By Dave Dyer
---- — HAVERHILL — Jaylin Alicea is back on track again.
But last month, when the Northern Essex sophomore from Lawrence was playing in the Knights’ preseason jamboree in New Jersey, he wondered if he was off it for good.
Alicea, who sat out last year while becoming academically eligible, was playing defense in the Knights’ third game after standing out in the first two games, when tragedy struck.
“I was just waiting for my man and I shaded over to my left side and then I felt it,” said the 5-foot-9 Alicea. “I knew right away it (foot) was broken. I’ve never felt such pain.”
And the physical pain probably wasn’t as bad as the emotional pain.
“I didn’t think I’d play basketball again,” said Alicea. “And it crushed my family, my friends, even the community. They were looking forward to coming to see me.
“I was so excited to be playing again after last year. I was ready to get on the court and happy to be playing against good competition, looking forward to the challenge, and then it all seemed to be over. I was really down about it.”
Time tends to heal most wounds, however — even emotional — and, with support from his teammates, Alicea has since pulled himself out of the dumps and is thinking positive.
“It took me about two weeks to look at it differently,” he said. “I’m still young (20-years-old) and I know I’ll be back. I’m still motivated because basketball is my ticket to a better life. I’ll rehab and be back stronger. The plan is to come back (to Northern Essex) next year and make something positive out of it.”
This is good news not only for Alicea, but for Northern Essex coach Darren Stratton, who considers Alicea — who was All-Scholastic as a senior Lancer and had a sensational state tournament — as one of the best players he’s ever had.
“We’ve got a pretty good team this year (currently 5-2), but with him (Alicea) on the court, it’s like night and day,” said Stratton. “Even in the two games he played (in New Jersey), he put on quite a show. College coaches (who were there) were definitely taking notice.
“He just has so much talent, there’s no question he’s at least a Division 2 (scholarship) player and maybe Division 1.”
To get a scholarship, of course, Alicea must not only get back on the court, but he must remain academically eligible. In the past, without the lure of basketball to make him work, that would have been a serious problem. But, after surviving last year, he’s not concerned.
“The year I had off not playing basketball helped me man up,” said Alicea. “I know what’s important and I have to get an education if I want to improve myself.
“I always think about high school and I wish I had listened when I was always told to do my homework. Coach (Paul Neal) always told me that, but I was stubborn and wouldn’t do it. I regret it now.”
Stratton has confidence that Alicea will stay on track until next year.
“The weekend we went to New Jersey, we didn’t get back until 2 a.m.,” said Stratton. “The next morning I had to go back to the campus and I saw Jaylen heading to class on his crutches for a 9 a.m. class. That was a good sign ... I think he’s matured a lot and can do it.”
There are two factors that should help Alicea stay on track. One is a “buddy system” implemented a few years ago by Stratton in which players are hooked up with a teammate so that they can check on each other, making sure that assignments are done, classes are attended and there is no problem getting to practice on time. Alicea is paired with Haverhill’s Kyle Davis.
“He (Davis) calls me, makes sure I’m doing my homework, sees if I need a ride, things like that,” said Alicea. “I like it — it helps all of us.
“I get a lot of help, so I don’t have any excuses. Coach’s wife (Elizabeth Stratton) has helped tutor me in math and that’s helped, and my teammates back me up.”
Meanwhile, Alicea is doing his part for the team, showing up for practices and games, despite his lack of mobility. He has more than a month left of a hard cast on his foot, followed by a month or more with a soft cast and then rehab. He won’t be back on the court until at least March.
“I’m still part of the team 100 percent,” said Alicea. “I still want to be here — I can still make a difference, talking to the other point guards. I make sure they know what to do, how to become a better point guard.”
High school heroics As a senior at Lawrence, Jaylen Alicea eclipsed 1,000 points for his career and was an All-Scholastic player. He was at his finest during a remarkable 2011 state tournament during which the No. 15 seed Lancers advanced to the Division 1 North finals before falling to eventual state champion St. John's Preps. Following are his final four games in that run, Lawrence 82, Cambridge Rindge & Latin 78 -- Scores 35 points and has a triple double to almost single handedly topple the North's No. 2 team. Lawrence 81, Westford 80 -- Pours in 38 points and was 9-for-9 from free throw line. Lawrence 75, Lynn English 67 -- With the pressure on, goes remarkable 17-for-17 from the line and scores 28 points in victory over No. 3 seed. St. John's Prep 87, Lawrence 73 -- Despite tremendous defensive pressure, scores 30 points in his final high school game.