Saints Let it Fly or Die

By Joel Johnston (NH Sportspage.com)

The 2016 version of St. Thomas Aquinas High School boy basketball team is right where it has been for much of recent memory, in flux. The now 5–12 boys faced off against the 12–2 Milford High School on Friday trying to keep their playoffs hopes alive, as for another year they find themselves stuck solidly on the bubble. This was a game that featured two schools that went at it in the division two football playoffs this Fall, St. Thomas prevailing on their way to a championship lead by quarterback Stephan Hedberg. Both teams’ quarterbacks along with other members of each respective team were again pitted against each other Friday night.

The Saints would likely have to win out and get some help to grasp one of the bottom two seeds in division two. The Saints again prevailed, beating Milford 72–62 seemingly out of nowhere. Holding Milford’s leading scorers, Kirk Palladino, and Ryan Banuskevich in check, and handing them their first and only loss besides Portsmouth. The entire game seemed to be a fast break. Milford never had time to get their head on straight, trailing from the start. On the right night, St. Thomas can beat anyone in the state.

As crazy as that sounds, last year’s team star player Schuyler Hedberg (Stephan’s brother) lead the 15th seeded Saints to a win at the 2nd ranked Manchester West in impressive fashion, before bowing out the next round. That game, however, caught a lot of attention around the state, not only because of the upset, but because of the style the Saints accomplished it with.

That style, specifically, called the Grinnell Offense, has been the Saints go to style over the last three years. David Arseneault, a division three coach at Grinnell Iowa, patented the run and gun offense, and no it isn’t just shoot as many three pointers as possible. Although from the untrained eye’s point of view, it may seem that way. When first year Coach Sean Murphy was asked about the style, he had a lot to say, “We’ve been working on that, I think it is somewhat of a misconception, that all we do is shoot from the parameter, the dribble penetration from our point guard, and fast break points are most important. Offensively, it gives us confidence.” He went on to talk even more about the defense, “The Grinnell system actually helps us most defensively, we press, our goal is to create 25 turnovers a game, we just can’t turn the ball over too, that’s been our problem this year, along with being trigger happy once we fall behind.” The Saints have been falling behind plenty this year, and yet with upsets like the one Friday night, they keep themselves in it for a little longer.

When I asked senior Stephan Hedberg what he thought of the system, he had nothing but good things to say. “Fast, lots of shots in transition and really fun to play. A few minutes on, sub everyone out, and then your back in before you know it, keeps everyone fresh. That’s the thing though, (it) allows you to win some games you shouldn’t and lose others that you should win.” Live by the system and die by the system.

When asked one word to describe this year’s team, coach Murphy said, “Adversity, we only have five seniors and two have been out most of the year, we are small too.” Adversity seems to be the correct word to describe the Saints boy basketball program, as they are on their 4th coach in six years. Legendary coach Parr left to go back to Portsmouth to coach the girls and the position has been a merry go round since. The last of these former coaches put in the Grinnell System, a far cry from the flex offense, or the fundamental basketball run by Parr. It has, however, seemingly injected some juice into a program left for dead. Instead of hiring from the outside this year, the administration went with the junior varsity coach, Sean Murphy, who has been a part of the Grinnell System, and the school for a long time. He was the freshman coach back when Parr was in his last year, and has worked his way up.

Even with the surprising upset by the Saints on senior night, their chances of going all the way didn’t get much bigger. If they do sneak into the playoffs, power house Portsmouth is sitting and waiting at the top of the Division. Portsmouth seems untouchable with an unblemished record beating good teams like Milford by 40 points on a regular basis. Also undefeated Lebanon, teams like Manchester West, and many others still stand in the Saints’ way.

The future may be what the Saints are focused on now. With the school moving its basketball program down to division three next year, the prospect for success is definitely greater. The players who will be here again next year seem excited. “Take the ship,” said Junior guard Jake Proux when asked what his expectations for next year were. “We have a lot of guys coming back and as a senior next year, I just want to make sure we focus, focus before games, and play hard. (We) have a lot of good freshmen, we just have to work with them.” As for his opinion on moving down a division, “There are some good teams in division three, but I think we can do some damage.” Confidence in the future may be what the Saints need most, as it may be what they have lacked so often in recent years.

As for the Grinnell System, well its days may be numbered, just like the days in division two. “We are going to transition away (from) it a little. Not completely but there will be some changes. It also depends on the personnel,” said Coach Murphy. If you want to catch the Saints high flying offense before it moves down a division, your last chance may be March 2, at home against Timberland.