Jeffs Return Four Starters to Experienced Group
Amherst posted a 14-11 record during the 2009-10 season and missed out on the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 11 years, but it didn’t take long for head coach Dave Hixon ’75 and his boys to get back on track. Last year’s Lord Jeffs won their first 21 games, advanced to the national quarterfinals and finished at 25-4 overall, with their four losses coming by a combined 24 points to Final Four teams.
Dave Hixon '75 led the Lord Jeffs to a 25-4 record last year.
The improvements Amherst made from the 2009-10 season to the 2010-11 campaign were drastic. Two major components the Jeffs focused on were free throw shooting and defense, and their offseason dedication paid off. In addition to bumping its shooting percentage at the line from 63.4 to 74.5, Amherst surrendered an average of 5.4 fewer points per game than it did the previous year.
Ranked fourth in the D3hoops.com Preseason Poll, Amherst is poised to make another deep tournament run with the return of four starters and an outstanding senior class. The Jeffs welcome back seven players who averaged at least 14.0 minutes and 6.0 points per game last year, including four players who contributed at least 10.0 points per contest.
The 2010-11 Lord Jeffs finished with the third highest scoring margin in Division III (+18.9), notably beginning its national tournament run with a 79-39 win over Skidmore and a 92-70 victory at WPI. “We showed what we can do last year in the NCAA Tournament,” Hixon says. “Our seniors will be key for us this year, and I’m excited to see what they can do. The sky is the limit with this group.”
Serving as this year’s captain is Taylor Barrise ’12, a three-year contributor and one of the best sharpshooters in program history. The 6’5 guard shot 42.6 percent from long range and 80.0 percent at the line a year ago, marking drastic improvements in both categories from the previous year. Barrise also saw jumps in his rebounds and assists, and he begins his senior season 53 three-pointers shy of surpassing the school’s career record of 198.
Amherst’s explosive offense will once again rely on Barrise’s ability to extend teams’ defenses. He hit at least five three-pointers in five games last year, notably going 7-for-9 against Elms, 7-for-10 versus Babson and 6-for-10 at WPI. During a dominant four-game stretch Barrise knocked down 23 of his 37 attempts from behind the arc (.622). “Taylor is as good a shooter as there is in the NESCAC,” Hixon says. “If you give him space, he’ll make you pay. He’s worked really hard, and I’m hoping he picks up where he left off.”
Coach Hixon traditionally gives his players time to develop, but David Waller ’12 broke the mold and has been in the starting lineup since the beginning of his first season with the team. A 6’6 forward, Waller has been putting up impressive numbers for three years, but his junior season was by far his best. He averaged 8.1 points per game and shot 55.0 percent from the floor, notably hitting 47.7 percent of his threes after knocking down only 23.3 percent as a sophomore.
Waller is a matchup nightmare as a perimeter player with an explosiveness that can catch defenses off guard. He recorded a double-double against Castleton State and proved he can distribute as well as he can score when he had 13 points and six assists against Tufts. In the team’s final three NCAA Tournament games Waller averaged 15.3 points, 3.7 assists and 5.0 rebounds while shooting 50 percent overall and 42.1 percent from long range.
Taylor Barrise '12 will serve as this year's captain.
Nicknamed “Mr. Versatility” by Hixon, Willy Workman ’13 averaged 10.6 points, 5.5 boards, 2.5 assists and 1.5 steals per game as a sophomore. One of the team’s most vocal leaders, the 6’6 swingman shot 38.4 percent from three-point range and 75.4 percent from the line, also seeing an increase in assists and a decrease in turnovers. Workman displayed his versatility in several games last year, including his 20-point, 10-rebound, 5-assist performance against Wesleyan, as well as his outing against Bates in which he had 11 points, eight boards, four blocks and four assists.
Rounding out the returning starters is Pete Kaasila ’13, a 6’9 center who Hixon believes could be a double-double player on a regular basis. As a sophomore Kaasila averaged 10.0 points and 5.3 rebounds per game, also ranking third in the NESCAC in field goal percentage (.606) and sixth in blocks per game (1.18). He averaged 11.5 points in his four games against Middlebury and Williams, which featured two of the best big men in the country. Kaasila scored a season-high 22 points at Emmanuel and had a strong finish to the year, averaging 1.8 blocks in the team’s final five games.
Splitting time with Kaasila last year was Jeff Holmes ’12, a 6’7 forward who has established himself as one of the NESCAC’s best rebounders. Averaging 7.5 points and 5.6 boards in only 16.3 minutes per game for his career, Holmes led the Lord Jeffs in rebounding nine times as a junior, notably averaging 6.8 boards and 10.0 points in his first five games. In back-to-back performances against Johnson & Wales and Wesleyan, he poured in a combined 27 points on 12-of-13 shooting.
