New Coach on the Block: A Profile of Middlebury’s Mike Leonard

 Middlebury’s athletic program is rock solid. To be fair, I’m a student here, but to be objective – if objectivity still exists – Sports Illustrated recently gave us the title of the 8th-ranked school in the country for sports lovers. The Panthers have won 7 national championships in the last 10 years – roll Pants. But none of them have been in baseball. Many of our teams have a gaudy reputation both on campus and around the country. Historically, the baseball team has not been one of them.

Enter new head coach Mike Leonard. Coach Leonard, not surprisingly, is a ball player. He caught at UConn and was All Big-East. He went on to play in the Cape Cod League for the Harwich Mariners, and made it as far as the AA Portland Sea Dogs, before taking his batter’s eye from the batter’s box to the dugout (yes, that’s the corniest sentence I’ve ever written). In six seasons as the head coach at Bates, Leonard won over 20 games three times, and compiled 114 wins overall.

Leonard regards both his team and Middlebury’s reputation in a way that speaks towards a bright future for his baseball program. He sees the success of a team in much more than a record. When asked about the health of the program he was inheriting, Coach Leonard said, “I don’t know that the program itself has been struggling…for me personally to judge the program on just wins and losses wasn’t fair.”

I for one, had simply assumed that the program was a weak one. Leonard, as well as the performance of his team this year, have challenged that assumption.

He referenced the attitude of his players, as they situate themselves within the athletic culture at Midd, “They’re certainly ready to join the other teams on campus who are winning NESCAC titles and national championships…They were ready to put in the work, and they have the leadership and direction to get there…I’m excited.”

This is not to say that Middlebury’s new coach is unconcerned about record. After all, any team needs tallies in the win column to make the NESCAC tournament – to do so consistently is one of his goals – but it seems he wants so much more out of his players than just wins. As Leonard put it, “from an identity standpoint I want us to be resilient, confident, regardless of results, regardless of past outcomes.”

As far as young talent is concerned, Middlebury has plenty of it. But Leonard referenced the leadership of his seniors as the key to the team’s success. He said, “One of my messages to the seniors was to always include and empower the first year guys, because if you’re a senior you want to go out on top, and if that means that a freshman can go out and hit a grand slam and help you beat Amherst (Justin!); you’ve gotta be invested in that.”

The level of responsibility placed on senior leaders like Jason Lock ’17 and Ryan Rizzo ’17 has paid off in more ways than one. Not only are several young players playing fantastic baseball, but Rizzo and Lock are both having career seasons. But again, it’s not about the numbers. He sees not only young players playing to their full potential, but perhaps more importantly, he sees that “our seniors have done a great job of kind of putting ego aside and really trying to make it feel like one cohesive unit, one family.”

An excellent example of Coach Leonard’s philosophy shining through was first year Justin Han’s go-ahead grand slam against Amherst last weekend. It is just one of many instances of clutch hitting or solid performances off the mound from young Middlebury players this season. Leonard preaches discipline at the plate and in the game itself, and truly believes that that is the way to success.

He puts competition and cohesion before wins and losses, saying, “We’re sitting here right now at 6-10 with 8 losses by two runs or less. We’ve put ourselves in a position to compete. I want us to continue to be that type of team as long as I’m here.”

With greater emphasis on things like grit, commitment, and leadership, the Middlebury baseball team is already putting itself in position to be successful. As Mike Leonard himself said, judging a program based on number of wins alone isn’t fair. But by taking that perspective to heart, and by nurturing the relationships within his team, especially between the upper- and lower class-men, Middlebury is poised to add significantly to that win count.

Those among us without Coach Leonard’s perspective, those who prioritize victory in their judgement of a team, may soon enough count the Middlebury baseball team among the other consistent winners on campus.

 

The Battle for Connecticut: NESCAC Quarterfinal, #5 Trinity at #4 Wesleyan

#5 Trinity (15-9, 6-4) at #4 Wesleyan (19-5, 6-4), Saturday, 3:00 PM, Middletown, Connecticut

(Courtesy of Wesleyan Athletics)

Taking a glance at season-long statistics, when Trinity heads to Middletown this Saturday to play Wesleyan, they’ll be facing an equal opponent. Wesleyan has allowed just over 66 points per game this winter. Trinity’s competition has put up an average of 65.5. While Wesleyan is averaging just over 76 points a game, which is four more than the Bantams, both teams are shooting 40% from the field, and from deep, both Wesleyan and Trinity are shooting 35% and 35.2% respectively. Where the disparity between the two lies – so that I can have a take on the game, rather than just throwing evidence in front of you that says the game will be a tie – is in the final stretch of the regular season.

