By Conor Walsh
---- — MANCHESTER -- Coming off a 1-19 campaign last season, the Rockport boys basketball team was looking for something to emulate as it entered this season.
The Vikings found that example in the 2009-10 squad, a 13-5 team that reached the state tournament during the current senior class’s freshman season.
That team rode an up-tempo, team-first style to its impressive record, and entering this season, coach Tim St. Laurent saw a lot of similarities between this year’s squad and the one from three seasons ago.
Through three games, St. Laurent’s not the only one seeing the similarities. The Vikings improved to 3-0 on the young season last night with a 78-69 win at Manchester Essex, riding Shaun Aspesi’s 25 points and holding off a late Hornets push to gain their second win in as many nights.
“When these seniors were freshmen, they were there when we went 13-5,” St. Laurent said. “So they know what it takes, and with assistant coach Tommy Burnham (who started for the ‘09 team) on the bench, we make a lot of references to that team. They knew how to win, and we’re starting to see the same thing.”
Of the Vikings’ three wins on the season, none have come easy. They faced a halftime deficit against Georgetown and North Shore Tech, and through the first quarter of last night’s game, it again seemed that the game might be slipping away from Rockport.
The Vikings were jittery, and Manchester Essex took advantage. Guard Liam Aldrich, who led the team with 17 points, and center Sean Gutierrez each notched seven first-quarter points as the Hornets built an early 18-12 lead.
The second quarter, however, was an entirely different story. As the Vikings’ full-court trap started working and their shots started falling, the Hornets’ game fell apart.
Rockport converted a slew of second quarter Manchester Essex turnovers into points, and behind Aspesi’s first-half barrage from the floor, the Vikings outscored their hosts by 14 points in the second quarter to build a 38-28 halftime lead.
They kept it rolling into the third quarter, as the Hornets’ defensive struggles continued to yield countless open looks for the Vikings. And, more often than not, they knocked them down. Aspesi dropped three 3-pointers and posted nine rebounds, and with forwards Tucker Meredith (21 points, nine rebounds) and Adam Balzarini (16 points) chipping in, the Vikings were able to extend the lead to 20 points by the end of the third quarter.
“The first quarter, I thought, was all nerves,” St. Laurent said. “Second quarter, we just stuck to our plan and the boys executed it perfectly, and the third quarter we just picked up where we left off.”
At the end of the third, though, St. Laurent faced a dilemma. With a solid lead and many of the Hornets’ top players in foul trouble, St. Laurent had to choose between maintaining his team’s up-tempo style or opting for a more conservative approach to protect the lead and eat away at the clock.
The result was a relatively unsuccessful hybrid of the two, and with the Hornets (0-3) finally waking up on the defensive end, the game’s momentum quickly shifted back to the home team.
Manchester Essex slowly chipped away at the Vikings’ lead through the fourth quarter, and an Aldrich free throw with 1:21 left to play cut the lead to 10.
Nineteen seconds later, it was a seven-point game after a Rockport turnover and a 3-pointer from Max Nesbit (12 points).
Twenty seconds later, a pair of free throws from Taylor Ketchum cut the lead to five, and with 23 ticks left on the clock, the Vikings were clearly starting to sweat.
But they managed to break the Hornets’ trap down the stretch, and clutch free-throw shooting from Meredith and Aspesi sealed the win for Rockport, tripling their win total from last season.
And for the Hornets, it was an extension of what has been a frustrating start to the season. They lost a barnburner in their season-opener to Lynnfield and were beaten by a buzzer-beater in Amesbury early this week.
With last night’s loss, they’ve now fallen to a surprising 0-3 under first-year coach Bryan Shields.
“I mean, it was all about defense and we didn’t play any defense until the third quarter,” Shields said. “It took us three quarters to get going. We know the pieces that we need, and we’ve got some great pieces, but guys just haven’t been stepping up to the plate and filling roles.
“Any game, a win or especially a loss, you learn from it. We know the direction we’ve got to go.”