Boys’ Basketball: Pembroke off to 8-1 start after taking down previously unbeaten Souhegan

Boys’ Basketball: Pembroke off to 8-1 start after taking down previously unbeaten Souhegan

Updated: 11 days, 1 hour, 14 minutes, 13 seconds ago

Jacob Boisvert calls out a play during a Pembroke practice in December with Jacob Mather guarding him. GEOFF FORESTER

Merrimack Valley guard Buddy Eddy tries to shoot over Pembroke forward Shondell Hadley during the first half on Wednesday, December 14, 2022. GEOFF FORESTER

Joe Fitzgerald goes in for the steal on Merrimack Valley’s Brandon Dukette as he tries to grab a rebound in Pembroke’s mid-December game. GEOFF FORESTER

PEMBROKE – The Pembroke Academy boys’ basketball team entered the 2022-2023 season with high hopes. And even though they may not have played their best basketball until Saturday against Souhegan, the Spartans currently sit in three-way tie for first place in the Division II standings.

Not only has Pembroke seen success on the floor, the team continues to build that all-important chemistry off the court as well.

Here are three takeaways on the Spartans’ hot start:

Saturday’s victory over Souhegan proves Pembroke is among D-II’s best: Junior Joe Fitzgerald knew the Spartans’ matchup with the Sabers (7-1) presented a chance to make a statement, and he let coach Mike Donnell know it.

“Coach, we haven’t shown anybody anything yet,” he said in a text to Donnell on Friday. “I don’t think this is going to be an upset. If we play to our potential, we win this game.”

On Saturday, the Spartans (8-1) played to their potential and won, 63-50. Senior Josh Pilotte led the way with 20 points; senior Mike Strazzeri and Fitzgerald each had 19.

In addition, Donnell emphasized the excellence of seniors Shondell Hadley, Adam Heldman and Jacob Boisvert, who all played strong defense and found open shooters to knock down shots.

Heldman also drew three offensive fouls in the game.

“That’s just unbelievable sacrifice putting your body out there,” Donnell said.

Pembroke led 8-6 after the first quarter, took a two-point lead into halftime and entered the fourth in a tie game before outscoring the Sabers 23-10 in the final frame.

“They’re defending champions for a reason. They were undefeated for a reason,” Donnell said of Souhegan. “I told our boys our motto this afternoon before we played was for the Spartan to slay the Saber. They did that for four quarters.”

They’ve spread the wealth: Watch the Spartans play, and it’s unlikely you’ll notice the same player as the top performer every night.

Need a rebound? Hadley’s there. Need someone to run the offense? That’s Strazzeri’s strength. Need a stop on defense? Fitzgerald will take care of it.

Each game requires different guys to step up, and so far, that egalitarian style shines through for the Spartans.

“Usually in high school, you always have one star or maybe two,” Donnell said. “This team has no stars but a lot of guys who are really, really able to put it out there to be the hero for that game.”

In addition to the three aforementioned players, Pilotte’s recently experienced a surge rebounding, scoring and passing the basketball; sophomore Evan Berkeley continues developing into a solid player; Heldman and Boisvert add their own touch off the bench.

“I commented something to somebody the other day, I said, ‘I can’t believe they pay me to do this job this year,’” Donnell said. “It’s a pleasure to be out there with the boys every day, being in school with them every day, talking with them every night, sharing emails and texts. These guys are having fun, and they haven’t had that in a long time.”

The defense still needs some work, though Saturday’s performance showed big improvement: Pembroke’s defense surely doesn’t jump off the page as a clear issue; after all, the Spartans are still allowing just over 50 points per game this year and have a +112 point differential.

But Donnell sees two key areas for improvement: boxing out for rebounds and playing stronger help defense.

“We’re very, very happy with where we sit, but we are still very much a work in progress defensively,” he said. “We need to box out better, we need to play help defense better, and we’re getting there. Once we get to that point, we’re going to be a pretty darn good basketball team.”

Boxing out for boards prevents opponents from having extra offensive possessions; providing that weak side help makes it tougher for opponents to find open lanes to pass or drive to the basket.

On Saturday against Souhegan, the Spartans lasered in on playing strong defense and executed quite well, notably holding the Sabers’ Matt Canavan – who Donnell highlighted as one of the best players in the state – to just 12 points.

“Nothing successful in life goes without hard work and sacrifice,” Donnell said. “The boys busted their butts all week long. Everyone’s been telling them they’re not a defensive team. … The guys worked at it all week. We were never behind in this game. The defense was amazing.”