After a last-second OT win at Amherst, Wesleyan coasted through Bowdoin and Colby – as expected, I should add – with 93-73 and 83-67 wins at home. In both those games, 4 of Wesleyan’s five starters scored in double figures. Wesleyan, who it seems can depend on consistent output from senior and member of the 1,000 point club Harry Rafferty, as well as from fellow senior Joseph Kuo, who is on the brink of membership, as he currently sits with 978 career points. This streak of balanced perimeter scoring bodes well for the Cardinals, especially against a Trinity defense that allowed Bates to shoot 46.7% from the field, and Middlebury to shoot 57% from the field and 52% from deep. The Cardinals’ chances look good if they can get balanced offensive production, especially because they can rely on strong perimeter defense.

The Cardinals are going to need a big game out of Joseph Kuo ’17 (Courtesy of Lianne Yun/Wesleyan Athletics).

The Cardinals held a perimeter-scoring heavy Amherst to shooting just 32% from deep, while Bowdoin shot 34%, and Colby, despite an absolute lights out first half, were cooled down by the Cardinals to shoot just over 35% from beyond the arc. Yet the thing that makes this matchup so interesting is that Trinity knows that they can’t beat Wesleyan by jacking up threes, and they wouldn’t have tried to anyways. Wesleyan’s biggest weakness is rebounding, and they’ll need solid performances on the glass from more than just Kuo and Jordan Sears, who pulled down 11 against Bowdoin, if they hope to match Trinity’s far-from-secret weapon. If the Bantams are to win this game, it will be on the shoulders of senior Ed Ogundeko.

That sounds like an aggressive take, but it’s certainly not a hot one. The senior forward has led Trinity in either points, rebounds, or both in every one of the Bantam’s wins since mid-December. He pulled down 23 boards against Williams. He had 20 points and 20 boards in a win over Bowdoin. But in Trinity’s 97-80 loss in Middlebury this past weekend, Ogundeko was only good for 14 points and 9 boards. This is still a solid line, but it shows that Trinity’s success is contingent on his individual domination, especially on the glass. When Wesleyan and Trinity squared off earlier in the season, the senior POY candidate had only 8 rebounds, and the Cardinals won the game 65-61.

Look for sophomore Jeremy Arthur to step up in this battle for Connecticut (Courtesy of Trinity Athletics).

Saturday’s game will be won or lost on the glass. Wesleyan will look to defend well, and they certainly hope for the balanced production they’ve been getting from their starters over the course of their current three game win streak. The question is Ogundeko. If he isn’t attacking under the rim, or the likes of Jeremy Arthur and Chris Turnbull aren’t pulling the ball down, then perhaps Wesleyan won’t need anyone to step up and grab 10 boards. But if Trinity can command the paint while the ball stays down low, Wesleyan will need some serious hustle for their perimeter D to have the impact it does against less-aggressive opponents. Wesleyan’s perimeter play against Trinity’s strength in the paint should combine for one heck of a first round matchup.

Writer’s Pick: Wesleyan   

Stranger Things Have Happened, But Strange Things Happened: Stock Report 2/1

Last week I used the intro to the stock report as a way to explore the somewhat cheesy comparison between NESCAC Men’s Basketball and the trading on Wall Street. Try as I might, I can’t think of a metaphor for stocks to top it, so I’ll just stick to the hoops. This weekend raised many questions. Tufts had seemed so solidly on top of the conference. Middlebury seemed to be heading downward into a skid. Wesleyan was a defensive team, and Amherst was more offensively focused. But things change, this weekend they certainly did.  

Stock Up

Amherst’s D-

Amherst has jacked up the defensive intensity in their recent games.

Amherst held Trinity to shooting just 1/14 from deep in a 66-53 win on Saturday. They forced 16 turnovers, and took advantage of them, scoring 16 points of of them. More than just good shot contesting, Amherst held Trinity to just 5 assists as a team. This indicates some sturdy defensive organization, one with little to no breakdowns. The Bantams are averaging just over 71 points a game, and typically shoot 44.5% from the field, and 35% from deep. Amherst held them to 53 points on 32% shooting and 7.1% from three, respectively. I’d love to avoid the cliche, but hey, defense wins championships.   

