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Smith Academy, South Hadley face big tests in state boys basketball finals

The state Division 3 and Division 2 boys basketball finals statistically look like this:



In words:

Smith Academy-Danvers.

South Hadley-Brighton.

The statistics represent the number of boys each school has in grades 9-12 under the MIAA’s current alignment cycle, which ends after the season.

Brighton actually has 637 boys. The school though hosts two smaller Brighton schools — Another Course to College and Lyon Pilot — under a cooperative agreement.

The state’s demographics contribute to the discrepancy, considering that nearly two-thirds of the commonwealth’s 6.6 million people live in the Greater Boston area. Brighton is a neighborhood of Boston, nestled between Chestnut Hill, Brookline, Newton and the Massachusetts Turnpike.

Danvers is north of Boston.

Smith Academy and South Hadley will attempt to look past the numbers when the state finals take place Saturday at the DCU Center in Worcester. The Division 3 championship between Smith and Danvers tips at 12:30 p.m. The Division 2 final between South Hadley and Brighton is at 4.

“There’s five guys on the floor for each team at a time,” Smith coach Matt Zerneri said. “We have a great nucleus and a great team. We look at it as a challenge. A lot of people didn’t expect us to get this far and the kids look at that like we’re going prove people wrong.”

Smith Academy has historically looked up to its competition. It’s the smallest public school in the state, yet has one of the most successful athletic program’s in western Massachusetts.

“We’ve dealt with it before,” Smith senior Mat Sulda said. “We’re just worrying about us. How many students they have is irrelevant. We have all the information we need on their basketball team and that’s what we’re focused on.”

Under the new realignment for next year, Smith Academy drops down to Division 4, while Danvers moves up to Division 2. South Hadley and Brighton will stay in Division 2, although Brighton will add Boston Community Leadership Academy under a cooperative agreement.

Like Smith Academy, South Hadley is attempting to narrow the focus down to 5-on-5.

“That’s the way we have to look at it,” South Hadley coach Jeff Guiel said. “On paper they’re clearly the better team. Their kids play basketball year round and are gifted, and fast and long. There’s something about our team chemistry and heart that I love. I think we’re all hoping and praying for a battle because that’s when our heart and chemistry shines. I think that’s what we’re hoping, that some way we find ourselves in a dogfight down the stretch. We’ll take our chances at that point.”

Division 3

Smith Academy (22-3) is in the state finals for the fourth time in program history. The Falcons won in 1990 and 1992 and lost in 1989.

Smith returned its starting five from last year — 5-foot-10 senior shooting guard Sulda and 6-foot junior point guard Derek McMahon, forwards Keith Natale (junior, 6-3) and David Longstreeth (sophomore, 6-2) and senior center Seaver Rickert (6-1) — and the chemistry has been unmatched in the postseason. The Falcons’ 2-3 zone has stifled opponents en route to the championship game.

“These guys have been with each other since elementary school,” Zerneri said. “To be able to communicate and concentrate, we’ve really harped on talking, communicating, talking, being loud, getting the hands up and helping each other out. It’s been a three-year process. They do it extremely well.”

Chemistry will need to overcome experience. Danvers (23-2) is the defending state champion. It beat St. Joseph’s in the final last season.

Danvers is led by four seniors — guards Eric Martin (6-0) and Nick McKenna (6-0), 6-4 guard Nick Bates and 6-3 forward Dan Connors.

“We’re anxious,” Sulda said. “All the guys want to play right now to be honest.”

Division 2

South Hadley could only hope its path to a championship mirrors Mahar’s in 2012.

Like the Tigers, Mahar beat St. Bernard’s in the semifinal round. Mahar then beat Brighton by four in the championship.

South Hadley features an athletic group of players, mostly guards, and they will need to play extremely well defensively to upend the Bengals.

The Tigers will likely start senior guard Evan Marcus (5-10), junior guard Avon White (5-8), junior guard T.J. Fitzell (5-10), sophomore guard Cam Earle (6-2) and senior center Anthony Bullough (6-2).

South Hadley has won 11 straight since its last loss at Commerce on Jan. 23. That loss, which capped a four-game losing streak, left the Tigers at 6-7.

“I think there is a critical moment or two every season where the team says we may have started behind, but we’re starting to see that we’re catching (up), we can feel it in practice, we can feel it in team meetings, we can feel it in games even if we lose,” Guiel said. “And I think that happened at Commerce this year. We lost a battle on the road at a tough place to play but there was a different vibe in the locker room.”

Brighton has kept it close in the postseason. It edged Burlington by two in the North first round, Melrose by three in the semis, North Andover by five in the sectional final and Scituate by three in the state semifinals.

“Brighton is a really good team,” Bullough said. “They have athletic players that can take it to the hoop. They shoot 3s. We have to focus.”

The Bengals are led by dynamic 6-2 junior guard Malik James and 6-4 junior guard Nick Simpson, who did not play in last year’s state final. The team also features 6-6 junior center Prince Unaegbu and 6-0 senior guard Daivon Edwards.

The Tigers are playing in their first ever state title game. They are the first team from Hampshire County to reach the Division 2 state final.

“We’re anxious, we’re nervous,” Bullough said. “Words can’t describe how anxious we are to get after it.”

RADIO — Bear Country 95.3 (WPVQ-FM) will call the Division 3 game between Smith Academy and Danvers.

Mike Moran can be reached at mmoran@gazettenet.com. Follow on Twitter @mikemoranDHG.

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