The Great Mount Comeback, Damian Chong Qui and My #NECMBB All-Defensive Team

Photo by David Sinclair

With Mount St. Mary’s qualifying for the NEC tournament in unexpected fashion this past Sunday, it brought to mind how remarkable the Mountaineers final regular season win at Saint Francis was. It’s a game honestly that should hold a spot in the program’s annals when citing great moments.

I, for one, will fondly remember it as the great comeback in Loretto that kept Mount St. Mary’s 2020-21 season alive, even if we didn’t fully know it at the time.

As a refresher, Mount St. Mary’s trailed by seven points with just over a minute remaining after Mezie Offurum’s runner fell short off the glass. Saint Francis’ Marlon Hargis secured the rebound, a tie-up situation ensued, and the possession arrow favored the Red Flash. For all intents and purposes, Saint Francis was going to hold on and defeat a shorthanded Mount squad that came in desperate for a victory to improve their NEC tournament qualification chances. This is where I’ll let Ken Pomeroy’s game flow chart illustrate the gravity of the moment:

That’s quite a valley with one minute left in regulation! At the point when SFU had the ball, up seven with 56 seconds remaining, the Mount possessed a 1.3% chance of winning the game, according to KenPom’s Minimum Win Probability metric. That means you could simulate this game from that exact point and the Mount would come out victorious roughly 13 out of every 1000 times!

Enter Damian Chong Qui, who’s emerged as one of the most clutch players in recent NEC memory. Here were the ensuing possessions that brought Mount St. Mary’s back from the dead, in other words making up a seven-point deficit in less than a minute:

  • Chong Qui layup, after a steal thanks to ball pressure 90 feet from the Red Flash basket (SFU leads 59-54, 48 seconds left)
  • DeAndre Thomas made 3, assisted by Chong Qui after driving the lane and kicking out to an open Thomas in the corner (SFU leads 60-57, 34 seconds left)
  • Chong Qui layup and one (SFU leads 61-60, 17 seconds left)
  • Chong Qui made 3 (Game tied 63-63, 8 seconds left)

In the span of 50 seconds, Chong Qui had 8 points, 1 assist and 1 steal and the Mount registered 2.75 points per possession! The Red Flash didn’t help their cause with a turnover and 2 missed free throws during that sequence, but the effort to send the game into overtime was remarkable nevertheless, especially once the Mount outscored the Red Flash nine to two in the overtime period to earn their ninth conference win.

That effort from Chong Qui, now a junior, continues to add to his legend of being clutch and stoic when the lights are shining the brightest.

His head coach, Dan Engelstad, attempted to explain Chong Qui’s innate ability to take over a game while reliving the SFU comeback: “We’re down ten (points), (Chong Qui) just kept saying the right stuff in the huddle, like keeping the guys going,” he said of his floor general. “His work ethic is unmatched; the kid is just obsessed with the game and he wants the moment. He always wants the moment.”

Engelstad recalled a game from Chong Qui’s freshman season at Robert Morris where he missed two critical free throws late in the contest that hurt the Mount’s chances to pull off the upset in Moon Township. Since then, the 5-foot-8 guard has been laser focused in those pressure packed moments.

“He’s our engine and he’s our heartbeat,” Engelstad said of the team’s leading scorer, assist man and free throw maker. “We follow him, there’s no hiding behind him. Damian is a huge piece to what we do.”

That much is certain given the Mount’s unexpected departures in-season and freshman Dakota Laffew’s broken hand that prematurely ended his once-promising rookie campaign. As a result, the Mount’s backcourt has considerably thinned out, forcing the dynamic point guard to exert himself even more. Chong Qui has played the second most minutes and has the fifth highest possession rate in the conference, putting Mount St. Mary’s in a position as one of four teams attempting to represent the NEC in the 2021 NCAA tournament in Indianapolis.

