Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the recruiting scene has been much different this year for newly rehired Northern Essex Community College men’s basketball coach Darren Stratton.
But, thus far, it has been no less successful.
Stratton, who coached the Knights from 1999-2015 and led them to two state titles and more than 200 wins, has always been known for his ability to communicate and relate to college-age youngsters. That has served him well on the recruiting trail.
And it was obvious to Stratton, when he took over for former assistant Joe Tardif back in March, that he needed to once again do some serious recruiting. The Knights, after all, are coming off a three-year span of going 19-57, and their quality depth has been lacking.
So Stratton has been hard at work rebuilding the roster. But with the campus shut down the last three and a half months and stay-at-home orders in place much of the time, he hasn’t really been on the recruiting trail.
“It’s been frustrating,” said Stratton. “I’ve been doing a lot of phone work instead of bringing kids in and showing them around the campus and letting them meet people. It’s harder to sell the program over the phone.”
Still, the early results are promising.
Locally, Stratton has gotten tentative commitments from Methuen’s Kevin Garcia, who had a fine season for the Rangers this past winter while averaging 10.5 points per game, as well as Lawrence sharpshooter Christian Kinsley, who played for the Lancers two years ago, nearly went to Salem State and could be a real steal, and Greater Lowell’s Tyler Bussy.
Perhaps more important, Stratton will welcome back Methuen shooting guard Evan Hardy. He led the Knights in scoring two years ago with a 15 point average before leaving school.
Two excellent guards from outside the area who are committed and will provide a big boost assuming they can travel here are Cristobal Castillo and Tavares Brown. The 6-foot-2 Castillo is from the Dominican Republic but played prep school ball in Pennsylvania while Brown is from Fort Pierce, Fla.
Last year’s leading scorer, Scottie Austin from Toronto, is likely to return if he can travel from Canada. And 6-foot-8 Turkish big man Ali Bulut, who would provide the only real size on the roster, wants to come back if he can get clearance (because of coronavirus) to get here.
Other sophomores-to-be, like Lawrence’s Daniel Almarante and Lowell’s Luis Parilla, are also expected to return.
“I think I’m in good shape so far and we’re working on some other kids who would really help,” said Stratton. “I feel we have some great guards — in fact, I’ll put my guards we already have up against anyone.
“It’s been difficult as far as commitments go and getting things squared away, but everyone is in the same boat.”
Making recruiting even more tenuous is that Stratton can’t 100 percent guarantee that the coronavirus pandemic will relax enough so that there will be a season.
“(Athletic director) Dan Blair wants it and we’ll be playing if they allow it,” said Stratton. “But this is a crazy time. There are a couple of schools, like Bunker Hill, that are already talking about not having a season even if we’re allowed to.”
The viability of a normal season remains to be seen, of course, and Thursday’s announcement that the hoop season won’t begin until January changes things, but Stratton feels the delay could work in the Knights’ favor.
At any rate, if there is a season, it looks at this point like Stratton will have the Knights headed back in the right direction.
“I feel we have some great guards — in fact, I’ll put my guards we already have up against anyone.”
NECC coach Darren Stratton