Even without leader, Merrimack battles

Tim Goodridge was pretty clear in Friday night’s postgame interview after his Tomahawks’ thrashing of Concord at home.

The Merrimack High School boys varsity basketball coach classified Manchester Central as the team to beat in Division I. In his eyes, Manchester has the two best teams in the entire state between Central and fellow Queen City-based power Trinity.

Monday night, his Tomahawks proved they can hang with the best of the best, falling to Central by just three points – 62-59. They even did on the Little Green’s home court.

Oh, by the way, Merrimack rallied from nine down with 4:19 remaining. It did that without its offensive and defensive leader from that exact moment on.

The proof is on the scoreboard for all to see.

Proof that the Tomahawks absolutely belong in the same conversation at Central and Trinity.

Proof that despite outer appearances, Merrimack is not just about the Granite State’s defending Gatorade Boys Basketball Player of the Year. No doubt one of the best in all of New Hampshire still, but these Tomahawks are just as dangerous without Eric Gendron as they are with him.

OK, perhaps that last statement is not completely true. Just ask Merrimack head coach Tim Goodridge.

“We did a good job without him in there,” Goodridge said, “but let’s be honest, we aren’t going anywhere in March without him on the floor.”

For one night in January against the undisputed best team in the state, his Tomahawks almost pulled off such an upset.

Even throughout the earlier three quarters, with Gendron covered tightly, it was Austin Franzen donning the superhero cape and flying to the hoop for a bucket or to dish off to an open teammate.

His dribbling ability alone was impressive, going right and left at will – including coast-to-coast runs with both hands. He finished with two points in the first and third, four in the second and nine during that fourth quarter rally.

“He’s really progressed pretty well,” Goodridge said of Franzen. “When Eric fouled out, he took over. He did a good job of creating offense and hitting his own shots. He was strong defensively for us, too, and he came up with a couple big rebounds for us.”

But it was his 3-pointer with 42 seconds left that completed a rally from nine down to one that had the Merrimack crowd going bonkers and Central’s normally loud student section gasping for air.

That of course changed just as quickly when Central’s Jon Martin hit two free throws to stretch the Little Green edge back to three at 60-57.

Franzen did all he could to get open for another trey, but with time winding down he was forced to dish to an open Dylan Richardson down low for two. Unable to foul on the inbound and with no time outs left, Merrimack (7-1) watched Martin take an outlet pass at the other end and score the game’s final points.

“It was very scary at the end,” said Manchester Central head coach Doc Wheeler, whose team improved to 9-0. “Merrimack did a good job of flipping the momentum.”

Exactly what the Tomahawks will need to do when it counts. You know, in March. At least that’s what Goodridge keeps stressing.

Monday night in Manchester, despite the bitter cold outside, it sure felt like March. Merrimack standing tall against the best of the best.

Heck, on this night, despite the final score, proving they are part of that classification. No doubt about it.

George Scione can be reached at 594-6520 or gscione@nashuatelegraph.com. Also, follow Scione on Twitter (@Telegraph_BigG).