Unique Recruiting Stories on 3 Northeast Conference Seniors

The coaches of the Northeast Conference are terrific recruiters, but you already knew that. The talent these coaching staffs have been able to bring into the league is extraordinary and sometimes the stories behind these recruitments are unique. Throughout the season, I’ve talked to coaches and compiled interesting recruiting stories, most notably pertaining to seniors. Allow me to share some recruiting stories for three seniors – center Deniz Celen, guard Adam Grant and forward Kinnon LaRose – that have been instrumental to their team’s success.

Deniz Celen, St. Francis Brooklyn

While out on a recruiting trip, Glenn Braica had a lot on his mind like most head coaches during the spring session. That’s when he got a call from his friend and then-Fairfield assistant coach, Mitch Buonaguro. He was calling to remind Braica that Deniz Celen, a former Stag who had just completed a season at Harcum College in the JUCO ranks, was planning to visit St. Francis Brooklyn later that day. 

“He just kind of wanted me to know that there was a lot of Division II interest in this Deniz Celen and I said ‘Mitch, with all due respect who is Deniz Celen?’” Braica recalled from the conversation before continuing. “He said ‘he’s the kid coming to your school today.’”

Now reminded of their meeting later that day, Braica met with the 6-foot-8, 280 pound center who was asking to join the Terriers for the 2018-19 season. On the surface Celen’s request was odd for a couple of reasons. One, the Terriers didn’t have a scholarship available – all 13 roster spots were accounted for. And two, Celen had a number of quality Division II offers as well as a Division I offer from Cal Poly to ponder. There certainly wasn’t a lack of options for the big man about to enter his junior season.

But the offers and lack of a St. Francis scholarship didn’t really matter to the Ankara, Turkey native. He simply wanted to be in Brooklyn because his uncle lived down the street from the college that made its home on Rensen Street.

“I didn’t know anybody… I went upstairs and (Braica) was real straight forward with me,” Celen said of the first time he met Braica. “He was really honest, I felt like he was a genuine nice person so that was one of the first impressions I had.”

Perhaps more importantly, the center impressed in his scrimmage with the team after the meeting, to the point where Braica offered Celen a preferred walk-on position with the program. If things went well moving forward, Braica promised, he’d find a scholarship for Celen as a senior, either for the 2019-20 or 2020-21 campaign.

That was enough for Celen, who accepted Braica’s proposal soon after. With a 3-month long summer trip to Turkey coming up, Celen received a work-out program from the St. Francis Brooklyn strength trainer. It was time to improve his physical condition after it admittedly got away from him at Harcum, a junior college nestled in the Philadelphia suburbs.

“I think it was the fact my school was a little bit isolated and there wasn’t much going on,” Celen said. “I put some weight on.”

To be frank, approximately 30 pounds were added to his already large frame, yet after taking to the strength training regiment over the summer in Turkey, the weight started to come off. It was all thanks to an intensive program that included a variation of weight lifting, conditioning and agility training 2 times per day, 6 days per week. Celen arrived in Brooklyn seemingly a new man, at 250 pounds.

“He came back and I didn’t recognize him,” Braica said upon Celen’s return near the start of the fall semester. “And then he was our best center which we didn’t expect.”

The physically fit Celen was a godsend for the Terriers that season down low. As a junior, he provided a positive contribution in 54% of the team’s minutes, registering 7.6 points, 5.4 rebounds and 1.5 assists per game. The maturation has only continued going into his senior season, to the point where Celen, now a scholarship player, has virtually improved in every aspect of his game. The analytics website BartTorvik.com denotes Celen as the 7th most valuable player in the league based on its player ranking metric.

Braica surely is thankful Celen fell into his lap, especially during a 2018-19 season where fellow big men Joshua Nurse and Milija Cosic were out due to season ending injuries. “He’s like Marc Gasol, but he can pass,” Braica said of Celen after the Terriers last non-conference game, a victory over Delaware State. “He’s a great passer, that’s his best attribute and he can score in the post and shoot.”

In the victory over Delaware State, Celen played all 20 minutes in the second half, while registering a career high 27 points in the victory. For a basket that broke a 50-50 tie, Celen received an inbounds pass on the baseline, faked a handoff, spun toward the hoop and flushed it down with authority.

The senior admits that this play wasn’t possible merely two years ago. Nor was rim running and having the energy to exert maximum effort on both ends of the floor. But now, everything is possible – he even has a chance to take home an individual award or two when the regular season ends in less than a week.

“I really want to make one of the (all-conference) teams,” Celen said prior to league play beginning in January. “I was also thinking about (the league’s) most improved player.”

The end-of-season hardware is a possibility as the senior currently stands 18th among his league mates in scoring (11.6 ppg), 13th in rebounding (6.3 rpg), 9th in blocks (1.1 bpg) and 1st in field goal percentage (57.1%). It’s been quite the journey for Celen, but for now there’s no place he’d rather be than in Brooklyn.

