SOUTHBOROUGH — By the way Aaron Falzon and Aaron McLean interact, it would be impossible to tell that the hopes of one of the most successful preparatory school basketball programs in New England has been heaped on the shoulders of the sophomore forwards.
After the tandem led the Lions to a 62-45 season-opening win against Buckingham Browne & Nichols on Wednesday, they joked and hassled one another, as 16-year-olds do, appearing to be concerned with little more than who was going to win the next time they faced off in a video game back at their shared dorm room.
On the court, though, they’ve had to grow up quickly.
Falzon, a 6-foot-8 forward from Newton, and McLean, a 6-foot-6 forward from Watertown, are the only two St. Mark’s players returning this season who saw significant time on the court during the team’s run last year to the New England Prep Class AA championship.
Along with head coach Greg Snyder, in his first year at the helm after serving as an assistant to predecessor Dave Lubick last season, they make up the foundation of a new-look program that hopes to be back among New England’s elite very soon.
“I look at it as a challenge,” said Snyder, who lives in Milford. “I look at it as a fun experience to grow with a group of young guys and get better over the next three years. When I first got the job, me and Falzon and McLean sat down to talk about it and I said, ‘Listen, us core three guys are gonna build us back to where we just left off.’
“Are we gonna have some bumps? Yeah. Are we gonna have some games where maybe an older team hands it to us? Yeah. But what’s important is how we respond, and that we make sure we grow from those experiences,” Snyder said.
Falzon’s size, and his ability to shoot from the outside combine to make him one of the most promising players in the class of 2015. Last month, he received his first Division 1 college scholarship offer, from Loyola University Maryland. He’s also received interest from Providence College, Boston College, and Ohio State.
McLean is a versatile player for his size who continues to hone his skills. Quick enough to guard players on the perimeter and big enough to rebound with taller forwards, he has been looked at by a number of colleges, such as Davidson, Vermont, Siena, and Bucknell.
Both were role players off the bench for St. Mark’s last season, when they backed up one of the most talent-laden senior classes in the country on a 27-2 squad.
Seven-footer Kaleb Tarczweski is now a starter at the University of Arizona. Nik Stauskas has already been named Big 10 Freshman of the Week twice while playing for the University of Michigan. Forward Eric Green went to Holy Cross, and guard Eli Lubick is playing for Hobart College. Jaymie Spears just finished his freshman football season at Amherst College.
For Falzon, who emerged two years ago as a talented freshman at Newton North High, and McLean, who dominated for Hudson High’s freshman team as an eighth-grader, sitting on the bench was a humbling experience.
“It was a new role because I was always used to having the ball in my hand and being able to shoot most of the time,” Falzon said. “Even last year, I’d come in the game and I’d shoot the first two times I caught the ball — and then I’d come right out.”
Falzon eventually earned minutes by the end of last season for his abilities beyond the arc, while McLean was more of a defensive stopper.
They’ll both be expected to play nearly every minute of every game this season, and the team’s high-low offensive sets will revolve around them and sophomore point guard Marcos Echevarria , who transferred from St. John’s Prep.
“You can’t replace those guys we had last year,” McLean said. “There’s a lot of pressure, but at the same time, we have nothing to lose. Not a lot of people are expecting us to do much this year. Our job is to go out and prove them wrong each game. We can’t replace guys like Kaleb and Nik, but we can do our part for this program.”
Falzon and McLean have also added “captain” to their list of new roles this season. Neither has ever captained a basketball team before, but they’re learning together, and following the lead of fellow captain Zach Twitchell , a senior guard from Shrewsbury.
“Knowing that they were going to be the cornerstones of this program for the next three years, I wanted to get them young and teach them how to be leaders,” Snyder said.
“By the time they’re juniors and seniors, I won’t have to teach them how to lead anymore. It’s already ingrained in them as far as what I want, what I expect and then we can just go out and execute.
“You don’t make sophomores captains very often,” he added, “but that speaks to the character of the kids.”
Snyder takes the reins of a program that was built into a powerhouse by Lubick. The Lions won five New England championships during his tenure, and haven’t had a losing season since his first year, 1996.
With Falzon and McLean leading the way on the floor, and with a focus on improving, not necessarily winning, Snyder said, he believes St. Mark’s will maintain its standing as one of the region’s most respected programs.
“You wanna keep the name where it’s at, and I think the way you keep the name where it’s at is you play the right way,” Snyder said. “You play hard. Anybody who knows anything about basketball can look at our roster and realize we’re extremely young and it’s a rebuilding process where we graduated five seniors . . . There’s gonna be some ups and downs this year. The main thing is we need to stay together, stay focused and continue to get better. Our goal this year is to get better every single day, whether that be in a practice or a game, so at the end of the year, we’re the best team we can possibly be.”