Conant boys’ basketball gets off to rousing start

Conant head coach Eric Saucier talks to his palyers during a second-half timeout.

Conant head coach Eric Saucier talks to his palyers during a second-half timeout. PHOTO BY BEN CONANT/BEN CONANT PHOTOGRAPHY

Conant senior Josh Dipasquale passes out of the corner as Lucas Belisle of Stevens defends.

Conant senior Josh Dipasquale passes out of the corner as Lucas Belisle of Stevens defends. PHOTO BY BEN CONANT/BEN CONANT PHOTOGRAPHY

Conant junior Dylan Adams fights for a loose ball with Matt Goss of Stevens.

Conant junior Dylan Adams fights for a loose ball with Matt Goss of Stevens. PHOTO BY BEN CONANT/BEN CONANT PHOTOGRAPHY

Conant senior Jordan Nagle gets a jumper up in a crowd of Stevens defenders. 

Conant senior Jordan Nagle gets a jumper up in a crowd of Stevens defenders.  PHOTO BY BEN CONANT/BEN CONANT PHOTOGRAPHY

Conant junior Ben Sawyer drives past Devante Thompson of Stevens.

Conant junior Ben Sawyer drives past Devante Thompson of Stevens. PHOTO BY BEN CONANT/BEN CONANT PHOTOGRAPHY

Conant senior Manny Hodgson goes up for two with a foul. 

Conant senior Manny Hodgson goes up for two with a foul.  PHOTO BY BEN CONANT/BEN CONANT PHOTOGRAPHY

Conant junior Jared Nagle drives past Pat Prive of Stevens. 

Conant junior Jared Nagle drives past Pat Prive of Stevens.  —PHOTO BY BEN CONANT/BEN CONANT PHOTOGRAPHY

By BEN CONANT

For the Ledger-Transcript

Published: 12-11-2023 12:38 PM

The Conant boys' basketball team showed why they're Division III's preseason favorites by dismantling Stevens for a season-opening 55-26 win in Jaffrey Friday night.

The Orioles set the tone early with a stifling full-court press that head coach Eric Saucier said is a new luxury for Conant thanks to their improved depth. Beginning in the COVID-restricted 2020-21 season and continuing through last year, the Orioles have only fielded nine varsity players per season; this year, they have 13, enough to press with intensity for an entire game. 

"It makes a big difference when you can get up on guys for 32 minutes," Saucier said. "It tires people out. Not many people play at that pace where they press 32 minutes - and we do that in practice. So I think it made a difference tonight. The first quarter was close and then they got tired and we kept coming, we kept coming, we kept coming, and that's what we want to do." 

Conant was one Jalen Reese last-second shot away from knocking off four-in-a-row champs Gilford in the quarterfinals last season. This year, the Orioles return their whole roster and then some. On Friday, the preseason No. 1 Orioles looked older, wiser and hungrier.

“We're thinking there's definitely a chance we can win it all the way this year, but we know you don't just walk in and win it,” said senior co-captain Jordan Nagle Friday after racking up a game-high 19 points. “We have to put in the hard work every day consistently. We can't just ease up on it. If we let off the gas, we're not going to get it, and we know that. So we're going into the gym every day with the mindset of we want to get better and we've got to work harder."

Aside from their game-changing press, which held Stevens to just two baskets in each of the first three quarters, the Orioles have a renewed dedication to offensive rebounding, something that four-time champ Gilford did very well over their run. Conant did plenty of work on the glass Friday night, where Nagle and junior forward Dylan Adams cleaned up.

"All of our bigs are working on getting into the house and getting all the offensive and defensive rebounds, because we got scored on a lot last year by people getting offensive rebounds because we refused to box out,” Nagle said. “So now we're really focusing on getting the boards, putting it back up and boxing people out so our guards can get boards, too."

The Orioles' roster is perfect for a five-out offense and a switchable defense with their high level of athleticism and interchangeability. Junior Ben Sawyer (11 points) showed off his hops with a first-quarter dunk. Junior Jared Nagle can be a lethal shooter and slasher. Senior Lane LeClair provides strength and a wing threat, and senior Marcus Somero adds some depth by returning after a year off. Senior Josh Dipasquale provides a feisty defensive spark off the bench, and steady senior co-captain Manny Hodgson - the fifth Hodgson boy to play for Saucier - runs the point with institutional knowledge and excellent decision-making.

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"That makes me feel old," Saucier said. "Manny wasn't even born yet when I was coaching [oldest brother] Ezra. So that tells you how long I've been here."

Saucier has been at Conant long enough to know that preseason rankings and anointed championships don't mean much when players hit the hardwood, and he's not putting much stock in the fact that his team is the DIII favorite.

"It doesn't mean anything," Saucier said. "You can mark it, you can put it in bold. It doesn't mean a thing, you know? We've still got a long way to go and as we've seen, Gilford was head and heels above everybody else last year and we lost to them at the buzzer with six guys. Anything can happen."

Basketball is life for Conant's 16-year-veteran head coach, and Saucier is happy to be back on the sidelines after an offseason health scare that could have cost him both. The Concord native received a surprise kidney cancer diagnosis this fall and was in surgery weeks later. Now, he's cancer-free and back doing what he loves.

"There was a time where I was nervous about [coaching], but after talking to my doctor, once they got all the cancer out, there was never a doubt that I was going to coach,” Saucier said. “If I was on one leg, I'd coach - that's what I love to do. It's my passion. I love these kids and it would take a lot to keep me off that sideline."

Conant (1-0) is at Monadnock (0-1) Tuesday.