Adam Grant, Bryant

In the midst of an unexpected down season, Tim O’Shea was desperate to add an impact guard to Bryant’s roster, namely a shooter. He and his assistant coaches were combing the East Coast to find players that could fit O’Shea’s need.

Frankie Dobbs, the former Bryant player and then-assistant coach under O’Shea, was tipped off on a high school senior named Adam Grant while researching Grant’s teammate at Norfolk Collegiate School, a Virginia institution. What Dobbs saw in his first visit excited him – the under-recruited Grant was athletic and could fill it up from behind the arc.

“I loved Adam,” Dobbs recounted from the first time he saw Grant in-person. “I told Coach O’Shea right away, ‘hey this kid is special.’ He has the athleticism that Coach O’Shea likes, he can really shoot the ball which Coach O’Shea likes.”

A deeper dive into Grant’s character – he’s a humble kid who’s very close with his mother and family – built the case for Dobbs even more to go after the sharpshooter. The original list of four guards that the Bryant assistant coaches assembled was unofficially whittled down to Grant, as long as O’Shea confirmed everything that Dobbs was selling.

“I thought the world of Adam, I thought Adam would be great,” O’Shea said of his initial recruiting visit to Grant at Norfolk Collegiate. “It’s hard to find really, really athletic kids who can shoot the ball. And he’s a terrific shooter, he has perfect form and when he takes his jump shot – if you were to measure it out he’s probably legitimately 5-foot-11, maybe 6-foot – he’s a foot off the ground. He’s got great range and his motor – he’s got a terrific motor.”

Grant’s lift off his jump-shot has become a trademark at Bryant, and back then it was no different. And yet during recruitment Dobbs had minor concerns, despite its near perfect mechanics.

“It’s funny, I almost worried about it to a certain degree sometimes… because when he jumps so high his defender would look to try to contest and (Grant) lands on his foot,” Dobbs said of the jumper Grant developed with his uncle when growing up. “It’s just kind of a gift and a curse of the jump-shot.”

Grant acknowledges that he’ll sometimes need to let the officials know during the game that his jumping space is being impeded on when elevating vertically. “Actually, I tell the refs that because a lot of the time they think that I jumped so far forward,” Grant said. “I say ‘no, I don’t think that’s the case. I think I just jumped high.’”

Scant worries aside, Grant emerged as a no-brainer recruit for Bryant. After Grant’s official visit to the Rhode Island school, O’Shea extended the guard an offer to become the program’s 13th and final scholarship player for its 2016-17 roster. It was an opportunity Grant simply couldn’t pass up, even if there were lingering concerns about being more than 500 miles away from home.

Grant’s teammate at Norfolk and friend, SaBastian “Bash” Townes, was still waiting for his first Division I offer in the meantime, despite the fact that he almost scored 2,000 points in high school and “was the man on that team” according to Dobbs. Townes’ size as a power forward seemed to be a detriment for Division I coaches, except for the ones at Bryant.

“He’s a little undersized, but good footwork, knows how to score, he’s a good player,” O’Shea said when describing Townes, who at the time had plenty of interest from Division II suitors.

Luckily for Townes, a 2016-17 scholarship became available a couple of weeks after Grant committed when senior power forward Andrew Scocca decided his body could no longer take the physical punishment of Division I basketball.

O’Shea and his staff seized the opportunity on improving their frontcourt and making the freshman transition a little easier for Grant. “When the scholarship became available one of things in the back of my mind about bringing Bash in was I thought he’d make it easier for Adam to transition, because they had basically grown up living together during the school year at Bash’s house. They really were like brothers.”

The offer to Townes was extended and quickly accepted. “My mind was blown away by the thought of it, so when he actually committed (to Bryant), it was great,” Grant said.

Fast forward four years later and Grant sits atop Bryant’s leaderboard in most career triples made (294) and is fifth all-time in the NEC in the same category. He’s also closing in on the most minutes played in the program’s Division I history. But if you ask Grant to recall his proudest moments individually as a Bulldog, the selfless guard naturally reverts back to his team.

“I actually haven’t had time to sit back and think about all of the individual accolades,” Grant said candidly when asked about the 3-point record. “I just never thought about it until during Senior night (last Sunday versus Sacred Heart) when they started to call out the individual athletes and (I could) say ‘hey, I did do a little something, but it’s still not the end goal.”

There’s still time to change the end goal for Bryant regarding the 2019-20 campaign, but when it’s all said and done, Adam Grant will go down as one of the all-time greats in Bryant lore. And to think he was discovered by accident when Dobbs was recruiting another teammate.

Kinnon LaRose, Sacred Heart

It’s a story Anthony Latina will gladly tell to anybody who asks about Kinnon LaRose, his senior forward. It was about the time the LaRose boys, Kinnon and his older brother Cavan, were part of a larger group playing wiffleball one evening on a Pitt Center side court while Latina was cleaning up for the night after Dave Bike’s Sacred Heart summer basketball camp had ended.

