PELHAM — They may have lost size and key players James Roman, Frank Hojlo and Jeff Maguire, but this season’s Pelham High boys basketball team has speed and a superb transition game to make up for it.
Last season Pelham went 24-1 on the way to the Class I state championship, after being denied in the title game the previous two years.
After losing all five of their starters last spring, this year’s team is comprised of four seniors, six juniors and two sophomores — most of whom saw little or no varisty playing time last season.
With the exception of 6-foot-4 senior center Kris Fournier, no one on the starting five stands taller than 5-11.
Reserves Evan Cove, a junior, and sophomore Grant Herbert stand 6-0 and 6-3 respectively. The rest of the team ranges from 5-7 to 5-9.
“We’re a different team now,” said Kyle Roman, a 5-11 senior and James Roman’s younger brother. “We don’t have James; we don’t have Aaron (Lastoff). We don’t have kids to dominate the game, but we’re good in different ways. We’re faster, I believe,” said Roman.
“What I think other teams need to realize is that we are an up-and-down team. We run the floor really fast. I think we’ll tire the teams we play and we’ll keep going because we’re a fit team,” Kyle concluded.
The Pythons got their season off to a good start with an opening-night 77-73 victory over perennial Class I power Hollis-Brookline.
“As far as I’m concerned that is the best team in Class I and that’s still the best team in Class I,” head coach Todd Kress said of Hollis-Brookline.
“I think what this will do is send a message to other teams that you know what, we’re not dead down here yet,” said Kress, “We’re not as good as we were last year, but we also won games by 21 points on average. We don’t have to do that this year.”
Kress said playing at home always gives the team a boost.
“That’s 27 in a row,” Kress said of the home victory. “The last time we lost in here was Jan. 20 of ’04. That’s almost three calendar years. This is a tough place to come in and play.”
Kress’ team proved that in its second game by defeating Laconia 72-56, on Dec. 15 to extend their home winning streak to 28.
Kress said the team has the same mindset they’ve always had.
“We want to win games, bottom line,” Kress said. “We don’t accept losing, but we know we’re going to lose some this year. We’re not as talented; we understand that.”
Kress understands his team is very young, but said his young squad does have an advantage.
“What these kids have been able to do over the last couple of years is they have been able to watch,” Kress explained. “They’ve been able to see a very successful team execute in close games when it counted. Even though they are young, they are a little bit experienced because they’ve seen it. They sat (in the bleachers) on the JV team and they’ve watched kids perform and they’ve watched kids win. When you have that, it still makes me very confident as a coach that we’ll still win close games.”
Leading the Pythons on the court this year is senior point guard Mark Catalano. He knows the team lost key players, but expects to succeed.
“We’re looking for a lot of the younger guys to step up and fill those roles,” Catalano said. “We’re not as talented as we were last year, but what we have this year is a lot of scrappy, hungry players.”
Joining Catalano in the backcourt is sophomore Justin Hojlo, who saw a lot of minutes on last year’s championship team as a freshman.
“He learned how to look hard, he learned how to play hard because of his brother, Frank,” Kress said. “Justin, as far as I’m concerned, is one of the five best players in Class I basketball because he makes teams adjust to him and the biggest thing about Justin is he makes kids around him better. In other words, guys feed off of Justin.
“One thing about Justin — and he knows this — is the other team is going to be focusing on him for most of the game. The best thing about Justin is how unselfish he is. He understands that if he penetrates down low and he draws two (defenders), he can kick it out to an open teammate. He’s wiser than his years. He understands how to win close games.”
Kress said that a backcourt of Catalano and Hojlo — combined with the talents of junior Ricky Costa — gives his young team a chance to win every game.
“I feel very confident with Justin and Mark and Ricky,” Kress said. “The three of them together, as long as we watch our turnovers and don’t go crazy throwing (the ball) all over the place, we’re going to be a very good team. I feel pretty good night in and night out that we’re going to be in games.”
Kress knows the areas of improvement his young squad needs to make — rebounding and defending underneath the basket. He also knows a strength is forcing turnovers.
“Well, we have to do that (cause turnovers) because we’re not going to rebound,” Kress said. “We’re going to have trouble rebounding all year; we know that. That will get out very fast that we’re not good down there and that’s going to be a problem. We’re just going to try and hold our own down there, so we have to try and create a lot of turnovers.”
Kress said his team’s theme this year is “never stop.”
“We’re brothers this year, banding together as brothers,” Kress said. “Their gaining their own identity. It will be nice for them to get off to a good start. We’re a work in progress, but I like what I see.”