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Edwards Enjoying Second Chance at Keene State

February 20, 2014
Jaquel Edwards
Jaquel Edwards

Leaving the court following his team’s tough 98-85 loss to Little East Conference basketball foe Western Connecticut State in Danbury last Saturday, Keene State College freshman forward Jaquel Edwards quickly showered and changed before heading back out to spacious Feldman Arena.

Edwards had some unfinished business to take care of before getting on the bus for the long and treacherous trip back up to snowy Keene. Although he was disappointed that his mother, LaToya, couldn’t make it to the game due to the weather conditions, Edwards was anxious to see his former Manchester (Conn.) High School coach, Bob Healy. “Coach Healy was happy to see me,” said Edwards, who scored 14 points and pulled down 14 rebounds in the game against the Colonials for his fifth double-double of the season. “He told me that I looked good out there and to keep playing hard.”

Healy has good reason to be proud of Edwards. The longtime boys’ basketball coach at MHS helped Edwards turn his life around on and off the court. “When Jaquel first arrived at Manchester High, he really hadn’t received any coaching and hadn’t played any organized basketball,” said Healy. “I told Jaquel that he had some raw ability and if he was willing to let us help him channel that – who knows where we’d go.”

Living in Windsor, Conn., prior to moving back to Manchester, Edwards wasn’t sure where he’d go either. Although he had two basketball-playing uncles to emulate (Dwayne Barnes, who played at Northeastern, and Sheron Edwards, who played at Eastern Conn.), that didn’t deter Edwards from making some bad decisions. “I got in with the wrong crowd and got into a lot of trouble at Windsor High,” lamented Edwards. “I also think it had a lot to do with my uncle (Sheron) passing away. He was a father figure to me. I just went down the wrong path.”

Sensing that her son needed a change of scenery, LaToya moved her family back to Manchester following Jaquel’s sophomore year. “To this day, I’d say it’s the best thing that ever happened to me,” said Edwards. “I needed to get away.”

Once at Manchester High, Edwards was upfront with Healy. “I told him I made a lot of mistakes in the past and I wanted another chance,” he said. “This is where I’m starting to live my life the right way.”

Coming to grips with his changing life, Edwards found refuge on the court. It wasn’t long before his talent emerged. “The first thing that jumps out is Jaquel’s sheer athleticism,” said Healy, who also coached Edwards’ uncle Dwayne Barnes. “He runs the floor, gets off the floor well, and his motor runs 100 percent all of the time.”

Healy knew if he could complement Edwards’ athleticism by raising his basketball IQ, he’d have a special player. “Coach Healy always encouraged me,” said Edwards. “He believed in me and was very supportive.”

Edwards’ hard work paid off. Earning All-Conference honors as a senior, he helped the Indians advance to the State (Class LL) quarterfinals and knock off rival East Hartford twice. He capped off his final year at Manchester High by receiving MVP honors at the senior All-Star game.

Edwards didn’t take the usual recruiting route to Keene State. “This is one of the more unique recruiting stories because we didn’t really recruit Jaquel like we do other kids,” said Keene State Associate Head Coach Kevin Justice.

That summer, Edwards caught Justice’s eye at a showcase event at the University of Hartford. “I’m looking for information about him and it just says his name is Jaquel and he’s from Manchester,” recalls Justice. Justice refused to give up, going online and asking coaches about him. “He’s my favorite kid I saw all summer and I can’t find out where he is, where he’s playing, or what year he was in school,” said Justice. “I eventually lost track of him and we ended up not recruiting him that year.”

The following fall, Justice, who also works as an admissions counselor at KSC, was hosting a first-ever admissions event at Manchester High. Returning to the guidance office following his presentation, Justice began inquiring about Edwards. “I have to find out what happen to this kid,” said Justice.

Continuing his investigation, Justice was finally rewarded for his persistence when one of the counselors flashed a photo of Edwards on his computer screen. “I said, ‘That’s the kid! What’s his name and what’s his situation?’”

Surprisingly, Justice learned that Edwards was still attending Manchester High, falling under the roundball radar after he had to return to school for an extra semester to complete his degree.

Although Justice wasn’t able to talk with Edwards, he did have a chance to speak with Healy. “His coach was just glowing about the kid,” said Justice. “He told me how Jaquel had turned his life around and he’s gone from being a troubled kid to a real good community member and a team representative of their school.”

With the prolong search completed, the recruiting began. It wasn’t long before Edwards decided to come to Keene State. “Coach Justice and the players made me feel wanted,” said Edwards.

Like most freshmen, Edwards had his share of doubts entering the season. The adjustment to a new school and a new system initially took its toll on him. “At first I was discouraged. Maybe I was in over my head,” said Edwards. “At one point I wanted to quit. I’m not going to lie. Quitting went through my head a lot.”

In times of need, Edwards always sought out his mother for advice and encouragement. “My mom reminded me what happened at Manchester when I had to make a name for myself on the court. She told me, ’You’re a diamond in the rough – they don’t know what they have yet.’ She always kept me on the right track.”

“One of the qualities you don’t see out on the floor is Jaquel’s desire to figure it out and get better,” said Justice, now in his 11th season with the KSC program. “He’s one of the first kids that we’ve had since I’ve been here who will come in and ask questions if he needs help with something. I appreciate that because it shows that he has a desire to get better.”

Gaining confidence and playing time as the season progressed, Edwards has become an integral member of the team. Since moving into the Owls’ starting line-up in early January, the energetic player has averaged 10.9 points per game and 9.2 rebounds per game. His season-high 15-point and 17-rebound performance against Southern Maine helped him earn Little East rookie of the week honors. “Good things happen when you put the effort in, but I didn’t expect to be putting up those types of numbers,” said Edwards. “Sometimes I look at the stat sheet and say, Wow.” Edwards’ production is even more impressive when you consider he’s playing out of position. Coming to Keene as an off-guard and wing player, Edwards, who stands 6-foot, 3 inches, now finds himself battling with the big boys in the paint. “We’re playing him a little out of position, but he’s grabbed on to whatever we needed him to do and run with it,” said KSC Head Coach Rob Colbert. “He’s emotionally very stable because he’s been through a lot in his life and is a fighter. I think he appreciates the opportunity a little bit more.”

Edwards knows he’s come a long way. “I’m just happy I made the right decisions because a lot of people, when they’re young, don’t find a way,” he said. “It could have been worse. I could be in jail or maybe dead – who knows? Right now I’m in a good situation. It’s nice to be happy and feel good about yourself and your future.”