As the LaRose brothers, then deep into elementary school, were having fun on Court 4, Latina’s 6-year old son, Luke, was mesmerized by the boy’s game. He watched the participants intently, so much so that Latina asked him to stay put while he quickly ran downstairs to put stuff away.

Upon Latina’s return, he quickly noticed Luke wasn’t occupying the same spot as he had when Latina left him a couple minutes prior.

“I look around, I’m like panicking for 30 seconds and all of sudden I saw my son has jumped into the wiffle ball game with the boys,” Latina said as he described the moment.

The LaRose brothers, several years Luke’s senior, had invited the youngster to join the game, one that was comprised of third, fourth and fifth graders. They had Luke take a turn at bat and run down to first base. It may not sound like much, but it was a cool experience for Luke nonetheless. That certainly wasn’t lost on his father.

“I remember saying to myself ‘this is really special,’” Latina recalled. “For these boys to ask a 6-year old boy, who may ruin the game, to play with them says a lot about the type of people they are.”

The act of kindness stuck with Latina, even if he and LaRose boys didn’t cross paths for quite a while after that. Their paths met again several years later when the LaRose brothers’ aunt, Sacred Heart softball coach and now Senior Associate Athletic Director Elizabeth Luckie, approached Latina regarding Cavan and his basketball program.

Cavan was once a star basketball player at Ogdensburg Free Academy in New York, but two devastating ACL tears in the same knee over a 2-year span effectively ended his dream of playing on scholarship at the Division I level. Now, he just wanted to be a part of Sacred Heart’s program, and Luckie asked Latina if Cavan could serve as the team’s basketball manager.

Latina was happy to bring Cavan on in that capacity, yet the following year Cavan expressed his desire to have a bigger role.

“The next year Cavon wanted to walk on and he still just wasn’t at the point where he could help us as a walk-on,” Latina said of his request. “He was out of shape, his knees weren’t there yet. He didn’t want to be a manager and I said ‘listen, play with the club team for a year. If you can get in shape to the point where you are running tests and things like that, I’ll reconsider it.’”

Cavan heeded Latina’s advice and got himself in terrific shape, so much so that Latina offered him a walk-on position the following year. Cavan, who Kinnon calls a role model to this day, had realized his dream of being a Division I athlete; a thrill provided by Latina that surely wasn’t lost on the LaRose family.

As Cavan began the 2015-16 season as a walk-on, his younger brother Kinnon was just beginning his collegiate endeavor with Jimmy Patsos at Siena. The Ogdensburg product didn’t see much playing time as a freshman, although he made the most of it, draining 12 of 24 shots from the floor. Nevertheless, the experience as a garbage time player wasn’t what Kinnon had envisioned, and he left the program after his rookie campaign.

To the surprise of many, there were mostly crickets on the recruitment of Kinnon as a transfer, despite the fact that he scored 1,769 points and averaged 30.2 ppg as a high school senior before embarking on Siena.

“It is what it is, I wasn’t too upset about it,” LaRose answered when asked about the lack of interest transferring out of Siena. “I just wanted to play at any level so I was content with whatever was going to happen.”

Enter Latina and Sacred Heart. Due to Cavan’s positive experiences with the program, it was easy for him to urge Kinnon to join the team. The only problem was Latina didn’t have an immediate need for a shooter and was currently trying to procure another commitment with his 13th scholarship for the 2016-17 season.

Latina, who liked Kinnon’s game very much and saw the long term value, had to make a deal. “I said, ‘Kinnon, listen I can’t promise you a scholarship in year one so here’s what I can do, if you can pay the first year, we’ll scholarship you the next three, you’ll get your masters.’”

Kinnon took the offer and was relieved the transferring ordeal was over. Now, he could go back to being a college basketball player. Later on that year though, Latina and his staff still weren’t enamored with any of the options available to take on that 13th scholarship. That’s when he decided to give Kinnon a call, a phone call that Latina would later classify as “probably one of the most rewarding phone calls I’ve ever made as a coach to a player.” He was going to give the 13th scholarship to Kinnon after all.

“It was a great phone call,” Kinnon confirmed. “I was back home, it was after the first summer session that I was here and he said ‘listen we have another opening for you, he’s like I think you deserve it, you’ve had a good summer, we’d love to give it to you now so you don’t have to pay.’”

The rest, of course, is history with Kinnon going on to be a critical member of Sacred Heart’s program, a program that’s won 32 games over the past 2 seasons.

“I’ve said this many times Kinnon is the most selfless player I’ve ever coached and it’s not even close and we’ve had some awesome kids,” Latina said. “This kid is all about the team, he cares so much about the team over himself. There’s very few players I’ve coached who I’ve wanted to leave a winner more than Kinnon LaRose.”

His aforementioned selflessness has been critical in keeping the Pioneers together through thick and thin. Kinnon has embraced his role as a senior, playing nearly 79% of the team’s minutes, second to only star forward E.J. Anosike.

