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Holliston Boys Quintet Aiming To Achieve 3 Objectives

Mark Champagne begins his third year as Holliston High’s boys basketball coach.

Staff Sports Writer
Mark Champagne begins his third year as Holliston High’s boys basketball coach,  aiming to achieve three goals — qualify for the tourney, improve the Panthers’ rank in the Tri Valley League’s Large Division standings and develop pride in the program.
During Champagne’s two previous years, the Panthers went 5-15 in his first campaign before last season’s 2-7 record that was compiled when the covid-19 pandemic forced the team to start late.
“I’m optimistic we can achieve our objectives,’’ said Champagne, who led Ashland to a TVL championship in 2014. “My first year at Holliston involved changing the culture, and last season we had to deal with the coronavirus. As we prepare for this year, we’re hopeful the virus will be minimized and there’ll be some normalcy. Our nucleus of players has experience, they’re athletic, skilled, team-oriented and have a high basketball IQ. We also have depth.’’

 Holliston High’s captains are, from left, Austin Mirken, Joe Gentile, and Andrei Koev.

Champagne says his team could possibly start the season much like the New England Patriots did. “We could open 1-3 but know that we’re going in the right direction,’’ he noted.
The Panthers lost six seniors to graduation, leaving this year’s lineup with only one senior and nine juniors. “It was a pleasure to be around last year’s team,’’ Champagne said. “They were a high character group, good role models and displayed great attitude and effort. What I also liked was the way they tuned in to the pandemic’s ups and downs. They get high marks for following the regulations.’’
Champagne also gives his current squad excellent grades for their out-of-season commitment to improve. “Our players worked on weight training, competed in the Milford Summer League and were diligent with fall conditioning,’’ he said. 
A coach at both the high school and college level, Champagne also admires the way his three captains have embraced their leadership roles. The captains are all juniors — Andrei Koev (5-9 guard), Austin Merken (6-1 guard), and Joey Gentile (6-2 forward). 
“All three are respected by their teammates,’’ said Champagne. “They’ve improved as leaders and they’re all hard-workers. They lead by example but they can be vocal, too.
“Andrei is tough and unselfish, a pass-first point guard. He’s a lefty who’s got good court vision and knows how to handle the ball. Austin is a really good shooter. He’s got the best skills on our team. He’s also competitive and athletic and he’s got speed and quickness and a high hoop IQ. Joey is an all-around player. A three-sport athlete and our best defender, he rebounds well. We’re hoping he’ll score more this year.’’
Senior Sean O’Neill is a first-year player who’ll provide an inside presence because of his 6-foot-5 frame. Ticketed to play center or power forward, he’s been welcomed by his teammates. “Sean is enthusiastic, works hard, runs well and can rebound,’’ Champagne noted. “His size will give us some presence in the middle. He’s a mature, coachable player.’’
Champagne will favor a style this year that focuses on an up-tempo offense and plenty of pressure on defense. He firmly believes his juniors are ready for the challenge. “This is the first group we’ve really got to know,’’ he said. “Our future may be bright but I think they’re ready now.’’
Dillon Foley, a 6-foot-3 junior forward, falls into that ready-now mode. “He’s tough, athletic, his instincts are good and he likes to drive and attack the basket,’’ Champagne offered. 
Three other junior forwards who should be sparkplugs both on offense and defense are Owen Zakrzewski (6-3), Kaden Dumas (6-1), and Jason Stokes (6-1).
“Owen is very tough and athletic,’’ Champagne said. “A good rebounder, he’s aggressive, fast and should help with on defense. Kaden is still developing but we like his shooting ability. He could also be a top-quality rebounder. Jason is a blue-collar kid who’s coachable, works hard and has a high basketball IQ. He should be a good rebounder.’’
Juniors Mike Gonsalves (5-9) and Owen Simpson (5-10) are guards who’ll contribute. 
“Mike is a good passer who’s unselfish,’’ Champagne said. “He’s tough, has very good court vision and his confidence has improved. Owen has also improved, not only physically, but also by working hard on his game. He spends a lot of time in the weight room.’’
Besides Holliston, Champagne has coached at three other high schools — Ashland, King Philip and as an assistant at Taunton. His college venues include being an assistant at his alma mater (UMass-Dartmouth) and also for the Boston University women’s team. His prime stint at the college level, however, was at Bridgewater State where he guided the men’s varsity for 10 years and compiled a .500 record. 
His coaching philosophy features a three-prong approach. “The basketball court is an extension of the classroom,’’ he emphasized. “Players must reach their potential as positively as possible and it’s imperative to develop players to be good citizens. If I foster those three things, then winning will follow.’’
Those tenets are linked to Champagne’s mission statement and he’s never strayed from it. “I’ll stay true to my philosophy but I also emphasize that if a kid has passion for basketball, then it’s my job to fuel it,’’ he said. “Also, athletics is a laboratory for learning life lessons and it’s the only place where a kid can take on physical, emotional and intellectual challenges.’’
Holliston will open its season on Dec. 14 at Ashland, a team that Champagne says has improved. “We want to improve our standing in the Large Division of the TVL,’’ he emphasized. “Hopkinton and Westwood will be strong because of their tradition. They’re also well-coached. Medfield will also be a challenge because they’ve got size.’’
Calling his coaching staff “a very capable group that puts the kids first,’’ Champagne will rely on Sean Costello as his varsity assistant. John Iarussi is the Panthers jayvee coach and Joel Bernstein is the freshman coach.
A native of Medfield, Champagne was a quality point guard for the Warriors. But, focusing on the present, he and his Panthers have their goals in order and the veteran coach is acutely aware that if his players believe in his system and gain confidence, then Holliston will be taking a step forward towards regaining the stature and the tradition that it enjoyed in years past