Wesleyan’s Explosiveness –

Jordan Bonner
Jordan Bonner ’19

Wesleyan shot 48% from the field and 50% from beyond the arcin 85-75 win over Conn. Harry Rafferty played 34 minutes from the opening tip and had 20 points on 6/12 from the field and three of four from deep. What’s notable about Wesleyan’s 85 points is that the rest of the Cardinal’s starters combined for only 20. Even good teams have off nights, and so an essential mark of any good teamis that it has a depth of players beyond the starting five who can pick up the slack. On Saturday in New London, Joseph Kuo and Andrew Gardiner pulled the rope. The senior forward Kuo was good for 10 of 16 shooting from the field in his twenty point performance. Jordan Bonner dropped 23 points in 28 minutes off the bench. He was 4/6 from deep, but also got to the hole with enough consistency to hit 7 free throws. Wesleyan is known as one of the premier defenses in the conference – the Camel’s 75 points can be largely explained by a 32 point explosion by Tyler Rowe – and if they can keep getting performances off the bench like the ones this weekend their chances look good heading into the tourney.  

Stock Down

Tufts –

The number 4 team in the country lost to Bates in Lewiston on Saturday 84-72.(Editor’s Note: They also dropped a non-league tilt to U-Mass Dartmouth on Tuesday.) They were behind the entire second half. I guess this explains the absurd number of shots it took the Jumbos to score 72 points, but it’s not unfair to expect a little higher efficiency from a team that’s leading the conference in points. Vinny Pace alone, who scored 19 points in 30 minutes, took 22 shots, 12 of them threes. Tuft’s starters combined took 60 shots. They were 36.1% from the field, 18.5% from three, and shot a mere 53.6% from the line. One could attribute the poor shooting to a very solid Bobcat defense, but the weak showing at the line and the huge amount of shots attempted points to a despicable shooting performance. It could be true that it just wasn’t Tufts’ day, but a performance like the one they had Saturday has to hurt. A bounce back, or lack thereof, this upcoming weekend, where they face solid Trinity and Amherst teams, will be a solid indicator of whether or not the Jumbos have the grit and potential to make a tourney run that their national ranking would have indicated. Credit where credit is due: Bates balled out, but this weekend could have been the beginning of something very bad for the Jumbos.

My Credibility Regarding Middlebury –

Bryan Jones
Bryan Jones ’17 had a career night against Hamilton.

Last week I raised into the question the vitality and balance of thePanther’s offense. I said they were too reliant on Matt St. Amour and Jake Brown. And then the Midd kids scored 115 points against Hamilton. That certainly answers the vitality question. As for the balance, Middlebury had 4 starters and 6 players in double digit scoring. So much for my analysis. Midd shot 62% from the field, and 59% from deep. Combine that with 91.7% shooting at the line, and a career-high 25 point performance from Mr. Bryan Jones, and the 115 point thumping of a then-tied-for-third Continentals is not that surprising. It is true that it was a special performance, and one can’t expect that kind of output on any sort of consistent basis, but what gives me even more confidence that the Panthers have recovered from their loss to Williams is that Middlebury had 26 assists. That’s an offense that is humming. Roll Pants, thanks for proving me wrong.

In This Economy!?: Stock Report 1/23

Johnny McCarthy ’18 saved Amherst from their third straight conference loss with a buzzer beater against Bowdoin this weekend (Courtesy of Amherst Athletics).

Happy Monday everyone! Though Wall Street may have kept its doors locked over the weekend, the NESCAC Men’s Basketball market was fully open. We witnessed upsets, disappointments, and heroics characteristic of only this, the most solid and well-rounded conference in the country. Though your shares in the DOW Industrial or the NASDAQ may not have traded at all, there were some surprising changes in the stock of NESCAC hoops this weekend. Trade offs that may very well shape the outlook of the conference, and thus the national tournament as a whole, as we move ever deeper into the cold recesses of January.

