Earlier this week, Manchester Essex sophomore Joe Mussachia received one of the best compliments that a basketball player can get.
In a game against Cape Ann League (CAL) rival Rockport on Monday, Vikings head coach Tim St. Laurent elected to try to take Mussachia completely out of the game, the ultimate sign of respect for an individual. St. Laurent put a box-and-one defense on Mussachia and ran several swarming double and triple teams on the Hornets' swingman.
In one regard, the strategy worked, as Mussachia was held to just 12 points. But more importantly, Manchester Essex still won the game easily, 71-39, with Mussachia also tallying 14 rebounds and freeing up his teammates for open looks.
It was a perfect example of how much the 6-foot-4, 170-pound lefty has meant to the terrific 5-4 start for Manchester Essex in the tough CAL. Last year, the Hornets finished just 7-13.
The Rockport game aside, Mussachia has been a scoring machine this season, averaging 24 points per game to go along with 12.6 rebounds and two blocks. Now that opponents have taken notice of those gaudy numbers and made Mussachia the focal point, the Hornets have become a very tough squad. It's pick your poison: Mussachia or everyone else.
"Teams are really starting to try to take him out of the game," said first-year Manchester Essex head coach Duane Sigsbury. "Last year he was more of a role player and now he is the focal point. He has a high basketball IQ and he really understands the game, so he knows he has to call for the ball and make plays down the stretch. He has really embraced the role.
"To me as a coach, I love having teams trying to stop him. We have other guys that can hurt you if you don't pay attention to them."
After averaging 12.4 points per game as a freshman last year, Mussachia knows that doubling your scoring average is a tough accomplishment to hide. Thus, he is fully-aware that defensive pressure on him is going to continually increase.
"The Rockport game was the first time that a team played that aggressive on me," said Mussachia. "It was a little frustrating at first, but I just tried to let the game come to me. I can still rebound and focus on shutting down my player on the other end."
Mussachia's accomplishments on the court this winter only begin to scratch the surface of what makes this year so impressive.
A strange summer
Mussachia committed himself to improving his game last summer.
He attended camps such as the Scott Hazelton Camp at Greater Lawrence Tech, alongside some of the best players in Eastern Mass.. He also spent long hours at the Manchester Athletic Club, honing his skills.
"Joe is a gym rat," said Sigsbury. "I basically have to kick him out of the gym at the end of practice each day."
However, there was also a setback.
Mussachia was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes last summer, a common disease amongst children and young adults in which the body does not produce insulin, which is needed to convert sugar and other foods into energy for the body.
"It was the craziest thing," said Mussachia. "I was showing some of the symptoms and my pediatrician thought I might have diabetes. So I went to the hospital and stayed for three days.
"It was overwhelming at first and my first thought was that I wasn't going to be able to play basketball. But then I realized that you can still live a normal life."
Mussachia wears an insulin pump, which is what many professional athletes with diabetes use. He has adjusted fine to using the pump and prefers it over a shot of insulin.
Everything is clicking
Mussachia focused primarily on ball-handling and his shooting touch in the offseason. Both improvements have been clearly noticeable, as he has been able to penetrate into the lane with great regularity and is shooting a solid 78 percent at the free-throw line.
But this season's success goes beyond that.
"I was just so motivated to get better and I didn't want to have another losing season," said Mussachia. "It's crazy though. Last year I thought we had a really talented team, but this year we are playing so well together as a team.
"I think it's definitely our defense that's been the biggest thing."
Mussachia credits Sigsbury with strongly stressing defensive principles and getting the players to buy into it.
"All the credit goes to coach," said Mussachia. "We haven't had a winning record in a while and he found a way to really motivate us."
Sigsbury will tell you that it helps to have a player like Mussachia.
"It's a luxury having Joe," Sigsbury said. "He can drive to the basket and shoot, and he can play inside or outside. If he keeps working like he does, he has potential to go a long way."
Full-court Press is a weekly boys basketball column that appears every Friday during the winter season. Contact Matt Langone at email@example.com.