Bill Burt: No rookie jitters: Central's Dunham is a champ

Bill Burt, The Eagle-Tribune, North Andover, Mass.
·3 min read

Feb. 19—TEWKSBURY — Central Catholic boys basketball coach Mark Dunham was yelling something at somebody yesterday and realized Andover High coach Dave Fazio was only a few feet away.

It was déjà vu all over again.

Dunham wasn't thinking back to last month when his Central Catholic boys basketball team lost a pair of close games to Fazio and Andover High to open the season.

He found himself going back further, three decades ago, when he was 10 years old and Fazio was a big-hitting, slow-pitch softball sensation with his dad, Butchie Dunham.

"I would go to every game," said Dunham. "I loved it, and I loved watching Faz. He was a great guy then, too. He was excitable, like he is now. And he could hit the ball."

For the last two years Dunham, who starred at Pinkerton Academy, was an assistant at Central under John Walsh, whom he met after giving a lesson to Walsh's son. He got a taste of the Central-Andover rivalry.

"I knew about it even before then," said Dunham. "I coached with E.J. Perry (at Salem High) and I knew Faz and would go to some of his games to watch."

When Walsh left for a position at his alma mater, Malden Catholic, this spring, Dunham let it be known he wanted the job ... badly.

"I called Ernie (DiFiore)," said Dunham of the Central athletic director. "I called everybody. I've never wanted a job more."

While Dunham was hired during the pandemic, he had no idea it would consume the local sports scene, including the Andover-Central rivalry.

"One thing I was looking forward to were the fans for the Andover game, which was disappointing," said Dunham.

One reason Dunham went for the job was he knew and loved the players in the program, including Xavier McKenzie.

"I owe coach so much," said McKenzie, after yesterday's 39-37 win over Andover. "I was a hot-head early in my career at Central. Coach Dunham talked a lot to me. He taught me about respect and leadership. It changed me. It really did."

Fast-forward to yesterday.

When Central needed a hoop after four straight times down the floor without a point, Dunham called McKenzie's number.

McKenzie put Central ahead for good, 38-36, with two minutes remaining, with a difficult pull-up jumper.

"X (Xavier) is one of the biggest reasons I wanted this job," said Dunham. "We go back a little bit."

One person at the gym who was as impressed with the Central coach as he was with Central's best player was the guy Dunham has admired the last 30 years.

"I have so much respect for what he accomplished, during a pandemic season, after opening up with us, losing twice," said Fazio. "Keeping a team together after that start is not easy. But they went on to have a great season. We had been on a great run lately with no team really being able to slow us down. To his credit, Central did."

Dunham said his team had been working on a defense the entire season, a matchup zone, which it hadn't shown the entire year.

"We saved it for this game, hoping we could get here," said Dunham. "Look, I know how hard it is to play against Andover and a Fazio coached team. This means a lot."

You can email Bill Burt at bburt@eagletribune.com.