Really though, it’s a credit to every player’s resiliency and toughness to find themselves heading to the Spiro Center to take on Wagner in the NEC tournament semifinals this Saturday. “Credit to our guys, they scrap, they fight, they haven’t quit – I told them that’s the moral of the story for life no matter what happen, whatever the circumstance is… you just always fight,” Engelstad said of his team. “That was (Saint Francis) PA for them to pull a game out like that.”

This wasn’t the first fanatical comeback Engelstad has been a part of as a head coach. Six years ago when he was patrolling the sidelines at Southern Vermont College, his Mountaineers (yes, the same mascot as the Mount’s) eliminated a 12-point deficit with 2:58 remaining to Regis College in the New England Collegiate Conference championship game. But unlike last Thursday’s comeback, Southern Vermont fell to Regis in the final seconds after tying the content with six seconds remaining.

With respect to the Mount’s comeback and how it compares historically, if KenPom’s Minimum Win Probability is your metric, then Mount St. Mary’s win over Saint Francis is tied for the 10th best comeback in college basketball this season. For conference only games, you’d have to go as far back as February 4, 2017 when Central Connecticut stunned the same Mountaineers program in a 74-72 comeback victory at the Knott Arena to find the last NEC contest that resulted in an improbable comeback. The Blue Devils had a 1.1% chance to win after trailing by 15 points with 14 minutes remaining.

The NEC All-Defensive Team

DSPics.net Photo

With so many credible candidates vying for the NEC’s coveted Defensive Player of the Year award, I decided to come up with my own team from the respectable sample size that’s been the 2020-21 season. One of these players will win the award on Friday, but each of them have been critical to their team’s defensive identity. I’ll order my team in terms of height, with the shortest player listed first!

Mikey Watkins, Merrimack – The junior is the engine leading the vaulted Warrior 2-3 zone, a defensive scheme that boasts the second best defensive efficiency in the league (97.4 points allowed per 100 possessions) despite graduating theft artist Juvaris Hayes and charge taker Idris Joyner. Watkins is a big reason why the Merrimack defense is still very difficult to comfortably score on, as evidenced by his 3.2% steal rate that’s 128th nationally. Like Hayes, Watkins’ anticipation, long wingspan and quick lateral movement makes life rough for opponents trying to create plays near the perimeter.

Eral Penn, LIU – Not since Mount St. Mary’s forward Chris Wray has the league seen such a versatile defensive talent as Penn. The three-year power forward leads the league in rebounding at 10.4 boards per game, is tied for fourth in steals at 34 and has the fourth most blocks at 29. What more do you need from an athletic, 6-foot-7 five-man who can provide elite rim protection while also unpredictably blitzing hedges and stripping opposing guards of the ball? It’s no coincidence that LIU’s adjusted defensive efficiency was three points per 100 possessions lower with Penn in the lineup compared to last season.

Mezie Offurum, Mount St. Mary’s – I’ll let Engelstad do the talking on this deserving selection: “He’s such a versatile defender because he can bang with any physical big in the league and he can also, for the most part, keep most of the guards and wings in front and use his length to frustrate them.” The 6-foot-8 wing is an anomaly in a league accustomed to rostering smaller swingmen, and yet Offurum’s length, athleticism and strength is the perfect recipe for the Mount forcing offenses to shoot over the team’s size. Mount opponents have the lowest effective field goal percentage in league play at 44.3% – the GW transfer is a critical reason for that.

Hall Elisais, Bryant – Similar to the former great shot-blockers of NEC lore in St. Francis’ Amdy Fall and Sacred Heart’s Jare’l Spellman, Elisais is a slashing players’ nightmare to deal with around the rim. Now with 124 career blocks in just 49 games (2.5 bpg!) as a Bulldog, the bouncy big with high-major athleticism allows Bryant’s guards and wings to take chances on the perimeter. Why worry if you get beat knowing Elisais is protecting the rim should an opponent get through the Bulldogs’ first layer of zone defense.

