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Div. II may be most interesting boys' hoop league

February 3, 2012

Shea coach Matt Pita

Division II might be the most interesting basketball league in the state. Too bad the Interscholastic League picked this year to drop division tournaments in favor of one open tourney to culminate the hoops season.
Take a look at Division II right now. Rogers High of Newport and West Warwick lead the way with identical 11-1 records. Rogers walloped the Wizards 64-41 on Wednesday night. The Vikings’ only loss this season came at the hands of a Shea High squad that is 9-3 and just added a 6-foot-6 center to its lineup.
North Providence leads the Central Division with a 10-2 record, one game ahead of Shea. The Cougars love to run and gun. They beat Shea 92-76 last month. Rogers and West Warwick are the only two teams to beat North Providence this season.
Let’s see. Rogers, West Warwick and North Providence would be seeded 1-2-3 right now if the division tournaments still existed. Two 9-3 teams – Shea and Westerly – would rank 4-5. Barrington, which is 8-4 and owns a win over Shea, would be the sixth seed.
Tolman High, 5-7 thus far, might be flying under the radar as the league season heads into its final month. The Tigers have as much talent as anyone. They just need to focus on one thing – basketball – for six weeks and see where it takes them.
Tolman has a 6-foot-6 center, Jon Percy, who can block shots. It has a guard named Juan Velez who can fill the basket from outside as well as any shooter in the state. Beyond that, the Tigers boast an eight-man rotation of athletic players who can play great defense and run the floor.

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Shea coach Matt Pita, in his second year on the job, has a simple goal for his team.
“We just want to play smart basketball,” the coach said. “We’ve already qualified for the playoffs. Our job is to keep winning games and see where we are a month from now. We are playing smart basketball. Having a point guard like Jordy (Brito) makes my job a lot easier. We’re going to go as far as Jordy can take us. He’s a confident player, a shooter who is playing point guard for us. Jordy has been around the program for four years and he has become a real leader.”
The Raiders welcomed 6-foot-6 center Michael Neal into their playing rotation two weeks ago. Neal has become an effective contributor, scoring 15 points in Tuesday night’s romp over Cumberland.
“He’s getting better every game,” Pita said. “Michael joined a real good group of players. We have such a strong core group here. Mike just has to find out what his role is with the team.”
Shea’s “core” group features Brito and fellow guard Eli Itkin, who plays more like a swing man, taking the ball inside or pulling up beyond the foul line for jump shots. Forward Kenric Carter might be the most explosive scorer on the team and benefits the most from Brito’s ability to find the open man.
Shea also gets strong contributions from Malcolm Rosa, Christian Malave, Nathan Lopes, Chris Mainville and – lately – from Neal.
Pita enjoys the challenge of molding a team each winter, watching his players develop into a cohesive unit as they experience success.
“Coaching is fun,” he said. “I see coaching as an extension of the classroom. Basketball is just another outlet for these kids to enjoy their high school experience.”
Shea returns to action tonight when it hosts winless Scituate (0-12).
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Tolman High welcomes Juan Velez and Seny Samb back from one-game suspensions tonight when the Tigers host Cumberland in another “must-win” situation. Tolman needs to win three of its last six games to make the playoffs. Game time tonight is 8 p.m. as the Tolman girls are hosting Burrillville in a 5 p.m. opener.
Velez is among the leading scorers in the state (20.8 ppg) but the Tigers pulled together and beat Central Falls on Tuesday night without the gifted junior guard and Samb, a defensive specialist.
Using just five players during a satisfying 65-53 victory over C.F., the Tigers kept their postseason hopes alive. Had they lost to the Warriors, Tolman’s chances to make the playoffs would have dropped into the long-shot category.
The Tigers got 20 points from Percy, who normally takes a back seat on offense, and 20 more from co-captain Mamour Samb, who matched Velez’s nightly output. Justin Zetina (14 points), point guard Napoleon Johnson and Brandon Gagne, also a co-captain, rounded out the “Iron Five” that saved the season.
If the Tigers can sustain the “all-for-one” team concept they used against Central Falls, Kayata’s squad can create some major headaches for the top contenders during the final month of the regular season and perhaps even into the playoffs. The Tigers play defense and they can run the floor. They own a top scorer in Velez and a long-armed center (Percy) who can take away layups from opposing teams.
Playing with quiet determination, Tolman may have hit upon a winning formula the other night. Only time will tell.
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When the open tournament begins on Feb. 24, Shea High could win a game or two before making an exit. Division II’s Tiverton made a big impact in last year’s initial open tourney, losing to St. Raphael Academy in the title game.
Since there is not a dominant Division I team again this winter, it’s possible a Division II team could repeat Tiverton’s success from last year. However, we won’t get the chance to see who would have won the Division II championship.
Maybe we need a shorter regular season and two tournaments, one for division champs and the other an open affair. Here’s my suggestion: Cut the regular season to 14 league games and get the best of both worlds.
The Interscholastic League might make more money that way, too. Everybody wins, especially the student-athletes.

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