Former Braintree High and Kimball Union star Nic Timberlake in action last year for Towson University. Timberlake is now a redshirt freshman for Towson this winter after last season’s injury-riddled campaign. (PHOTO COURTESY: Bob Whitney)
By Bob Whitney | @WhitneyBob
In case you haven’t noticed the 2019-20 college basketball season is off and running, highlighted by a nationally-televised doubleheader last evening featuring the top four teams in the men’s basketball preseason rankings: Michigan State, Kentucky, Duke, and Kansas.
For all of us veteran purists, it was hoop heaven, the talent was amazing but the quality of play was spotty at best given such a huge stage on opening night.
That aside, it is my pleasure to pen a weekly hoop column for the hard-working Matt Noonan and his many followers here at Noontime Sports.
I have covered one of the Power Five conferences – the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC), to be exact – for the last eight seasons, but this year I will focus on a little bit of everything but the primary focus will remain on all that is happening in New England – and that is a lot!
No surprise that Amherst College is perched at the top of both rankings. They have been the gold-standard regionally and a regular participant in the NCAA D-III Tournaments for years.
Speaking of Amherst, the men’s program suffered a sudden jolt in September when legendary coach David Hixon (after 42 seasons at the helm) opted to take a non-health sabbatical to deal with some family issues. The big question is can the program move on without Hixon’s leadership?
Those close to the program feel that with the elevation of trusted assistant Aaron Toomey, who played under Hixon and helped win NCAA titles in 2012 and 2013, the transition should be seamless.
A game to watch (and to gauge how Toomey and his squad are managing the transition) is on January 10 when New England Small College Athletic Conference (NESCAC) rival Middlebury College travels to Amherst.
ODDS AND ENDS
There have been a number of rule changes introduced with the most important one being the extension of the 3-point arc from 17 inches to the international standard of 22 feet, 1 3/4 inches. Although testing of this change in the National Invitation Tournament (NIT) last year found little change in shooting percentage, it was felt by the officiating honchos that it would alleviate congestion in the paint by forcing defenders to guard shooters further away from the basket. Stay tuned on this change.
All eyes will be pointing to Cambridge, Mass this season to see if the Harvard University celebrated senior class, led by awesome point guard Bryce Aiken, can finally win an Ivy League title, as well as earn an automatic tournament bid to the NCAA Tournament.
Better yet, the Crimson will have some home-cooking help in March as this year’s conference tournament moves from the storied The Palestra to Lavietes Pavilion, March 14-15.
The Ivy poo-bahs move to a conference tournament for men and women was a no-brainer – the atmosphere is pulsating and the quality of play is as good as it gets.
A shoutout to former Marquette University assistant Brett Nelson who assumes the reins at Holy Cross after Bill Carmody‘s decision to retire from the coaching ranks.
Did you know that we have a number of the top coaches in the women’s college game led by the legendary Barbara Stevens, who ranks fourth in wins among college coaches at Bentley University, Harvard’s Kathy Delaney-Smith, Stonehill College‘s Trisha Brown, Springfield College‘s Naomi Graves, and Babson College‘s Judy Blinstrub. If any of you have a daughter that may be destined to play at the college level the price of admission to catch one of these coaches in action will help with a final decision.
In my eight years following ACC men’s basketball, I had the privilege to hear firsthand from some of the great coaches in the game, including Coach Mike Krzyseski, Roy Williams, Jim Boeheim, Rick Pitino, and Mike Brey. Buzz Williams was a real stitch in the press room. But most impressive among this elite group of coaches was the University of Virginia‘s, Tony Bennett.
Obviously, Bennett’s run to the national title was the big news last year but most noteworthy was his recent decision to forego a well-deserved a big raise. Bennett felt that his family was blessed and thankful for what they have and felt that the money would be better spent in funding a program to help athletes transition to careers after basketball. Bennett is destined to be the voice of the ACC once Coach K and Roy retire.
