|Deshon Burgess, the reigning Liberty League player of the year, wants to teach once his playing days end.
Union Athletics photo
The years have taken Deshon Burgess and Willie Zachery up and down the East Coast, from the Atlanta area to different parts of New York State, with other stops along the way. The one thing they've carried with them throughout their journeys has been basketball, the same game that forged their friendship as children.
Burgess and Zachery both grew up in Scottdale, Ga., an area about 30 minutes outside of Atlanta. Now, both find themselves as key seniors on different teams in the Liberty League as first-generation college students. How did it happen? A key mentor, a little luck, and a lot of hard work.
Burgess and Zachery knew each other in elementary school, but it wasn't until middle school that their friendship truly blossomed. It started with a one-on-one game at the Tobie Grant Recreation Center. That game was followed by another, and another, and another. The two became regulars at the rec center on the weekends, and eventually after school during weekdays. Basketball provided a positive outlet in an area of Georgia that often is in short supply of such.
"Growing up in a neighborhood such that we grew up in, where there's a lot of bad things happening around us," Burgess said, "it was easy to get caught up in a lot of things that could hold us back from going to college and reaching our full potential."
Burgess, now a 6-foot-4, 200-pound guard at Union College, always had a height advantage over Zachery (5-foot-7, 175-pound guard at St. Lawrence University), so Burgess typically emerged from most of the early one-on-one matchups victorious.
"He was always tall and I was always quick, so we had to figure out how to score on each other," Zachery said.
Zachery, a standout football player, picked up basketball later than Burgess. Zachery didn't make the roster cut in seventh, eighth, or ninth grade, but it was after that final snub that he dedicated himself fully to basketball. The following year, Zachery joined Burgess on the Druid Hills High School team as a sophomore. Burgess said Zachery's commitment to improving as a player is unmatched.
"He's not the most physically-gifted individual, but I just remember growing up, him getting more reps and getting more shots and working on his game," Burgess said. "It encouraged me to do it too for myself."
The two played together against some of the top high school competition in the Atlanta region, which included a handful of Division I players. They also played AAU ball together, but as their high school careers began to wind down, neither was sure what the future would look like. Burgess held out hope of playing at the Division I or Division II levels, while Zachery considered junior college.
Robert Luciano, who was an assistant coach at Druid Hills and a former player at the University of Albany, worked through his connections and ties to the New York State college basketball scene to advocate for Burgess and Zachery, as well as Kaleb Faison, who also played at St. Lawrence from 2014-16.
Burgess fell in love with Union during his visit and enrolled as a freshman in the fall of 2013. Zachery eventually joined St. Lawrence after two years at Louisburg College, a two-year college located about 20 minutes from Raleigh, N.C. Both Burgess and Zachery credit Luciano for helping them not only as a coach, but as a personal mentor during their college searches.
|Like his high school teammate, Zachery plans to teach after college.
Tara Freeman, St. Lawrence University
Perhaps the biggest adjustment for the two Georgia natives was the weather. Zachery first visited St. Lawrence during the winter, and he learned a hard lesson that his usual attire of light hoodie, sweatpants and running shoes wasn't going to fly in Canton, which is only about 20 miles from the Canada border.
"I came here and saw all this snow," Zachery said. "The first thing that happens after I leave coach's office is I slip and fall right on my back outside. I wasn't even here 30 minutes yet before I fell right on my back."
Union's Schenectady campus and St. Lawrence's Canton campus are separated by about 200 miles and four hours, so Burgess and Zachery are usually only able to see each other when their teams play. The two schools have played six times over the past three seasons, including one meeting in last season's Liberty League tournament, with St. Lawrence holding a 4-2 advantage. The Saints won earlier this season, 75-63 on Dec. 30, so Zachery earned the temporary bragging rights.
"We love to talk a little smack," Burgess said.
