Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Wrentham Youth Baseball Rallies Behind Gemelli Family

Tim Gemelli
Rebecca, AnnMarie, Tim, Ryan and Adam Gemelli at a Red Sox game this summer.
(Photos courtesy of AnnMarie Gemelli)
Last fall, at the end of the summer season, Wrentham Youth Baseball coach Tim Gemelli felt pain in his shoulder while throwing batting practice. The pain continued, so he went to the doctor for a routine checkup. 

There was no way he could have expected the diagnosis that was about to come his way. 

It was determined in October 2013 that Tim had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. He held the tragic news close for several months while he sought second and third opinions, but finally told his fellow coaches (and good friends) in an emotional meeting in January.

“It’s life-altering,” said Dan Collins, who has worked with Tim on the coaching staff for the past four years. “It could happen to anyone…it really hit home for all of us.”

Shortly after telling the coaches, the players were also told. Collins explained, “Tim and [his son] Adam stayed home from practice and we spent half an hour with the kids to explain ALS and the situation. I’m not sure a lot of the kids knew what ALS was and they walked away with a lot of questions.”

Collins, who was on the verge of tears while recalling the meeting, continued, “The coaches and their sons were having a hard time keeping it together…As a team, it really brought us together and rallied us for a great season.”

Tim throws out the first pitch at Fenway Park.
With the support of the Wrentham Youth Baseball Softball Association (WYBSA) board and, in particular, the league’s president Gary Campbell, Collins set about creating a YouCare site to fundraise for the Gemelli family. So far, the site has raised more than $55,000 of the stated goal of $100,000.

On Opening Day in April, Tim, who was already starting to show the effects of his disease, threw out the first pitch. WYBSA sold bracelets and t-shirts and promoted the “Pitch In for Tim” campaign.

“It’s been such an outpouring of support,” said Collins. “I didn’t know what kind of community we lived in. The Wrentham community has stepped up above and beyond.”

In early September, AnnMarie Gemelli spoke about the support that the family has received from the league, players, friends, family, and the Wrentham community.

“We were blown away,” said AnnMarie, echoing a phrase that Collins used. “It’s been an incredible comfort knowing that we weren’t alone. It’s unbelievable and we can’t thank them enough.”

She added, “It’s taken a horrible situation and made it bearable because we’ve been surrounded by support.”

Tim continued with his coaching through the summer even as the disease continued to take its toll. Although, he was not able to throw batting practice or to take the field with the team, he was a constant presence on the bench. He was the team’s scorekeeper, thanks to an iPad app that allowed him to keep the book without needing to write, and he was an inspiration for the players during the season.

“Baseball is his life,” said AnnMarie on speakerphone with Tim by her side. “I would do anything it took to get him to the field because he felt involved and never forgotten.”

Collins added, “The boys love him. The summer coach insisted that he stay with the team as long as he wants. They’ve latched on to him and that’s really cool.”

Tim’s presence on the bench has also given the players a firsthand understanding of the devastating effects of ALS and of the need for compassion.

AnnMarie explained, “We wanted the kids to feel comfortable asking questions. We wanted it to be open and not be a secret…and for them to not be afraid to be around people that are a little bit different.”

Tim and Adam at the Red Sox game.
The WYBSA campaign to help the Gemelli family this summer has coincided with the international Ice Bucket Challenge, spearheaded locally by former Boston College and St. John’s Prep baseball player Pete Frates. Frates has reached out to Tim on several occasions in the past year and AnnMarie said that the viral campaign, which has raised more than $50 million for ALS research, has been another comfort to the family in this difficult time.

“We pray for a cure; we pray for treatment,” she said. “It may not work for Tim, but we’re trying to take the good out of this situation…we can face each day stronger seeing all of this happen.”

On July 5, on the 75th anniversary of Lou Gehrig’s famous “I’m the luckiest man in the world” speech, Tim and the summer league team were given a special treat when they were all invited to Fenway Park. Tim threw out the first pitch and then the team celebrated on the rightfield roof deck and watched the Red Sox take on the Baltimore Orioles.

“I admire his fearlessness even as the appreciation grows fro what he has and what it is going to become,” said Collins. “He still supports the kids…is still a husband and father…just like he always was.”
Erik Sawyer, Gary Campbell, Rick Sabatini, Mike Fisette
and Dan Collins on the roof top at Fenway to support Tim. 

Collins and other volunteers from the community have been working to retrofit the basement of Tim and AnnMarie’s home to make it more comfortable and easier for Tim to manage. They are widening hallways to make it easier for a wheelchair to get through, building lifts, and customizing rooms. On the day of demolition in the basement, nearly 30 people showed up to lend a hand.

