Rivera: Antonio Anderson was a golden hire at English

Antonio Anderson (center) is in his second season as head coach of the English boys basketball team. (Photo by Katie Morrison)

Two years ago, the boys basketball program at English found itself in a tough spot. The team’s coach, Mike Carr, died midway through the 2016-2017 season after a battle with cancer.

In stepped Steve Stranahan, Carr’s assistant and longtime friend, who coached the latter half of the season on an interim basis. The Bulldogs were quickly knocked out of the Division 1 North state tournament and searched for a new head coach shortly after their season ended.

English Athletic Director Richard Newton tabbed Antonio Anderson to take over the helm of the Bulldogs.

The rest is history.

First and foremost, Anderson’s playing résumé will impress anybody who takes a glance at it. A star at Lynn Tech, Anderson played Division I basketball at University of Memphis with Derrick Rose for former Tigers coach John Calipari (who’s now at Kentucky). He helped Memphis reach the championship game of the NCAA Tournament in 2008.

Two years later, Anderson played alongside Kevin Durant for the Oklahoma City Thunder before venturing into a handful of professional opportunities overseas.

But playing at the highest levels doesn’t always translate into becoming a great coach. So Anderson did what he needed to do — he learned from others and took his time before searching for his own opportunity. Anderson coached as an assistant at Division III Wheelock College and Salem State (where he learned from one of the best college coaches in the area in Chris Harvey) and Division II Franklin Pierce. When the time was right, Anderson decided to take the next step. English was his landing spot.

The Bulldogs went 16-4 during Anderson’s first regular season guiding them. They beat Peabody in the opening round of the Division 1 North state tournament before falling to Lowell in the quarterfinal. This year, English took things to a higher level with an 18-2 regular season (the two losses coming against St. Mary’s and Mansfield). Then English had the pleasure of matching up against three consecutive Merrimack Valley Conference opponents — Lawrence, Andover and Central Catholic, and defeated them all en route to Tuesday’s (7:15) Division 1 state semifinal against Newton North at TD Garden. In two seasons at English, Anderson has a record of 38-7.

Anderson has a unique ability of connecting to his players and getting them to buy into what he preaches. English has no lack of players who can knock down outside shots with ease — Alonzo Linton, Jarnel Guzman, Jack Rodriguez, Justin Fitzpatrick, Calvin Seng, Joaquin Crespo, Mason Jean-Baptiste and more. The Bulldogs almost have every excuse to be selfish with the basketball and chuck threes from start to finish.

But at English offense starts with defense. The Bulldogs are energetic on defense, swift on their feet and active with their hands, in creating turnovers. Then they get out in transition and, like they did against Lawrence, turn a 6-point game into a 20-point lead in a matter of half a quarter. As Anderson likes to say, “when we get in transition, we’re tough to stop.”  

English also prides itself on rebounding. For the past month and a half, Linton has averaged a double-double. He scored 17 points and hauled in 12 rebounds in last Saturday’s win over Central Catholic. Linton’s teammates, all exceptional shooters, aren’t exempt from crashing the glass and hustling in the paint in attempting to grab rebounds.

Defense and rebounding have little to do with talent. They’re two areas of the game that are based on hustle. If the Bulldogs prioritize defense and rebounding (and they do), they have to out-hustle their opponents. Thus far, it’s evident they’ve done that and it’s a clear reflection of Anderson’s players buying into his system.

When you have a coach who connects to his players, gets them to play like one unit and homes in on the intangibles, good things usually happen. Win or lose Tuesday night, I know one thing’s for certain: with Anderson at the helm the Bulldogs are in good hands moving forward.

Speaking of great coaches, Bill Belichick lost two key pieces from this past season’s team. Trent Brown, who started every game of the season in protecting Tom Brady’s blindside at left tackle, left for a four-year deal with the Oakland Raiders. Defensive lineman Trey Flowers left for a five-year deal with the Detroit Lions. One way or another, the Patriots will find a way to replace these guys without missing a beat. Before we overreact about the Patriots staying quiet through the early stages of free agency, let’s wait and see what Belichick has up his sleeve.

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