Conners, Redmen Will Set Their Sights High In 2015-2016
Dec 13, 2015 12:02PM
By Rick Spencer
Senior guard Nate Tenaglia (4) helped lead Tewksbury High to a 20-5 record last year.
After losing 1,000-point scorer Alex DiRocco to graduation last year, you couldn’t blame Tewksbury High basketball coach Phil Conners if he set his sights a little lower for the 2015-16 season.
Like maybe winning a third straight Merrimack Valley Conference Division 2 championship, or perhaps matching last year’s impressive total of 20 victories?
No, this is the ever-optimistic, “anything’s possible” Phil Conners we’re talking about here, and with pre-season All-State point guard Nate Tenaglia headlining a deep roster of talented returning players, Conners is aiming high once again this winter.
“We had a great year last year, but Arlington ended our season sooner than we wanted to (in the MIAA Division 2 North semi-finals),” Conners said. “We know what that feels like and we don’t want to experience that again. This year our goal is to win a state championship.”
It’s a lofty ambition, but Conners’ teams have improved significantly year-over-year in his first four seasons at the TMHS helm, winning seven games in his first season, nine in his second, 15 in his third and 20 last year. The Redmen have won two straight MVC small school championships, and Tenaglia is joined by senior forwards Justin Derrah and Adam Gajjaoui as returning starters on this year’s squad, so Conners’ optimism is not without justification.
“I think we’re a better defensive team this year,” Conners said. “We’re physically stronger, we’re faster and we’re a better rebounding team. At the end of last year I didn’t think I’d be saying this, but with the off-season we had, as long as our offense comes around, I think we’re capable of making a run (at state title).”
Whether or not the TMHS offense rounds into shape will depend in a large part on who Conners finds to replace DiRocco (who now plays at Salem State University) and the multi-talented Joe Csokmay. DiRocco averaged over 17 points per game and won the MVC Division 2 Player-of-the-Year Award as both a junior and a senior. Csokmay was a multi-talented and unselfish player who on any given night last year could lead the team in scoring, rebounds, assists or steals.
“Players like Alex don’t come along very often and it’s just not easy to replace a 1,000-point scorer,” Conners said. “He (DiRocco) was one of the best transition players in the state. And Joe did everything for us. Nobody worked harder than him. He filled up every column on the stat sheet.”
But between Tenaglia, Derrah and Gajjaoui, the Redmen won’t want for leadership this season. Both Tenaglia and Derrah will be four-year starters, and both have an excellent shot at eclipsing the 1,000-point scoring mark this winter.
Tenaglia, who enters the season with 793 career points, averaged 16.5 points, 5.5 assists and 4.3 rebounds per game last season. He is deadly from beyond the three-point arc and nearly impossible to stop on the fast break. He shared MVC Division 2 Player-of-The-Year honors with DiRocco last year and ESPN Boston just named Tenaglia to its pre-season All-State team earlier this week.
“As good as he was last year, he is maybe twice the player this year,” Conners said of Tenaglia. “He is stronger and faster and I think he grew a couple inches. And he never left the gym. He’s a relentless worker. He had an amazing off season.”
Derrah is a 6-2, 205-pound forward who Conners says is also playing the best basketball of his career entering his senior season. He averaged 13 points and six rebounds per game as a junior. Derrah has been a starter since is freshman year and he is also on track to eclipse the 1,000-point career scoring mark this year, entering the season with 722.
“He’s been our best guy through the three (pre-season) scrimmages,” Conners said of Derrah. “He’s just dominating inside. He’s so strong. He’s the strongest high school kid I’ve ever coached. He’s just been dominant in all our scrimmages, against good competition.”
Gajjaoui is coming off an impressive senior football season where he led Brian Aylward’s Redmen in receiving yards and touchdown receptions. Gajjaoui also stands 6-2 and is clearly the team’s best leaper. He averaged 10 points and four rebounds per game last year.
“Adam is a freakish athlete,” Conners said. “He can go by anybody. He finishes well and he can really defend. He’s much more explosive this year. Skill-wise he’s at about the same stage he was at last year because he focused on football this fall, but he’ll only get better as year goes on.”
So the Redman fortunes will rest on the shoulders of two newcomers to the starting line-up, as well as a much deeper bench than Conners had to work with last year.
“Last year I was afraid to go to the bench, but this year we’ve got much better depth,” Conners said. “We’ll play seven or eight kids consistently.”
The front-runner to replace DiRocco in the back court alongside Tenaglia is 5-11 senior guard Ryan Briggs, who saw limited minutes as a member of the varsity roster last year.
“(Briggs) had really good off season, and he looks like a starter at this point,” Conners said. “He’s worked hard and he can really defend. He’s a perfect role guy, and he can shoot.”
Sophomore guard Giovanni Ciampa projects to press for a starting role as he matures, as well. “He’s a super athlete and he’s really dedicated to basketball,” Conners said. “He is the most talented of (the newcomers) but he is learning what it takes, basketball-wise. But he’s super-talented. He’s gonna be a great player.”
The most likely candidate to replace Csokmay is 6-2 senior forward Sean Moose, who logged limited varsity minutes as a junior but has shown significant improvement over the summer. “He can rebound, he’s a great help-side defender and he’s great at taking charges," Conners said. "He does a little bit of everything. He’s definitely proven he needs to be in the mix.”
As usual, the Redmen are undersized, but deep at the guard position. Senior guards Devan Bere and Brian Naziare (both 5-11) and 5-9 junior guard Tyler Ward will add back court depth as will sophomore guard David Giuggio and senior guard Colby Nowack. Senior forward Bobby Piccolo (he’s 6-2) will add rebounding depth.
The Redmen open their defense of their MVC Division 2 title in Chelmsford on Tuesday night at 7:00 p.m. In addition to the Lions, Billerica looks to be the biggest challenge among Tewksbury’s small school opponents. The Indians are led by 6-6 senior forward Josh Bradanese, who recently verbally committed to play his college ball at the University of Philadelphia.
As usual, MVC Division 1 opponents Central Catholic, Andover, Lowell and Lawrence will provide stiff competition in the cross-over games this winter, and the Redmen hope to duplicate last year’s success against the large schools after beating three out of those four opponents last season.
“Considering how much better Nate, Justin and Adam are this year, we probably have a starting five that’s just as good as last year’s,” Conners said. “But this team is a better defensive team and has more depth. We defend at a higher level and rebound at a higher level than we did last year. If the offense comes around, we should be a pretty good team.”