Like most siblings, Vinny Clifford looked up to his older brother. Then again, Mike — now a 6-foot-7, 230-pound senior forward at Merrimack College — always towered over his younger brother.
Vinny’s aspirations scratched deeper, as he yearned to emulate his brother’s performance on the basketball court. Mike cracked the varsity at Danvers High as a freshman, and then played three years at Bishop Fenwick.
“Watching him helped me evolve my game,” said Vinny. “Just seeing how good he did made me want to live up to what he did.”
On Tuesday, in a 65-42 win against Swampscott, Clifford scored 10 points and pulled in 6 rebounds.
Last Friday, the 6-foot-3 sophomore guard made his debut for the Falcons, rounding out a lineup that consists of four senior captains eager to defend their Division 3 state championship.
“The improvements he’s made have been ridiculous,” senior captain Nick McKenna said. “In the fall, he was shooting all day and his confidence is growing, and the sky is the limit for him. He’s going to be big for us, and there are big things ahead for him. He’s a talented player.”
McKenna was in late-season form, scoring a game-high 20 points to lead the Falcons to a 57-31 win against Marblehead in that Friday season opener.
But what impressed coach John Walsh was Clifford’s 12-point performance (all 3-pointers). When the Falcons offense ran dry in the third quarter, it was Clifford who knocked down a pair of jumpers from beyond the arc.
Throughout the night, Clifford methodically shattered the Magicians’ zone with his baseline jumper.
“I loved it,” Walsh said of Clifford’s performance. “He makes it so you can’t go triangle-and-two [zone] because he’s just going to knock down shots.”
After last season’s championship run, the Falcons graduated 6-foot-7 All-Scholastic forward George Merry and guard Jon Amico . But a strong core of seniors returned in McKenna, three-year starter and point guard Eric Martin , and forwards Nick Bates and Dan Connors .
Clifford rounds out the starting lineup and splits time with junior forward Kieran Beck . Together, the two form a dynamic one-two punch that pairs nicely with the veteran core.
“Vinny hit some big shots, and Kieran plays hard defense, gets offensive boards, and puts them back in there,” Martin said. “We need Kieran to do things like that for us.”
Last season the Falcons offense revolved around Merry’s post game. But now Danvers is equipped with shooters who can spread the floor and dizzy opposing defenses.
Against Marblehead, Bates got off to a slow start with 2 points, but scored 10 in the fourth quarter, including a pair of 3-pointers.
“I wasn’t on my game in the first two quarters,” Bates said. “But with other kids like Vinny and Nick, if they’re on it makes it easier for myself and doesn’t put much pressure on me.”
Walsh was satisfied with his team’s 26-point victory against Marblehead, but said the offense still needs to improve and be ready to adapt when it’s challenged by a defensive stand.
Martin echoed his coach’s sentiment.
“If I drive, I’d rather have the more skilled people on offense shooting the ball,” Martin said. “But there’s definitely going to be games when they take away our players, and I have to go to the hoop more.”
The Falcons have options and plenty of offensive weapons to spark another title run. But if those options ever fizzle out, there’s always a mainstay in Danvers’ lock-down defense.
Against Marblehead, the Falcons used an aggressive man-defense to hold the Magicians to just two points in the second quarter.
“Last year, we let up 44 points per game and we want to stick to that,” Walsh said. “I was very happy with the ball pressure [in the season opener]. What people don’t realize is what Nick Bates does defensively is incredible — he really locks on people.”
For Bates and the Falcons, the sights are locked on another Division 3 title.
“We’ve all played with each other for quite some time,” Bates said. “We’re all confident. We’ve been to the TD Garden and the DCU Center. We’re confident we can win everywhere we go.”
All starters back, Billerica aims high
The Billerica High girls enjoyed the spoils of a 17-3 record last season, but it came to an sudden end when the Indians, the No. 5 seed, lost to No. 12 Central Catholic 63-57 in the first round of the Division 1 North state tournament.
Coach Chris Doneski took solace in the fact that all five starters were returning this season.
Behind seniors Brittany Lomanno , Kayla Leverone , Danielle Nickerson, and Joslyn King, and junior Shannon Hayes , the Indians are off to a 4-0 start.
“The girls worked really hard this summer and were motivated by the loss,” Doneski said. “We had a good year and it ended abruptly. My mindset is for the team to be better at the end of the year than we were last year. We want to get back to the point where we were last year, and we’re a little more experienced in those situations.”
For the last three years, Andover has ruled the Merrimack Valley Conference and the Division 1 scene, rounding up three straight state championships behind the state’s two-time player of the year, Nicole Boudreau .
Billerica nearly knocked Andover off its undefeated season, but the Golden Warriors hung on for a 53-52 victory last year.
This season, Billerica is poised for a run at the conference title, but Doneski said he still understands how difficult that task will be.
“I think Central Catholic is probably one of the best teams in the state, and Andover is still going to be tough,” Doneski said. “I know they lost an all-world player, but the talent and winning mentality makes them good. They’re not going to be a pushover by any stretch.”
Here and there
The Middlesex League athletic directors have announced there will no longer be varsity girls’ and boys’ doubleheaders on Tuesday and Friday nights. Instead, the varsity games will play at opposite sites. The change comes in an effort to comply with a gender equity complaint that was filed with the league. . . On Friday, the Central Catholic boys’ varsity will face New Jersey powerhouse St. Anthony’s Prep at Emmanuel College at 8 p.m. St. Anthony’s Prep, which won the New Jersey state championship the last two seasons, has captured 26 New Jersey state titles.