March Madness is right around the corner and don’t think for a second the small-school athletes don’t take that just as seriously as the big boys.
Our region has produced a slew of top Division 3 basketball players but few seasons have been as compelling as this one.
Jim Arnold started the Hoops for Hope Summer League, has covered the NBA as a former Eagle-Tribune columnist, starred at Andover High and played Division 2 and Division 3 college ball.
So few have his basketball background. He says Division 3 ball is special ... and not just because his son Connor plays for Brandeis.
“What sets Division 3 apart?” he asked. “The players stay put for four years. It’s the opposite of Kentucky. The term student-athlete is not an oxymoron. The gyms have personality. The drafty Bates gym, built in 1926, still has a stage at one end. The host announcers may be seasoned journalists or fraternity brothers who tailgated heartily beforehand.”
Rags to riches
WPI, the home of students with 800 math SATs, may not have set out to become a basketball powerhouse. But that’s what it now is.
Twelve years ago, new WPI coach Chris Bartley told me, “We’re promoting ourselves as going to be part of the greatest turnaround in college basketball history.”
Thank goodness it was a telephone interview so he couldn’t see me dismissively rolling my eyes.
The former Andover High point guard inherited an 0-20 team, which actually might have been worse than the dubious record.
If it wasn’t the greatest turnaround, it’s on a short list. The Engineers won their eighth NEWMAC title in 10 years last week.
The star of the championship-clinching win for the 23-2 Engineers was freshman Zach Karalis of North Andover. The reigning Eagle-Tribune MVP scored a career-high 25 points in a 66-51 win over crosstown rival Clark.
The same Clark team which beat WPI 146-75 the year before Bartley arrived!
Bartley has tapped into his local roots for a good portion of this year’s team, which is ranked No. 5 nationally.
“We’ve built our program with gym-rat guys that love the game and want a meaningful degree,” said Bartley, who has a nifty 217-55 record in the last nine years. “When you recruit guys that have been coached and taught by Mike McVeigh (North Andover), Dave Fazio (Andover), John McVeigh (Brooks) and Joe Casey (North Reading), you know you are getting good horses from good stables. The Merrimack Valley has some of the best programs and coaches in New England.”
Super sub Karalis is averaging 10.0 points with a sizzling .495 3-point shooting percentage. Freshman Aaron Davis from Brooks School is averaging 6.3 points, sophomore Domenick Mastascusa of North Reading and Malden Catholic is averaging 5.4 points. Promising freshman forward Michael Moroney of North Andover has seen action in 14 games. Freshman James Costello of Andover is sitting out the year due to injury.
Bartley said, “Zach has made a huge impact in all areas. Michael Moroney is going to be a good player for us. He has excellent strength and athletic ability. Aaron Davis was given the keys as a starting freshman point guard and his physical and mental toughness have been key components to our success. With Karalis and Davis out there, I feel we will never be out-toughed. Dom’s versatility and athleticism have been really important for us.”
Kaasila the Can’t Miss Kid
In many ways, WPI is trying to become Amherst. Chris Bartley has had a brilliant run but Lord Jeffs coach David Hixon, a former Andover High great, has a 686-252 record in 36 seasons with four Final 4 appearances and a national title.
To win that much, you need some players.
This year’s squad, which is 23-2 and ranked No. 2 nationally, has a good one in senior tri-captain Peter Kaasila of Plaistow.
On Feb. 1, he grabbed a career-high 15 rebounds against Bates. The very next day, which was Senior Day, he scored a career high 26 points against Tufts. Two games later he topped that with 29 points and 11 rebounds in a 104-101 triple-OT classic at once-beat Middlebury.
“No way I was going to lose that game,” he said of the Middlebury contest. “It was probably the most exciting game of my career. There was so much on the line (it earned the Lord Jeffs the top seed for the NESCAC playoffs).”