“I feel so overwhelmed because I want to thank everyone,” said AnnMarie who noted that the finishing touches on the basement were being put in place while she spoke.

The future is still an unknown that the Gemelli family is facing each and every day. As Tim’s ALS progresses, new and unexpected challenges arise that must be dealt with.

“From one day to the next, you don’t know what is going to change,” said AnnMarie. “Vans, wheelchairs - you don’t have time to wrap your head around it.”

Even as she explains the toll that ALS is taking on Tim, AnnMarie promises, “I anticipate that next spring…we’ll be out there [at the baseball field] as much as we can.”

The support of the community has been a godsend for the family to this point, but more is still needed. To donate to the Tim Gemelli Family Fund, visit

Friday, February 28, 2014

Former Millis Soccer Star Brings Home National Title

Walpole native and Millis High alum Olivia Zitoli (far right) won the Division III national title with the William Smith women's soccer program. 
(Larry Radloff/ 

On August 30, the William Smith women’s soccer team lost its season opener 2-1 against the College of New Jersey. The Herons would not lose another game this season.

William Smith went on to win the Division III national title with a 2-0 victory over Trinity in San Antonio in December. It was the first national title for the program since 1988 and at the heart of the Herons success was former Millis High standout Olivia Zitoli.

“I just fell down because it was so much to handle,” said Zitoli about the reaction to the final whistle in the championship game. “I’m home on break and it’s just now starting to sink in.”

She continued, “Sometimes it seems like the longest road ever…after four months, your body has taken a beating and it was just emotional and exhausting. It’s just a whirlwind of emotions and you don’t fully grasp what you’ve done in the moment.”

Zitoli, who won basketball and soccer state titles in 2009 at Millis, was not just a squad member, but also a senior captain and a rock in the heart of a defense that recorded a program record 21 shutouts in 25 games this season. For her extraordinary efforts, Zitoli was named a National Soccer Coaches Association of America (NSCAA) DIII All-American, Liberty League Player of the Year and the National DIII Player of the Year.

“They were awards that I never thought that I would achieve,” said Zitoli. “When I came out of Millis, I was a really solid athlete but I wasn’t the most technical or talented soccer player. I just thought that I would contribute to my team and I never really thought that I would become an All-American.”

She added, the shake of her head audible over the phone, “Even when I got it…I just couldn’t believe it.”

William Smith head coach Aliceann Wilber, who has been in charge for 34 years and amassed over 480 wins, was also surprised by her star defender’s award haul, but she had no doubt that it was deserved.

“Those are difficult achievements for her to reach and I don’t think any of us carried the individual stuff through the season,” said Wilbur from January’s NSCAA convention in Philadelphia. “People started paying attention to the defensive effort and how consistently we were doing it and Olivia was certainly the fulcrum.”

“Her influence on the team had a tremendous impact on how far we went and how we did it,” she added.

Zitoli modestly, and with sincerity, passed along much of the credit to her teammates for the accolades that have come her way this season.

“I keep telling people that I wish I could share it,” she remarked. “My position in the back line and all the shutouts and the different stats that we got was really a reflection on the back line and on the team as a whole. I know that I was a senior and the most experienced, but I couldn’t have done it without everyone else.”

This was the third trip to the Final Four for the Herons in Zitoli’s four-year career and both coach and player admitted that, coming into the season, the national title was no more than a token goal for the team. But, once the Final Four had been reached, the Herons set their sights squarely on bringing home the prize and to do it for all those that had not been able to win it during their careers.

“A lot of our team this year was juniors who had been there in their freshman year with a huge senior class and we fell short,” Zitoli explained. “They had to watch their captains and leaders and it was devastating. We wanted to kind of win it for all the people who had fallen short in the previous years.”

Even in the midst of winning a national title, Zitoli always looked back at her time in Millis for inspiration. “When I went to the Final Four this year, I had the sense of ‘I’ve been here before’ and it wasn’t because I had been there with William Smith, but because I have been in big games with Millis where we were even more of an underdog.”

Former Millis High star Olivia Zitoli was named the DIII Player of the Year.    
Larry Radloff/

      Seeds for success were sown in Millis

“There are very few Olivia Zitoli’s out there and that’s why there are very few national champions,” said Chuck Grant, Director of Student Affairs at Millis High. “We were very lucky to have her here at Millis.”

The feeling is mutual.

“There still hasn’t been anything in my life that has meant as much to me as those two titles in Millis,” Zitoli asserted. “My experiences in Millis were unlike anything that I’ve ever had and those titles and those teams and those coaches and that community…I still reflect on that a lot because I just credit those coaches and those teammates for so much of my success.”

