Mark Emmert, Portland Press Herald (http://www.pressherald.com/2015/08/16/umaine-basketball-coach-shares-highs-lows-of-recruiting/)
All coaches are thrilled to announce their recruiting classes. But not every player they covet ends up on their campus. Disappointment is inevitable, especially when you’re trying to turn around a losing program.
Bob Walsh found that out in his first year as head coach of the University of Maine men’s basketball team. He was spurned by two in-state players he hoped would become his cornerstones, only to end up with five incoming players he has high hopes for.
Walsh was hired to replace the fired Ted Woodward in May 2014, brought aboard assistant coaches Matt O’Brien, Zak Boisvert and Antone Gray, and immediately got to work. He was able to land guards Aaron Calixte and Kevin Little to bolster last season’s team, which won just three of its 30 games, but needed to look longer-term.
“A lot of coaches like to speak about ideals and values and character. It starts with talent. You have to be good enough to play at this level,” Walsh said of NCAA Division I basketball. “We weren’t really in a position where we were concerned about position, size.
“We needed to identify the best players that we could get and then make sure – and this may be different with your first class versus your third or fourth class – that they fit in with the culture that we’re establishing.”
Walsh’s first priority was two high school players in his new backyard – 6-foot-8 forward Nick Mayo of Messalonskee High School in Oakland and 6-4 wing Kyle Bouchard of Houlton. He offered both scholarships immediately. They competed for the same AAU team, so Walsh saw every game they played during a three-week period in July 2014, even canceling a trip to a tournament in Las Vegas so that he could stay in Louisville, Kentucky, where Mayo was turning a lot of heads with his play.
In September, Mayo committed to Eastern Kentucky and Bouchard to Bentley, a Division II program. It was a blow, but Walsh said: “I don’t think I wasted my time because there’s no such thing as a wasted recruiting opportunity. You may not get the kid, but unless you’re out there, you’re not giving yourself a shot.”
In the meantime, Gray was captivated by a guard he saw playing in a tournament in Pennsylvania. Lavar Harewood of Brooklyn, New York, would end up becoming Walsh’s first recruit, choosing UMaine over St. Peter’s.
In August, 6-7 forward Ilija Stojilkovic made his way from his native Serbia to nearby Lee Academy, where Calixte had played the previous winter. O’Brien made the one-hour drive to the campus in September to take a look.
“It’s probably the one place in the country where the University of Maine has a recruiting advantage over everybody else,” Walsh joked.
O’Brien was impressed with four players he saw, Stojilkovic in particular. He persuaded Walsh to see for himself, and the coaches decided the best strategy was to offer scholarships to the foreign-born players early, before scouts around the country got a look at them.
Walsh invited Stojilkovic, 6-4 wing Dusan Majstorovic and 6-9 forward Rudolfs Stradnieks on an unofficial campus visit, and offered scholarships to all three. Stojilkovic accepted after playing a rare home game in early November. Majstorovic committed to Utah State and Stradnieks to Southern Illinois.
“I don’t think we get (Stojilkovic) if he didn’t sign early,” Walsh said. “We had to make him a priority because our advantage was no one else has seen him play. If he ends up playing a full season or getting out on the prep circuit, where they play in some of these big tournaments, we may lose him.”
Boisvert had developed a relationship with 6-6 forward Devine Eke of Plainfield, New Jersey, while he was an assistant coach at Fairleigh Dickinson. When the Portland native joined Walsh’s staff, he kept tabs on Eke, who originally had committed to FDU but then decided to go to prep school in New Jersey.
“He said: ‘Coach, this is going to make us a ton more athletic. He’ll be one of the best athletes in the league,’ ” Walsh recalled Boisvert telling him. “The relationships your assistants build with these kids and these coaches is really important. Because they are the ones that maintain that relationship. We didn’t have to evaluate Devine, I just had to go see him. Zak knew the family really well. They trusted him. He told them what we were going to build here at Maine. (Eke) came up here to visit and committed.”
So Walsh was able to announce a three-member recruiting class in November. But he was far from finished.
Issac Vann of Stratford, Connecticut, is a 6-5 wing the Black Bears offered a scholarship to last summer. So did Monmouth and Fairfield. Manhattan started to get interested. Walsh decided to pull back.
“You’re saying, that might not be a battle we’re going to win, for a Connecticut kid who was playing in New Jersey,” Walsh said.
But Vann never committed anywhere and one day Walsh and his staff were looking over their list of potential recruits when Boisvert said, “I think we can get Issac Vann.”
“Get out of here,” Walsh responded.
It turned out Maine was one of the few schools still recruiting Vann, so Walsh invited the player and his mother for an official visit. Vann committed within a week.
One of the keys, Walsh said, was the good relationship he has with Vann’s prep school coach at Coastal Academy, where Little also attended.
There were two more moments of drama involving Walsh’s 2015-16 recruiting class. First, the coaches pursued Jarelle Reischel, a forward who was transferring from Rhode Island with one year of eligibility remaining. They went to visit him, with the promise of ample playing time, but Reischel would never agree to make a campus visit and instead committed to Eastern Kentucky (“the nemesis,” Walsh said with a laugh).
Late in the spring came word that 6-8 forward Vincent Eze had committed to Maine after originally signing with Manhattan. Eze’s eligibility is still pending NCAA approval, but Walsh is hopeful that he can be the rim protector his team needs while honing a more refined offensive game.
“We recruited him early. We saw him last summer and had him on campus in September,” Walsh said of Eze, a native of Nigeria who moved to Pennsylvania as a high school sophomore. “He visited a couple of other places, signed at Manhattan, and they let him out of his letter.”
Walsh was effusive in his praise for his assistant coaches, and excited about the players who will take the floor when practices begin in October.
“I think we’ve brought in some really talented players that can help us win a championship. There’s a long way between your first full recruiting class and a championship, but we brought in a higher level of talent than I expected us to be able to get in our first year when I first took over,” Walsh said.