Kaasila is averaging 13.4 points (well above his career average of 7.7), 6.2 rebounds and 1.3 blocks. Impressive numbers considering he’s doing it in 26.0 minutes a game. He’s shooting .631 from the field, which is tied for seventh best in the country.
“It’s (mostly) my size,” the 6-9, 265-pounder said of the shooting percentage. “I can put myself in an advantageous position. People can’t move me. Most of my points are on jump hooks close to the basket.”
Kaasila, who starred two years at Timberlane before playing three years at powerhouse St. Mark’s, is 32 points shy of 1,000 for his career.
“I’m not going to lie,” said Kaasila, who’d like to play in Europe. “I’ve thought about it. It would mean a lot. Only 26 Amherst players have made it. That would put me in an elite class. I’d love to be part of it and be ingrained in Amherst history.”
A Final 4 berth or even a national title wouldn’t be bad either.
The top Cats
On Jan. 3, when Anna Maria fell to an average Fitchburg State team by a 79-64 score, it looked it was going to be a long season.
The AmCats fell to 3-7 and appeared destined for their 10th losing season in the last 11 years.
Fast-forward to today. The boys from Paxton (population 4,386), which is just outside of Worcester, are 18-7 and riding a 15-game winning streak.
“It’s pretty amazing,” said sophomore Michael Gorman of Methuen, the AmCats’ starting point guard. “We just go out there every night and battle. We call it 40 Minutes of Hell.”
While the term is hardly original — Arkansas, under coach Nolan Richardson, coined the phrase — it does describe their style.
But how do you go from 3-7 to this?
“The day after our seventh loss, our coach (Shawn Conrad) sat us in the gym at 8 a.m.,” recalled Gorman. “He said, ‘This needs to change.’ It was a motivational speech that gave you goose bumps.”
When did you feel you started gaining respect?
“We played Albertus Magnus, who was No. 19 in the country,” said Gorman. “We wanted to turn heads. We wanted to show we can play anybody.”
They did just that with a 97-88 win on Jan. 21.
Gorman, a high-scoring Eagle-Tribune All-Star combination guard at Methuen High, has sacrificed stats for the team. Now he’s a pass-first point guard averaging just 2.3 points a game but doing all the little things.
“I’ll do anything Coach says, as long as it helps us win,” said Gorman, who played AAU ball for his father, Rick Gorman, with the New England Storm.
Gorman likes to help others on the court and off the court. That’s why he started The Movement Family (TMF), which has nothing to do with basketball.
“It started after my senior year in high school,” said Gorman, who holds the Greater Lawrence Christmas Tourney record with nine 3-pointers in a game. “I started it. It’s a bunch of kids from Lawrence and Methuen who’ve been through a lot. It’s a family they never had. Now there are 100-200 kids. We’re trying to motivate them that they can do it.”
Senior 6-3 tri-captain Javier Bristol of Haverhill (12.8 points, 7.8 rebounds, .576 shooting) is putting up All-Star numbers for Anna Maria. Another senior, 6-5 Jose Pena from Central Catholic, is averaging 7.3 minutes a game off the bench.
Junior De La Hoz, a 1,000-point scorer for the AmCats out of Central Catholic, helped start the Merrimack Valley pipeline. He graduated in 2011 and now is a graduate assistant coach.
Here come the Judges
It looked like Connor Arnold’s competitive playing days were over. He fought through two broken knee caps as a senior at Andover High to earn Eagle-Tribune All-Star honors. But after high school, he had three knee surgeries by Celtics team doctor Brian McKeon.
Last year he made his comeback. The 6-3 Arnold has lost 45 pounds to 195. Last year as a sophomore he played in eight games for Brandeis. This winter he’s helped the Judges to a 17-7 record. He’s started two games and is averaging 1.7 points and 2.9 rebounds in 12.1 minutes a game.
Freshman guard Colby Smith of North Andover has started 14 of 24 games for Brandeis. He’s averaging 2.1 points, 2.9 rebounds and 2.4 assists a game.
Follow Michael Muldoon on Twitter under the screen name @MullyET.