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Boys basketball preview: Future looks bright for Smith Academy

  • Smith Academy runs sprints to start off practice Thursday at Smith Academy in Hatfield<br/>JOSH KUCKENS

    Smith Academy runs sprints to start off practice Thursday at Smith Academy in Hatfield
    JOSH KUCKENS Purchase photo reprints »

  • Smith Academy coach Matt Zerneri pulls aside Derek McMahon (L) and Mat Sulda (R) during practice Thursday at Smith Academy in Hatfield<br/>JOSH KUCKENS

    Smith Academy coach Matt Zerneri pulls aside Derek McMahon (L) and Mat Sulda (R) during practice Thursday at Smith Academy in Hatfield
    JOSH KUCKENS Purchase photo reprints »

  • Smith Academy's Seaver Rickert during practice Thursday at Smith Academy in Hatfield<br/>JOSH KUCKENS

    Smith Academy's Seaver Rickert during practice Thursday at Smith Academy in Hatfield
    JOSH KUCKENS Purchase photo reprints »

  • Smith Academy runs sprints to start off practice Thursday at Smith Academy in Hatfield<br/>JOSH KUCKENS
  • Smith Academy coach Matt Zerneri pulls aside Derek McMahon (L) and Mat Sulda (R) during practice Thursday at Smith Academy in Hatfield<br/>JOSH KUCKENS
  • Smith Academy's Seaver Rickert during practice Thursday at Smith Academy in Hatfield<br/>JOSH KUCKENS

The Smith Academy boys basketball is not shying away from expectations.

With five starters back and a solid group of backups, the Falcons believe they have what it takes to be the best in Division 3.

“Obviously we want to make it to the western Mass. finals, as far as we can,” senior captain Mat Sulda said. “We’re just going to work hard and see where it takes us.”

Last year’s team reached the sectional semifinals where it fell to St. Joseph Central. A year older, a year bigger and a year more of experience gives the Falcons a shot.

But having the starters back doesn’t guarantee anything. The boys soccer team lost 11 seniors from last year’s squad, but reached the sectional final this fall.

“Each season is the same,” said senior center Seaver Rickert, who was the soccer team’s sweeper. “No matter how our team looks I still have the same expectations of making it far. Every team I’ve every been on I thought we could make it the western Mass. finals.”

Reaching the finals in soccer was an experience the Falcons, who have seven soccer players, can rely on.

“It’s the work ethic first of all,” Sulda said. “We worked hard during the soccer season and it took us a long way. If we work hard it’s going to take us a long way. Experiencewise, just being in that type of atmosphere where it’s tournament time and we’re coming down to finals I think that gives us experience too.”

Sulda is the most skilled Falcon. The lefty guard scored his 1,000th career point last season and averaged 20.4 points per game. Sulda traveled to Orlando, Fla., for AAU nationals and gained invaluable experience.

Junior point guard Derek McMahon enters his second year running the offense. Smith Academy coach Matt Zerneri is adding to his fast-break offense, making it more diverse. Still, roles stay the same.

“Everyone still has to do their job, rebound and get out and run,” Zerneri said. “Jobs don’t change, it’s just guys getting better at the jobs they’re doing.”

McMahon could be the key to the offense.

“He’s one of the leaders out there and he knows it,” Zerneri said. “It’s his job to know where everyone is going to be. He’s got to be vocal out there and he’s filling into that role pretty well.”

Sophomore forward David Longstreeth and junior forward Keith Natale are bigger and stronger than last year. Longstreeth averaged 7.3 points and will look for a bigger offensive role this season. Natale was injured during the soccer championship, but will be ready for the start of the season. He averaged 14.6 points last season.

“His knowledge of the game is a lot better and his game has expanded,” Zerneri said. “His shot has gotten better. He’s seeing the floor better, seeing where he needs to be and what he needs to do. Hopefully, he can stay out of foul trouble this year. The idea is to keep him on the floor.”

The glue for the Falcons is Rickert, a jokester off the court but businessman on it.

“He’s the guy who lightens the mood,” Zerneri said. “If things aren’t going great he’s always good to pick the guys up, say a comment. He’s probably one of the hardest working kids out there. It’s good to have him there.”

Junior guard Mike Molloy, senior guard/forward Nat Hanson, junior forwards Zach Liebenow, Christian Smiarowski and Austin Rogers and senior guard Will Halloran will provide depth and strength off the bench.

“We have to go take care of business to get to the tournament first,” Zerneri said. “The idea is to improve as the season goes on and to be playing the best basketball as you go into tournament. That’s the hope and we’re working hard to get there.”

The Falcons are attempting to win their first sectional title since back-to-back crowns in 1992 and 1993. The final championship ended a run of four titles in five years. Smith Academy hasn’t been to the finals since.

“Every year the goal is to win the league, win western Mass. and try to win a state title. That’s not going to change from year to year,” Zerneri said. “That’s the ultimate goal. There can be more short-term goals, get off to a good start, hold teams to so many rebounds, points, second-chance shots. But ultimately we want a championship, and not just a league title. We want the western Mass. title and try to win a state title.

“They welcome the challenge,” he added. “They’re not going to shy away from it. They know what their goal is, they know what we want to do and they’re ready for anybody’s best shot. We’re looking forward to it.”

Mike Moran can be reached at mmoran@gazettenet.com.

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