The experiences that Zitoli shared with Millis almost did not happen. A resident of Walpole, Zitoli went to school in her hometown through sixth grade. Because of her age, she repeated sixth grade and made the decision to go to Millis Middle School where her father had been  principal for more than a decade. It was a decision that she never regretted and several years later would be a momentous decision for Millis High girls’ athletics when the Class of 2010 began winning titles.

After the volleyball team took home a state title, the basketball team, with Zitoli a prominent member, brought home a title in 2009. That fall, the girls’ soccer team added a second championship to her high school resume. Grant marveled at that amount of great athletes that were part of that class and credits Zitoli for being one of the leaders that drove the Mohawks to success.

“It was her influence during those summer fitness camps that they run,” Grant noted. “She wasn’t a very vocal leader, just a good captain. She did the extra that puts her into the upper echelon -- it’s no fluke.”

Zitoli’s college coach saw similar qualities during her four years with the Herons. “She’s mature beyond her years for one thing and her ability to influence her peers for better behavior, better performance, better perspective  -- you can’t put a value on that,” said Wilbur. “She set the tone for the work rate and she’s just such a great leader.”

Wilbur added, “How she managed the team off the field, the guidance that she gave and the role-modeling that she did, we’re going to miss all of that.”

Ever modest about her achievements, Zitoli was quick to praise the coaches and players that influenced her during high school, but as Wilbur noted about her first meeting with Zitoli four years ago, “We can all recognize something special when we’re in front of it and she’s just a very special person.”

Zitoli stressed, “I learned so much from the coaches at Millis about team chemistry, work ethic, and leadership and I think a lot of that, when I went to college, I was really lucky. I realized even more so after the fact how special my high school experience was when I talked to my college friends.”


 Olivia Zitoli and her William Smith teammates celebrate the DIII national title.
(Larry Radloff/

      Developing a national championship leader

On the night before the Final Four began in San Antonio, the NSCAA hosted a banquet to honor each of the teams that would be competing. One person from each team was chosen to represent his or her school and give a speech. It should be no surprise at this point that Zitoli represented William Smith.

After several standard fare speeches -- filled with references to the achievements of teammates or the qualities of particular coaches -- Zitoli walked to the podium and addressed the crowd. Watching the speech on YouTube, Grant commented that her words made him even more proud than the title that would be won two days later.

“It’s always about her teammates,” said Grant. “She’s a big picture person and has a great head on her shoulders. She realized early on that if ‘we’ win then accolades would come to the leader.”

“Mine stood out because it was a little bit longer and it focused on the over-arching theme of athletics and leadership and being a Division III student-athlete,” explained Zitoli. “I talked about coaches and how they helped us with our moral growth and how the lessons that we learned in athletics will help us beyond soccer.”

Leadership is a word that comes up in every conversation about Zitoli. When asked what makes her such a great captain and team leader, Grant replied, “She treated sophomores like she did seniors. She made everyone feel comfortable and part of the team and accept their roles on the squad to work together as a whole.”

Wilbur was asked the same questions and responded, “She doesn’t have an ego, so the team is happy to follow her thoughts and her suggestions because they always trust that it’s for ‘the we, not the me.’ She can be very compelling.”

Zitoli has worked for years on her leadership skills and does not hesitate to say that she embraces that role on the team and works hard so that her teammates will embrace her and the message that she tries to get across.

“For me, the most important thing overall was my teammates and having a strong relationship with them,” Zitoli said. “I think I gained a lot of respect from my teammates because I was consistent and because I cared a lot about what my teammates were going through on and off the field.”

“In Millis and at William Smith we were blessed to have great people. We were very talented, but we had some of the best people too.”


D3 National Player of the Year Olivia Zitoli.
(Larry Radloff/

       Putting Millis on the map

During her winter break, Zitoli returned to the high school where it all began and visited her former basketball team. She proudly pointed out that the current crop of Mohawks were still doing the same pre-game ritual that was started by the 2009 champions.

For Zitoli, even a national title pales in comparison to her time walking the halls at Millis.

“I walk into that school and my heart aches,” she admitted. “It’s home; it’s so comfortable. I feel like every lesson that I ever learned happened there.”

“It’s something that I think about all the time -- honestly all the time -- about how fortunate I was and just how lucky I was to go to Millis and to have those athletes when I went.”

Grant marveled, “For a small school to be a steppingstone to that level of achievement and then she set the standards for the school. In fact, it’s something that we share with the whole [Tri-Valley League].”

Zitoli concluded, “It was great to be a part of getting Millis back on the map because they had some rough years. We made a statement that it can be done and that we don’t always have to be an underdog because we’re small.”

Story was originally published in Millis/Medway Community Guide by Hometown Weekly Publications.

