By BOB YORK –
Conrad Pitcher has always tried to ramp up the competition for his Deerfield Academy boys basketball team a bit by annually sprinkling a few of New England’s heavy hitters throughout his team’s schedule. They always hit back, Pitcher is well aware of that fact, but the Big Green mentor may be figuring it’s time to start picking on a few more teams its own size.
Following a winter’s worth of duking it out with some of the area’s big boys, the Big Green owned an overall record of 7-14. The loss column included run-ins with Northfield Mount Hermon School (64-40), the fifth seed of the AAA bracket, Cushing Academy (78-50), the winner of this winter’s Class AA Tournament, as well as Kimball Union Academy (78-57), the team Cushing defeated in the finals.
When squaring off against the hierarchy of its fellow A Class members, however, the Big Green went 2-3 against teams that earned a tournament berth. And among its victims was none other than Exeter. The Big Red, which won the Class A title, succumbed to Deerfield during the regular season, 45-41. Deerfield also split a pair of outings with sixth seed Andover, winning 55-47, and losing 49-42, while top-seeded Choate and third-ranked Hotchkiss bested the Big Green by respective scores of 50-30 and 73-51.
Despite its 7-14 overall showing, Deerfield finished 6-8 against its Class A peers, and, in Pitcher’s opinion, if his Big Green had gone 7-7–just one more win–he’s quite confident his charges would have earned a spot in the Class A Tournament.
“They’re called ‘Up-Games,’” explained Pitcher, “and they’re called that because you move up a bracket or so to play them. It’s great competition and I feel as though having these kind of teams on your schedule can only make you better.”
And the way the Deerfield skipper sees it, his team came very close to having the best of both worlds: The “Up-Games, plus a tournament berth. The deal breaker was a 53-50 overtime loss to Taft. “If we could have held on to win that game, which came late in the season, I think we would have been in, ” said Pitcher, who also pointed out an early-season, 67-62, setback to Loomis that didn’t help matters either.
Pitcher featured a three-guard offense this season, as Jesse Browne (14) led the Big Green in scoring from his slot in the backcourt by averaging 12.6 points per game and earned a spot on the Class A All-Star team for his efforts, along with Luka Petkovic (14). Petkovic proved to be Deerfield’s main man from behind the three-point line and was a close second in the scoring department, averaging 12.1 points a game. Matt Ching (14), who was named the team’s Most Valuable Player, was the third member of the backcourt, chipped in nine points a game.
Patrick Ononibaku (14), a three-sport captain–in basketball, football and track–”at 6-3 is simply a beast in the middle,” pointed out Pitcher of his center, who averaged six points, was the team’s leading rebounder with nine a game and three blocked shots per game. “Patrick’s made a substantial contribution to this program over the past four years and it’s hard to imaging what we would have done without him.”
Henry Baldwin (14), the Big Green’s tallest player at 6-4 and the other member of Deerfield’s front court, “was our best defender and we always put him up against the opponent’s top scorer,” according to Pitcher. Offensively, he averaged six points and managed to haul in about six rebounds a game.
Pitcher had plenty of depth this season, and Billy O’Neil (14) was right at the top of the list. It’s one of those feel-good stories as, according to the Deerfield coach, O’Neill “moved up from the JV team two years ago and by the end of this past season, he was our first guard to come off the bench.”
Elsewhere along the bench, Jan Menifee (16), a 6-5 center who was named the team’s Most Improved Player, ate up a good amount of time under the boards. Jack Damon (15) and Zack Twitchell (14) also saw time in the frontcourt, while Cole Swartz (14) took to the backcourt when needed.