Newton North's long tradition in capable hands

Newton North's Tommy Mobley has hit six 3-pointers or more in two games this season, including nine last month against Milton. Brendan Hall for ESPN

NEWTON, Mass. -– Circling his team up before practice last week, Newton North Coach Paul Connolly had one simple message following last Tuesday’s four-point loss to rival Brookline.

“Any time Newton North comes to somebody else’s gym, that’s their biggest game of the year guys, especially if it’s in the league,” he said, pointing to the banner honoring the Tigers’ Bay State Conference titles.

So many conference titles, in fact, that one would be hard-pressed to count them correctly the first time through.

Connolly didn’t have to delve any further to make his point -- pointing to the banner spoke for itself.

The bottom half of the banner honors Connolly’s two best teams ever: his back-to-back MIAA Div. 1 state championship teams in 2005 and 2006. Behind future Division 1 guards Anthony Gurley and Corey Lowe, the Tigers went 53-1 over that two year span.

Gurley, who played at Wake Forest for a year before transferring home to play at UMass, finished as Newton North’s all-time leading scorer (1,850 points). Lowe was no slouch either. He was a four year starter and twice won team MVP at Boston University; he is the fourth-leading scorer in the history of the Terriers’ program.

The year after Lowe and Gurley departed, a lanky but talented 6-foot-6 freshman named Greg Kelley quickly became a contributor for Connolly’s squad. His little brother Tommy Mobley, a fourth-grader at the time, served as the team’s ball boy.

That lanky freshman eventually led Newton North to four consecutive conference titles, finishing second in school history behind Gurley with 1,420 career points. Kelley is now a redshirt sophomore at Yale, and his little brother isn’t so little anymore. Mobley has grown to 6-foot-2, and the sophomore is one of the best outside shooters in the state.

On Dec. 20, in a 71-43 win at Milton, Mobley went off for a record nine 3-pointers. Last Tuesday, he hit six 3's as part of a 28-point effort in a 53-46 defeat of Needham. Sprinkled in between are a handful of games with three, four, sometimes five trifectas.

He’s not na├»ve, though. He grew up around Connolly’s team and fully understands the expectations that come along with being a Newton North basketball player, never mind for a minute that he is Greg Kelley’s younger brother.

“Those banners are great, but it is a lot of pressure," Mobley said. "When another team comes in here, they’re going to play us tough every time.”

Newton North tradition isn’t a reputation that was built overnight, but Connolly has come to enjoy the fundamental preparation that goes along with being one of the state’s most storied traditional powers. The longtime coach preaches hard-nosed defense and rebounding, unselfish offensive possessions, stellar outside shooting, and academic success.

Mobley, a straight-A student, was president of his class as a freshman. This year, Connolly is proud to boast that his stud sophomore is one of five finalists for Newton North’s Martin Luther King, Jr. essay award, a prestigious honor within a student body that goes 1,800-plus strong.

“It’s something that both of my parents stress: you’re a student-athlete,” Mobley said. “Before my dad goes to the gym to rebound for me, he makes sure I have all my homework done. My brother went to Yale to pursue his academics, [and] when it comes down to it I’m going to want to do something like that. My basketball is going to help my academics.”

Make no mistake though; Mobley isn’t the only scholar on this team. Korey Mui, a senior leader who is one of Connolly’s best inside-out players, is also a straight-A honor student.

“He makes us do weekly academic reports," Mui said. "You have to be eligible to play for the team, and school always takes priority over basketball, and he stresses that. That’s a big thing.”

Connolly’s on-court fundamentals have been integral in the team being successful on the court. A squad that lacks size and experience, coming together has been a step-by-step process for the Tigers, who are now 6-2 and ranked No. 23 in the latest statewide ESPNBoston.com boys hoop poll. Discipline and hard work, though, are the keys for his team.

“Fundamentals are everything in life, that’s what we’re trying to get across to these kids. We’ve been in certain gyms where you see negative body language [from kids], you can see that bad body language,” he said, shaking his head.

“We don’t put up with any of that here. I’m very blessed...we have great support, great parental support, great administration support, and I have terrific assistant coaches.”

Mobley takes Connolly’s preaching of fundamentals to heart. Five times a week in the off-season he will go to the middle school near his house and do an hour-long ballhandling workout, where he can improve his dribbling and ability to penetrate opposing defenses.

Following that ball handling drill, he has a shooting regimen where he needs to make 400 jumpshots from different spots on the floor. He admits it usually takes 700 or 800 tries in order to reach the goal, but he isn’t done after that.

Three times a week he’ll lift weights following his basketball workout; the other two days, if the weather permits, he goes to the park to play pickup with friends and teammates.

Connolly makes sure Mobley and his teammates stay in top shape in-season, too. The Tigers do plenty of exhausting full-court defensive drills, and also lift weights twice a week with the guidance of Jill Zeller, a Newton North graduate who is a well-known strength trainer.

“I’m a huge advocate [of lifting in-season]. We did it when I was in college. I think it’s very helpful,” Connolly said. “Jill’s the best, she does a lot of core stuff. It really helps our guys in terms of core exercises; there are a lot of flexibility exercises. She is one of the best in the business; she has a very bright future in strength and conditioning.”

Looking out at Muri as he went for a layup, Connolly continued, exclaiming, “Look at Korey, he's getting more and more bounce every time!”

The end of practice meant time to gameplan for their matchup on the road with Framingham, a squad who was 1-8 at the time and would have loved nothing better than to give the Tigers a long, long bus ride home. Learning from their loss to Brookline was of the utmost importance.

“We didn’t come out with much intensity, we need to bring it every time. We were playing really passive in the beginning of the game, and we only picked it up in the fourth quarter,” Mobley said.

“It’s mainly that we need to come out stronger, we got a little rattled, and before we knew it, we were in a deep hole.”

Mobley listened, and listened well to what his coach had to say at the beginning of practice on Thursday. He came out on Friday night and had his best game of the season, scoring 25 points while brushing off back spasms that had been bothering him in practice all week, the Tigers beat the Flyers 71-49.

Breaking out and becoming one of the state’s better-known underclassmen, he comes in with the mindset that he isn’t going to play his entire high school career in his brother’s shadow.

“There is pressure to live up to, but Greg taught me a lot about how to play. I feel as though we’re very different players,” he said. “And at the end of the day I know as long as I can go home and hold my own against him 1-on-1 and maybe beat him, then that’s my main goal...Rather than putting up the same numbers that he put up.”

Mobley couldn’t help but laugh when reflecting on the many one-on-one wars that he and Greg have had over the years.

“When I’m here, I’m playing for the team," Mobley said. "But when we’re playing in the driveway, it gets rough.”