Millis took home the 2009 state title in soccer. 
(Photo courtesy of Olivia Zitoli)

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

In the Wake of Tragedy

Saturday afternoon, I weaved through the mass of humanity and marathon jackets that smothered Copley Square in preparation for the Boston Marathon. I was just looking to walk down Boylston and meet up with friends to start drinking and I couldn’t help thinking how ridiculous everyone looked with their $100 jackets from last year’s events, like they were showing off or holding it over all the rest us (ok, just me) for whom the pushing of physical boundaries is laying in one place in front of a TV for as long as possible. (Talk about imposing your own insecurities on other people.)

Amidst the tourists, the runners, the cameramen, the police, the construction crews, the reporters, the traffic and the passerby, I stopped to look at the finish line and get my first glimpse of Copley Square partially adorned for the finish.  I stood among the confusion and commotion and said thank god that I won’t have to be here on Monday to see what it’s like during the event…

The report came across the radio and all I heard was one word: explosions. The impact of that word has been unshakeable. Following the report, it was impossible to focus on anything else.

The attacks of September 11 changed our nation and did immeasurable damage to countless people across the country. At the time, the impact on me was more about witnessing history than any real connection with the events as they took place. It still felt like it was somewhere else, happening to other people. The explosions on April 15 were not near the magnitude in terms of lives lost or destruction caused but impacted me in ways that I am still having trouble coming to grips with. It took me a while to recognize what had me so completely shook.

I was scared. Terrorism had become personal.

I tried to work through it yesterday afternoon. But, I kept scrolling through Facebook and Twitter to hear word from people, some I know well, some I haven’t spoken to since high school, some exist simply as names on my feed, wanting to hear from everyone and make sure they were ok, whether they were ever in danger or not. I’m forever grateful knowing that Katie, Jane, Brian, Caryl, Julie, Scott, Bruce, and so many others that I didn’t even know were in Boston, came through it.

Still, everything felt changed. Like so many people around the world, I now knew what it was like to have terrorism strike in my backyard. I knew what it was like to have friends targeted, to have someone strike at home.

Late last night, I received a text from a friend that no longer lives in the area and she described feeling helpless. She said that she should have been there. She wrote, “These are my people.”

Yes they are. They are all of our people.

Will it ever be the same? If the Marathon, less a sporting event than a combination of tourist attraction and charity fundraiser, can be a target, will any of our other games go back to normal?

Can we continue to play in the sunshine, but be scared of the shadows?

Tuesday afternoon, my twitter feed was filled with game updates. We went back to work. Of course we did. Kids across Massachusetts picked up gloves and lacrosse sticks. They hit the fields, the tracks, and the gyms and we were there covering it. Sure, part of it is finding normality in midst of tragedy, but mostly this is just what we do.

We play. We work. We carry on.

It is a Boston trait, it is an American trait, and it is a human trait. There is evil in this world, but we will not let it consume us. As one runner that I interviewed, who finished the race just minutes before the explosion, explained about taking part in next year’s race, “It makes me want to do it more. It’s like they say - they can’t win. Getting into Boston next year will be impossible because everyone is going to want to run.”

I am not going to run next year’s marathon, but for the first time in my life, I want to be there. As I realized on Monday, these are my people... and I couldn’t be more proud and more determined to stand with them.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Sarah Hope: Medway Basketball’s First Division 1 Recruit

Sarah Hope stands on the track overlooking the Medway High basketball court. She is relating the story of how she scored her 1,000th career point earlier this season against Dover-Sherborn.  As she talks about her milestone basket, the story is coupled with a half-chuckle, half-cringe that perfectly encapsulates the attitude of a point guard capable of scoring at will, but unselfish enough to look for the pass first.

It is a mixture of confidence, self-belief, and modest humility. It is a blend needed to be both the best player on the team and the type of leader that teammates want to follow.

“See that line,” Hope says. She is pointing to a volleyball boundary that is at least 10 feet behind the three-point line (and at an angle that makes it an even longer shot). “That’s where I took the shot from.” She gives a quick shake of her head and wry smile before adding, “I don’t know why I took that shot.”

Mustangs head coach Joe Iannone passes by as he prepares for a midseason practice. He laughs and adds his perspective on the moment, “I saw her pull up and said, ‘No! No! No…Great shot!’ It was a great shot.” The shot taken in front of a packed gym, filled with Medway Youth Basketball players that were there to celebrate the accomplishments of their hero.

In four years at Medway High, Hope has developed the ability, the work ethic, and the understanding of the game of basketball that allows her to make memorable moments happen. In fact, her abilities and commitment to the sport have taken her farther than any other Mustangs player in the program’s history.

In November, Hope became the school’s first basketball player (male or female) to sign a National Letter of Intent to a Division 1 school.