The two teams will meet again this Saturday in what could be the final collegiate meeting between Burgess and Zachery. Both players have been remarkably successful, both on and off the court. Burgess, the 2015-16 Liberty League Player of the Year, is also the president of his fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha. A psychology major with a minor in anthropology, he is considering Teach For America, but Union head coach Chris Murphy said playing professionally overseas is still on the table for Burgess after he graduates.
"The Viniar Center has not seen a talent like him in a very long time," Murphy said. "I don't know if it ever has. Deshon can do anything he puts his mind to."
Zachery, an all-conference honorable mention in 2015-16, interned with the Boys & Girls Clubs of America last summer and already has a job offer from the Achievement First charter school in Providence, R.I., to teach third graders. St. Lawrence head coach Chris Downs said Zachery is a "human highlight reel" on the basketball court, but will leave a deeper lasting legacy of perseverance and accomplishment.
"I've had a lot of guys come through here who have been given a lot more and done a lot less," Downs said.
Both Burgess and Zachery, who is a sociology major with a minor in communications, want to guide and mentor youth, whether it's through teaching, coaching, or volunteering.
"I want to let them know that just because their parents didn't make the best decisions to help their lives be better, that's not the end of the road," Zachery said. "They can always keep going and keep pushing. I'm a living witness that the cards aren't always dealt in your favor, but you can make it."
"If I could do it all over again, I wouldn't change one thing," Zachery added. "I wouldn't go to another school. I wouldn't do anything differently."
Gallaudet in control of NEAC
The Gallaudet men's team has won 18 games in each of the last two seasons, so it's no surprise the team is atop the NEAC South Division. What is surprising is just how dominant the Bison have been against conference opponents.
Gallaudet (14-3, 12-0) has won all 12 of its NEAC games so far this season. No other team in the conference, whether North or South Division, has more than seven conference wins. The Bison still have eight more NEAC games between now and the conference tournament, but they certainly control their own destiny.
The quartet of senior center Joshua McGriff (15.5 ppg, 9.3 rpg), senior guard Raymond Nelson (13.9 ppg, 5.8 apg), junior forward Andy Cruz (14.5 ppg, 9.4 rpg) and freshman guard Noah Valencia (14.9 ppg) has powered Gallaudet all season long. Those four will remain crucial to Gallaudet's success.
Gallaudet faces North Division-leading Morrisville State (9-4, 6-1) on Sunday.
Stevens stays hot in January
The only opponent that's been able to slow down the Stevens women's team in recent weeks is Mother Nature. Winter weather forced the postponement of the Ducks' non-conference matchup against TCNJ on Monday, a game Stevens would have entered on a five-game winning streak.
Since a 56-40 loss to Empire 8-leading Hartwick (11-6, 7-1) on Jan. 10, Stevens has knocked off five straight conference opponents by an average margin of victory of 27.6 points. The Ducks are 7-1 in January after a 1-6 start before the New Year.
The driving force for Stevens has been fifth-year senior guard Kaitlyn Astel, which comes as little surprise. Astel, the two-time defending Empire 8 Player of the Year and a first-team D3hoops.com All-East region selection in 2016, leads the team in scoring (17.5 ppg) and minutes (32.1 mpg). The Ducks have won 20-plus games and advanced to the NCAA tournament, including a trip to the Sweet 16 last season, in the last two seasons.
That experience will help down the stretch, as Stevens still has key matchups against Hartwick (Jan. 31), Ithaca (Feb. 4) and St. John Fisher (Feb. 17) among its nine remaining games.
Top 25 roundup: Geneseo moves up
Geneseo, one of just eight remaining undefeated women's teams, jumped up to No. 23 in this week's D3hoops.com Top 25 poll. Rochester fell out of the top 25, but continued to receive votes.
In the men's poll, Rochester moved up one spot to No. 8, the sixth consecutive poll with the Yellowjackets ranked among the top 10 teams. Brockport and St. Lawrence also received votes in this week's poll.
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