Holmes and Kaasila helped Amherst rank second in Division III in rebounding margin last year (+10.0). Hixon believes his big men will benefit from the coaching staff’s addition of Kevin Hopkins ’08, who played on the Lord Jeffs’ 2007 national championship team. “Pete and Jeff are very different, but they’re as good as any big men in the league,” Hixon says. “There could even be times when we play them together. We’re expecting a lot from both of them.”
Rounding out an exceptional senior class are 6’6 forwards Connor Johnson ’12 and Tim Prowitt ’12, who played prominent roles in Amherst’s two overtime wins last season. Johnson was 3-for-3 from behind the arc in the second half against Maine Farmington, cutting his team’s deficit to six and to four before tying things up at 64-64. “Connor can help us in so many ways because he can play four positions,” Hixon says. “When he’s playing well, he can do anything.”
Willy Workman '13 averaged 10.6 points and 5.5 boards last year.
Prowitt, meanwhile, put in his best performance during Amherst’s 92-89 win over Williams, giving the Jeffs their first lead on a three-pointer en route to five first-half points. “Tim hasn’t had a lot of minutes, but those minutes have been critical,” says Hixon. “We lost two very vocal leaders in Conor Meehan ’11 and Kurt Bennett ’11, and we need our older guys to fill that gap. All five of our seniors have exceeded expectations in taking on that role. I’m hoping they can all be captains of some sort.”
In his first two seasons Allen Williamson ’13 developed a reputation as one the most athletic players in the NESCAC. The 6’4 guard averaged 6.6 points per game and shot 56.3 percent from the floor as a sophomore, notably combining for 41 points on 16-of-16 shooting against Trinity and Connecticut College. During a nine-game stretch—which included seven conference games—Williamson averaged 12.8 points and 3.3 rebounds while shooting 69.7 percent overall and 88.5 percent at the line. “Allen has already displayed the ability to impact games,” Hixon says. “We have seen incredible growth, and we hope that continues.”
Point guard Aaron Toomey ’14 may not technically be a veteran, but he certainly played like one en route to his NESCAC Rookie of the Year selection. He began his collegiate career with the first of his six 20-point performances, which included a 21-point, eight-rebound outing against Williams. For the season he averaged 12.5 points, 3.1 assists, 3.4 rebounds and 1.4 steals, all while shooting 40.3 percent from beyond the arc. Toomey has incredible range but is also a fearless driver, allowing him to take advantage of his .864 shooting percentage from the free throw line.
Meehan left big shoes to fill at the point, but Toomey has already proven he can put the Jeffs on his back if need be. He led Amherst in scoring eight times and had a combined 34 points on 11-of-11 shooting (5-of-5 on threes) during wins over Trinity and Colby, finishing his rookie season just one point shy of the program record for first-year scoring. “Naturally, expectations are going to be high with Aaron,” Hixon says. “Last year he proved he can score when he has to. Now, it’s his team to lead as the point guard.”
LOOKING TO BREAK THROUGH
Coach Hixon has several talented guards waiting for a chance to take on a leading role this year. Landrus Lewis ’13, David Kalema ’14 and Spencer Noon’13 are incredibly quick, aggressive players who will compete for minutes at the point guard position, while newcomer Ray Barry ’15 has proven to be ready to play at the collegiate level. Meehan and Toomey often shared the court last season, and Hixon will have a similar option this year with so many guards who can turn Amherst into a running team.
Aaron Toomey '14 was named 2011 NESCAC Rookie of the Year.
Hixon will also be looking to find a role for Connor Gach ’14, a 6’3 guard with the accuracy of Barrise and the range of Steven Wheeler ’10. Tom Killian ’14 was right on the cusp of being a major contributor as a first-year, and this season he could see significant time as a deceptively explosive player who can beat defenders with his quick first step. Roshard Bryant ’13, Logan Buckner ’14 and Alex Levine ’15 will look to provide minutes in the post, while Joseph Mussachia ’15 gives the Jeffs another 6’6, left-handed, versatile swingman who knows how to score.
Amherst will begin its season with the Ken Wright ’52 Memorial Invitational as usual, but the tournament’s first games will actually be played at Elms College. The Jeffs will look to win their 15th consecutive season opener when they take on Plymouth State, with the winner moving on to play either Elms or Washington and Lee in Saturday’s championship game in LeFrak Gymnasium. Amherst is 20-0 all-time in the Ken Wright ’52 event, having earned all 10 titles in the tournament’s history.
The Lord Jeffs posted a 17-0 record at home last year, improving them to 155-14 (.917) since Jan. 1, 2000. They will have to wait before settling into LeFrak, though, as seven of their first nine games will be played on the road. Amherst will open its NESCAC schedule with home games against Wesleyan, Connecticut College and Hamilton, before traveling for its next five conference contests.
Highlighting the schedule as usual is the Middlebury-Williams weekend, which will take place in LeFrak this season. The Lord Jeffs were 0-2 against the Panthers and 1-2 versus the Ephs last year, and they will need to get over those two humps if they want to return to the Final Four. Williams and Middlebury are ranked third and fifth, respectively, in the preseason poll, as both teams lost in the NCAA semifinals last year.