Gallery: Tewksbury High basketball [10 Images] Click any image to expand.
In a town that has been defined by the success of its high school football and ice hockey teams in recent years, the hottest ticket in Tewksbury this winter might just be the one that gets you into a Tewksbury High boys basketball game.
If the off-season and pre-season success of this year's TMHS hoop squad is any indication, fourth-year head coach Phil Conners might have assembled one of the most competitive teams Tewksbury has seen in more than a decade.
"I actually think this is the first time I've looked at the schedule and said "we could beat everybody,'" said Conners, who surprised everyone in Eastern Mass basketball circles when he led the Redmen to a 14-8 record and the Merrimack Valley Conference Division 2 Championship in only his third year at the helm last winter. "We could lose to 10 teams too. The league is very strong this year. But I think we can be competitive with everybody."
The 2014-2015 Redmen are an experienced group, with five seniors and seven juniors on the varsity roster. Tewksbury is led in many categories by senior captain Alex DiRocco, a four-year varsity letter winner and three-year starter who was named the Most Valuable Player in the MVC small school division last year.
"He's absolute lightning in transition," said Conners of DiRocco. "And he can really shoot it. He's a streak shooter, but we're trying to turn him into an every day shooter and we think he's there now. He's really good in transition, he can go by most guys."
DiRocco shares the back court, and much of his skill set, with junior captain Nate Tenaglia, who has started since his freshman year.
"There's no bigger gym rat than Nate," Conners said. "He's great in transition and very unselfish. He can shoot, too. We want him to shoot more this year."
The Tewksbury line-up features a front court that will have to make up what it lacks in height with experience, hard work and athleticism. But that, says Conners, is one of the team's greatest strengths.
With no one standing any taller than 6-foot-1, there is no true center on the team, but senior Joe Coskmay, junior Justin Derrah (both are captains) and junior Adam Gajjaoui are all outstanding athletes, and all are highly skilled basketball players.
"Unfortunately, I'm still the tallest guy in the huddle," Conners said. "But that's okay. Everyone says you gotta have height, but you can't make height. So instead you've got to have skills. And we have that now."
Tewksbury will try to compensate for its height disadvantage by playing an up-tempo style of basketball, and putting a lot of pressure on opposing offenses.
"We'll try to change defenses a lot," Conners said. "You can't sit in one defense because eventually the height and the size wears on you. We've got to make guys uncomfortable so they can't walk down, throw it around the perimeter and get it into the post. We're going to try to make the entry passes really hard, with a lot of pressure on the ball."
When they get the ball, look for the Redmen to run and gun.
"We definitely want to play fast," Conners said. "We'll take some shots that other coaches would think are bad shots, but I want our guys loose and free so they're able to make shots. We'll take the transition three...I know a lot of guys frown on it, but we'll shoot it."
In a three-way scrimmage against Reading and North Reading on Wednesday night, the Redmen were clearly the best shooting team in the gym, jumping out to double digit leads on both opponents in each of the four "mini-games" they played in the round robin format. It was clear that Tewksbury could beat either of those teams by more than 20 points in a full game.
Conners credits the team's shooting prowess to the players' off-season work.
"They all probably played in 60 games in the off-season," Conners said. "And they come in early and shoot in the gym. That was my biggest thing coming in. We've got to be able to handle the ball and shoot the ball at five positions. We will shoot the ball."
It all adds up to a recipe for a pretty exciting brand of basketball, with some of the top teams in the state -- including Central Catholic and Lowell High -- scheduled to visit the new TMHS gym this winter. Tewksbury opens its season this Friday night, at home, against Haverhill, at 7:00 p.m.
"Our goal is to win back-to-back small school championships and make a deep run into the state tournament," Conners said. "Originally, I wanted to challenge for the league (championship) by this point. But right now we're getting talked about on another level, in the state tournament and stuff like that. So we're at a level we didn't expect. We want to grab every win we can, so we can get a better seed and position ourselves to make a deep run in the tournament."
Follow us on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/yourtewksburytoday/
Follow us on Twitter at @TewksburyToday
Follow us on Instagram at YourTewksburyToday