SAUGUS — It’s no secret that things haven’t gone the way the Saugus boys basketball team hoped they would this season. Wins have been few and far between for the Sachems, who sit at 2-13 this winter. Saugus carries a young roster with limited experience- a tough limitation to live with in the Northeastern Conference.
With all that said, the Sachems haven’t backed down from any challenges coming their way. They know they’re underdogs more often than not but they aren’t afraid to compete.
“We want to win every game,” Saugus coach Mark Bertrand, who was named head coach during the offseason, said. “We talk about that. We want the kids to compere. We’re also realistic and know we’re young. It’s taken us a while to find our footing. We have a great starting five and we’re four deep on the bench. We’ve really found that we’ve been able to put that together.”
Last week, Saugus came within a few points of defeating conference rival Somerville. Saugus has also played tight battles with Peabody, Gloucester, Danvers and Triton. The Sachems’ two wins came against Matignon and Medford.
“I get a lot of positive feedback,” Bertrand said. “It’s great. Coaches understand I’ve been here but I’m a first-year coach. We’re going to let everyone know that when they play us, it’s going to be a hard-fought battle. They’re starting to see that. The Medford and Somerville coaches told me, ‘you’re kids play really hard.’ That’s one of our goals. We play disciplined basketball. We’ve really structured and reeled that in.”
Although the record doesn’t indicate it, the Sachems have improved as the season has progressed. At the forefront of those improvements, Bertrand said, is the effort Saugus puts forth on defense.
“Everyone wants to score,” Bertrand said. “They’re really dug into their heels. We played really good defense against Classical and English, even though it wasn’t indicative in the scores. That has really helped us the last few games and our kids have really stepped up.”
Bertrand and his assistant coaches subscribe to the notion that a team will play the way it practices. If the hustle and effort are there during practice, they’ll carry over come gametime. That’s been the case as of late, with help from Bertrand’s assistants.
“I have to give my three captains credit,” Bertrand said. “Kyle Cocorochio, Jake Morgante and Christian Correia. This team went from not having an identity at the beginning of the year. We need to have great practices. The way we practice is the way we play. We’ve had some tough practices because everything’s new. We simplified things. As a coaching staff we simplified rotations and the practices have been outstanding. My coaches have brought a lot to the table.
“If you’re not running hard and hustling hard (in practice), it hurts,” Bertrand said. “The last few weeks we’ve really turned it up in practice.”
Junior forward Correia leads Saugus in scoring at 18 points per game. Sophomore guard Joey Lusso (14 points per game) and sophomore forward Mason Nickolas (12 points per game) rank second and third in scoring, respectively. Senior forward Morgante leads the Sachems in rebounds at seven per contest and junior center Kenny Okoye’s averaging six. Correia leads Saugus in assists with four per tilt.
“The kids are really buying into what we’re doing,” Bertrand said. “They understand what their roles are. It’s new to them. We’ve put in some new offenses and defensive sets. We’re putting in new things for them. They’re young. We’re not an experience team that can catch up to that right away.”
With five regular season games remaining, the Sachems can’t qualify for the Division 3 North state tournament with 10 wins. Saugus still has a chance to qualify under the Sullivan Rule, which grants a team that has a .500 record against opponents in its division, or in higher divisions, entry into the state tournament. Saugus is currently 1-2 against those opponents (win over Matignon, losses to Triton and Malden) with three relevant games to play.
“We have battles ahead of us,” Bertrand said. “We want to win a few more wins. We’re just taking it a game at a time. I never let the kids get ahead of anything. We have to take it one possession at a time, one game at a time.”