East Greenwich (R.I.) basketball eyes perfect ending

Fact: With one regular-season game remaining (Thursday night at Ponaganset), the East Greenwich boys’ basketball team already has clinched the Division III West championship plus the No. 1 seed in the upcoming Division III Tournament.

Rhode IslandFact: The Avengers are the only team in the state with a perfect (17-0) league record.

Fact: East Greenwich, a school that began playing the sport during the 1935-36 season, has broken the school record for most victories in a season. The Avengers are 20-2 whereas the previous record was 18 victories set in the 1990-91 season which was the last time East Greenwich won a championship (i.e. the Division II state title).

Fact: The Avengers are one victory away from posting the first undefeated league record in school history.

Fact: Through games of Feb.25, East Greenwich is one of only two Division III teams ranked in the top 16 Power Point standings which determine the 16 teams that will play for the overall state championship. Currently, the Avengers are 11th while Middletown is 16th.

“I expected us to do well but not to go undefeated,” said first-year head coach Matt Records. “We returned almost everybody. Going into the season our goal was to win the Division III state title and also to be a top 16 team and play in the state tournament.”Then, reality set in like a punch to the stomach.

“Nolan Cooney, who’s our best defender and our best athlete, was diagnosed with testicular cancer,” said Records. “He’s the greatest kid and a high-quality individual. He walked into practice (on February 24) with a huge smile on his face. He’s finished chemo and is cleared to play sports again.

“Nolan’s been our motivation all year long. Not only is he a great basketball player but he’s one of the most-liked people we have. For that to happen was a shock to our community never mind the team. The team rallied around him. He’s healthy and will be able to lead a normal life.”

As the saying goes, Cooney’s illness put things in perspective. But Records admitted that, even in his wildest dreams, he didn’t expect the Avengers to deliver a record-breaking season.

“I expected to have a very good season, maybe 16-2 or 17-1,” he said. “I did not expect to be undefeated after 17 games. I knew we could win Division III. But to be undefeated right now, I don’t believe it especially considering what happened at the beginning of the year when we lost Nolan.

“What we’ve done has been remarkable.”

Once Cooney was lost for the season, other players had to step up:

  • Example No. 1 is 6-7 senior center Brandon Eckles who’s averaging 13.4 points, nine rebounds and 3.5 assists per game (Records: “He’s a phenomenal passer.”). In a 56-36 victory over Scituate on February 21, Eckles scored the 1000th point of his career.

  • Example No. 2 is senior guard Ben Chester who’s averaging 12.7 points per game.

  • Example No. 3 is junior forward Kyle Matus who’s averaging 12.2 points per game.

In addition, senior point guard Pat Lavin is averaging four assists per game.

“I always say to Pat, “I want you to come and coach with me some day,’” said Records. “Whenever I have a question, he always has an answer. He’s an on-the-court coach.

“He calls the offenses and defenses. He does so many things that don’t show up on the stat sheet.”

One number that virtually jumps off the Avengers’ stat sheet is that, through their first 22 games, they’re holding opponents to a mere 40.5 points per game.

“Every night I put a key point on our white board – to play 32 minutes of team defense,” said Records. “We know defense is effort and heart. There isn’t any reason why you can’t bring that every night.

“We beat Johnston, 40-24 (on February 25), and were awful on offense. But we held them to 24 points. Our practice jerseys say ‘Avenger Defense.’ If the score is in the 70s, I’m shaky because I’m old school. I feel if the game is in the 50s we’ll win games.”

Eckles’ play at the other end of the court is another major reason why the Avengers are cruising along.

“When you have a 6-7 kid like Brandon, he protects the rim like a big Band Aid,” said Records. “He blocks or alters shots. That’s a big reason why we’re such a good defensive team.”

Lastly, there’s a more subjective reason behind the Avengers’ success.

In last season’s Division III championship game, North Smithfield beat East Greenwich, 66-55. The memory of that loss has stuck in the minds of the returning Avengers like Super Glue.

“It’s what drives us,” said Records. “Even though we lost to North Smithfield, we put our hearts and guts on the floor. There were hundreds of North Smithfield fans chanting things like ‘Warm up the bus.’ We needed to win that game in order to qualify for the state tournament.

“I told the guys ‘Don’t forget what that feels like.’ That feeling has motivated guys like Lavin, Eckles and Chester to get us to where we are this year.”

Mike Scandura has been covering high school sports, college basketball, football and hockey plus minor league baseball in Rhode Island since the early 1970s. A native of Oswego, N.Y, he’s a member of the Words Unlimited Hall of Fame which is the statewide organization of sportswriters, sportscasters and sports publicists.