Photos courtesy of Mike Hope
“In the first game versus Millis, she was 4-5 from the three-point line and she was in the locker room after the game apologizing for shooting so much,” he remembers. “I looked at her like she was crazy and asked what she was apologizing for.”

Iannone continued, “When she signed her letter of intent, the message that I gave was if you have your heart into something, if you have a dream, and if you put your heart into it, then you can achieve it. That’s basically Sarah’s story.”

It is a story that has always been about basketball. Since a very early age, Hope has had the dream of playing in college and has worked year-round to ensure that she achieved her dream. There is no off-season for Hope. When she is not at Medway High, she plays for the Bay State Jaguars, an elite AAU team that boasts several D1 recruits.

It was her play with the Jaguars that first drew the attention of BU associate head coach Mike Leflar and began the process that led to November’s ceremony. According to Leflar, “We saw a lot of her play for the Jaguars. By the time that the varsity season had come around we had already built a comfort level. AAU was good for exposure.”

The recruiting process can be hectic, pressure-packed, and nerve-wracking for young athletes unaccustomed to dealing with the attention of college coaches. Hope admitted to struggling at the beginning with the interviews, but very early in the process it became clear that there was a front-runner had emerged.

“As soon as I went there and met everybody, I knew it was the place for me because they made it feel like home,” said Hope. “And it’s not that far away, so it was close to home. They’re very nice people and I knew it was the school for me.”

Leflar also felt the connection between Hope and BU very early on. He mentioned, “We visited with her and her dad [Mike]. Right away there was a real connection for us and I think for her as well.”

Iannone took over the program the same year that Hope began her Medway career. The program made significant progress from a 6-14 record in the first season to 15-5 in year two. He credits his point guard for pushing the team to the next level, but cautions that the type of commitment that Hope has for basketball is not for every high school player.

“Sarah is the type of player that plays seven days a week, she works hard on her own, she practices on her own,” he explains. “I wouldn’t recommend that for every player. You really have to love it.”

Iannone believes the hard work throughout the year has created a complete player, but Hope still feels there are aspects of her game that need work, such as her quickness and the long process of becoming a better defender. (“When I was a freshman, I sucked at defense,” she laughs.) As accolades continue to come in (Hope has been nominated for the McDonald’s All-American game) it seems a case of being her own worst critic.

But what exactly is it that makes Hope such a dynamic player?

It seems everyone has a different answer.

“I think some people can score and some people can see the floor, not many people can do both,” said Iannone. “I think when she’s scoring and seeing the floor she is making everyone on the team better.”

He added, “There are a lot of players that score 1,000 points, but there are not many that can make the passes that she does.”

Leflar focused more on her personality and demeanor on the floor. “Personality is more important than just talent,” he argues. “One thing that stood out for me was her competitiveness on the court. Also, she was a very good teammate and always supportive.”

Leadership is the key ingredient for Hope, who calls herself a “vocal captain.” She described her role on the team: “I’m more of a leader now than I was. I had a different role as a freshman and now I am one of the main leaders as a captain. I’m kind of like a role model now. It’s nice to set a good example.”

Hope relishes the relationship that she has built with her Medway teammates and, while a lot of attention has been paid to her future, there is still a lot that she is determined to accomplish before she closes the book on her Medway career

“We made team goals at the very start and it was winning the TVL [that goal fell short after Medfield clinched its fifth straight Tri-Valley League title] and winning a state title,” says Hope with a suddenly serious demeanor. “It’s not a ridiculous goal. We all know that we are a good team and it’s not unrealistic. That’s the only thing that’s left to accomplish.”

She continued, “We definitely should’ve won the three games we lost, but we’re doing well. The seniors need to realize that the writing is on the wall and that we’re running out of time.”

With Hope on the court, the Mustangs believe that they can make a deep postseason run.
Iannone believes that Hope’s influence will continue beyond this season and will, hopefully, lead to future generations of Division 1 caliber players at Medway High:

“It’s cool when you have someone that you coach that is inspiring. It’s a great example for the younger players. Hopefully, there are 30 kids out there that want to be the next Sarah Hope and I’ll be coaching for a long time. I think she’s done all she can at the high school level and now it’s time for her to take the next step.”

As the next step approaches, Sarah Hope reflects on her high school career, “I’m definitely going to miss it. I’ve had a good run here.”

With a smile and a quick glance back at that memorable spot, she turns and heads back down the stairs to join her teammates on the court.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Blue-collar attitude leading Millis star to the big time

(Josh Perry/Hometown Weekly Publications)

There is something appropriate about the appearance of the weight room at Millis High. There is an old-school feel to the space, like it has not been changed in decades.

It is Spartan and bare - practical and utilitarian. It is not filled with gleaming weights, elliptical machines, or brand-new treadmills- just the basics. Although it is less than 100 feet from a spacious and open lobby, it feels like it is in the depths of the school and closed off from the outside world. This room is about hard work, sweat, and determination.

