Despite winning 22 games, Central Catholic’s 2011-12 season ended prematurely with a loss in the Division 1 North semifinals. With five major contributors returning, the Raiders begin the season as the favorites in Division 1.
“The guys know what to expect,’’ said coach Rick Nault, in his seventh season at the helm for Central. “They’ve been through a lot of the wars and the big games, and they understand the work they need to put in throughout the season.’’
The top-scoring team in the Merrimack Valley Conference at 68.4 points per game, Central returns three league all-stars. Seniors Doug Gemmell and Joel Berroa give the Raiders stability at forward while junior Tyler Nelson — who won an AAU title on the BABC squad with classmate Nick Cambio this summer — is a sharpshooter who can light up the scoreboard with his 3-point stroke.
Rounding out the starting five is senior point guard Lucas Hammel, who will be expected to build off a strong junior campaign.
“This year, [Hammel] has really stepped up his game and has come into the season a different player and ready to take on bigger things,’’ Nault said. “Our success will really depend on his play and leadership on the floor.’’
Though a state title is attainable, Nault has stressed to his players the importance of making improvements throughout the season to prepare for the postseason.
“They know they can’t just turn it on come state tournament time,’’ he said. “They’ve worked hard from Day 1 and they have some goals that they’ve set out for themselves. Experience speaks an awful lot, especially in those types of games at the end of the season.’’
Charlestown, the team that eliminated the Raiders in the tournament, lost all five starters off a squad that went 20-5. Junior Taris Wilson is the only returner with playoff experience, and he will lead a young roster that includes talented 6-foot-8-inch junior Allijah Robinson.
In Division 1 South, a spry Mansfield squad that finished 15-8 a season ago has a chance to make noise come March.
“We’re still relatively young, but we’re deep,’’ said ninth-year coach Michael Vaughan. “We have 10 guys that can play on any given night.’’ I
The Hornets will be led by senior cocaptain Greg Romanko, a 6-3 guard who shot 37-percent from beyond the arc last season. Junior Michael Hershman, a returning all-league player who averaged 11 points per game, and sophomore Brendan Hill, a 6-4 forward with BABC experience, take to the hardwood after leading Mansfield’s football team to a Super Bowl berth.
Other contenders in the South include BC High, which returns all-league players Charles Collins and Jameilen Jones, and Brockton, which lost in the Division 1 state championship game last March and must replace 6-7 All-Scholastic center Sayvonn Houston.
With size and experience, North Andover (20-2 last season) is the top contender in the division, but a daunting schedule awaits with a move from the Cape Ann League to the Merrimack Valley Large.
“That might be the toughest thing that we’ll have to do, knowing that every single night we’re going to be tested big time,’’ said coach Mike McVeigh, in his 31st season. “I’m not worried about my kids as much as the new kind of competition we’ll face every single night. We’ve moved into the fire this year.’’
The Scarlet Knights will lean on 6-6 senior Isaiah Nelsen, who committed to Saint Anselm in October. Returning from injury is senior guard Derek Collins, a starter as a sophomore who missed last season with an ailing back. An intriguing new addition is Chris Bardwell, a 6-5 center who played the last three years at Central Catholic.
Another threat is Brighton, which reached the state title game off a 21-5 record. The Bengals lost all-league standout Jerard Mayes to graduation, but All-Scholastic guard Malik James returns for his junior year after averaging 18.1 ppg.
“The key for us is mental toughness,’’ said Hugh Coleman, a Globe Coach of the Year last season. “Other people’s expectation is that we have what it takes to get back [to the state championship]. Mentally, we need the leadership of the veterans.’’
Brighton will battle with rival New Mission (14-5 last season) for city supremacy.
The best season in school history ended with a state title for Danvers (21-4) as the Falcons took down St. Joseph’s in the championship game. Coach John Walsh isn’t hiding the fact his team is being hunted.
“We just have to understand that we have a target on our backs,’’ said Walsh. “We’re not going to sneak up on anybody.’’
All-Scholastic center George Merry, who averaged 19.5 ppg in the tournament, has graduated, but the Falcons do have three returning league all-stars in seniors Eric Martin (point guard), Nick McKenna (shooting guard), and Nick Bates (forward).
Wareham (23-1) suffered its only loss to Danvers in the state semifinals, but returns perhaps the most exciting player in EMass in Darien Fernandez. The shifty point guard nearly averaged a triple-double last season (20.5 points, 9 rebounds, 8 assists) and will be expected to carry the Vikings as far as he can.
One year after losing the state championship, St. Mary’s returned to TD Garden last season and emerged with the hardware after downing Cathedral in the final.
The Spartans (20-6) will rely on returning all-stars Matt Manning (senior forward) and Randolph Thurman to lead the way for Coach of the Year Kevin Moran, who enters his ninth year in Lynn. Division 4 goes state-wide next season, which means the EMass Sectional champs will have to face the Central and Western winners for the state title in 2013-14.