their hectic regular season slate, the Eagles struggled to find consistent offense on a nightly basis. Much of that was due to a lack of cohesion after so much time off. Over the last three games, however, they're starting to find their identity on that end of the court, yielding positive results in the process.

O'Brien, a 6-foot-7 junior, has been the lead catalyst throughout the recent run. He dropped 28 points twice and 23 points in the other win while crashing the glass with a purpose. He and fellow big man Kyle Webster (10.1 ppg., 11.0 rpg.) are capable of dominating the painted area, but their ability to stretch the floor with their shooting has also paid dividends.

"It's really been about communication," said O'Brien. "I can't do anything but thank my teammates for setting me and Kyle up and giving us a chance to score."

In terms of his increased production from mid-range and beyond the arc, O'Brien says that part of his game hasn't developed overnight. "It's something I've definitely been working on all season and in the offseason," he said. "I want to be able to score on all three levels of the court to help my team succeed."

O'Brien is averaging a team-high 18 points to go with eight rebounds a night. Combine that with Webster's nightly double-doubles, and you've got a serious 1-2 punch in the Prep's frontcourt.

Steph Patrick is a workhorse defensively and averages a team-best 4.3 assists per game; Jack Perry recently returned from injury and provides stability and knockdown shooting in the backcourt; and Nick Lemmond, Jack Angelopolus, Nathan Hendriks and Jacob Mercedes, among others, have all contributed in big spots at one point or another.

"To be honest, it seems like it's been one or two guys every game that step up," said Dullea. "We generally play at least 10 guys — most of the time we play 11 — so everybody's getting an opportunity to go out there and provide a spark."

"It's really helpful having so many different guys to choose from," added O'Brien. "We have five different guys we can go to at any time to get a bucket when we need it."

The MIAA released its most up to date Power Rankings on Thursday, and the Eagles currently sit at No. 18 in Division 1. Thanks to that challenging regular season slate, they're seeded higher than teams with winning records like Everett (8-2), Newton South (10-3), North High (9-1), Methuen (7-3) and Peabody (7-3).

"Our mentality is really that we can beat any team we play against," said O'Brien. "I think our ceiling is that we can go as far as we want in the playoffs. We just have to keep working hard and we'll see how each game plays out."

----Peabody (6-4) gave Beverly another great test Tuesday night, trading baskets with the unbeaten Panthers for the majority of the contest before ultimately coming up short in the fourth quarter.

For Beverly (now 12-0), it was the second time this season their Northeastern Conference foes really gave them trouble; the Panthers also won the Dec. 17 battle in competitive fashion, 57-54. They have now outscored Peabody by an average of just 7.5 points — and all other opponents by over 33 points.

Sophomore Ryder Frost continues to impress as the go-to scorer for Beverly. He dropped another 27 points to go with 13 rebounds Tuesday, including one highlight reel 3-point block, subsequent steal and rim-rocking dunk at the other end. The 6-foot-5 forward has grown quickly on and off the court for head coach Matt Karakoudas, and has now proven himself as one of the top underclassmen in the state.

"Throw Ryder's grade out because he doesn't play like a sophomore," said Karakoudas. "There's some guys that are good at basketball; then there's basketball players. He's a great basketball player. He's not scared of the moment."

Junior Gabe Copeland has battled through injury and contributed in a big way for his squad. Like Frost, he's more than capable of putting the ball in the hoop, but his best attribute of late might just be his passing. Copeland dished out seven assists Tuesday, many of which came via flashy passes to open teammates after he had already left his feet.

"It drives me crazy when I see him leave his feet, but somehow he does find somebody almost every time," said Karakoudas. "It's one of those things where I see him leave his feet and I'm like, 'Oh (man)', and then he hits somebody for a dime and it's a layup."

Beverly is also getting great production and leadership from its two captains, Nick Braganca and Griffin Francis. Neither player is asked to score much, but both find ways to contribute on each end of the floor.

"He's been around the block for a while with us now and he does all the dirty work," Karkoudas said of Braganca. "Very similar to Griffin Francis; he plays a lot of minutes off the bench and does a lot of the little things. A pass here, a defensive assignment there, rebound here, layup there ... I feel very confident and trustworthy of them on the court and as a coach that's what you want, especially late game."

Beverly still has big NEC tilts remaining against Masconomet (tonight) and Salem (Tuesday) as well as a home clash with Catholic Memorial next Sunday.

Fortunately, they won't have to see the Tanners again unless they run into each other in the Division 1 state tournament.

"Thank God no more Peabody games," Karakoudas said with a laugh.

----While Peabody faltered down the stretch on Tuesday, head coach Thad Broughton was quick to point out that it wasn't for a lack of effort. The Tanners simply went cold against some stingy Beverly pressure and failed to get enough stops in the final minutes.

Still, both performances against the Panthers provided plenty of positives for the playoff-hopeful squad moving forward. Anthony Forte hit some big shots, Shea Lynch continued to lead from a defensive standpoint, and Luke Roan showed he could pile up the points when called upon.

"In the end a loss is a loss no matter how you look at it, but (Beverly) is one of the top teams in the state and they're playing phenomenal basketball right now," said Broughton. "So our guys are just going to continue to build confidence from a game like this. I'm very happy for the future of this program and where we're headed this season."

----ICYMI: Hamilton-Wenham's Markus Nordin erupted for 42 points, 13 rebounds, six assists and seven steals in Tuesday's convincing 68-38 Senior Night win over Pentucket. The talented senior knocked down a ridiculous nine 3-pointers on just 11 attempts and scored 23 points in the second quarter alone.

Nordin is now just 14 points away from 1,000 for his career and has a chance to surpass the milestone Friday night at Ipswich. He's currently averaging 19.4 points, 9.8 rebounds and 4.5 assists while canning a team-best 31 triples.

Full Court Press is a high school boys basketball column that appears in The Salem News every Friday during the winter season. Contact staff writer Nick Giannino at NGiannino@Salemnews.com and follow him on Twitter @NickGiannino_SN.

POWER RANKINGS

1. Beverly (12-0)

2. Salem (9-2)

3. St. John's Prep (4-4)

4. Masconomet (6-3)

5. Peabody (6-4)

Full Court Press is a high school boys basketball column that appears in The Salem News every Friday during the winter season. Contact staff writer Nick Giannino at NGiannino@Salemnews.com and follow him on Twitter @NickGiannino_SN.