The weight room is a manifestation of the qualities that the town of Millis and the Millis High football team pride themselves on.

On a grey, freezing February afternoon, as the Westwood High freshman basketball team jokes around and prepares to take the court, the sound of someone lifting weights rattles through the locker room. In this small, closed off space, a lone player is going through his off-season workout program.

Jon Baker, the Mohawks 6-foot-3, 300-pound offensive and defensive lineman, stands alone in the weight room getting ready for his daily lifting session. While the team also uses the far more aesthetically pleasing St. Cyr Sports Performance Academy in Franklin, the school’s weight room seems to better fit Baker’s description of Millis athletes.

“We’re not big, we’re not rich, but we’re tough and we get after it,” he remarked.

Baker is the rare local high school football player whose size is as intimidating off the field as on it. Reaching for a quick handshake, your hand is engulfed and it is easy to see why Division 1 college scouts have made the trip down Route 109 to see the Mohawks play. From Boston College to Harvard, Michigan to Ohio State, there is increasing interest in the blue-collar work ethic of the Millis High junior.

Interestingly, Baker’s football career almost ended before it began. “I played one year of Pop Warner football in second grade. I didn’t like it. I didn’t like the coach, the game or anything about it,” he remembered with a sly grin.

(Josh Perry/Hometown Weekly
It was Baker’s older brother Dave that brought him back to the field in seventh grade. At the time, the Millis program needed players and Jon would join his brother on the field and practice against the varsity. Dave, who just finished his senior season as a lineman at Williams College and is planning on attending medical school, inspired Jon on and off the field.

“He taught me mostly everything I know,” explained Baker.

He added, “He taught me stance, steps, position... everything. Besides that, he taught me how to lift, which is probably the most important thing.”

Baker is also following his brother’s example in the classroom as an honors student carrying a 4.0 grade point average. This will impact his potential college choice. Baker is looking for a school that combines great academic standards with a strong football pedigree.

When asked about the rigors of the recruiting process, Baker shrugged. He seems at ease with the attention and managing the distractions of deciding his future. He chuckled, “It gets a little intense sometimes, but I guess it’s a good problem to have.”

He hopes to make a decision before his senior season begins, although it is hard to pinpoint where that choice may take him. Baker expresses no bias towards region or particular alliance as a fan of any program. In fact, rather than being overwhelmed by the possibilities presented to him, Baker has come to a mature understanding that he holds the power and it is better to have many options than none.

“It’s a good challenge,” Baker remarked about the attention his recruitment has drawn on the field. “You have to step up and you have to be on your ‘A’ game all the time. It’s nice extra motivation sometimes, but I try not to think about it and just play football – be an ordinary high school kid.”

The success of the Millis-Hopedale program has certainly helped promote the talent of its players. If not for the two schools combining three years ago, there may not be a football team at Millis High. While the Mohawks success as a co-op program has drawn some detractors claiming that it is an unfair advantage, Baker sees the partnership as necessary to compete.

“I wouldn’t say it’s an advantage,” he argues. “I think it brings us closer to the level of other teams just having the guys, you know, even to practice with. But, it’s definitely a great thing.”

He points to another characteristic of the team as the real reason behind back-to-back playoff appearances: “A lot of guys working hard and it paid off.”

Baker invokes the gritty, hard-working ethos of Millis (and Hopedale) as an underlying factor to the team’s success. The industrial, blue-collar attitudes of the community are embodied on the football field by Baker and the Mohawks. While discussing the recruiting process, the connection between the town and Baker is obvious. While some top prospects would look for a bigger or more illustrious program to showcase their skills, he dismisses the idea and says that it was never an option.

“I could never leave here. I just couldn’t see myself anywhere else. Hopefully, if we get a little attention and the coaches stopping by notice other kids… that’s great,” said Baker.

Local athletes in a variety of sports are finding more opportunities to make the jump to the Division 1 level. Part of the reason for the increased attention on smaller school programs may be the proliferation of media outlets covering high school sports and a greater depth to the reporting. There are also local coaching connections to the area, such as Penn State head coach Bill O’Brien, that have dragged scouts from major college programs into small towns, like Millis, across New England.

Coach Olmsted has helped lead Millis-Hopedale to
consecutive playoff appearances by instilling the
mentality that hard work pays off.
(Tony Risica Photography)
As Baker mentions, “There are great players everywhere. It doesn’t really matter where you’re playing.”

Even with the increased competition to find recruits, it is still rare to see a Millis High athlete drawing the marquee college programs that have come to see Baker play. Seeing one of their own playing on Saturdays can only be a boon for the Mohawks, who are trying to increase participation from younger players.