“Just to be the glue guy, be the person that keeps everybody together,” Kinnon said when asked about his role as a senior. “I don’t need to go out there and score 30, 40 points, just kind of do my role, keep things steady, knock down open shots when they come to me… and just play every possession like it’s his last.”

The selflessness was apparent at the wiffleball game and remains strong to this day.

We’re Excited About the Battle of Brooklyn ’20…Here’s Why You Should Be Too

The Battle of Brooklyn not only spotlights the NEC’s fiercest rivalry, but almost without fail delivers some of the most compelling television when it is airs annually as part of the conference package.

When the LIU Brooklyn-St. Francis Brooklyn rivalry is renewed on Tuesday at the Steinberg Wellness Center, there will be plenty of hype for the ESPNU broadcast, and deservedly so. But can the game top these LIU-SFBK thrillers?

Read more

The Pioneers Continue to Contend Amid Offensive Adjustments

SHU’s Aaron Clarke (Photo: Steve McLaughlin)

Pardon me as I conjure up my inner Jon Rothstein: “Sacred Heart. More adjustments than a chiropractor.”

When Sacred Heart lost their point guard and arguably a top 10 player in the Northeast Conference, it was difficult to see how the Pioneers would remain in the perceived top tier of the league. Cam Parker possesses a unique ability to create for himself and his teammates a variety of ways – in transition, off a ball screen or just finding the gaps in a defense to get downhill with the dribble drive. It’s near impossible to replace that offensive skill set given the Pioneers current roster make-up.

At least that’s how I saw it before this four game winning streak.

It’s not the first, and certainly won’t be the last time I look foolish with my in-season prognostications, yet in fairness, who saw the Pioneers winning streak coming?

Yes, the schedule broke for Latina’s squad after the dreaded western Pennsylvania trip with a visit to Central Connecticut State and a home match-up versus Fairleigh Dickinson. Those two resulted in decisive victories, and along with triumphs over the Mount and St. Francis Brooklyn, Sacred Heart’s case to remain in title contention has strengthened, even without Parker. Currently, the Pioneers are just one game back of Robert Morris for the #1 seed in the NEC tournament after winning seven of ten. (Remember, first place Merrimack isn’t eligible to compete in the postseason event.)

So what has been responsible for the Pioneers recent improvement, a surge that has the Pioneers scoring 1.13 points per possession while posting a superb 55.3% effective field goal percentage? It’s a confluence of events, to be honest, and I’ll do my best to break it down, with help from head coach Anthony Latina.

Slow and Steady Wins the Race?

Steady basketball, instead of flashy basketball, may not be the most sexy, yet that formula is currently working for Latina’s Pioneers. Minus their best playmaker, the coaching staff has worked to fine-tuned the team’s half-court execution. That can mean a number of things.

“We’re still a team that runs a ton of ball screens, but I think when Cam went down we tried to focus a little bit more on tidying up our execution,” Latina said when asked about the post-Parker adjustments. “You never want to lose a player of Cam’s caliber, but it forced us to really take a closer look at our half-court execution and try to execute better, whether that be setting screens, using screens, maybe a little more variety of sets too.”

There’s been a reduction in transition opportunities as a result, but that’s something Latina can live with when the offense is taking care of the basketball. So far, so good, with Aaron Clarke handling a majority of the point guard duties – he posted 16 assists versus 3 turnovers during SHU’s four-game winning streak. As a team, they’ve turned it over on 17.7% of their possessions over the past four contests. That’s a nice improvement after turning it over on 22.6% of their possessions in the first six league games, three of those losses.

“Aaron has been terrific, not turning the ball over,” Latina confirmed regarding his sophomore guard. “He’s not super fast, but he’s got some good quickness, change of direction type of quickness. He drives with authority and physical-ness. He does find a way to get to the rim and he’s smart, so he picks his spots.”

Originally cast as versatile, crafty, combo guard, Clarke has embraced his current role as the team’s main facilitator. His production in Saturday’s road victory over St. Francis Brooklyn (17 points, 5 assists, 1 turnover) was needed to help the Pioneers pull out a tight, back-and-forth affair. This Clarke feed to an open Kinnon LaRose helped extend SHU’s lead to six points late in the second half:

Early in the contest, Clarke’s dribble penetration got Jare’l Spellman an easy flush.

Koreem Ozier – Efficient Volume Scorer

Before the season began, I highlighted Ozier as one of the NEC wildcards, suggesting that Ozier’s performance could directly impact where Sacred Heart wants to go as a team. When NEC all-conference first teamer Sean Hoehn graduated, the Pioneers needed a player who could create offense for himself.

Ozier has filled that void, but recently he has been doing it with excellent efficiency. Over the past three contests, Ozier has scored 55 points on 38 shots. He’s filled it up all over the court, making him one of the more difficult assignments in the league currently. And his production has been off the bench as opposed to starting, which he did over Sacred Heart’s first 18 games.

“He’s such a high energy player that he really does give us a jolt when he comes into the game in different ways, whether it’s rebounding the ball, whether it’s giving us energy,” Latina said of Ozier, who was tabbed as a NEC Prime Performer on Monday. “We just felt like with the loss of Cam we needed more pop off the bench, and not many guys can do what (Ozier) does.”

