It was a season of a season of unbelievable improvement for the Oyster River Boys’ Basketball team. After finishing last year with just two wins and the worst record in their division, a largely unchanged roster of players earned a 12-6 regular season record and ended the season as state-runners up.
“I think some of the biggest factors for our improvement were that we as a team matured a lot from last year, and we had more commitment in the offseason than there has been since my freshman year,” said co-captain Max Lewis, now a junior.
It was clear to see that this improvement from the beginning, as the Bobcats opened the season by dominating the first half on the road against highly-touted Timberland, and won the game 59-45. They then matched last season’s wins total with a comfortable victory against DIII St. Thomas.
The team only lost one of their first eight games, but it was that one loss – a two point defeat at the hands of Coe-Brown – that may have been one the biggest turning points in the season. “One of the biggest defining moments for our team was when we lost our first game of the season to Coe-Brown,” said Lewis, who averaged just under twelve points per game. “We responded really well after that instead of letting it get us down.”
After rallying off five straight wins following the Coe-Brown loss, the first-placed Bobcats then hit a rough stretch. They lost two out of three to Timberlane and Pelham, and then after a three game winning streak, the team dropped three straight games, first to Hollis-Brookline, who they would eventually fall to again in the finals, and again to both Coe-Brown and Pelham.
Despite their tough series of results in the second half of the season, the team stayed confident and maintained a mindset that would later propel their playoff run. “We had a couple key practices after a loss or before some of our final games that were pivotal in preparing us for the playoffs,” said sophomore guard Joe Morrell, the Bobcats’ leading scorer at 12.1 points per game. “We were also playing for a lot of people that were outside of our team and we really used that as motivation to push ourselves and have a never give up mentality,” he continued.
We had a couple key practices after a loss or before some of our final games that were pivotal in preparing us for the playoffs.
A senior-night win against Kingswood to wrap up the regular season clinched a home playoff game for the team, who finished with the seven seed with a record of 12-6.
Despite not knowing their eventual success within the playoffs, just making it was an accomplishment in itself for the Bobcats, as their poor performance in the year prior left them with low expectations across the state. “Before the season started we were listed as having an outside chance to make playoffs and then halfway through the year we were a favorite to make it all the way,” said Lewis. “I’ve taken away that what people think doesn’t matter. Anything you believe you can do is possible.”
I’ve taken away that what people think doesn’t matter. Anything you believe you can do is possible
Arguably the most important reason for the team’s success was their incredibly well-balanced offense. Each of the Bobcats’ five starters averaged between 9.1 and 12.1 points per game, with senior big man Brennen Oxford excelling in the low-post, Lewis and fellow junior Kyle Landrigan having success both driving and spot-up shooting, and Morrell and senior co-captain Cam Thibodeau stretching the floor. Senior sixth-man Tyler McKenna and junior forward/center Dan Judge played a majority of the squad’s bench minutes.
In front of a packed home crowd at ORHS, the team came from behind to win their preliminary playoff matchup over tenth-seeded Kennett (10-9), 65-57, and were expecting to go on the road for a much tougher test against second-seeded Lebanon (15-3). But, the boys were back on their home floor less than a week later, as fifteenth-seeded John Stark (7-11) pulled off an upset for the ages with a one-point win over Lebanon.
John Stark then proved to be no match for the confident Bobcats; the team led by more than twenty at the end of one quarter, and coasted to a blowout win behind 24 points from Morrell. The win sent the Bobcats to their first semi-final appearance since 2011, which would take place just down the road at UNH’s Lundholm Gymnasium.
OR’s semi-final showdown with third-seeded Pembroke (14-4) surely lived up to the hype that was built throughout the week at school and over social media. A back and forth affair came down to the wire, and after Pembroke hit a shot to take a two point lead with three seconds to go, the Bobcats advanced the ball upcourt and were fouled with 2.2 seconds left on the clock. Coming out of a timeout, Oxford’s inbounds bullet from within the Bobcat’s own defensive half found Lewis on the baseline, who quickly drove and laid it in as time expired to send the game to overtime. “On the game tying layup, I did not expect the ball to come to me but I was hoping it would,” said Lewis, who shared a game-high eighteen points with Landrigan, “I wanted the chance to extend the season for my team.”
Lewis was then able to extend the season one game more. After OR turned the ball over with a two point lead and under twenty seconds to play, a Pembroke three with under five seconds left seemed to have forced Lewis to go the length of the court to win the game, but an inadvertent foul on Lewis put him on the line. He nailed two free throws to send his team to the championship game. “In overtime when I was taking the free throws all I knew was that the whole school was watching and counting on me,” said Lewis, “but instead of letting that get to me, it made me fear failing and gave me confidence.”
A week later, Lundholm was completely packed for a matchup against first-seeded Hollis-Brookline (16-2). A sloppy first quarter finish with OR down 8-3, and Hollis-Brookline was able to maintain a steady lead throughout the remainder of the first half. The Bobcats were continually dominated on the boards throughout the game, but some hot shooting midway through the second half by Morrell cut the deficit down to seven. “I learned personally what it means to hold myself accountable for others and what it really means to be a part of a winning team,” said Morrell, who rebounded off of a six point performance in the semi-finals to lead all scorers with twenty in the championship game.“I was happy with the way I was able to finish the season in the playoffs.”
The Bobcats were killed by second-chance points down the stretch, and the team’s two all-state honorable mention selections, Lewis and Landrigan, were held to a combined two points. Oyster River ultimately fell 56-40, and were outrebounded 50-19.
Despite a bitter ending, it was a season that truly defied the odds for Oyster River. “I have never had so much fun being on a team,” said Morrell. “Whether it be at practice or just hanging out together we had so much fun as a team.”
With this season’s triumphant improvement now behind them, the Bobcats will return their top three scorers next year, and look to prove their spot as one of New Hampshire’s elite. “I think next season is also going to be a special one,” said Morrell.
Written by Zach Leichtman
Featured Image by Jae Fletcher