Becker helps Jacobs out of heartbreak
By Brian Falzarano
|Trae Jacobs nearly walked away from the game and
Becker College, but his family, both on and off court, urged him to
Becker athletics photo
Trae Jacobs learned hard lessons about heartbreak and losing across a harrowing, 16-month stretch, one that could have broken someone without his broad shoulders, perspective and perseverance.
Burying his 12-year-old baby sister and 18-year-old best friend forced him to question everything about the future, but the more he considered walking away from Becker College, the more his family, friends and teammates encouraged him to stay at his second home in Leicester, Mass.
“I figured that God had some sort of plan out there for me,” Jacobs said.
Jacobs is one of central figures in fourth-year coach Brian Gorman's game plan, one that turned Becker from annual afterthought into a program enjoying a series of firsts in its most glorious season: The Hawks made their D3hoops.com Top 25 debut at No. 23 this week, captured their first-ever New England Collegiate Conference regular-season championship and find themselves two wins away from hearing their names called on Selection Monday for the first time.
Coming out of Great Mills High School in Maryland, Jacobs originally planned to play football for the Hawks. But when his 12-year-old sister, Cidney Paige, succumbed to juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, he backed off going to Becker until his mother's wisdom convinced him to give college a try.
“I knew I couldn't let her down,” said Jacobs, who played for the football Hawks in 2007 before returning to catch two touchdown passes this fall.
In the meantime, Gorman inherited the men's basketball program and learned of Jacobs through one of an assistant football coach who has since left the program. Call it a case of serendipitous timing: Jacobs found his first close friends on campus were basketball players, helping soothe his heartache and homesickness.
From the opening tip-off of his career, Jacobs became an instant star, averaging 14.8 points his rookie season as the Hawks improved from 3-22 to 13-14. In the meantime, he convinced former Great Mills teammate Will Smith to join him in New England so they could play together again.
Except that fate cruelly intervened: an off-campus party soon after Smith's arrival ended with Jacobs' best friend being stabbed fatally, forcing the then-sophomore to grieve again.
“I couldn't believe it,” Jacobs said somberly. “You're not supposed to get stabbed when you go to a party, you're supposed to have a good time.”
Becker's entire team boarded a bus bound for Maryland to attend Smith's funeral. They stayed at Jacobs' house, helping him begin to heal his heavy heart.
“He just needed to be reassured a lot that it was going to be OK and we were going to help him deal with it,” Gorman said. “Being a part of the team is important with that. I just tried to stress to him that he wasn't doing this alone.”
After a week at home in Maryland, Jacobs returned to Becker and immersed himself in his studies, his game and his band of basketball brothers. He went to the tattoo parlor and got both of his shoulders adorned with body art – his left is dedicated to Smith, his right to his sister.
And now, Jacobs' story appears poised to end happily. Having already the surpassed the 1,600-point plateau in his remarkably consistent career, Jacobs and his Hawks finally cracked the Top 25 after thanks to a 14-0 run in the NECC and victories over perennial New England powers Bridgewater State and Worcester Polytechnic Institute.
Becker will host this weekend's conference tournament and, with two more victories, punch their ticket to March Madness. Even with an upset loss the Hawks could still hear themselves called on Selection Monday, although this is certainly a more risky proposition.
“We've done what committee tells you to do,” said Gorman, a member of the NCAA regional committee. “I think it takes a while for teams to establish themselves in people's minds. Three years ago no one ever heard of Becker. Now trying to get an at-large bid, it's going to keep to me awake all week, I promise you.”
Irregardless of what March Madness holds in store for the Hawks, Jacobs has penned a remarkable tale of perseverance. He will graduate this summer with his degree in business management and leave behind an indelible legacy.
“There's always good that comes with the bad. I lost my best friend, but there's a lot more good,” Jacobs said. “I met some amazing people here, some that are going to be lifelong friends. I got an education. I would say Becker College has been good to me. I like it here. I've enjoyed my four years.
Hanover, North Central coming on
Although the North Central men finished strong and the Hanover women enjoyed a breakthrough regular season, both are a lot like Becker in that neither is certain next Monday will be a happy one if they don’t win their respective conference tournaments.
|Molly Jones has Hanover on the verge of an NCAA
Tournament appearance, with just one in-region loss.
Hanover athletics photo
After losing last season's Heartland Conference final at Franklin, the Panthers knew capturing their first-ever, regular-season conference championship could potentially eliminate the angst they endured last March and lead to their first NCAA appearance. To this end, Hanover (23-1, 17-1) set a school record for victories and will host its conference tournament for the first time beginning Friday night; the Panthers will play either Manchester or Defiance in the semifinals Saturday.