Stock Up

Amherst’s Confidence

Amherst came into the weekend on a two game skid, fresh off conference losses to Wesleyan and Conn. They almost blew it again on Friday against a then 1-2 Bowdoin. With 5:46 left in the game, the Polar Bears led Amherst 60-47. A former national number one on the brink of its third straight conference loss, Amherst proceeded to go on a 14 point run over the next five minutes to take a short-lived lead. The Polar Bears clawed back into it, until a buzzer beater three from Johnny McCarthy ’18 set Amherst over Bowdoin, the kind of electrifying jolt that can get any good team out of a rut. All season, Amherst’s pitfall has been an over reliance on McCarthy and Jayde Dawson ’17 for scoring, which makes them predictable and easy to defend. And although this premise was true in the game against Bowdoin, on Saturday Amherst had 4 starters score in double figures as they cruised to an 81-67 victory over a reeling Colby. The once-presumed Lords of NESCAC hoops may have finally made something click.

Ed Ogundeko’s Player of the Year Hopes

Ed Ogundeko ’17 (Courtesy of Trinity Athletics)

Like Amherst, Trinity had a two win weekend, with an 65-56 victory over Colby, and a 71-53 domination of Bowdoin. Ogundeko has been excellent all year in his senior season. His 17.3 points per game, 10.9 boards per game, and field goal percentage of 60.4% have him ranked fourth, first, and second respectively in the conference. He was hampered by foul trouble against the Mules on Friday, and so only poured in 14 points and grabbed 7 boards. The real reason Ogundeko’s stock is trading up following the weekend, is because of his performance Saturday against Bowdoin, in a head to head with fellow POY candidate Jack Simonds ’19. Where Simonds was only good for 8 points in 31 minutes, Ogundeko pulled down 20 rebounds, dropped 20 points on 10 of 15 from the field, and had 3 towering blocks in his 27 minutes in Oosting Gymnasium. Should the debate at the end of the year come between the Trinity Senior and Bowdoin’s Simmons, Ogundeko certainly has put a defining stamp on his candidacy for Player of the Year.

Hamilton

Despite having only one game this weekend, Hamilton rebounded nicely following losses to a well-defending Bates squad, and to Tuft’s versatile O, with a 94-76 thumping of Williams on Friday evening. Williams may not be in its strongest form of late, but they defend the perimeter nicely, and shoot well enough, or often enough at least (they lead the league in three point attempts) to beat just about anyone. Hamilton shot 47% from the field, outrebounded Williams 45-35, and played solid fundamental hoops, dishing out 20 assists in the win.

Kena Gilmour ’20
(Courtesy of Hamilton Athletics)

Rookie of the Year candidate Kena Gilmour also seems to be hitting his stride, as he scored 22 points in 23 minutes on 6 of 7 shooting from beyond the arc. In beating an Ephs team that yesterday crushed Middlebury – with whom Hamilton is tied for 3rd in the conference – the young Continentals have positioned themselves nicely heading into a pivotal matchup with the panthers this upcoming weekend in Vermont.

Stock Down

Midd’s Scoring Balance

With a lineup of some of the better offensive producers in the league – especially with an explosive point guard like Jake Brown ’17 – one would assume that, despite a relative unevenness in stats, a team like the panthers would produce somewhat evenly across the board. With the recent loss of Zach Baines however, that assumed equality of defensive prowess and scoring ability has been put to the test, and on Sunday against Williams that test was failed. Brown had 10 points and only 3 assists in 34 minutes for Midd, and Matt St. Amour ’17 dropped 24 in an 89-65 loss. I wish I could credit this schralping to my highschool friend Kyle Scadlock ’19, who scored 6 and pulled down 7 boards for the Ephs, but Middlebury’s tremendous inefficiency has to be attributed to the lack of production of virtually anyone besides St. Amour. The 3 Panther starters aside from St. Amour and Brown combined for 13 points, and the bench was good for only 18. This weekend will be a good test for the Panthers, as they face a Hamilton team that beat Williams soundly on Friday.

Colby

Colby hasn’t scored more than 70 points in a conference game this season. Though they may be 2nd in the conference in 3 pointers made, and first in attempts, the Mules are still 7th in the ‘CAC in 3-point percentage, shooting just 31.9% from beyond the arc. This is indicative of not only a team in desperation, but also of a team that’s spending a lot of time playing catch up. It’s no wonder that the Mules are 0-5. It may seem unfair to categorize a a formerly winless team as losing stock, but considering another 2 loss weekend from the boys in Waterville, I don’t see any other way to mark the trajectory of both their play and their position than as downward.