It’s finishing the game that’s most important, and Ozier has certainly been part of that. This three-point play with under two minutes remaining against the Terriers was critical. 

Role Players Are Producing As Anosike Becomes The Sole Focus

One thing opposing coaches are astutely picking up on with the new-look Pioneers: they are trying their best to prevent potential NEC Player of the Year candidate E.J. Anosike from beating them in the low post. This past week, both Mount St. Mary’s and St. Francis Brooklyn were constantly doubling the power forward anytime he touched the ball in the low block.

It’s something Latina is cognizant of. “It’s something that we try to practice everyday,” he said. “We try to double EJ because we know he’s going to see that a lot.”

SHU has also increased Anosike’s touches away from the paint, allowing the versatile big to put the ball on the deck or take an open jumper. In terms of the former, here are a couple of examples:

Even as Sacred Heart gets more creative with Anosike’s touches, his production has been a little down of late with the added defensive attention. It’s forced the Pioneer role guys such as Kinnon LaRose, Tyler Thomas, Spellman and Alex Watson to have more of an impact.

“The reason I think we’ve had some success is we’ve had several different players carry us at different moments,” Latina said.

Case in point: LaRose posted a double double (16 points, 10 rebounds) at St. Francis Brooklyn, draining a team-high four triples in the win. Tyler Thomas scored a combined 25 points on 9 of 18 shooting in two wins versus Central Connecticut State and Fairleigh Dickinson. Anosike and Spellman have been potent on the offensive glass, as Sacred Heart leads the conference in offensive rebounding rate by collecting 37.4% of their own misses in NEC play.

The balance has been noteworthy of late and it’s made the Pioneers more stable.

Defense, Defense, Defense

On Monday, Latina likened Spellman’s defensive prowess to that of a football player.

“Jare’l Spellman has really gotten back to where he was defensively in these 4 wins,” Latina said. “He’s gone against two of the best low-post scorers in the league in (Malik) Jefferson and (Deniz) Celen. We have basically said ‘you are guarding them by yourself,’ kind of like the equivalent of a great cornerback.”

Spellman Island has returned to Fairfield with the senior blocking and altering shots at a terrific rate once again. The 6-foot-10 center leads the league in blocked shots (59) and nationally has the 41st best block rate at 8.8%.

It’s not just Spellman, though, that’s responsible for the Pioneers allowing 0.91 points per possession during the aforementioned winning streak. A lot of the success can be attributed to staying in front of your defender and contesting shots (47% effective field goal percentage defense, 3rd in the NEC), and then allowing your studs down low to clean up the glass.

Additionally, the steady albeit less flashy offense has aided in reducing the opponent’s transition opportunities. “Because we’ve been more conservative offensively – we take less chances and turn the ball over less – it’s made our defense a lot better,” the seven-year coach confirmed. “We’re forcing teams to go five-on-five a lot more”

Add it all up and that’s the reason why the Pioneers find themselves at 7-3 in league play. The schedule is about to get harder, however, with home showdowns this week versus Robert Morris and Saint Francis U, two teams that beat Sacred Heart earlier in the year. And a road match-up in Merrimack surely won’t be easy.

Whether they can continue to thrive sans Parker remains to be seen given the schedule, yet the Pioneers are doing their best to ensure that they’ll get a very good seed in the NEC tournament with their adjustments.

The Hammel Coaching Tree: Greg Herenda and Joe Gallo Share a Unique Bond as Northeast Conference Competitors

Greg Herenda had enough. Sore, mentally fraught and feeling disenfranchised, the 19-year old point guard secretly boarded a bus and began his sojourn from Merrimack College, a small Augustianian school in North Andover, Massachusetts, to the Garden State. 

It was a rough sophomore season for fiery Herenda, one that saw decreased playing time with a new coach keen to establish his way or the highway. Head coach Bert Hammel, in replacing local legend Frank Monahan before the start of Merrimack’s 1980-81 season, sought to institute a new system that drew parallels with Bob Knight at Indiana University. Now there were 5:00 AM lifts, constant running drills on an overgrown ski slope, mandatory study halls, and something that was of a particular annoyance to Herenda, strict curfews.

Several players quit throughout Hammel’s inaugural season as the taskmaster implemented his unforgiving culture. Others like Herenda endured the physical and mental torture in hopes that their standing with the Merrimack coach would improve and basketball would be fun again, as it had been under Monahan.

That didn’t happen, and as Herenda sat on the bus that spring night heading toward the Port Authority in New York City, he felt relief. Relief that the hellish year was coming to a close and that he could start anew somewhere else. The sudden exodus felt right. 

That is until his mother, the following morning in their North Bergon, New Jersey home, asked her son a simple question after breakfast. “My mother was street smart, she’s like ‘well, who is going to give you a scholarship,’” Herenda recalled from that emotional moment.