“We had a lot of high expectations going into the season and it's turned out the way we wanted,” said 13th-year coach Molly Jones, whose team was ranked fifth in the Central Region in last week’s NCAA ranking before moving up to fourth this week. “I would think we'd have a good shot at it either way with our record, but one of our main goals is to win our conference tournament. That's our preferred way of getting to the national tournament.”
Jones and her staff recruited 14 seniors to Hanover four seasons ago, but only star center Molly Martin and four classmates remain. Martin averages 17.3 points and 9.8 rebounds, while fourth-year forward Franz Torin pours in 17 points per contest as the Panthers average 76.8 points a game.
“When I first got here, I knew it was going to take time to learn how each other likes to play and take what the coaches said and turn it into what we've done this year,” Martin said. “I believe we can make it far in the national tournament with the way we've played.”
While Hanover prefers more of a run-and-gun game, North Central favors a more plodding approach. Coach Todd Raridon's squad of nine newcomers (eight freshmen and a sophomore transfer) struggled to grasp his emphasis on defense and rebounding in non-conference play, but the Cardinals began to flourish after their 72-67 overtime loss at Illinois Wesleyan on Jan. 5.
Since then, the Cardinals (15-10, 11-3) have gone 11-2, including a 50-46 victory over then-No. 3 Augustana on Saturday that secured the top seed in the College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin Tournament beginning Friday in Naperville, Ill. North Central will face fourth-seeded Illinois Wesleyan – which it dealt a 64-58, overtime defeat at home on Valentine's Day – in the semifinals.
The winner faces either No. 2 Augustana or No. 3 Wheaton (Ill.) for the championship Saturday.
Although North Central possesses a blend of veteran savvy and youthful skill featuring 6-6 sophomore Derek Raridon (13.8 ppg), Todd's son and the 2010 D3hoops.com Midwest Region Rookie of the Year, and 6-6 freshman Landon Gamble (team-best 14.0 ppg, 5.3 rpg), they know their first invitation to the NCAA's since 2006 is not guaranteed without going 2-0 this weekend.
“We know we've got to win the conference tournament,” Raridon said. “We put ourselves in a bad position by starting slow and going 4-7, but we finished strong.
“We've beaten every team in the conference this season. It's just two more wins.”
WPU's youth movement
Across her 18 seasons as William Paterson's women's coach, Erin Monahan has routinely blended varying personalities and skill sets into a perennial Atlantic Region power.
However, the five-time New Jersey Athletic Conference Coach of the Year has rarely guided a senior-free roster – especially when eight of her 13 players are freshmen. So when the 20th-ranked Pioneers suffered consecutive setbacks against Richard Stockton and No. 24 Mount St. Mary in mid-December after ascending as high as 14th in the D3hoops.com Top 25 Poll, it became a good time to get everyone refocused.
After a few cathartic team meetings, William Paterson matured, winning 15 of 16 games while becoming a virtual lock for its fourth Division III NCAA Tournament appearance in five seasons entering Wednesday's NJAC semifinal against local rival Montclair State. The Pioneers' lone loss over that stretch: a 79-64 setback at No. 5 Kean on Jan. 29.
“We could have a better record right now,” Monahan said, “but I don't think we would have grown.”
Monahan has two elite talents in juniors and first-team All-NJAC performers BriAnna Lucas and April Smith. A Preseason D3hoops.com Fourth Team All-American and both the NJAC Co-Player and Defensive Player of the Year, Lucas is averaging career highs across the board (18.0 points, 4.3 assists, 4.0 rebounds, 43.6 FG%, 40.1 3FG%), while Smith (18.3 points, 10.9 rebounds), who transferred from Kean after the 2007-08 campaign, has rebounded nicely after missing all but five contests last season due to injury.
For the Pioneers to push past Kean, win their first NJAC Tournament title since 1993 and make some noise in March, Monahan hopes her freshmen to respond more like they have lately – and much less jittery than in their first meeting with the Cougars, who defeated Monahan's bunch for the 2007 and 2010 conference championships and held a 20-2 lead at the outset Jan. 29.
Playing pivotal complementary roles are rookie guards Floriana Borova (6.4 points per game) and Dana Jeter (4.6 points, 5.7 rebounds while starting 17 of 24 games), as well as freshman forward Jewell Palmer (4.3 points, 5.3 rebounds, 15 starts). Two other first-year players, Kristine Jackiewicz and Megan Russ, bolster the frontcourt off the bench.
“I'm hoping that they've been there, done that (by now),” Monahan said. “I've been saying all year with the starts behind them they're not freshmen anymore. I'm just looking for consistency. … When that happens, I'm hoping that we will take this program to another level.”
Having written about or worked in Division III athletics during his 17-year professional career, Brian Falzarano joins D3hoops.com as its Around the Nation columnist in February 2011. A native of New Jersey, Brian has covered everything from high schools to the pros, but thoroughly enjoys telling the stories of small-college athletics.