Warriors repeated as M.L. Freedom division champions
Published in the March 22, 2016 edition.
By DAN BYRNE
WAKEFIELD — The final buzzer has sounded at the Charbonneau Field House on the 2015-16 boys’ basketball season for Wakefield Memorial High School. For the second year in a row, the Warriors and head coach Brad Simpson had plenty of success to celebrate.
In ‘15-’16, the Warriors captured their second straight Middlesex Freedom Division title after going 11-5 in the league and 13-7 overall.
The season began with a bit of controversy as the Warriors played a phenomenal game, led by surprise junior standout John Evangelista’s 21 points as they outscored Lexington through four quarters. However, the MIAA would nullify the win, following the revelation that Wakefield used an ineligible player in the game.
Game two saw the emergence of Freedom Division MVP Tighe Beck as the Warriors’ senior captain grabbed 23 rebounds to go along with 16 points in the win over the Rockets at Reading High.
Wakefield slipped up a bit in the home opener at the Charbonneau Field House with defending M.L. Liberty division champion Arlington visiting on the evening. Even after replacing 10 seniors, the Spy Ponders gave the Warriors fits and walked out with a double digit win.
Wakefield rebounded in a sense in its next game as it took down Stoneham at home by a 16 point margin.
That led the team into the Christmas vacation period when the Warriors took part in a tournament at Saugus High. In the first game they were matched up with defending state champion, Danvers. It was a tough and tightly contested game, that ultimately saw the Falcons top Wakefield by four points.
In the next round, Wakefield took on Marblehead and went home with a win. After going 1-1 in the non-league tournament, it was make or break time in the Middlesex League.
After the new year, the Warriors weren’t playing their best basketball. It took a late game bucket to take home a win at Wilmington and, after that, they lost on the road to rival Melrose.
A little home cooking was just what the doctor ordered, following the loss to Melrose. The next five games for Wakefield were played at home for the Warriors, four of which Wakefield found itself winners.
The first win came against Burlington on Jan. 12. The only loss they suffered came at the hands of Belmont, who would go on to win the other half of the Middlesex league by capturing the Liberty division.
“We kind of took off with that game,” Coach Simpson said of the Burlington win.
The Warriors also defeated Watertown, Winchester and Woburn during the homestand.
The winning ways continued for the Warriors as they went on the road and knocked off Stoneham, then they returned home and beat Wilmington again.
Five days after the victory against Wilmington, Wakefield took on Melrose at home and took care of business, to the tune of a 72-69 win in overtime to clinch the Freedom division championship.
The next week, the Warriors headed on the road to Burlington and grabbed another win before losing to Watertown at the end of the year to close the regular season.
In the heat of their run, the Warriors ripped off eight wins in 10 games as they headed to the postseason once again.
“I think that was the key to the season right there,” Simpson said.
When the seeding came out for the state tournament everything seemed a bit too familiar. Wakefield would have to go on the road once again, this as the number nine seed, just as they did last season when it was seeded 17th. This time, just as last year, they would take down a higher seeded team as Beverly took the Warriors down to the wire.
“The second season as I like to call it, was interesting,” the coach said. “It’s one of these things where you go out and play hopefully your best basketball. I think we peaked a little bit earlier in the season but we were able to maintain that higher level of play.”
Junior Alex McKenna’s last second, overtime dribble drive to split the zone defense in and draw a second defender, freeing up senior Corey Imbriano at the three-point line who sank the shot giving the Warriors a 58-57 victory.
The heroic shot set up a date with the number one seed in Div. 2 North, Salem, which entered with an 18-2 record.
“That was a game for the ages,” the coach said.
A familiar tournament foe, the Witches were a high powered offensive team that found scoring troublesome in the early going against the Warriors’ effort, athleticism and length at the defensive end.
It was one of the most competitive games all year long in any gym but Salem eventually broke down the Warriors’ defense and started putting the ball in the basket. The Witches came out with the win 83-79 in overtime, ending another season of Wakefield Warrior basketball.
“I’ve been a part of Wakefield basketball for 46 years, coaching at different levels,” Simpson said. “That was probably the best game a Wakefield team has ever played and not won. We had a pretty good game plan, we were well prepared. I give a lot of credit to my assistant coaches, Bryan Sweeney, John Amentola, Joe Leahy and Dan Looney and volunteer scout Reg Hobbs. It was a formidable task but we had an opportunity to prepare.
“I think the kids went over there with a sense of purpose and an air of confidence that if they executed the game plan we should be able to play with them and we did,” added Simpson. “Those two tournament games will stick out in my memory for a long time.”
It would be an understatement to call this year a success as the Warriors were not expected to have the firepower to repeat as Freedom division champions and they won the title outright this time.
“I think a lot of people didn’t think we had the horses, so to speak, but we won the division by two games over Melrose,” Simpson said. “This one was maybe a little more satisfying in that we won it going away.
“For me personally this was a very satisfying team to coach because we didn’t really have a truly outstanding player,” Simpson said. “We had a group of kids who knew their roles and performed very well. At different times different kids stood up and carried the team,” the coach added.
“We just had people where if their teammates weren’t having a typical game, then they could step up and pick up the slack. I didn’t always know who was going to do what but I always knew someone would step up,” continued Simpson.
The Warriors surpassed expectations once again this year in the postseason, knocking off the higher seed in the first round, pulling the upset, and setting up a second round matchup with the top-seeded team. Unfortunately, they ran into a powerhouse in Salem and the year came to an end.
It was a successful season with the aforementioned Beck being named Freedom division MVP and Kobey Nadeau being named to the Middlesex League All-Star team.
Next season certainly looks promising as Coach Simpson and the Warriors try to three-peat as Freedom division champions. They’re going to rely heavily on the experience gained by the contributions from this year by Nadeau, Zach Price, McKenna, Evangelista, Andrew Miller, Ryan Murray, Joseph Carmilia-Smith and anyone else from the program who may emerge as a contributor.
There will be playing time available and coach Simpson will be looking to see who can put the time in and get better to earn those minutes.
“We had a very strong nucleus of seniors,” Simpson said, crediting the student leadership of his team.
“Captains Jon Miller and Tighe Beck along with Andrew Auld, Corey Imbriano and Paul McGunigle, along with Alex Fils-Aime, really took charge and led the team both on and off the court,” Simpson said.
Look for the Warriors to be working hard on their game in the summer, as they go for the Freedom Division championship three-peat in 2017.