H.S. Boys Hoop Showcase: New cast has Saints right back in the Division III mix

St. Thomas (4-3) is trying to answer the question of whether, after graduating All-State players Andrew Cavanaugh and Shawn Dekorne, it’s still a top-tier team in Division III

DOVER � Last year, the dogged defense that Nick Bryan brought to the court was an asset for the St. Thomas Aquinas boys basketball team.

This year? It�s more of a necessity.

The 5-foot-11 Bryan, part of the supporting cast last year when the Saints went 16-5 and reached the final four for the first time in 14 years, is now a senior captain and one of the team�s leaders.

And the way he leads is with defense.

�I�ve always taken more pride in defense than offense,� said Bryan. �In my opinion, there�s nothing better than playing good defense. You can have a terrible offensive day, but in the end, defense is just effort. That�s all it is.

�My mindset is to play defense the best I can and help my teammates play the best they can. I try to be a captain out there, lead us, make sure everyone knows what�s going on and knows the personnel on the court. I�m always yelling and stuff.�

�He�s always had a role,� said STA coach Sean Murphy, �because of that.�

The Saints (4-3) are trying to answer the question of whether, after graduating All-State players Andrew Cavanaugh and Shawn Dekorne, they’re still a top-tier team in Division III.

The case for? Two of their wins have come against teams ahead of them in the standings � Somersworth and Inter-Lakes � and their three losses have been by a total of 16 points, against teams with a combined record of 18-4.

�It�s definitely frustrating,� said senior forward and tri-captain Jimmy Sullivan. �That Belmont game (a 54-50 road loss last Friday), we knew if we could cut down on two or three turnovers, or hit two or three more shots, that�s our game.

�It�s an 18-game season, which sounds like a lot, but it�s quick. A close game like that, against a really good team, you can�t dwell on it and say what if. You�ve got to turn it into motivation quickly because the next game�s coming right up.�

And the next game is a big one.

Defending Division III champion Conant (4-3) comes to town Friday. It�s a game the Saints would love to collect, not just to offer more proof they belong on the contender list in D-III, but because the Orioles beat them twice last year, including in the semifinals.

�They�re a great team,� said Sullivan. �They�re always known for being one of the top teams that is always in it in March. We�d love to get that win. We feel winning this game, it could stamp us as, �Hey, we�re here. We�re going to be one of these teams competing in March.’�

While Cavanaugh, a 1,000-point scorer, and Dekorne carried the offense most nights last year, with everything running through them, this year it has more of a committee feel.

Diego Garcia, the team�s point guard and third tri-captain, the 6-foot-4 Sullivan and senior guard Nick Guerin are all averaging around 10 points a game. Beyond that, Bryan, senior shooting guard Matt Toth, transfer Jake McNeff and sophomore Cooper Blomstrom are all checking at above six points a game.

�They all played varsity last year,� noted Murphy, �but it�s different responsibilities and much bigger roles for these guys. I think they�re doing well and starting to get a feel for it.�

�We�ve been here,� said Sullivan. �It�s not like we�re not ready for the spotlight, but once we�re there we need to relax and embrace it. It�s our last year; we need to make sure we�re enjoying it. We have the talent, we have what it takes, we�ve just got to put a full game together.�

One area of concern, for a team that does not boast a surplus of ball-handlers, is turnovers. The number exceeded 20 in all three losses, and that�s kept the offense averaging a pedestrian 56 points a game.

�We�re showing we can compete with the best; we just haven�t been able to close a game out against some of these better teams,� said Murphy. �That�s the big question: Can we put 32 minutes together instead of 26? That�s the difference between this year and last year; we were winning these games last year.�

The season is seeing last year�s supporting players take on bigger roles and, in many cases, thrive. Like in Bryan�s case. Again tasked with guarding the opponent�s best player, he�s also contributing more on the offensive end.

�Nick Bryan�s really coming into his own now,� said Murphy. �He�s one of the better athletes in Division III � a quick first step and he�s realizing he can attack the rim. He can take the contact.�

�I think we have all the pieces we need,� said Bryan. �From a team standpoint, we really are a team-oriented team. We don�t have one guy who�s going to go out every night and drop 20, but a lot of guys can do it.�

Sullivan feels they�re close.

�We�re waiting for that one last click,� he said. �When that one last click happens, we�re going to be tough to stop, for sure.�

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