Warriors had another tournament-clinching season despite injuries
Published in the March 29, 2017 edition
By DAN BYRNE
WAKEFIELD — Coming off two straight Middlesex League Freedom division titles, the Wakefield Memorial High School varsity boys’ basketball team had plenty to aim for coming into the 2016-17 season.
With league all-star Kobey Nadeau and fellow returning senior starter Alex McKenna and a strong supporting cast of upperclassmen, the Warriors had their hopes set high at the outset. They posted a 10-11 overall record and 8-8 record in the league play.
Prior to the winter season, their chances to repeat as division champs took a huge hit when Nadeau broke his leg during a football scrimmage on Sept. 3. The absence of Nadeau in the middle of the floor for the Warrior hoop team proved crucial as the team dropped the first three games.
Nadeau returned just after the turn of the New Year, but he had a light impact in his return as his minutes were restricted. Stoneham was able to get the better of the Warriors, and Wakefield was off to an 0-4 start.
“We had a strong nucleus to make another run,” Head Coach Brad Simpson said. “But that kind of got waylaid when Kobey broke his leg in the football scrimmage on Sept. 3. We started 0-4. We had a great run the next 12 games. Including the two non-league games with Malden, we went 9-3 over the next 12 games beating some pretty good teams.”
The tide turned for the Warriors in the fifth game of the season as they were able to dominate Wilmington to the tune of a 20 point win. Next was the first meeting with rival Melrose, and the Warriors got their second win in a row with a 10 point victory.
With a two game win streak, the Warriors returned home to face Burlington, but came out flat in the first two quarters. At halftime they found themselves trailing by 24 points. An inspired performance over the third and fourth quarters and eventually overtime and double overtime, saw the Warriors snag their third straight win.
“I’ve been on the coaching staff since like 1970,” Coach Simpson said. “And there is no question in my mind that was the best comeback I’ve ever seen, and maybe the best 20 minutes of basketball.
“That was a microcosm of the season,” added the coach. “Burlington came in and rocked the boat early, we fell into a big hole, just like our 0-4 start to the season. We came in and regrouped at halftime and came out and cut it down to 13 at the end of three and we were really rolling in the fourth.
“It looked like we’d won it in regulation, then the (Will) Melanson kid hit a three to tie it and send it to overtime. Then they made another basket to tie it, but we pulled away and won by eight in the second OT. It was a really good display of leadership from our seniors, a lot of character,” summarized Simpson.
The next game out for the Warriors was the first of two non-league games against Malden. The Golden Tornadoes had a strong squad, but limited competition had them seeking games outside their league. Simpson and the Warriors offered a game, and Wakefield managed to eke out a two point win courtesy of Andrew DeLeire’s last second three-pointer.
“DeLeire hit a buzzer beater three-pointer to beat Malden in the non-league game. I think they ended up 15-5 or something but that loss counted for them, so we gave them one of their losses.”
The next couple of games saw the Warriors drop two consecutive in close competitions. First, they took on Watertown at home. The Red Raiders eventually ended up as the Freedom Division champions, and were helped on their way by topping Wakefield by five.
In the next outing, the Warriors headed on the road to Winchester, where the Sachems were able to get the better of the Warriors, but by only one point.
A return home against Belmont saw Wakefield put forth one of its best efforts of the season, as it cruised to a 19 point victory, 83-64.
Things turned around after beating Belmont according to coach Simpson.
“We really started playing,” he said. “I think the rest of the kids on their team hit their stride.”
Against Belmont John Evangelista had a 29 point effort.
“He was just on fire from the three-point line he made seven out of nine threes,” remembered Simpson. “Kobey had 17 points, 11 rebounds, and five assists.”
A few days later, the Warriors headed to Malden to take on the Tornadoes in the second non-league, exempt game. This time around the Warriors came out on the short end, falling by 10, 70-60.
Their hearts may not have been 100 percent into the Malden game because the very next day the Warriors took on Woburn at home. The boys showed no signs of fatigue as they handled the Tanners by a score of 68-51.
The first game in February, the Warriors headed on the road for some revenge against a team they’d lost to the first time, Stoneham. The Warriors split the season series against the Spartans, 46-38.
It was the first of two dominant defensive outings, as the Warriors topped Wilmington 62-34 in the next game. It was their largest victory of the year, and the second straight game holding their opponent under 40 points.