Baker recognizes his role in bringing younger players into the program and being an ambassador for the Mohawks in the community. It is a status he relishes.

“We’ve got some young talent coming up, which I’m excited to see and, especially on the line, looking forward to working with,” he noted. “I’m really looking forward to my senior season, hopefully we can win the Super Bowl.”

When the Mohawks take the field next season, all eyes will be on their D1 prospect. Teams will see the giant maroon and blue number 77 in the center of the line and focus all their energy on trying to stop him.

Jon Baker is going to be ready for them.

Amid the din of everyday locker room activity, the distinctive clank of weights echoes. Alone in the weight room the hard work continues.

After all, according to Baker, that is what Millis is all about.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Sports talk hits new lows

"All my life I had been looking for something and everywhere I turned someone tried to tell me what it was. I accepted their answers too, though they were often in contradiction and even self-contradictory. I was naïve. I was looking for myself and asking everyone except myself questions which I, and only I, could answer. It took me a long time and much painful boomeranging of my expectations to achieve a realization everyone else appears to have been born with: That I am nobody but myself."
– Ralph Ellison, “Invisible Man”

This week has become a difficult one for sports media personalities. They have been thrust from the comfort zone of barstool politics into sociological meditations on identity. From Rob Parker’s stereotyping of Robert Griffin III’s “blackness” to Steve Czaban and Andy Pollin calling 50-year-old transgender basketball player Gabrielle Ludwig “it,” this has been a rough couple of days for sports journalists and D.C. sports in particular (Czaban and Pollin host a D.C. show).

In the case of Ludwig, there are many intelligent questions that can be asked about transgender athletes and how best for the NCAA (and other prominent sports organizations) to incorporate the needs of transgender players. For Czaban and Pollin, it is clear that discussion should have begun with, “What does transgender mean?” They are clearly ignorant of the struggles of individuals with gender identity issues and, more importantly, have turned their ignorance into a joke for their audience.

Sports talk radio is disappointing in its reliance on misogynistic and borderline (or outright) homophobic qualifiers. There is a disturbing tendency to define a player’s worth by arguing about his manhood, as though testosterone level alone makes a player great. Any player that is struggling or does not seem to be giving his all is automatically described in feminine terms or called a “pansy.” This happens so many times during the course of a four-hour block of radio that most of us don’t even realize that it’s being said.

Czaban and Pollin will be grateful to Parker for taking some of the heat off of them by calling out a far more mainstream and popular athlete, but also for making a much more mainstream generalization. Calling out someone for embracing (or not) his or her race is much easier for the average fan to digest and respond to then is making a comment about gender issues.

Make no mistake, both are bigoted comments. Unfortunately, there will be far fewer people who step up to the plate for Ludwig.

It’s unusual when Stephen A. Smith is the voice of reason, but his comment following Parker’s diatribe about what it means, at least in his mind, to be black was dead on. He said after a noticeable pause, “I am uncomfortable with where we just went.”

I think we can all agree that when sports talk hosts begin to make broad statements about matters that take place off the field, we have started to enter dangerous territory. There are many sportswriters that I trust to embrace controversial topics and, whether I agree with them or not, produce something that is thoughtful and thought-provoking. Writers like Dave Zirin, Jeff MacGregor, Steve Wulf, Howard Bryant, and yes even Jason Whitlock can look at a tough subject and not reduce it to a glib, useless, and bigoted sound bite.

RGIII seems like a smart guy and he seems to have embraced his multiple roles as an African-American, an African-American quarterback, and the leader of an NFL team. I’m assuming (and hoping) that whatever Rob Parker’s opinion may be it will have little effect on Griffin and ho he views himself. I know that there will be plenty of people standing up for him in the next week or so.

My hope is that Ludwig (for whom personal identity has had a far greater impact on her life) her teammates, and Mission College will stand firm and support each other so that the unwanted publicity will not tear down what is really a remarkable story.

These comments should not be acceptable in the “barbershop,” or wherever Parker normally discusses identity politics, but it is embarrassing, disrespectful, and dangerous to use a national sports forum to start airing ill-informed opinions about race and gender. Rather than making snide, ridiculous comments, we should be holding both Ludwig and RGIII up as models of what is possible today in America. We need to embrace differences and marvel at the opportunities we all have to realize our dreams and to understand, as Ellison put it, "I am nobody but myself." We should not need to be questioned at every turn if we don't fit into a pre-defined package.