Once Herenda’s mom injected her son with a dose of reality – there wasn’t a portal that afforded student-athletes an easy way to transfer back then – it wasn’t long before Herenda was on a bus returning to Merrimack. His next meeting with the fastidious Hammel became a turning point in his young life, even if Herenda was oblivious when he walked into the office.

“I had a meeting and I’ll never forget it,” Herenda said with respect to that end-of-season sitdown. “In my second year, I averaged like nine minutes a game and he told me I was going to be a nine minute player if I came back. I don’t think he really was begging me to come back and I just remember saying ‘Ok man, that’s it. I’m going to show this guy.’”

Always the fierce competitor, Herenda devoted himself from that point forward, and by the time the following season commenced, Herenda was the Warriors’ starting floor general. His upperclassman seasons were fruitful, culminating with a splendid senior campaign. The captain averaged nine assists per game and posted a record setting 22 helpers in a victory over rival Bentley College. Over the course of his final season, Herenda developed into a coach on the floor, routinely calling out defensive coverages and making suggestions to Hammel while competing on the hardwood.

“My relationship with him and the game really changed over my four year career,” Herenda said looking back. Shortly after his playing career was over, Hammel gave Herenda his first opportunity to be an assistant coach. It certainly was an arduous path to get there, but things had officially come full circle for the man who’d eventually coach young men to championships, first at UMass Lowell and next at Fairleigh Dickinson University.

———-

Nearly two decades after Herenda was exposed to Hammel’s coaching, the then-assistant coach at East Carolina University got a call from Alan Taback, the long-time high school coach at Princeton Day School in New Jersey. Things weren’t going well for one of Taback’s former stars, Justin Leith, at Colonial Athletic Association rival UNC Wilmington and he needed Herenda’s input. Leith wanted to find a better fit collegiately, leading to Herenda suggesting he look into a small Division II school near Boston.

Leith took Herenda’s advice, and soon after his freshman season committed to Merrimack and Coach Hammel. On one of his next trips up to the campus, Leith brought along a former high school teammate to play in a scrimmage with his new team. The teammate’s name was Joe Gallo.

By the time Gallo signed onto the Warriors program as a walk-on in 2000, Hammel had softened his persona to the point where he fostered a better connection with his players. The intensity on the court, however, never waned as the grizzled veteran coach acquired experience.

“He was very honest, but it always came from a great place, you always knew he cared for you,” Gallo said when asked about playing for Hammel, then entering his third decade of leading Merrimack. “The guy in between the lines was tough, but he was a big teddy bear once you got him off the court back in the office.”

Herenda took his former coach and mentor’s softening to another level. “By the time Joey got to (Coach Hammel), forget it, he was a marshmallow I think,” he laughed.

No matter if he was a teddy bear or marshmallow, Gallo benefited greatly from Hammel’s tutelage. He ascended to become the Warrior’s backup point guard as a junior, a noteworthy accomplishment as a walk-on. And despite missing the entirety of his senior season after undergoing surgery to repair a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his elbow, the setback inevitably led to Gallo’s next calling in life. It gave him an invaluable exposure into coaching.

“Coach Hammel had me sit up front on the bench with him and the assistant coach rather than in the back with the players,” Gallo said of his senior season. “I was almost like a student (coaching) assistant, so to say, that year.”

Like Herenda before him, the coaching apprenticeship as a player led to a full-time assistant coach position right next to Hammel, merely six months after Gallo graduated from Merrimack. That was the start of a productive career as an assistant coach with stops at Dartmouth and Robert Morris along the way.

———-

After 36 years of patrolling the sidelines, the Merrimack athletic department and Hammel decided to part ways. Then 64 years old, Hammel had given Merrimack a treasure trove of success on and off the court – 526 wins, five NCAA Division II tournament appearances, three NE-10 conference titles and a lifetime of charitable work that originated at the Boys and Girls Club in Lawrence. His foundation and legacy, which also produced a slew of coaches including long-time University of New Hampshire head coach Bill Herrion, left a lasting impression on the hundreds of players he guided over a remarkable four decades. The college even honored the coach in 2011 by naming the basketball facility “Hammel Court.”

Despite the successes, the split between Hammel and Merrimack after the 2015-16 season wasn’t completely amicable. It led to a layer of trepidation for potential candidates; taking over a program that was in great hands for a long time was surely an intimidating prospect for some.

While the college swiftly expressed interest in Gallo as Hammel’s successor given his success as a Robert Morris assistant under Andy Toole, the Warrior alum needed approval from the mentor responsible for jump starting his coaching career.

“The first person that I did call was Coach Hammel,” Gallo said. “He called me back and left me this long-winded message of how proud he would be of me and how there’s no one else he’d rather take over the keys of the program that he had… Before I inquired with anyone over (at Merrimack), I wanted to make sure I got Bert’s blessing. Once I got the OK with him, I could really care less what anyone else thought, whether it was other alums or people close to him.”

