By Conor Walsh
---- — A year ago, the disparity in Cape Ann boys basketball was obvious.
On one end of the spectrum, there was Manchester Essex, a local power whose 19-3 record was hardly surprising.
On the other side, there were Gloucester and Rockport. The Fishermen and Vikings went 1-19 and 1-17, respectively, in a forgettable campaign for each program.
As the three local teams set off on a new campaign this week, though, Gloucester and Rockport are intent on closing that gap.
Both squads will return a wealth of experience, as Rockport has its entire roster from a year ago back and many of the Fishermen’s key players -- including leading scorer senior Jason Vizena -- will return.
And while the experience each roster will carry with it isn’t the kind that coaches hope for, there’s something to be said for the impact the bitter taste of a forgettable season can have.
“I’m very happy so far,” Gloucester coach Bill Cahill said. “It was a rough year for us last year, but we’ve got a lot of guys back and we got some experience.”
As they did last season, the Fishermen will lean on their two-year captain in Vizena. Last season, though, Cahill said Vizena had to “do it all” for his squad.
This season, that looks like it’ll be different. Vizena will be back at his natural spot as a shooting guard, as talented sophomore Jeff Oliveria will take over point guard duties.
With depth across the board provided by the likes of Conor Adkins, Austin Davis, Andrew Muniz and Drew Shairs and top-to-bottom speed, Cahill’s hoping to surprise opponents with an in-your-face, up-tempo style when they open their season against Saugus on Thursday (7:00).
“I’ve got enough guys that I can go with a 10-deep rotation,” Cahill said. “Since I can go 10-deep, we can press and we can run. We’re young, so we’re going to have some growing pains, but with Jason leading the way, I think we’ll surprise some people.”
Vikings coach Tim St. Laurent finds himself in a situation similar to Cahill’s.
He’s bringing back leading scorers Tucker Meredith and Shaun Aspesi. Senior captains Nick Scatterday (point guard), Caleb Tanson (forward) and Meredith (forward) bring plenty of experience to the table.
And with his entire roster, St. Laurent will get another crack at stringing together some wins with the same nine players he trotted out last season.
To do that, the Vikings won’t be turning to star power. They’ll be turning to depth.
“We have nine really athletic kids that can get up and down the floor, and everyone knows their role,” St. Laurent said. “It’s going to be a different style than people are used to. There’s no true star. Whatever five guys are on the floor, they’re all equal and they play that way.”
Understandably, last season’s struggles didn’t sit well with St. Laurent.
So this year, his team’s going to be prepared. The Vikings had their fifth scrimmage of the preseason yesterday afternoon against Greater Lawrence, having already squared off with Winchester, Bishop Fenwick, Mystic Valley and Arlington Catholic.
And while the Vikings are far from a finished product at this point, those scrimmages have yielded exactly what St. Laurent wanted: progress.
“From Winchester to (Sunday), the kids continue to grow and get better,” St. Laurent said. “Every scrimmage they’ve gotten better on both ends of the floor.”
The Fishermen and Vikings may have made strides in this offseason. However, don’t sleep on Manchester Essex.
Graduation may have hit the Hornets hard, who lost their top-three scorers from last season’s squad, and will have a first-year coach in Bryan Shields to adjust to.
There’s still going to be plenty of talent and experience on the floor for the Hornets this season, though. With forwards Max Nesbit and Taylor Ketchum returning, joined by guards Liam Aldrich and Petey Morton, the Hornets appear to have more than enough to remain competitive in the Cape Ann League.
Shields could not be reached for comment as his team prepares for Friday’s season (and home) opener against Lynnfield.