If you bump into Phil Conners down at the Tewksbury High gymnasium anytime soon, don't expect to meet a guy who paints rosie pictures or looks for silver linings.
If nothing else, Conners, the new TMHS boys basketball coach, is a realist. And he knows he's got his work cut out for him if he's going to turn the Tewksbury High program into a winner this year.
"We've got a long way to go and a lot of work to do," said Conners, who inherited a team that hasn't won a home game in over three seasons. "We're asking these guys to make an adjustment as far as the level of intensity that they'll have to play at to be an effective team. We're not anywhere near that yet. We've shown glimpses of it, but we're at a point right now where if we let down for one second, we'll get blown out."
Conners' biggest hurdle is the fact that he took over the reigns of the basketball program at the smallest school in a league known as one of the toughest basketball conferences in the state. With teams like 2010 Division 1 state champion Central Catholic, 2011 Division 1 North finalist Lawrence High, and perennial Division 1 state powers Andover and Lowell dotting the Merrimack Valley Conference schedule, TMHS will face top-notch competition every week this winter.
"We're small," Conners said. "We're tiny compared to some of these other teams. So we're going to need to be the smartest and the hardest working team in the league. We're not going to out-talent or out-size anyone, so if we're not the smartest, hardest working team, we're in for a long season."
Making matters worse is the fact that the team graduated three talented, experienced leaders in center Sean Gorman, guard Joe Hulme and forward Craig Semenza last year. Only two regular starters, senior guard/forward Mike Doucette and senior guard Anthony Chiccarelli return.
The good news is that senior guard Bobby Lombard is back in action after missing all of last year with a back injury. Lombard has proven to be the team's top outside shooter in pre-season action.
"Lombard can shoot the ball some and Anthony (Chiccarrelli) has been our hardest worker so far," Conners said. "We're looking for a lot of leadership from Bobby, Anthony and Deuce (Doucette)."
In the front court, 6-1 sophomore Kevin Dick and 6-2 senior Chris Fandel will be asked to play the post positions, while 6-0 senior Sean Foley will see plenty of action at forward. Freshman guard Alex DiRocco will also be in the playing time mix.
But since the Redmen will often be giving away several inches in the height department, Conners knows he'll have to employ an up-tempo style of play that puts plenty of pressure on opposing team's offenses.
"At times we'll be playing with four guards on the floor," Conners said. "I don't mind playing that way. You just have to play bigger than you are.
"Defensively, we've got to take charges," Conners added. "We won't be blocking many shots so charges have to be a massive part of what we do."
So far, in scrimmages against Reading, North Reading and Lowell Catholic, the Redmen have shown flashes of brilliance, winning quarters against all three of those opponents by impressive margins.
"We've shown glimpses of really understanding what I want to do offensively," Conners said. "But when it's gone bad, it's gone really bad. We need to get our confidence up so that once things go bad, the whole game doesn't go the opposite way.
"We can't be satisfied with glimpses," Conners added. "It has to be 100 percent. We need to play near perfect games if we're going to have a winning season."
Winning more games than he loses is Conners' first-year goal, and qualifying for the state tournament using the Sullivan Rule (winnng 50 percent of your Division 2 games) is also on the list of goals. But initially, there's that three-year hex in the TMHS gym that has to be erased.
"The first goal is to end the home losing streak," Conners said. "After that, we just want to be competitive on a nightly basis, and to never quit, no matter what."
Conners' squad will be put to one of its toughest tests right away. The former Lowell High coach will face his old team on Tuesday night when the Red Raiders invade the Tewksbury High gym. After that there's a critical MVC Division 2 game on the road at Dracut High, followed by a non-league home game against Northeastern Conference powerhouse Danvers, and an MVC home game against Methuen.
Tewksbury will participate in the Wilmington Christmas Tournament over the holiday break.
"We've shown that we can shoot the ball to a degree," Conners said. "We've been able to knock down shots when we've had to. But we've struggled getting to the hoop and we're gonna struggle posting up.
"We've got a lot of stuff to clean up before we get to the point where we're competitive day in and day out," he added. "But we're getting there. Slowly."