John Habib's City Sports: Talent galore on winter teams
HIGH SCHOOL hockey coach-turned-analyst Phil Croasdale said he wouldn't be surprised if all three of the city's Division I teams reach the NHIAA's version of the Frozen Four this March.
"There's no clear-cut favorite this year in Division I, just a lot of parity," Croasdale said. "The three Manchester teams are all capable of reaching the final four, and right now I give Trinity a slight edge over Memorial and Central."
Croasdale, a former Manchester High West head coach, broadcast games from JFK Coliseum during the Bauer Christmas Hockey Classic with play-by-play announcer Jon-Erik O'Neil for the Manchester Public Television Service. Trinity beat Bedford, 5-4 in a shootout, for the championship last Sunday.
The Pioneers were led by sophomore Drew Merrick, who scored three goals and was named tourney MVP.
"Cam Brown and Mitch Myers really played well in the tournament," Croasdale said of two of Merrick's teammates. "Trinity has three good skating lines and four good defensemen who play strong in front of (freshman goalie Curtis) Wirbal. Taking nothing away from Merrick, my MVP vote would have gone to Wirbal. He really stood out, especially in the finals. He didn't play like a freshman."
Wirbal stopped two shots during the shootout to lead Trinity.
Last year Memorial and Central reached the state final, won by the Crusaders, 3-2 in overtime. This season, Croasdale doesn't think either team has the firepower to get that far.
"Memorial and Central have good hockey players, but they lack offense," he said.
Memorial lost nine players to graduation from its championship squad. Defenseman Bryan Syrene, now a member of the New Hampshire Junior Monarchs, and forward Brendan Sullivan, who transferred to Hebron Academy in Maine, both decided not to return for their senior season.
"That hurts Memorial, losing two quality players," said Croasdale. "It weakens their first and second lines, and it showed in the Christmas tournament. Same thing with Central. They don't have any standout players back, especially on offense, which means they can't afford to give up many goals."
Croasdale said if Division II Bedford were in Division I, he'd pick the Bulldogs to beat the bigger schools for the title.
"I don't understand why that program isn't in Division I," he said. "They have 15 seniors on the roster, including Chris Viola, who is the best all-around player in the state. I mean it. He's got size, skill and ice awareness — the total package. There's no question Bedford is the clear-cut favorite to win Division II this season. They were the most impressive and deepest team I saw in the tournament all week."
THERE'S NO shortage of talent in Manchester girls' basketball.
"Every team in the city has at least one very good player who impacts a game," said Manchester Central coach Mike Wenners.
In the Queen City holiday tournament hosted by the Little Green, Central's Natasha Velez — a 5-foot, 10-inch junior forward — proved to be a tough defender.
"She doesn't shy away from contact, not afraid to mix it up," said Wenners. "She's a relentless rebounder, and she's nice to have in the paint on both ends of the court."
Wenners also lauded Manchester West's Alex Ricard, a 6-foot junior center.
"A talented player who makes her presence felt inside," Wenners said. "She had 10 blocks in one of the tournament games. She can definitely play."
Two other city players to watch this season are sophomore guard Amanda Torres of Trinity and Makenah Grisson of Memorial.
"Amanda had a fantastic holiday tournament," said Wenners. "She's quick, not afraid to take the ball to the rim and plays great defense."
Grisson, a junior forward, has been described by some coaches as a miniature version of former Memorial standout Amra Elezovic, now a sophomore guard at Southern New Hampshire University.
"She's not as quick or tall as Amra, but she has the same qualities," Memorial boys' basketball coach Jack Quirk, who previously coached the Crusader girls, said of Grisson. "She had 20 points in a tournament game against Pinkerton as a freshman. She's very quick, and she's isn't afraid to take that last shot with the game on the line."
TWO take-aways from the Queen City Invitational Basketball Tournament:
1. Central junior guard Brett Hanson has emerged as an offensive weapon for head coach Doc Wheeler's squad. As evidenced by his career-high 38 points against a talented Trinity team in a 66-55 win, teams across the state are going to pay the price if they try to play man-to-man defense against him.
"We played man against him and just couldn't find a way to stop him that night," said Trinity coach Dave Keefe. "He's got a first quick step, a nice soft shot and has very good awareness. The kid played outstanding, and we have to find a way to contain him the next time we play them."
2. Trinity junior forward Wenyen Gabriel is still not 100 percent coming off a broken ankle.
"From the basketball shape level he needs to be in, he's still two weeks away," said Keefe. "Now for any high school player coming off the type of injury he had, it's quite normal to favor it. When he jumps and comes down, we can still see he puts 70 percent of his weight on his good ankle and 30 percent on the other. The doctors, trainers and my coaches have all told him his ankle has fully healed, but he's still battling it psychologically. He's not fully trusting it yet. Once he gets there, and he will at some point this season, he'll definitely return as a stronger and better player."
"City Sports" is published Saturdays in the New Hampshire Union Leader. Email staff reporter John Habib at email@example.com.