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Owl Freshmen Adjusting to College Ball

KEENE, N.H., 1/23/09 - Change is inevitable in college sports. Although the NCAA provides exceptions for medical and hardship cases, each student athlete has 10 full semesters to complete their four years of eligibility.

Last year’s Keene State men’s basketball roster was comprised of seven seniors, who either started or played key roles off the bench. With their “contracts” set to expire, a veteran Owl team suddenly became a very young Owl team.

Confronted with a depletion of troops, the KSC coaches went to work on the recruiting front, bringing in nine new freshmen players. Plans for the transition began early. “We spent a lot of time this summer as a staff simplifying our terminology,” said KSC Coach Rob Colbert. “We really went back to our core program values.”

Although it’s more the exception than the rule, the Owls are not alone in adding a large group of college hoop hopefuls. Over the years, other Little East programs have been in the same boat. The 2007-08 Plymouth State roster also had nine newcomers. But the 2001-02 UMass-Boston team wins the prize with a roster that was stocked with 12 freshmen.

Getting the freshmen on campus is just the beginning of the process. The newcomers must be taught the system and indoctrinated onto the team. “We knew it was going to be a year where we would do a lot more teaching than in the past,” said Colbert. “In one respect, there’s fresh energy, aspirations, and goals. On the other side of the equation, it also makes you a much older coach, because you’re forced to become a lot more patient.”

Colbert must also preach patience to the parents eager to see their sons performing on the Spaulding Gym court. “I tell parents that their son won’t play his best basketball until mid-January,” he said. “It takes that much time for his mind and body to catch up with the game.”

Colbert said, “It’s really funny to watch the first two days of practice and talk to those kids who were strutting around campus as high-profile recruits and know their egos and confidence have really been stripped from them. They have that ‘what did I get myself into’ look in their eyes.”

The eight freshmen that remain with the team cite the speed and the physicality of the game as being the most pressing obstacles to adjusting to the college game. “The level of play is so much better than high school,” said Cody Snow, a freshman forward from Leyden, Mass. “Everyone is a lot bigger, faster, and stronger.”

Going a few rounds under the boards with senior heavyweights Tyler Kathan and Nate Anderson can be an eye-opening experience. “They’re a lot bigger than any player I went up against in high school,” said Matt Petruzzelli, a freshman forward from Gardner, Mass. “I knew I was going to have to work hard, but I didn’t realize it was going to be such a big step.”

Quinton McMillian, a two-sport athlete from Springfield, Mass., says he’s already feeling the physical effects of the season. “I’m a freshman, and it feels like I’ve been playing for 40 years.”

The veteran members of the team must also go through an adjustment period. “The returners have been as patient as possible holding back their frustration and realizing the growth pattern needs to be played out,” said Colbert. “The older players have done a great job of showing the younger guys how to compete every day and every play.” “I wasn’t concerned as much as curious to see how we would work together,” said Kathan. “We knew there would be some highs and lows. As long as we keep working hard, good things will happen.”

As Kathan predicted, the 2009 season has been a mixed bag for Keene State. Owners of an 8-8 record, the Owls have spent a good deal of the season searching for consistency on the court. While there have been periods of promise, there’s also been periods of precarious play. In a pair of recent games against Plymouth State and Lasell College, KSC has been forced to play catch-up after digging itself into a deep first-half hole.

According to Colbert, role identification is a one of the keys to success. “Tavonne Reid is perfect example of a player who was asked to do a lot on the court in high school,” said Colbert. “For us we don’t need him to score; we need him to distribute, hold on to the ball, and defend. I think he’s done a tug-of-war in his mind with what is expected of him.”

Among his freshmen, Colbert has been pleasantly surprised by how Derek D’Amours, a guard/forward from Agawam, Mass., has come along, currently averaging 11 points per game. “Derek has done a little bit more that I expected,” he said. “He was a very talented scorer in high school who has improved his rebounding and defense.”

“There are certain guys who drive the bus and certain guys who ride the bus, and Kathan and Anderson are the bus drivers on this team,” Colbert said. “Everybody else on the bus is enjoying the ride and doing their part. I think taking the load off of the freshmen makes it easier.”

Off the court, the adjustments are no less difficult. Away from home for the first time, many of the student athletes must adapt to a demanding schedule that includes classes, practices, and homework. The schedule is harder for some than others. “My mom used to wake me up, so it’s hard getting that motivation to go to class in the morning,” said Petruzzelli.

While they bring different skills and their strikingly different personalities to the team, this year’s fine freshmen class has formed a common bond and support system. “When I came to school, I instantly had a bunch of friends and teammates that truly care about each other,” said freshman guard Steve Boudreau of North Andover, Mass. “We’re all going through the same thing, so we can look to each other for advice.”

When asked to grade his freshmen following their first semester of play, Colbert give the group a B-. He hopes that mark will eventually improve to a B or B+ by the end of the season. “You can’t rush the physical nature of the game,” he said. “You can’t ask players to do certain things if they don’t have the physical tools to do it.”

Although he acknowledges that there are still some holes to fill on his team, Colbert, in time, feels this freshmen class will emerge from the transition stage to center stage and be the core that takes the program into the future. “I’m pleasantly optimistic,” said Colbert. “We have our work cut out for us, but we have a nice place to start.”

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