Nana Opoku, Mount St. Mary’s – It’s only fitting that the league’s best defense gets two players on my all-defensive team. Again, I’ll let Engelstad state his case for why Opoku may be the most valuable defender in the NEC: “He impacts the game on the ball and off the ball, just the threat of him on the back-line changes shots,” he said. “He’s improved as a rebounder, his rebounding is way up from what it’s been in the past.” Like Penn, Opoku is another big that can guard one through five in a pinch, and do it well. On a Mountaineer team that leads the conference in defensive efficiency by a significant margin, Opoku is the critical centerpiece of the Mount’s attack.

Highlighting the Terrific NEC Coaching of the 2020-21 Season

I’ve seen some banter on Twitter of late debating who the next NEC Jim Phelan Coach of the Year should be. I’ve seen viable arguments for at least three different coaches, as there are a lot of worthy candidates in this pandemic shortened season. Allow me to offer objective (at least as best I can) arguments on behalf of the coaches who could receive votes next week for the award. 

Jared Grasso – If you take into account Bryant’s entire body of work – non-conference included – the Bulldogs have had the best regular season of anyone in the league at 14-5 overall. It’s not even close in that respect. Out of conference wins over UMass, Stony Brook and New Hampshire as well as a nail-biting loss in the Carrier Dome to Syracuse was mainly responsible for soaring Bryant’s KenPom ranking more than 100 spots from 312 in late November to 187 prior to their NEC showdowns in early January with Central Connecticut. Now sitting at 185 on KenPom’s ledger, they lead the NEC in this ranking as well as overall offensive efficiency (103.1 points scored per 100 possessions). The latter is quite impressive when considering Bryant’s nine newcomers among their 13 scholarships this season.

DSPics.com Photo

If you need another analytical metric to bolster Grasso’s case, Bryant’s Game Scores on Barttorvik.com have been consistently good – Syracuse, UMass, Central Connecticut game 1, Merrimack game 2 – and have illustrated the third-year head coach’s ability to get his team to 1) consistently perform in the early, middle and late part of the season despite a COVID-19 pause sprinkled in-between and 2) play well and be successful against different schemes and tempos.

Furthermore, the Bulldogs are currently in the driver’s seat to win the NEC regular season title. Preseason expectations aside (Bryant was tied for third in the preseason poll), the coaches have put significant value on winning the league for this award in the past, and I wouldn’t expect 2020-21 to be any different. It’s very plausible to see the coaches (aka the voters) rewarding Grasso for not just a first place finish but also for turning a 3-win program three years ago into arguably the favorite to get to the NCAA tournament. 

Bashir Mason – If shock value is your thing, surely Wagner going from 1-4 in the NEC (1-5 overall if you include a lopsided loss to Seton Hall) to 11-5 in second place is the best thing going in the 2020-21 college basketball season. Before their recent hiccup at Central Connecticut, Wagner had a NEC-leading 10 game winning streak and soared from a “team trying to find its way” to “bonafide NEC contender.” It’s prudent to mention that Wagner was picked eighth in the NEC preseason poll, and most likely the Seahawks will be no worse than the #2 seed in the NEC Tournament.

How has Mason, a two-time Jim Phelan Coach of the Year recipient already, done it? By developing his talent to the point where Wagner has a 4-headed monster in Alex Morales, Elijah Ford, Will Martinez and DeLonnie Hunt. The former two are destined for an all-conference team nod and Morales is quite honestly a Player of the Year candidate, whereas the latter in Hunt will most likely become the NEC’s Rookie of the Year thanks to his mesmerizing blend of quickness, toughness and shotmaking. Considering the way these four started the season, to have these players, as well as guys like Nigel Jackson, Ja’Mier Fletcher and Elijah Allen, contribute at an all-above average level is a testament to the job Mason and his staff have done in developing their student-athletes. Additionally, Wagner has done well to embrace the roster’s strengths as a versatile, slashing squad that leads the NEC in offensive rebounding rate and is second in effective field goal percentage. 

Raise your hand if you thought Wagner would have the league’s best offense in NEC play going into March. Yeah, that’s what I thought!

