H.S boys basketball notebook: Smith Academy returning to hardwood after a lonely winter without hoops

  • Hopkins Academy junior guard Andrew Ciaglo, left, sends a pass around Josiah Little of Turners Falls during action last season. STAFF FILE PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Jael Cabrera, center, of Holyoke, shoots amid Amherst Regional defenders Isa Castro-McCauley, from left, Shane Robles and Tabor Bowman back in 2020.

  • Brandon Wishart, center, of Granby, has his shot blocked by Abdul Hassan, right, of Renaissance back in 2019. STAFF FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 12/10/2021 3:27:43 PM

Smith Academy returned to the Sherry Webb gymnasium for basketball practice this winter after a long exile.

The Falcons were one of the only teams in the state that didn’t even get to practice last season amidst the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Smith Academy didn’t sponsor sports until it allowed soccer in the Fall II season between winter and spring. Some of the basketball players formed a team for a summer league in Greenfield, but this is their first chance to play on the hardwood in the purple and white since losing to Athol on Feb. 17, 2020.

“They’re eager to go and get going,” Smith Academy boys basketball coach Matt Zerneri said. “We’re a little behind everybody, but we’re making good progress.”

Smith Academy has a large group of upperclassmen that played as freshmen and sophomores in 2019-20, but they don’t have as much experience as a typical group would given the lost season. Riley Intrator will provide a steadying presence playing point guard. He’ll have to wear two masks: one over his nose and mouth per MIAA health and safety guidelines, and another black, carbon fiber one he’s had on since the start of soccer season to protect a broken nose.

Caden Guimond and Wyatt Jeffress are strong senior scorers, while Ryan Belina brings a goalie’s intuition to the defensive end.

“We’re re-establishing our offense and defense,” Zerneri said. “It’s not that they don’t know exactly what I’m talking about, it’s getting them to play as aggressively as I want them to.”

Thankfully the Falcons light early schedule will provide them some time to gel before they tip off against another squad. They open the season next Wednesday at Frontier. Some teams played their first game as early as this Thursday. Smith Academy also will only play three games in the season’s first three weeks in December, giving the team ample time to tweak.

In Hampshire County, neither Smith Vocational nor South Hadley played games last year, either. The Tigers held a handful of informal open gyms during the Fall II season. It would be generous to call them practices. South Hadley didn’t have its full complement of hoopers during those sessions because so many other sports were going on during that bridge season between winter and spring. But once they arrived this season, they’re all basketball players.

“I always enjoy the multiple sport athletes. You get some great soccer players and get lacrosse players that make some great players,” South Hadley coach Chris Gerber said. “The more you do, the more you are.”

Smith Vocational was subject to the city of Northampton’s blanket sports ban and couldn’t compete during the winter season. Because the school was fully remote for much of the year, the Vikings weren’t allowed to practice or participate in sports during the later Fall II session.

GRAND MAN – Hopkins Academy senior Andrew Ciaglo is Hampshire County’s only returning 1,000-point scorer. He reached the plateau in February with just his parents in attendance in an otherwise empty gym against Turners Falls.

NEW COACHES – There will be four new basketball coaches roaming the sidelines in Hampshire County: Gateway’s Nick Balboni, Granby’s Dylan Dubuc, Hopkins Academy’s Jim Hart and Chris Gerber at South Hadley. Jamahl Jackson returned to Amherst after stepping away from the Hurricanes last season. He took over the team in 2019.

GRIDIRON TOUGH — Three of Northampton’s top boys basketball players are coming off a strong fall football season. Jacob Cancel, Ben Sledzieski and Conor Tobin helped the Blue Devils go 7-4 and reach the state playoffs.

HOLYOKE FAN LIMITS – Crowds will be limited at Holyoke games to begin the season, as each player will be allowed three fans per home game in the gym. It’ll be far from the electric environment the Paper City regularly delivers, but it will also be worlds better than the silent, nearly empty gyms of last season.

“People take pride being from Holyoke, and that’s one thing I remind our guys: when you wear that jersey, take pride because there’s a lot of people who take great pride in that,” Holyoke coach Juan Maldonado said. “It’s definitely for our fans as well.”

ONE LAST RIDE FOR GRANBY SENIORS – The Rams boast deep leadership experience in seniors Nate Breault, Ryan Gaughan and Brandon Wishart. Breault and Gaughan are in their fifth varsity seasons, while Wishart has been at Granby since he was a freshman.

They qualified for the postseason as freshmen and sophomores and weathered an outdoor season last spring.

CAN’T QUIT ON A HEATER – Hampshire ended last season on an eight-game winning streak in Fall II. The Raiders offense was on fire, generating 73.3 points per game during the stretch.

Amherst closed on a five-game winning run. The Hurricanes defense held opponents to 40 or fewer points in eight of their 15 games.

HAND DOWN, MAN DOWN – Don’t let Belchertown’s Tyler McDonald or Nate Sadjack get free on the perimeter. They’re dangerous shooters that can stretch the floor. McDonald led the team with 16 3s in just six games last season.

“They have ice in their veins,” Belchertown coach Matt Stenuis said. “They have a license to shoot.”

Belchertown qualified for the Division 2 tournament in 2020 after a 7-13 year in 2019. The Orioles aren’t too many years removed from an 0-40 stretch between 2015-17, but Stenuis insists those days are long past.

“We have turned the corner,” he said.

PVCICS HARD LAUNCH – The Dragons will compete as an MIAA member for their first full season this winter as a member of the Tri-County League South. They were part of a COVID pod last season and previously played independently against teams like Four Rivers and Eagle Hill. 


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