Tyler Nelson collected himself at the top of the key at the Cedardale Health and Fitness basketball court in Haverhill on Friday afternoon. His black T-shirt drenched in sweat, he glanced at the hoop in a triple-threat stance, keeping his imaginary defender on his toes, before pouncing to the basket for an aggressive layup.
A rising junior at Central Catholic High School in Lawrence, the 6-foot-1 Nelson has spent countless hours in the gym this summer working on his game. Still, he can not erase the memory of March, when Central was bounced by Charlestown in the Division 1 North semifinals.
Nelson left every ounce of his body on the court that day, and remembers clutching his knees as the buzzer sounding and looking up at the scoreboard to see the final score: 54-47.
“The tournament loss was frustrating after the season we had,” Nelson said. “But it only motivated me to work harder, and really focus on what I needed to do better as a point guard to help get our team back to where we want to be.”
As a sophomore point guard, Nelson led Central Catholic in minutes played and points scored. Not content, he has been working out this summer three to four times a week at Athletic Evolution and working on his game either at Central Catholic or at Cedardale.
“I gave up playing high school baseball to focus on basketball,” the 17-year-old Haverhill resident said. “I’ve been working a lot on taking the ball to the basket and improving my on-ball defense. Starting this past year really taught me how to use my clock management skills to get the most out of every possession.”
Nelson, along with Raider teammate Nick Cambio, suited up for the Boston Amateur Basketball Club’s 10th-grade squad that recently captured the national AAU title, beating a team from Charlotte, N.C., 61-55, in overtime in Orlando, Fla. Nelson dropped 16 points, eight in overtime, and Cambio added six in the victory.
The BABC team won nine consecutive games en route to the title, its third straight, and finished the season 53-1.
“The tournament taught me that you really have to play your best and contribute every game,” the 6-foot-6 Cambio said. “I wasn’t the tallest guy there, so my defense had to step up and come through to help our team win.”
Like Nelson, the 16-year-old from Tewksbury has spent his summer working to become a better player. He lifts weights at Planet Fitness with his older brother Vincent, a Marine, and plays pickup ball at courts in his hometown.
“During the summer and at the end of the winter season, I noticed that I needed to get stronger, so I started lifting every day to separate myself from other big men,” Cambio said.
“I’ve also incorporated swimming into my workouts too, to really focus on endurance, because at the end of the day, it’s about how I can help my team as more of a role player come next basketball season.”
Both players are gearing up for the JJ Donovan Fall League at the North Andover Youth Center. And Central Catholic coach Rick Nault is excited about what the tandem will bring to his program this winter.
“With both of those guys having real strong sophomore years and their summer success, it raises our expectations of ourselves as a team,’’ said Nault.
“Spending some time in the weight room was key this offseason, and I made that clear to them,’’ he said. “The kids talked about playing less pickup basketball and really focusing on taking 200 jump shots, working on ball-handling skills and really doing the little things to make themselves better basketball players, and I like what I’ve seen so far.”
With the return of Nelson and Cambio along with five rising seniors, Central will be a power once again. Nault said he believes the team will be even better than last year’s squad, which finished with a 22-2 record after starting the season 14-0.
“We have a very experienced team, and our ability to score both inside and out was key for us,” Nault said. “We’re very balanced, we can get to the rim and score in the paint. The more big games these kids play the better. The experience will definitely help us in the long run.”