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Guards who make their teams go

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As three of the top boys’ basketball programs in the state, St. Mary’s of Lynn, Lowell, and Everett all have one thing in common: Top-notch, fast-paced guard play.

For St. Mary’s backcourt duo of senior Jonny Mercado and sophomore Jalen Echevarria, this season’s success stems from an on-court chemistry that’s been years in the making.

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When the two used to play pickup games in the park, Mercado would choose the middle schooler Echevarria when the other older kids wouldn’t. Now, they play side-by-side once again on a St. Mary’s team that is looking for its second straight Division 4 title.

In his first season as a starter, Echevarria is averaging a team-high 14 points. Mercado isn’t surprised to see Echevarria progress so quickly for the 10-6 Spartans.

“Watching him grow has been awesome,” Mercado said. “He’s like a little brother to me and seeing him get better every day has been special.”

The sophomore is shooting just under 40 percent from beyond the 3-point arc.

“I try to set him up for as many shots as I can,” Mercado said. “I don’t care if he shoots 10, 15 threes in a game. He has the green light.”

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At 5 feet 5 inches, Echevarria is undersized, even for a guard. Nevertheless, he has no problem attacking much taller players in the paint.

“What he lacks in size, he makes up for in heart,” said head coach David Brown, who won his 200th game in a 59-46 win over Arlington Catholic on Jan. 27. “He’s one of the best shooters around, but he’s also quick off the dribble and can take it straight to the rim.”

“If I believe I can go up against these big dudes, then nothing is going to stop me,” Echevarria said.

The 5-11 Mercado, who was a Globe All-Scholastic selection as a junior, is back as the primary playmaker, averaging 10 points, 6 assists, and 5 rebounds per game.

“He’s an excellent creator and knows how to get his teammates open,” Brown said. “But if we ever need a basket down the stretch, he can do that, too.”

“When I’m down and missing shots in the game he’s always there to support me,” Echevarria said. “He’s always making me a better player.”

At the end of last year’s championship run, it looked as though St. Mary’s would return all five starters to this year’s team. But after junior Calvin Johnson opted to focus on football this season and 6-7 freshman Matt Cross went down with a leg injury in the final game of the football season at Gillette Stadium, the task of repeating as Division 4 champs became a bit more daunting.

Still, much of St. Mary’s competition comes at them every night with high intensity in an attempt to strip them of their Division 4 crown.

“Night in and night out, teams are coming at us with their best because they’re going up against the defending champs,” Brown said. “You’re not going to walk into a gym and not expect them to give us their best punch.”

“Winning a state title puts a target on your back,” Mercado said. “[Our opponents] definitely want to go at us 20 times harder.”

Division 1 Everett and Lowell are led by outstanding guards who know how to score.

Everett’s Ghared Boyce was one of the state’s top scorers as a sophomore last season, averaging 25 points per game. The three-year starter already has eclipsed the 1,000-point mark while pacing the Crimson Tide to a 13-1 record.

Boyce and senior point guard Donnell Skeen give Everett has one of the most experienced and skilled backcourts in the state.

“They’ve played every single game for the past two years together,” said head coach John DiBiaso. “They know each other’s style and it makes them difficult to stop. We expected to have a good team because we knew we had experienced guys coming back.”

The Crimson Tide uses its speed to make quick outlet passes and immediately look to attack the basket off defensive rebounds.

“We love to run the fast break offense and we’re always trying to play up-tempo,” DiBiaso said. “We have really good guards and wings and try to take advantage of it.”

Another standout guard is Lowell junior Alex Rivera, who is in the midst of a breakout season, averaging 24 points per game.

Last season, Rivera was primarily a shooting guard. This year, after losing Merrimack Valley Conference Division 1 Player of the Year Sean Bryan to graduation and star guard Quest Harris to prep school, Rivera knew he had to take on much of the ball-handling duties.

“I knew I was going to have to be a point guard this year so I worked a lot on my handles, worked on being quicker and having a better basketball IQ,” Rivera said.

“[Rivera] might be the best scorer in the state and he’s been having a phenomenal year,” said head coach Bob Michalczyk. “But he’s not selfish he’s more than willing to make the extra pass to a teammate.

Lowell (12-3) doesn’t have a player taller than 6-4.

“Press all game, run all game,” Michalczyk said. “We’re not really the team that slows it down. We don’t really have the height, but we make up for it in hustle.”

P.J. Wright can be reached at pj.wright@globe.com.



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