A FINAL THOUGHT
Best wishes to Kristen McDonnell who left the Braintree high school girls basketball program after a ten-year run which included four D-1 state titles and a bunch of sectional crowns. McDonnell is seeking a new challenge as the Norwood high school boys head coach.
Needham High School football coach Doug Kopsco directs his players through a practice drill. (PHOTO: Matt Noonan/NoontimeSports.com)
By Matt Noonan | @MattyNoonz11
For Doug Kopsco, his first season as the head coach of the Needham High School football team seemed to go pretty well.
Kopsco’s Rockets posted a winning record of 7-4 last fall, which included a postseason win over Newton North in the quarterfinals of the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association (MIAA) D1 South playoffs and an exciting one-point victory over archrival Wellesley on Thanksgiving Day.
Heading into his second season with his alma mater’s football program, Kopsco appears more relaxed. In fact, he seems to be enjoying his new role with the Rockets, who are expected to once again contend for a Bay State Conference (BSC) Herget title this fall.
“Really at the end of the day, it isn’t about x’s and o’s. It is about the culture, it is about the kids and it is about the family enviornment,” said Kopsco, who was previously a coordinator for the Rockets football program before taking over for coach Dave Duffy last season.
“It’s one thing to preach it and talk about it, but it is another thing to invite that environment and share that environment, and get the kids involved with creating that culture. And I think these guys did a great job of that this year.”
Kopsco says what has made this season’s preseason so much fun has been the competition – there seems to be multiple positions up for grabs due to some graduation losses, especially on the offense.
“We have a ton of competition this year,” said Kopsco.
“Last year, I think we knew (who our starters would be), and that’s both gratifying and exciting … but this year, all spots are open, so everyone is working hard, everyone is pushing each other and there is no kind of gimme spots.”
Needham’s 2019 Football Season Outlook
Needham’s 2018 Season: The Rockets enjoyed a successful first season under coach Doug Kopsco, winning five of seven regular-season contests along with one postseason game, too.
Their run toward an MIAA D1 South championship concluded in the semifinals with a 35-32 loss to Catholic Memorial, but Needham would close the season on a high note by defeating Wellesley, 14-13, on Thanksgiving Day.
Key Depatures: The Rockets graduated some key pieces from last year’s offense, including tight end Matt Smith, who will be competing for Duke University this fall.
Jack Murmes, who was also a tight end, will be playing for Assumption College this season, while quarterback Charlie Ogletree will be suiting up for Bentley University.
Players to Watch: Tyler Reid returns for his final season – the senior tri-captain will be spotted in the backfield at halfback and is someone Kopsco will certainly rely on this season.
Odahri Hibberts returns for his final season – he will be lining up in the slot and at cornerback on defense.
Ryan Villa is back for his final season with the Rockets and will be playing offensive tackle and guard.
Filling the holes on defense: With just two student-athletes returning on defense with starting experience, Kopsco and his staff will be looking for some new additions this fall to fill all three levels.
“We have on defense have two kids coming back that have starting experience, so it is all wide open,” said Kopsco, “but we have (had holes to fill on defense from previous seasons) and honestly, we ended up with some of our better defenses.”
Upcoming Scrimmage: Needham will compete against Wayland (the game will be held at Weston) on Friday, August 30th. Kopsco is excited for his team to compete against another squad prior to their initial game of the 2019 season on Friday, September 6th at Natick.
Said Kopsco, “They are always super well-prepared, great coaching staff, and it is a wonderful time to test out where we are at this point of the season … it is a wonderful opportunity to see how much we have taken in so far.”
A challenging opening month: Needham will certainly be tested in the first few weeks of the season when they compete against Natick (week one) and Tewksbury (week two) and Newton North (week three).
Tewksbury advanced to the MIAA D3 Super Bowl – they lost to Springfield Central at Gillette Stadium – but are expected to once again be a team to beat in Merrimack Valley Conference (MVC).
“We’re excited (about our upcoming games),” said Kopsco. “Natick’s awesome, great coaches and super-well prepared. This is going to be a super-competitive game. We won last year, but they won the year before, so I think it is a good chance to see how we can come out of the gates as a team and a family, and hopefully, we come out on top.
