Thetford boys hoop back in the high life again


Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 01-21-2023 9:07 PM

THETFORD — Last year, suffice to say, was not the type of season the Thetford Academy boys basketball team aspires to have.

After four straight appearances in the VPA Division III semifinals, including state championships in 2019 and 2020, the Panthers tumbled to a 4-16 record in 2021-22, bowing out in the first round of the playoffs with a 17-point loss to Vergennes.

Not even halfway through this season, all of that feels like a distant memory. The Panthers are 7-1, winners of five straight and allowing more than 15 fewer points per game than they did a year ago.

“Offense sells tickets. Defense wins games,” Thetford coach Jason Gray said. “That’s what my view is. We’re hard-nosed (defensively), and then our offense will come from that.”

Gray, in his seventh season on the Panthers’ bench, is a 2009 graduate of the school who scored nearly 1,350 points in four years with Thetford and reached Barre Auditorium in each season but fell short of a title each time. He later played basketball and soccer at Lyndon State College — now Northern Vermont University-Lyndon — before returning to the Upper Valley to coach his alma mater.

The Panthers had four seniors on last year’s roster but added six freshmen, five of whom are back this season. Jacob Gilman is this team’s lone senior, and apart from him and juniors Mitchell Parkman and Justin Robinson, the entire team is made up of underclassmen.

“I don’t feel like the only senior out here, because all the sophomores, we’re such a tight friend group,” Gilman said. “We knew we had the skill last year, but we just didn’t have the chemistry. This year, we realized that if we know how to play as a whole and not just as individuals, we can click together and really be something special.”

Thetford opened the season with double-digit wins over local foes Oxbow and Rivendell, the latter of which was the top seed in the Division IV playoffs last year. The Panthers’ lone loss came at Windsor on Dec. 21 where Yellowjackets star Maison Fortin scored 29 points, but Thetford won the teams’ second meeting on Jan. 4 at home despite 36 points from Fortin, holding his teammates to a combined 16 in a 56-52 victory.

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The following week, the Panthers earned their signature win, a 47-44 victory over a Hazen team that won the 2022 D-III title and entered the matchup undefeated. Sophomores Boone Fahey and Dempsey McGovern led Thetford with 17 and 12 points, respectively, as the Panthers held the Wildcats to just two points in the fourth quarter to come from behind.

“Coming in, we all thought we could beat them if we knew how to play together,” Gilman said. “When I looked at the schedule at the beginning of the season, Hazen was one of the games where we would really have to fight to beat them. It meant a lot, because they beat us in the playoffs last year in baseball, and all of us are pretty much three-sport athletes.”

Thetford’s ball movement has stood out of late, with crisp passes, good cuts and nobody forcing shots. Gilman, Parkman, Fahey and McGovern share the scoring load relatively evenly, with sophomores Hunter Clay and Dillon Vance enjoying occasional breakout games.

Gray said McGovern is shooting the ball well of late. After hitting an early 3-pointer from just inside the baseline Friday night against Lamoille, he gave a Michael Jordan-esque shrug as he ran back to play defense.

“Coach has said if I’m open, I can shoot, and I’ve really been working on my shot,” McGovern said. “We know we’re going to be good in the future, but we want to be good now. Our defense improves every game, and we have minimized our turnovers. We’re running our plays and looking for the open shot.”

The coming week will be the Panthers’ most challenging yet, with undefeated Spaulding visiting Thetford on Monday followed by a trip to Hazen for a rematch Wednesday. But Gray said confidence is the area where his team has shown the most growth since the start of the season, which should help as the Panthers navigate this difficult stretch.

“The first couple games, we were really hesitant,” Gray said. “We looked at the upperclassmen to be the shooters or the ones taking care of the ball. Now I’ve got some sophomores who really have stepped up. They’ve all clicked really well and treat each other with respect.

“We play around, we giggle, but when it’s serious, we’re serious.”

Benjamin Rosenberg can be reached at or 603-727-3302.