The next game was Senior Night, as the Warriors hosted Melrose at the Charbonneau Field House. Wakefield didn’t have much trouble completing the season sweep, with a 72-60 win over the Red Raiders.
A couple of close losses closed out the league portion of the schedule for the Warriors as they dropped road games to Burlington by three and Watertown by two.
Marblehead High School hosted a non-league tournament, in which the Warriors were invited to participate. The first game saw them drop a hard fought game to a strong opponent in Pope John. That set up the crucial second game, a game which the Warriors had to win to get into the state tournament. In that game Wakefield dominated Tewksbury and qualified for the Big Dance.
In the tournament the Warriors were cut down on the road to second seeded Marblehead, a one-loss team that had not lost at home all season.
When asked what takeaways are left over from this year’s run the coach responded saying.
“We always want to highlight the positives. We started out 0-4. We went through a nice 12 game stretch where we won nine games, put ourselves in a position to qualify, and when it came down to the last game, we came up big to qualify.”
There was no lack of fight for the Warriors and beyond the loss of Nadeau early in the year, the team battled its share of health issues.
Coach Simpson noted, “Devin O’Brien had mono, we lost him for nearly two-thirds of the season. Calvin Conner had three trips to the hospital, with basically a collapsed lung, and had to have surgery the third time. But he came back and got some minutes against Marblehead the last game of the season. Freshman Ryan Marcus had 17 points against Malden in the teams’ second meeting. Two days later he rolled his ankle in practice and his year was over.”
With all the adversity, there is no way coach Simpson’s team could achieve so much without the help of an experienced and devoted coaching staff.
“I give a lot of credit to my coaching staff — all Wakefield High graduates,” Simpson said. “Varsity assistant Bryan Sweeney; John Amentola, the JV coach; Dan Looney assistant JV coach; even the freshman coaches, Joe and Tom Leahy, they all know the kids, they’ve had them in the lower levels.
“The kids got a lot of support and guidance from the staff, which I think proved valuable in terms of keeping the kids focused,” added Simpson.
When asked about how he felt about the year Coach Simpson said, “For me, it was a very satisfying year because (after) the first four games, it looked like we were going to be in big trouble. Then, the 9-3 run was really a lot of fun. It was tough to lose a couple of close ones, but the last game of the season put us in the tournament when we beat Tewksbury.
“Anytime you get a chance to play in the postseason, unless you’re the state champion, your last game is going to be a loss, so you enjoy it for what it’s worth, the whole experience.”
Simpson loves the fan support the WMHS boasts and did not fail to mention their contribution.
“What made our experience special was we had a tremendous student body section. Night in and night out, they traveled well. It was really good to look over and see the sea of red jerseys, loyal and supportive even when we were struggling at the beginning, which I appreciate and I know the kids do.
“I’m very happy for this group because we’ve had a good roll going over the last seven years. We’ve got a pretty good tradition of playing winning basketball,” added Simpson.
It can be noted that the Warriors have made it to the state tournament nine out of the last 11 seasons.
Looking ahead to next year there is plenty to be excited about.
“We’ve got another nice nucleus of juniors and underclassmen for next year,” Simpson said. “Both the freshman and JV teams had winning records and there are some kids down there were going to be looking for to step up and fill in the role left open by this year’s group of seniors.”
Simpson himself is receiving some individual honors as well.
Coach Simpson is being recognized for his contributions to Wakefield Memorial High School over the years with the honor of being inducted into the Athletic Hall of Fame on Saturday, April 22.
He’ll also be receiving the 2016 Northeast Region Coach of the Year Award. Last spring, Coach Simpson was selected as the MIAA Massachusetts Boys’ Basketball Coach of the Year. All MIAA Coaches of the Year for each sport are automatically chosen as Massachusetts nominee to be considered for the National or Regional Coach of the Year Awards by the NFHS (National Federation of State High School Associations). The NFHS just recently finalized their selections for 2016 National and Regional Coaches of the Year, and they chose Coach Simpson as the Northeast Region Coach of the Year for boys’ basketball.
Coach Simpson was proud, but modest when asked about his selections.
“That’s a byproduct of the coaching staffs I’ve had over the years, and this year, and the kids of quality student athletes that play basketball.”