Anthony Latina – Picked 10th in the NEC preseason poll, Sacred Heart has significantly defied expectations in the same way they did in the 2018-19 campaign when they went from ninth in the poll to a 11-7 regular season finish and #3 seed in the NEC tournament. Now with the youngest roster in the conference and the 317th least experienced team in the country per KenPom, Latina has somehow harbored the guard play of Tyler Thomas (Most Improved Player candidate), Aaron Clarke and Alex Watson (1.7 ppg to 7.4 ppg) into a 9-7 NEC finish. And he’s done it with three freshmen – Mike Sixsmith, Bryce Johnson and Matas Spokas – playing significant roles. All three players are posting above average efficiency ratings, not an easy thing to do for any Division I novices. 

It’s not a certainty that the Pioneers play in the NEC tournament, although it’s fairly likely at the moment. And for Latina to lose five of his top six scorers (Clarke was the lone holdover) AND lose his starting four-man in Zach Pfaffenberger in the preseason due to injury and to still sneak into the league’s top four is a special accomplishment.

The analytical metrics, particularly efficiency margins and KenPom rating, haven’t been terribly kind to Sacred Heart over the course of 2020-21. That’s mainly due to blowout losses to Wagner (game 1), LIU (game 1) and Saint Francis (game 1). But the Pioneers’ penchant to bounce back and win the second part of these back-to-backs – they did it a remarkable six times this season – should not be discounted in any way. Latina and his staff’s ability to make adjustments on the fly and split all of these series is a major reason why the Pioneers are in an advantageous position here in late February.

Honorable mention goes to Joe Gallo and Dan Engelstad for the jobs they’ve done as well, although I think the trio mentioned above would make up most people’s top three. 

Gallo, however, has taken a team who lost three standout seniors, including all-conference first teamer Juvaris Hayes, to being tied for third place going into their final week of the season. And they did it with a massively long COVID-19 pause from Thanksgiving to late December where the team practiced seven times over a 40-day stretch. Engelstad, in his own right, has done very well to get Mount St. Mary’s in the position they’re in, especially after losing Jalen Gibbs, the Mount’s leading scorer at the time, to the transfer portal and having Dakota Laffew go down due to injury. The Mountaineers stand as the league’s best defensive unit going into their pivotal back-to-back showdown at Bryant next week.

We all have biases in this race, myself included, but I wanted to best lay out the arguments for each coach. There are so many great coaches in this league and I can’t wait to see who’s the next Jim Phelan Coach of the Year! Who the coaches decide among their peers will be fascinating.

One-Two In NEC Standings, Merrimack & Mount Rise Fueled By Suffocating Defense

The 450-mile bus ride from Emmitsburg to North Andover wasn’t as awful as you’d expect after watching your team get thoroughly outplayed by Mount St. Mary’s in a back-to-back series. Even at 1-3 and near the bottom of the conference standings, Joe Gallo saw clues from his Merrimack squad in their second loss to the Mount, a 63-52 setback that quite honestly was never in question. 

The defense showed signs of coming around to the elite level they once exhibited as a 2019-20 juggernaut. 19 Mount turnovers were extracted. Only 17 3-point shots allowed. Less than a point per possession given up. And all of that was achieved despite three subpar defensive efforts to open the season where they allowed opponents to shoot 47% from 2 and 45% from 3.

“I thought we played hard enough defensively in the second (Mount St. Mary’s) game that we finally gave the correct effort to defend the way we defend,” Gallo said reflecting back. 

The effort was only possible after the Warriors had a prolonged period of court time to get their legs underneath them. Due to COVID-19 shutdowns, Merrimack had practiced an unfathomable seven times as a team – and four more times if you include individual one on ones – from Thanksgiving break to the end of December. As expected, the energy level was sapped when they returned to the practice court and suited up for live action with Sacred Heart shortly thereafter.