The rest, of course, is history with Gallo continuing Hammel’s legacy of achievement at Merrimack with three consecutive NCAA Division II tournament appearances and a NE-10 championship in 2019 to boot. 

Now Division I and Northeast Conference competitors, Gallo and Herenda share the unique coaching bond that got them into the business, albeit in different ways. And they will square off against each other for the first time when Fairleigh Dickinson visits Merrimack on January 23.

Toole has the unique perspective of having coached against both Hammel disciples, while even employing one for four seasons. He playfully attempted to compare Gallo and Herenda, two distinct personalities whose foundations began at Merrimack. 

“You watch Joe and Greg and they have some great sideline behavior,” Toole deadpanned. “Both of them have shown their vertical, or lack thereof vertical, at times during games. Both of them jumping up and down at times, waving their arms.”

Gallo notes that the famous Herenda foot stomp, a sideline move that may have consequences on 58 year old’s hips in due time, originated with the animated Hammel. 

Joking aside, Toole further elaborated on the two men who coached their respective programs to league championships during the 2018-19 season. “Both of them definitely have a command of their teams; the players are connected to their coach,” he said. “I think all their feelings toward Coach Hammel were as hard and as tough a coach he was, they all had great respect for them, they knew that he cared about them greatly and I think you see that in Joe, you see in Greg and they wouldn’t have had some of the successes that they had if they didn’t approach it that way.”

Herenda will undoubtedly be emotional when he steps onto Hammel Court before Thursday’s tip for the first time since his Hammel’s unfortunate passing in October of 2018. Gallo has already confronted those emotions, while Herenda isn’t completely sure of how he’ll feel.

“That’s where I grew up, it’s where I (went) from a high school kid to a man,” Herenda said two days before the game. “And I coached there with Bert for four years. And now the court’s named after him.”

No matter the score, it will undoubtedly be a special night. And rest assured Bert Hammel, the man who started an indelible legacy at Merrimack, will be smiling down on his former players from above. For a legendary coach that was fiercely intense and competitive, there likely are no losers after Thursday’s contest on Hammel Court.

Robert Morris’ High Powered Offensive Attack is Back, But Why?

Defense has been synonymous with Robert Morris basketball since Andy Toole stepped foot on the Moon Township campus more than a decade ago.

His boss, Mike Rice, initially got the Colonials to buy into a tough, no nonsense mindset on the defensive end, leading to the turnover generating, highly efficient guarding attack everyone equates Robert Morris with these days. Since the 2007-08 campaign, the Colonials have always finished in the top 200 of Division I in defensive efficiency, quite a feat for a small mid-major school. And only one of those years, when Toole had to play zone strictly out of necessity due to injuries and defections, has Robert Morris been outside the top 100 in defensive turnover rate.

In other words, Robert Morris and defensive tenacity go hand and hand.

So what happens when Toole’s squad figures it out on the other end? Well, it was a half decade ago when Robert Morris was also a well-oiled machine scoring the basketball. Having that continuity on both ends is the reason why the Colonials were an absurd 75-27 in league play over his first five seasons as the head coach.

Year Offensive Efficiency KenPom/NEC Rank NEC Record
2010-11 103.2 172 / 2 14-7
2011-12 105.9 119 / 3 15-6
2012-13 105.1 130 / 3 15-5
2013-14 105.8 165 / 3 16-3
2014-15 103.1 197 / 1 15-6

It’s been offensive slog since that 2015 NEC tournament championship, mainly due to several high profile players transferring from Moon Township for bigger programs. Some worked out, some didn’t, but five seasons later Toole finally has built a roster that has the continuity needed to succeed on offense.

“Anytime you make shots it’s making any offense looks good, efficient (and) effective,” Toole said on Wednesday when asked if game planning is easier knowing this team’s strengths offensively. “I do think we have some guys that have played a lot of games and they’re a little bit more experienced in terms of handling different defenses and we’ve been in the same offensive style and system for years.”

After a choppy start that included a difficult non-conference slate, Robert Morris’ offense has been firing on all cylinders, scoring at least 1.03 points per possession (ppp) in six straight games. Over that time they’ve shot 55.3% from 2, 45.4% from 3, and have a pristine 118 assists to go against 74 turnovers (1.6 A/TO ratio). It’s offensive basketball at its finest and it’s safe to say this positive trend isn’t a flash in the pan. So let’s examine why Robert Morris is back to leading the NEC in offensive efficiency (118.9 points per 100 possessions!) through four league games.

Dante Treacy’s Insertion Into the Lineup

I highly recommend Chris Capella’s piece on Treacy. In there he examines the notable improvement the sophomore has made after what some would say was a mediocre freshman campaign. The point guard’s play in 2019-20 has been far from mediocre, as he’s currently a strong candidate for the NEC’s Most Improved Player award with averages of 8.6 ppg, 4.9 apg, 2.9 rpg to go along with a 2.0 A/TO ratio.

(Side note: I really enjoyed Glenn Sanabria’s take on Treacy here. Go to the 22:30 mark.)

