By Conor Walsh
---- — In the days immediately following the MIAA’s unveiling of its sectional state tournament brackets, it’s not uncommon for coaches to scramble for any available information about his or her team’s upcoming opponent.
Through the regular season, most opposing teams are familiar — conference foes and regular non-league rivals.
But come tourney time, that all gets thrown out the window as teams from all conferences north of Boston are thrown into the same pool, often resulting in games against unfamiliar teams.
While that’s so often the case, Manchester Essex boys basketball coach Bryan Shields is faced with a different task as his Hornets prepare for the upcoming Division 4 North tournament.
The Hornets know their opponent all too well. Now, they’ve just got to figure out how to beat them.
Manchester Essex’s 13-7 regular season earned it the No. 5 seed in Division 4 North. Awaiting them in the 4/5 game in the quarterfinals on Wednesday is Cape Ann League Small rival Lynnfield (7:00 p.m., Lynnfield High School), a team that the Hornets finished second to in the conference standings and lost both contests against during the regular season.
“I know that they’re one of the better teams in the Division 4 bracket,” Shields said. “I think they’re a solid team through and through, but I think that we’re at a little bit of an advantage because we’ve seen them twice, and even through we’ve lost to them twice, I think it’s hard to beat a team three times in a row, so I think we might have an edge there. We know what they like to do and what we need to do to stop them.
“I think it’s definitely an interesting pairing and an interesting draw from a coaching standpoint. It may be a little bit easier because you’ve seen what they do, you have their games against you on film. We’re just excited for another opportunity against them.”
All things considered, it’s a tough draw for both the Hornets and the Pioneers. With middling teams littering the bracket — notably top-seeded St. Clement’s and No. 3 seed Pope John — it seemed that the trying Cape Ann League schedule would favor each team in the tournament.
That is, however, as long as they didn’t face one another this early in the tournament.
While it may be a tough draw for the Hornets, it’s not to say that there is no hope. Far from it. In the team’s season-opener — remember, they stumbled out of the gates with an 0-3 start — the Hornets fell to Lynnfield by two points and had a potential game-winner from point guard Liam Aldrich catch rim as the buzzer expired.
Then, earlier this month, the Pioneers again held off the Hornets with a 70-58 win.
So, all told, 14 points were the combined difference between the two teams, and Manchester Essex’s run-and-gun style appears to match up well with the Pioneers.
Lynnfield has a strong perimeter game, relying on the likes of guards Patrick Kearney and Conor Sullivan to carry the offense. Each can drive, each can shoot, and the combination has given CAL teams headaches all season.
For the Hornets, the fact that Lynnfield relies on its guards may not be the worst thing in the world. Manchester Essex is strong around the perimeter, with Aldrich at the point and Max Nesbit shouldering much of the offensive load with a strong inside-out game.
Factor in the likes of Sean Gutierrez down low and Taylor Ketchum, who can bang in the paint and shoot from the perimeter, and a Hornets’ victory is far from a longshot.
“We’ve got familiarity with their players and their systems,” Shields said. “The first time around, first game of the season, we had some jitters so I don’t think that’s a great example. Second time around we played at their place and had a great first quarter, but then let down and gave up a few more offensive rebounds than I’d like to give up.
“We think we have some really great matchups defensively, and if we can tighten up the rebounding this time I think we’ll be in a good spot.”
At this point, it’ll likely all come down to execution, and with an experienced squad that’s been through some impressive regular- and post-season runs, the Hornets should come out poised when the game finally tips off.
The winner of Manchester Essex’s opener will move on to play the winner of No. 1 St. Clement’s versus Maimonides/Lowell Catholic in the North semifinals. From there, a trip to the state final could be on the line with the likes of Matignon, Pope John and St. Mary’s representing the favorites on the other side of the bracket.