“To be honest we were in an unbelievable place right before Thanksgiving, because we went from September to then without any pauses,” Gallo said about the challenging preseason. “Guys were flying around, guys were in the proper condition… and then the rest is history”

Only after the second Mount defeat did Gallo believe his team was close to their pre-Thanksgiving state. The locked-in practices in the week that followed proved to be a harbinger of things to come. The defensive metrics in conference action illustrate why Merrimack has been victorious in seven of their last eight.

D-PPPeFG% DefTurnover Rate3PA/FGA
First 4 Games1.0756.2%24.5%41.7%
Last 8 Games0.8843.3%21.4%34.1%

Of the key defensive indicators, the only stat lagging behind is turnover rate, but some context here is warranted: a 21.4% turnover rate would still place them tied for first in the NEC right now alongside Central Connecticut. Yes, it’s not the elite turnover rate from a season prior (25.9%, 3rd nationally), yet the Warriors are finding other methods to make the 2-3 zone scheme as menacing as possible. Call it an adjustment after the graduation of the greatest theft artist to ever play college basketball.

“We don’t close out possessions as much with Juvaris’ (Hayes) steals or Idris’ (Joyner) charges, but we’re making you take tougher shots and coming up with the rebounds,” Gallo said.

Case in point: with an experienced group of Jordan Minor (21.0% DReb, 4.7% block rate), Ziggy Reid (19.3% DReb, 4.2% block rate) and the grizzled vet Devin Jensen (10.3% DReb, 3.3% steal rate) patrolling the backline of the zone, the Warriors have grabbed 5% more of their opponent’s misses when compared to last season. Even the diminutive yet impressive Mikey Watkins, at 5-foot-11, has improved his defensive rebounding numbers as a junior. And with 6-foot-7 junior Justin Connolly back as a rotation piece, the team’s defensive rebounding rate has ticked up to nearly 73% over the last four contests.

Add it all up and the NEC league play numbers compared to a year ago aren’t all that different, while the metrics continue to trend in the right direction. (I’m not a fan of cherry picking data, but if you remove the first four games of the season, Merrimack’s 3-point defense also vastly improves to 30.5%)

D-PPPTurnover Rate2PT FG Def3PT FG DefDReb Rate
2019-20 Season0.90327.2%45.5%29.2%65.9%
2020-21 Season0.94521.4%43.9%36.0%70.9%

While playing with a cohesive, yet tenacious energy has surely righted the Merrimack defense ship, accountability has also played a big role in the Warriors’ ascension. It’s the coaching staff’s meticulous detail of charting every defensive possession in order to assign praise, or blame, that forces players to be accountable. 

“We keep track of who gave up what every game and we don’t always share it with the team unless we really need to make a statement,” Gallo explained. “Sometimes we just share it with guys behind closed doors.”

After Merrimack’s first sobering defeat in Emmitsburg however – the Warriors gave up 77 points on 47% shooting – a group text went out holding players accountable in broad daylight for blown assignments within the zone. “It was like a headcount, like ‘so and so you gave up 17 points’ and no one likes to see that and no one wants to let their team down, so you kind of need it those games to bring in some of that accountability that you can only go so far for practice,” Gallo said.

Now standing alone in first place with two thirds of its regular season in the books, the defending NEC regular season champions are in a position to make history once again. It should come as no surprise with Gallo recently pegged as a revolutionary figure of zone defense, the dean of the 2-3, so to speak. The five-year head coach received a surprising number of messages this offseason asking for his advice in zone defense implementation.

“If you go with e-mail, it had to be 100 (inquires),” Gallo said of the correspondences, ranging from literally all levels of basketball – high school all the way to the NBA and everything in between. Some e-mails, Gallo admits, still need to be answered.

While the questions ranged from all over the map, many were interested in Merrimack’s somewhat mysterious defensive presence on the perimeter. “I think what really intrigued people was that kind of that 3-point number,” Gallo said. “It’s like an oxymoron, everyone wants to know how do you play zone, but not give up 3s.”