“(Tewksbury) is a great team. This is just a great team. They are very versatile on offense, they give you a lot of different looks, they can do a lot of different things to you, so we just need to (make sure) we’re prepared, ask good questions during the week and we need to make sure everyone knows their assignments.”
Coach Dave Duffy returns to the sidelines: After announcing his retirement last summer following a very impressive 19-years of coaching the Rockets, coach Dave Duffy has returned to Needham to help his former squad continue its recent success.
Kopsco is very excited to have his former coach back on the sidelines – he is certainly eager to learn more from him as the season progresses.
“We were very fortunate this year” to have coach Duffy back, explained Kopsco, who played fullback and linebacker for the Rockets before returning to the program as a defensive coordinator.
“I didn’t want to hound him too much, but I really always wanted to work with Roy Johan and Dave Duffy. I am still learning from both of them, (but) they are amazing coaches with 35 years of varsity experience between the two of them alone, so we’re really going to lean on them heavily this year to make sure we’re headed in the right direction.”
Needham’s 2019 Schedule
Friday, September 6th – at Natick, 6 p.m.
Friday, September 13th – vs. Tewksbury, 6 p.m.
Friday, September 20th – vs. Newton North, 6 p.m.
Friday, September 27th – at Weymouth, 7 p.m.
Friday, October 4th – at Braintree, 7 p.m.
Friday, October 18th – vs. Milton, 6 p.m.
Friday, October 25th – vs. Walpole, 6 p.m.
Thursday, November 28th – at Wellesley, 10 a.m.
Stay connected with our New England football coverage on Twitter at @Noontime_FB.
Lawson arrives in Boston, Massachusetts after a successful assistant coaching stint last winter with the Endicott College men’s basketball team. He helped coach Kevin Bettencourt and the Gulls to a 19-9 record, as well as a return trip to the Commonwealth Coast Conference (CCC) Championship against Nichols College.
No stranger to New England basketball, Lawson played at Lexington High School before continuing his career at nearby Bentley University where he guided the Falcons to an impressive 101-27 record in four years, which included a number one and two national rankings, along with an NCAA Elite Eight appearance (2007) and an NCAA Sweet Sixteen appearance (2005).
Since graduating Bentley, Lawson has enjoyed a great deal of success in the basketball world, working for numerous programs at all three levels in the college world, while assisting the Boston Celtics during their 2008 NBA Championship run.
Noontime Sports recently caught-up with Lawson to discuss his excitement for the upcoming season with the Emmanuel men’s basketball team.
What interested you in becoming the program’s third head coach? And just to confirm, this is your first-time head coaching position, right?
When the job opened up, I was very excited to apply. Being from the Boston area, I knew a little bit about the history of Emmanuel’s academics and how it is has really exploded as an institution within the last decade. To me, it represented a college with great leadership and continuity. Combined with a tremendous location in the city of Boston – we are next to Fenway Park – I felt it could be a great opportunity for student-athletes academically, athletically and socially. Also, it certainly has always been a goal of mine throughout my coaching career to run my own program.
What did you know prior to accepting to the head coaching position about the Emmanuel men’s basketball program?
I knew the program was relatively new since the college went co-ed in 2001. The athletic administration structure and support was very evident and crucial for me (throughout the interview process). Also, the program enjoyed success in the early-to-mid 2000s, winning between 17-to-20 games each season. As I prepared for my interviews, I saw the roster was filled with some talented and young student-athletes, which will be returning this upcoming season. Throughout the interview process I also gained a lot of valuable information about the character of our returning players that are eager to be successful.
You were an integral part of Endicott College’s run to the CCC Championship last winter, so what were some things you learned from that experience, whih will help you in your new role with the Saints?
