After winning the D-III title last year, the Kearsarge boys’ basketball team is taking its talents to D-II

  • Kearsarge guard Tommy Johnson shoots over Stevens’ Nickolas O’Brien in the first half at SNHU during last season’s Division III championship game. The Cougars will compete in Division II this season. GEOFF FORESTER

  • Kearsarge’€™s Tayler Mattos blocks the shot of Somersworth’€™s Evan Gray during the first half of a Division III semifinals matchup at SNHU last season. The Cougars will compete in Division II this season. GEOFF FORESTER

  • Tayler Mattos and the rest of the Kearsarge boys’ basketball team will play in Division II this season. Elizabeth Frantz / Monitor file

Monitor staff
Friday, December 15, 2017

Can a team repeat as champions if it changes divisions? Or is it just considered back-to-back titles? Either way, the Kearsarge boys’ basketball team, last year’s Division III champs that will be playing in D-II this year, is aiming for another crown.

“Our goal is to get to Durham, get to UNH (site of the final four) and be there for the last game,” Kearsarge coach Nate Camp said. “And at that point, the leadership and the experience is going to take over.”

There is some very recent precedence for the “repeat or back-to-back for division changers” semantics debate. Portsmouth won the D-II title in 2016 then moved up to D-I last year and won that title, too. But that’s not an easy trick, and the Cougars know it.

“We know there’s going to be a bull’s-eye on our back every night,” Camp said. “People are probably going to be thinking, ‘Look at this team coming up from Division III. They think that they’re just going to waltz into D-II and do what Portsmouth did last year in Division I. And I know that’s not going to be the case. We’re going to have bumps in the road.”

Kearsarge has plenty of tools to handle those bumps, starting with 6-foot-9 Tayler Mattos, last year’s D-III Player of the Year who will be playing Division I college basketball whenever he decides it’s time (Mattos may take a post-graduate year at a prep school). Mattos is a nightmare to handle in the post for most teams, but now his perimeter game, which was always good, has only gotten better.

“He’s worked on his perimeter game with his AAU team out of Boston. He’s like that classic stretch four and so for us we can have him on the wing or doing high ball screens to be more versatile in creating offense,” Camp said. “Defensively he’s still anchoring us and being pretty vocal back there and blocking shots. And he’s definitely gotten stronger and his jumping ability has gotten better.”

Senior Tommy Johnson a 6-1 guard, is a great complement to Mattos. Johnson is a four-year starter with a diverse and deadly offensive game that shines in the spotlight, as evidenced by his 27 points in last year’s 51-46 championship win against Stevens.

“He spent tons of time in the gym and he’s gotten stronger, that’s the biggest thing for Tommy,” Camp said. “He dunked against Concord (in a scrimmage on Wednesday) and in our scrimmage against Bishop Guertin the kid was just filling it up. He was unstoppable.”

Mattos and Johnson are the two biggest pieces, but the Cougars return their entire starting five from last year. Junior Kyle Hernon is a physical 6-5 forward who provides Kearsarge with another big rebounder.

“Kyle has worked on his shot, too, and his free-throw shooting,” Camp said. “He’s definitely someone that teams are going to have to watch. He had a really good football season and he’s a tough kid that will rebound the heck out of it. Some nights he’s outrebounding Tayler.”

Senior Joe Storozuk is a three-year starter at guard who can do a little bit of everything for the Cougars. And junior Noah Tremblay has grown a little bit and added some muscle, which means he can now take the ball to the rim in addition to shooting jumpers.

Kearsarge also has a pair of experienced and talented bench players in seniors Jordan Bryk and Will Chadwick. Bryk is a versatile 6-foot-1 forward and Chadwick is a 6-foot guard who can shoot and defend.

“Those two are the kind of glue guys you need, and I think they would be starters for a lot of other teams around the state,” Camp said.

Camp has tried to prepare his team for the step up to D-II with a rigorous preseason schedule that was full of D-I teams, including a matchup against Waltham (Mass.) High that the Cougars won. But the coach knows there will still be some adjustments for his team to make in the new division.

“I think the physicality will be different, and maybe the depth of each team, too,” Camp said. “Most of the time when a Division III team went to the bench we could really capitalize on that, whereas this year I think it’s going to be a little different.”

Kearsarge won’t have to wait for a D-II measuring-stick game. The Cougars open the season Friday at Pelham, which is expected to be one of the top teams in the division along with Hollis-Brookline and Lebanon.

“Pelham is going to throw everything at us and I think they’re going to be tough,” Camp said. “I think they’re a preseason top-four team, so welcome to D-II, let’s go.”

(Tim O’Sullivan can be reached at 369-3341, tosullivan@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @timosullivan20.)