While that may have been a legitimate question early on this season after Sacred Heart and Mount St. Mary’s had success scoring from deep, Merrimack has been locked in at running opponents off the 3-point line and into the “dreaded” mid-range jumper. The recent 4-game winning streak over Saint Francis and Central Connecticut, where those schools shot a combined 27.6% from deep, is evidence of that.

With the way Merrimack continues to defend this season, the 41-year coach should expect more advice seekers in the coming offseasons. And the fact that he’s doing it with a limited number of staff – assistant coaches Micky Burtnyk and Phil Gaetano deserve a ton of credit as well – makes this Division I transition journey all the more remarkable.

The Merrimack Warriors aren’t going away anytime soon.

Mount St. Mary’s Using Its Size to Stifle NEC Opponents

2/11/21 – Emmitsburg, MD: Mt. St. Mary’s University, Men’s Basketball

I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention Mount St. Mary’s when it came to elite defense within conference play. Actually, it’s deja vu given that I spoke about both of these defenses in November of 2019! Back then Merrimack maintained its defensive excellence, whereas Mount St. Mary’s, due to depth issues caused by untimely injuries, struggled to defend over the course of the season.

Now, the Mountaineers find themselves atop the NEC in defensive efficiency – one spot ahead of Merrimack – and the sample size of 11 league games is more substantive. The Mountaineers vaulted to the top in large part from the basketball clinic they displayed on arguably one of the NEC’s most talented teams in LIU. In the second game, a 64-46 victory, the Mount held LIU scoreless for 16 of 17 possessions (0.12 ppp) over the course of a backbreaking 24-2 run in the second half. While Derek Kellogg’s group missed some decent looks from 3 during that stretch (0 for 4), the Mount did very well to force LIU into contested mid-range jumpers, and the Sharks came up empty (0 of 10, 3 turnovers).

The two box scores from the LIU games should be framed in Dan Engelstad’s office moving forward – the Mountaineers gave up 106 points on 131 possessions (0.81 ppp) and held LIU to 32.8% shooting in the sweep.

Engelstad’s defensive scheme is different than Merrimack’s in that the Mountaineers aren’t overly concerned with turning opponents over; rather, they are using their size at the wing and frontcourt positions to dare opponents to shoot over them. With a regular lineup that features Mezie Offurum (6-foot-8), Malik Jefferson (6-foot-9) and Nana Opoku (6-foot-9) and well as big-ish guards at the two like Josh Reaves (6-foot-4) and DeAndre Thomas (6-foot-5), it’s been proven effective. Look at how many categories the Mount leads the league in with respect to defensive metrics!

  • KenPom Defensive Efficiency (93.3 points allowed per 100 possessions)
  • Two-Point Field Goal Defense (43.7%)
  • Three-Point Field Goal Defense (28.9%)
  • Block Rate (12.7% of opponents shot attempts are blocked by a Mount player)
  • Defensive Rebounding Rate (75.3% of Opponent’s Misses are Rebounded by the Mount)
  • Free Throw Rate (23.3% FT attempts / Field Goal Attempts)

The numbers really are remarkable – the Mount are the toughest team to score on anywhere on the floor, they limit second chance opportunities AND they aren’t fouling much at all. That’s incredible discipline from the players and a wonderful coaching job by Engelstad and his staff in season number three.

The Mount’s stiffest test against the league’s offenses awaits with showdowns versus Wagner (1st in offensive efficiency), Fairleigh Dickinson (3rd) and Bryant (2nd). It’ll be fascinating to witness coming down the stretch.

Mack Attack: Warriors Capture #NECMBB Regular Season Title in Year 1

Let the celebration begin and rightfully so.

Merrimack’s inaugural Division I season reached its climax on Thursday night at Hammel Court.

Needing a win to lock up at least a share of the NEC regular season men’s basketball crown, the Warriors posted a double-digit victory over Central Connecticut State. While finalizing their NEC record at 14-4, Merrimack also reach the 20-win mark overall.

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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.

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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.