The following is a piece on the SUNY New Paltz men’s basketball team that as featured in the Ulster Country Press on December 10th, written by Ted Remsnyder.
In sports it takes a lot to change a losing culture. A swift acquisition of talent is obviously the fastest way to turn things around, but if the players don’t gel properly it’s all for naught. Like most things, the most painful process is usually the one that will result in the most satisfaction in the end. So you have to change your culture, and build your program, brick by brick. That is the challenge facing the SUNY New Paltz men’s basketball team a month into their 2008-2009 season, with little recent success from past years to draw from, and in the second year of a new coaching regime.
Seven games into the season, the Hawks are sitting pretty, particularly compared to last year. An 85-78 home win on December 6th against Buffalo State left them at 3-4, a far cry from the prior season’s 6-19 mark. After getting the head coaching job late in the summer of 2007, straight off a two-year stint as an assistant coach at Bronxville’s Concordia College, Dagan Nelson has seemed to right the ship now that he’s bringing in his own players. “I got the job late last year, in August,” Nelson said. “The team that I coached, none of those players I recruited here. We have a total of nine new players, seven of which are freshman and two are transfers.” Two of the freshmen have already registered a major impact thus far. Jayquan Anderson, a 6-foot-7 forward out of the Frederick Douglass Academy in the Bronx, is the team’s leading scorer at 17 ppg. while also averaging 8 rebounds. “He handles the basketball and can score inside,” Nelson said. “He can guard anybody on the perimeter; he’s going to be very good.” The other freshman is guard Shereef Taylor, from FDR High School in Hyde Park. “He’s one of, if not the most athletic player I’ve ever coached,” Nelson said. The Hawks are also counting on senior guard Matt Hauser to provide outside shooting, while they rely on junior guard Oppong Agyemang for leadership and defense. Agyemang, a transfer from Adelphi University, also has a knack for drawing charges on the opposition, without resorting to Vlade Divac-style flopping. “He’s a tremendous defender,” Nelson said. “He’s taken 23 charges through five games. He said to me the other day, ‘Coach, you have to petition the NCAA to make the charge a stat.’ He’s a beast defensively.” With all his new players, Nelson is happy with the progress the team has made so far this season. “I’ve been very, very encouraged with how quickly our young players are picking up the system,” he said. “I think we have great team chemistry, our players really like each other, which I think is the most important piece in trying to build a successful program. Offensively, we’re scoring the ball at a much better clip, averaging 77 ppg. right now, but where we need to improve is on the defensive side. We preach defense and rebounding every day.”
With three New York City players already on the roster, the program hopes to make inroads into recruiting in the five boroughs. “We’re trying to get the best players we can get,” Nelson said with a laugh. “We’re trying to get players who can play at scholarship schools, and I feel we have several of those players here now. Obviously because we’re a New York state school, we want to recruit New York very hard, particularly New York City and Long Island. But we go wherever the players are.” With the economy in the shape it’s in, state schools nationwide are seeing an influx of students and this is definitely beneficial to a basketball program like the Division III Hawks, who have no scholarships to give to their players. “If we’re recruiting a player who is being recruited by some of the privates we say, ‘If you’re a New York state resident, the value of the education here is a quarter of what you’re going to pay at a private’,” Nelson said.
While the team builds for the future, they hope to improve their standing in the SUNYAC Conference in the short term. When Nelson is asked to name the team’s most heated rivals, he pauses. “In order to have a rivalry, both teams have to be good,” he said. “There hasn’t been a lot of success here in basketball the last 10, 12 years. They’ve had one winning season in 12 years, so we’re trying to get that changed right now. It’s a building process.” With a major task in front of him, Nelson appears primed to lead the Hawks to success through nothing if not sheer will. “All energy and enthusiasm,” he said. “You have to be passionate about what you’re doing, you have to be very honest with your players, and you have to be exceptional bringing kids in here with recruiting.” The timeframe for New Paltz to become a winning team might be shorter than one would imagine. “We have a great core of young players,” Nelson said. “We’ll try to continue to add to that with another strong recruiting class coming in this year. I’ve seen a difference in a very short period of time.”