We have the right to free speech, but when you make comments such as these ESPN should also have the freedom to terminate your contract and get you off the air. It won’t happen, but it should.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Warrior on the Rise: Former KP star Jake Layman looks forward to first season of ACC basketball

Maryland photos courtesy of Mark Clem, Terrapin Times
King Philip photos courtesy of
During the 2012 Division 2 state tournament, the suddenly relevant Warriors were forced to play home games at neutral sites because the 600 seats available in their sparse gym could never hope to contain the crowds that would watch them battle some of the best teams in the region.

How did the program go from invisible to the star attraction of the winter season?

In the months leading up to the 2008-09 season, King Philip hired Sean McInnis as the new head coach and he immediately set about changing the program and building from the youth leagues. The MetroWest leagues are now a solid feeder system for the high school team and young players look forward to (pulling) on the Green and Gold Jersey.

Yet, McInnis’ influence could only work with a main attraction to get fans excited.

In stepped a tall, lanky superstar from Wrentham that easily towered over just about everyone in the Hockomock League and had the skills to dominate at several positions. By his senior year, Jake Layman would grow into a 6’9” league all-star and top Division 1 college recruit.

As Layman’s skills developed, the KP basketball program grew into one of the best in the ultra competitive Hockomock.

Layman towered over the competition in the
Hockomock League.
“I think when I first came here, there wan’t much of a program and over those four years we really turned it into a high level program,” said Layman by telephone from the University of Maryland where he will be playing this season.

He added, “The biggest thing for me was just bringing the community together like that. When we first made the playoffs and brought KP back to being a winning team- that was the most exciting thing for me.”

Fans were craving top-level basketball and people streamed in from Norfolk, Plainville, and Wrentham to pack the gymnasium for games against powerhouse teams such as Mansfield, Stoughton, and Franklin. Thanks to the prodigious talents of Layman, who became the school’s all-time leading scorer with 1,752 points, the Warriors were not only on the map, but a prime destination for fans of good basketball.

Layman’s talents were also being noticed nationally as many schools began making recruiting trips to Wrentham. The forward, who also played AUU basketball for the prominent BABC program, had a variety of options including spending a year in prep school, a choice made by top recruit Nerlens Noel of Everett and, locally, within the Hockomock, by former Stoughton High guard Aaron Calixte.

The family atmosphere at King Philip was too much of a draw for him to consider playing with anyone other than the warriors, “Don’t get me wrong, every kid can use that extra year, but I really just wanted to stay with my friends and be with them.”

At Maryland, Layman will be expected to use his size
as a defensive presence on the wing.
“I felt that I was getting enough exposure playing with BABC and I didn’t need the prep school experience,” Layman added.

That exposure led to a tough choice of where to play his college ball with offers from Maryland, Boston Colllege, Providence College, Florida, and others. This could be an overwhelming and difficult choice, but once the Terrapins came calling, Layman knew it was the right place for him.

“My dad’s whole family lives in the area so I’m going to get the chance to see them a lot and they’re going to be able to see me play,” he explained. “It was a new beginning when I came here last year and we’re definitely on the right track to being a winning team.”

Layman is enjoying his time with the Terrapins and is several weeks from beginning his freshman season as one of Maryland’s small forward options. Layman will be expected to provide scoring from the wing and is sure that his shooting will make him a threat against ACC defenses.

“Going from the Hockomock to D1, ACC, is a little different,” mused Layman. “It’s definitely a lot faster and the physicality of the game…there’s a lot more big guys out there.”

Layman can build on his experiences in AAU ball to help transition to the next level. He should also be full of confidence after spending the summer representing his country at the 2012 FIBA Americas U-18 Championship Tournament that was held in August in Sao Sebastiao do Paraiso, Brazil.

Learning from coaches such as Billy Donovan (Florida), Mark Few (Gonzaga), and Shaka Smart (Virginia Commonwealth) and playing with top recruits from across the country, should give Layman the platform to shine at the next level.

It was also pretty nice to take home a Gold medal.

Layman throws it down during Maryland's
Midnight Madness event.
“That was an unbelieveable experience. It was the experience of a lifetime. Every kid wants to represent their country like that so it was awesome. I think that I’m going to have a chance to tryout again next year for the U-19 team so I’m really excited about that.”

Wrentham basketball fans will be packing the King Philip gym again this winter hoping that the Warriors can make another run at the postseason, and the player that helped bring them back to the program will be keeping his eye on the team from afar.

KP basketball is still a priority even with games against Duke, North Carolina, and Florida State on the horizon, “I definitely pay attention. I built a lot of good relationships with my coach and guys on the team so I talk with them all the time.”

The growth of youth programs in the King Philip region, the continued success of the high school team in the Hockomock League, and the thriving Warriors fan base can all be attributed to Layman’s arrival on the scene. Now it is time for Layman to look forward to making that big of an impact at the University of Maryland.

“I can’t wait for the first game. I think we have all the tools and this should be a good year.”