I got to work alongside three excellent coaches and close friends in Kevin Bettencourt, Luke Richards and Lance Greene. I have known all three coaches for quite some time – I grew up and played basketball with Kevin, competing on the same AAU team since seventh grade. All three coaches helped me gain an understanding of the D3 landscape, including what it takes to coach at this level to recruiting. I had only coached in Division 1 and 2 levels, so last year’s experience was really instrumental in gaining an understanding of D3 basketball, but also how to be successful at this level, too. The group of players I had a chance to coach at Endicott was a really special group that made my experience at Endicott a lot of fun.
It sounds cliche, but looking back to both your playing career (at Bentley) and other stops, both in college and with the Boston Celtics, who have been some of the coaches and people that have molded you into the coach you are today?
Like most coaches, I’ve been molded by every coach that I have played and worked for, beginning with my high school coach at Lexington, Bob Farias. Coach Farias had a legendary hall of fame career – he was the best motivator and developer of confidence that I have ever experienced.
Certainly the biggest influence has been my father, Jay Lawson. It is indescribable how much of an impact he has made on my coaching career, specifically in teaching and leading players.
I was fortunate to work for Jim Ferry for seven seasons – he is the former head coach at Duquesne, LIU Brooklyn, Adelphi and Plymouth State. The various opportunities he provided helped me become the coach I am today.
Jack Perri, who I worked with at LIU-Brooklyn – he would eventually become the team’s head coach and lead them to the NCAA Tournament. Jack was one of my assistant coaches when I played at Bentley and is someone I consider a true mentor.
I also spent a great season learning under Steve Evans at LeMoyne College. Steve had a lot of success at LeMoyne from a recruiting and coaching – he is one of the best teachers of the zone defense.
Finally, my season with the Boston Celtics was about as great first basketball coaching experience. Learning and watching from guys like Doc Rivers, Tom Thibodeau, Danny Ainge, Mike Longabardi and Ryan McDonough, as well as the players really helped shape my daily work ethic and approach.
Speaking of the Celtics, you were a member of the team’s 17th championship run, so how much do you think about that experience and being able to celebrate a title with a group that certainly seemed to buy-in from the get-go?
I was very fortunate to be a part of the Celtics organization during their 17th championship season. To say it was an unbelievable experience would probably be an understatement. One of the biggest things I took away from the experience was how important an unselfish mentality and willingness to sacrifice for the greater good of the team is to a program’s success. Boston’s big three of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen only cared about winning. They became totally invested in the team’s success right from the start when the team began its season training in Italy. And they had a great veteran bench presence combined with some young talent, as well. They also had a high level coaching staff and management team, but it all just came together at the right time and at the right point in their careers. It was really special.
Are you a Celtics fan or root for another team?
Yes, absolutely. I grew up here and have always been a Celtics fan.
What does a new coach need to do to get prepared for a new season with a new program? How will you use the next few weeks and months to make sure the team will be ready to go come mid-October?
Obviously there are a million things you need to accomplish when you take over a new program, but my focus this summer is all about building relationships, beginning with the current players in our program. Additionally, I look forward to meeting and building relationships on campus with other coaches, administrators, faculty and staff, too. I’m currently working on hiring the rest of our coaching staff for the upcoming season, while building and fostering recruiting relationships, as well. I am also working on completing and finalizing our game and practice schedule, while establishing our program’s identity.
Talk about building relationships with your players – how important is to begin those relationships now?
It’s huge (and) has definitely been a primary focus for me the last two weeks. I have been able to meet with about half the team in-person, while conversing multiple times by phone or text with others. We need to build that mutual trust and respect on both sides, and then we can get on the court.
What is your all-time favorite basketball (or sports) movie?
“Above the Rim” is definitely my favorite. I like others, as well, including “Blue Chips,” “Hoop Dreams” and more. “Above The Rim” was ahead of its time with Kyle Lee Watson, Tommy Shepard, Birdie, and a lot of great actors and characters.
Finally, when you were growing up, who was a player or two that you idled? What did you like about their game?
Like most people my age, I was a big Michael Jordan guy growing up. Also, Larry Bird, too. I loved their skill packages and competitiveness, as well as Bird’s passing ability, too.