Northern Essex Community College seems to be bucking the trend.
While many junior colleges are struggling to keep sports afloat, the Knights are doing quite well, thank you.
The baseball program is currently the frontrunner, of course, having advanced to the College World Series for the second straight year, but that’s hardly the only positive news from the Haverhill campus.
The men’s basketball team under Darren Stratton and Joe Tardif has always been highly competitive and, based on the early, early recruiting news for next year, it should remain that way.
The women’s hoop program, which was one of the best around 10-20 years ago, has struggled mightily in recent years, but athletic director Sue MacAvoy has hired an energetic assistant, Brent Bass, to fuel new enthusiasm into the program and he appears to be doing that already.
Bass replaces Jim Gayton, who was not rehired and was unable to attract the numbers needed to sustain a competitive program. That’s why Bass, who had been Gayton’s assistant, has been selling the team this summer.
“I think it’ll take a couple of years to get the program back up, but he has already started,” said MacAvoy. “It was time for new energy and new ideas and Brent has them.”
Meanwhile, while many schools are cutting programs, Northern Essex is bringing back softball, which was dropped 20 years ago.
“I don’t know why it was dropped, but there’s been a huge interest in getting it back,” said MacAvoy. “We had a sign-up in the spring with good feedback and we’ve gotten calls from parents asking about it, saying they’d send their kids here if we had it.”
MacAvoy is close to hiring a softball coach and she is also interviewing candidates to coach track after Andrew Baron resigned for personal reasons. The track program at NECC has never had big numbers, but it remains an alternative for those who still want to compete.
Grant to Knights
It’s too soon to make any definite evaluations of the Northern Essex men’s hoop recruits for the upcoming year, but head coach Darren Stratton got good news earlier in the month when three-time Eagle-Tribune All-Star Ryan Grant from Whittier decided to join the Knights rather than attend a four-year school right away. He had been looking at Regis College.
“Ryan is really going to help us and we’re happy to have him,” said Stratton. “He can play several positions.”
He’ll be joined by one of his former teammates, 6-foot-5 Marck Galva, who was a student at Anna Maria College last year. Another local recruit is Parker Rogers, an MVC All-Star for Haverhill High two years ago.
The Knights, who are holding their breath on landing a pair of stars from Florida who could move into the area, have only two players returning from last year — Najja Joseph and Georgetown’s Neph Carmona. Pentucket grad Will Angelini, who averaged about 10 points a game and showed good potential, was supposed to come back, but he got a package to attend Keene State.
Also from last year’s team, Haverhill’s Kyle Davis will continue his career at Emmanuel College.
Looking to win
Bob Melillo offered no regrets last week when asked to explain his decision to resign as the head girls basketball coach at Haverhill High after four years in order to take over the Lynnfield program. The Hillies went 3-17 last winter while Lynnfield was 6-13.
Sounding like Doc Rivers, Melillo said: “At Lynnfield, there is an opportunity to win right away — the whole team is back. Haverhill has some good young talent coming up, but I couldn’t make the commitment for another two, three or four years there.
“The people at Haverhill have been great, but I see this as a great opportunity. They’ve had success (at Lynnfield) in the past and they have a good youth program in the town. I’m excited about it.”
Referring to his four years at Haverhill, Melillo said: “There are over 90 kids playing in the youth program and we have travel teams — we didn’t have that when I took over. When I interviewed for the job with (former AD) Garin Veris, he asked me to stay three years and build the program. That’s what I tried to do.”
Melillo said that his daughter Kara Melillo is interested in replacing him at Haverhill. She was a Haverhill assistant last year and also helped her father when he coached at Presentation of Mary.