SWAMPSCOTT — The past two seasons haven’t gone the way the Swampscott boys basketball team hoped they would. Swampscott finished with sub-.500 records each year and struggled to stay afloat in a competitive Northeastern Conference.
This year, however, the Big Blue are eager to stop that trend and turn things around. With senior shooting guard Jackson Byrne leading the charge, Swampscott’s well on its way toward getting back to being a competitive (and winning) team.
“Jackson has come a long way since I took over the varsity job during his sophomore season,” Swampscott coach Justin Fucile said. “I was a fan even when he was playing and I wasn’t coaching. I sent him and Max Pegnato to junior varsity and told them I wanted them to improve as leaders and in their defensive skills. Last year he took strides and got better but wasn’t in the basketball shape we thought he could be in.
“He was always last in the 16’s,” Fucile said. “He ran every day and cut a lot of weight. This year, he’s quicker and in better shape. The work he put in on his own is really impressive. He does it all on his own.”
Byrne has posted averages of 15.6 points and 6.0 rebounds per game. His efforts have helped Swampscott to an 8-9 mark with three regular season games remaining.
“I didn’t expect as much as we’ve already accomplished, based on the seasons in the past,” Byrne said. “I thought we’d double our wins from last year, maybe get five or seven wins. We’ve had a lot of kids come in and step up. We’ve become a much better team than I anticipated we would this season.”
Defense, Byrne said, has been the name of Swampscott’s game this winter.
“Our 2-3 zone is our money maker,” Byrne said. “We stay in that 90 percent of the time. We communicate very well. Our starting lineup communicates very well, especially on defense. We have each other’s backs and we know where we are. We’re loud and people don’t like that. That translates into our offense when we get fastbreak buckets. That’s been our bread and butter so far.”
Swampscott’s reserves, including a solid core of underclassmen, have made key contributions during the season. Byrne said he has come away impressed with the efforts the newcomers have put forth in helping the Big Blue win.
“Cam O’Brien has played fantastic,” Byrne said. “He came into the season and we thought he’d be a 3-point shooter. He’s a great defensive player. He has wicked fast hands. He gets a lot of steals. Andrew Augustin brings the ball up and slows the pace down. That’s important for us when we run our offense. We have some juniors. Fred Juden, it’s only his second season playing organized basketball. He put in a lot of work during the offseason. He’s helped a lot offensively.”
Offensively, Byrne has made it a point to work on his outside shot. He swished three 3-pointers and led all scorers with 22 points in last Friday’s 63-51 come-from-behind win over Saugus.
“It’s a huge part of my game,” Byrne said. “I work on my 3-point shot every day when I’m playing basketball. Coach Jay Knowles taught me how to shoot in the third grade. I took his principles and applied them. My shot has gotten a lot faster since then. That has really taken my game to the next level.”
He can also help guide his teammates for good looks at the basket.
“Jackson’s grown as a basketball player,” Fucile said. “He creates his own shots and creates shots for others. People focus on him as a jump shooter but they’ll find out he’s more than that.”
The Big Blue hit a rough patch in January but have bounced back smoothly since then. Swampscott has won four of its last five as it aims to close the regular season on a high note. The Big Blue have already qualified for the Division 3 North state tournament under the Sullivan Rule (as they did last season) but they’re aiming for wins to improve their seeding and maintain momentum.
“Going into the tournament hot would be nice,” Byrne said. “Last year qualified under the Sullivan Rule as the last seed. We had to play Lynnfield on the road and they had a 1,000-point scorer. That was a tough game. We’re looking for home court advantage.
“We’re looking for a strong finish,” Byrne said. “We want to end the season on a good streak. We have some tough games coming up. We’re looking to close the season on a positive note.”
Byrne and the Big Blue travel to Peabody Thursday night (7).