Forgot the individual achievements though, it’s how Treacy has made the players around him better that’s been the most impressive feat.

“I think Jon (Williams) has benefited in sharing some of the ball handling responsibilities,” Toole said when talking about Treacy’s impact. “I think obviously him and A.J. (Bramah) have connected well with Dante able to find him on cuts and drop off opportunities and obviously he’s complimenting our shooting with Josh (Williams) and other guys.”

Over the past six games, five of them Robert Morris triumphs, Treacy has assisted Josh Williams on 11 of his 33 made 3s, while providing an assist to Bramah on 10 of his 31 2s. Overall, the guard has assisted 13 triples, 2 two-point jumpers and 16 baskets layups or dunks during the 5-1 stretch. In essence, Treacy has created scoring opportunities for his teammates at all three levels.

Here are some examples how Williams and Bramah have benefited. Treacy found his sharpshooter in transition:

Off an inbounds play:

And using his dribble penetration skills to set up Bramah for an easy dunk:

Most NEC guards see a progression from the freshman to sophomore season, yet Treacy’s has been more pronounced after de-committing from Army late in the summer of 2018 and signing with Robert Morris soon thereafter. He didn’t have the summer prior to get acclimated and spent much of his freshman year in Division I catching up. We are now seeing what a full offseason of strength training and shot taking (shooting 38.3% 3PT this season) has done to convert Treacy into an integral part of Toole’s rotation.

A.J. Bramah’s Versatility Helps Promote Free Flowing Basketball

While Treacy playing at a high level allows Toole to put two facilitators together – Jon Williams and Treacy have played together 40% of the time in the past five games – it’s the junior college newcomers in Bramah and Jalen Hawkins that have solidified the rotation. Their insertion, particularly Bramah, has make the Colonials that much more versatile one through eight.

Pertaining to Bramah, Toole has been pleased with the junior’s progression: “He’s somebody that you always have to pay attention to because he’s usually on the move and he’s making great instinctive plays,” he said of the forward, who’s averaging 11.5 ppg and 7.8 rpg in his inaugural Division I season. “He really finishes well around the basket as well as offensive rebounds so well. He puts pressure on the defense in an entirely different way that we haven’t had previously.”

Bramah’s versatility, in that he can guard multiple positions, run the floor in transition and find an open teammate out of the post has been invaluable, especially when Robert Morris carved up the Wagner zone to the tune of 94 points and 1.36 ppp last Saturday. Exhibit A as he set up Treacy:

He’s also an asset in the high post, here finding Yannis Mendy for the easy deuce:

Bramah is a high level athlete that does a number of things very well with an added bonus; he also gets to the free-throw line at a high clip (50.8 FTA/FGA, 134th nationally) and makes a respectable number of those attempts (68.9% FT).

High Level Shooting Opens Up the Floor for Better Opportunities

Josh Williams is currently playing at an All-NEC first team level, his 71.0% success rate on 31 threes in league play is unfathomable, yet he’s also been more careful with the basketball. He’s sliced his turnover rate from 18.9% to 13.3% as a senior and has clearly benefited from having two point guards on the floor, as well as a passing big man who’s eager to find him camped out behind the 3-point line.

Josh’s brother, Jon, has also seen an improvement in his perimeter scoring, shooting a career best 44.8% from behindthe arc as a junior. Williams, along with Treacy, has been more aggressive after a 2018-19 season that at times frustrated Toole because of their unselfish, pass-first mentality.

“Last year we were arguing with those guys to shoot more shots and be more aggressive on the offensive side,” Toole explained. “All summer, all fall we were talking to those guys all the time about being shot ready on every catch, being aggressive on your drives, and that would open up some of those opportunities that they’re comfortable making.”

Opponents can no longer give the point guards space protecting against the dribble drive now that Williams and Treacy are making those sagging defenders pay. And it’s created a double edged sword with Mendy, one of the league’s best post presences, having more room to operate in the low block. Mendy has been a little more efficient in his takes as a senior (58.5% 2PT) while playing more often (55% of the team’s minutes). Plus, he can move without the rock in his hands:

The offensive resurgence has occurred even with Charles Bain struggling to find his shot after an encouraging sophomore season. Toole is still giving him minutes, as he’s doing other things (13.3% assist rate and 8.9% offensive rebounding rate in league play) to help the Colonials create advantages and make winning plays. If he can start to make the perimeter shots he’s been draining in practice, then the rotation becomes seemingly unguardable.

Despite Bain’s struggles, Robert Morris is still 19th in Division I with a 38.1% 3-point percentage. The last time they shot that well as a program was during the aforementioned glory days, back when stars like Karvel Anderson, Marcquise Reed and Rodney Pryor would strike fear into their opponents with their long-range prowess.

There’s still a long way to go – more than three quarters of the NEC regular season to be exact – yet at the moment, Toole’s Colonials are trending in the right direction. If their offense can continue to produce at a high level, it would not surprise me to see a NEC tournament finals appearance in their future. They surely have the pieces to succeed.

« Older Entries