Basketball

MCLA's Quentin Gittens of Pittsfield tries to block Ryan Moon of Williams as he passes the ball during a 2019 game at MCLA. Gittens is back as the Trailblazers open the 2021-22 season Friday night at home against Castleton University.

NORTH ADAMS — When the MCLA men's basketball team takes to the court in Friday night's season opener, it will have been 617 days since the Trailblazers last played in a game.

"I think everybody's really excited," MCLA coach Derek Shell said. "Right now, we're in the midst of the preseason part, so it's not in the front of our brain that we haven't played in that long. Once Friday comes, it'll hit us how special it is to have that opportunity again."

The 2020-21 Trailblazers hit the floor inside the Amsler Campus Center for a 7 p.m. date against Castleton University. 

MCLA is seeking similar results to the 2019-20 season, where Shell's team went 15-11 and made it to the MASCAC postseason tournament semifinal. MCLA beat Fitchburg 80-78 in the quarterfinals but lost at Worcester State 96-72 in the semifinals.

The Trailblazers did not play games in the 2020-21 season, but Shell did lead workouts for men's and women's players who were on campus. The head coach said it hasn't been easy pushing the reset button on the sport.

"Obviously, for everyone, it's been pretty challenging," he said. "We lost some guys to graduation. We lost some guys who decided they wanted to be someplace else closer to home. It's been a challenge. With recruiting being somewhat restricted to Zoom calls and internet research, we just had to do the best we could."

The Trailblazers open with Castleton, coached by former St. Joseph High School standout Paul Culpo of Pittsfield. It's one of only two home games for MCLA in its first eight games. After Friday's game, MCLA will be at Rivier on Nov. 13, before playing Northern Vermont-Johnson at home on the 15th. From there, it's a date with perennial NESCAC power Amherst in the Ken Wright Classic on Nov. 19. The consolation and championship games of that tournament will be on Nov. 20.

MCLA returns to Berkshire County but will travel Route 2 to Williamstown and play Williams on Nov. 23, and then the Trailblazers will head to Albany for a Nov. 30 game at Sage.

"There will be a couple of familiar faces, but I think it'll look real different," said Shell, "because we don't have any size to speak of."

MCLA's tallest players are returning senior Bright Afful and sophomore Mamadou Diallo, both of whom are 6-foot-4.

One of the good things for Shell is that graduate student Noah Yearsley, who averaged 15.4 points and 4.4 rebounds per game back in 19-20, is back for one last go-round. He's part of a familiar MCLA trio, joining veteran swingman Hayden Bird and guard Quentin Gittens.

Bird, the former Drury standout, averaged 9.1 points per game two years ago and shot 48 percent from 3-point range. Gittens, who plays the point and the two-guard, averaged 8.8 points per game. 

With the lack of size, the Trailblazers are going to look different on the court.

"Against my old-school mentality, we're sort of embracing the new analytic approach. We have to try and get as many shots up as we can," Shell said. "We need to sort of force the tempo and get as many possessions we can, to sort of hopefully level the playing field."

One major addition to the MCLA lineup is junior Reece Racette. The junior guard, a former Drury standout, was a scorer and a distributor par excellence for the Blue Devils. Having Racette running the offense could lead to the Trailblazers getting a lot of those extra possessions. When he was at Drury, Racette could always get the ball to teammates for open shots.

"I feel like we've been waiting for him to arrive at this point for quite a while," said Shell. "I know he's super-excited about it. We had a scrimmage last weekend and that was his first taste of organized competitive basketball since his Drury days."

Culpo's Spartans were 0-1 in 2020, losing to UMass Dartmouth before the season was shut down due to the pandemic. 

The last time these two teams played was on Nov. 19, 2019. The Trailblazers went up to Castleton and came home with a 95-71 win. Bird came off the bench to score 25 points for MCLA. He was 10 for 17 from the floor and 4 for 5 from 3-point range. Yearsley chipped in with 19 points.  

Prior to that, Castleton beat MCLA in three consecutive years.

Culpo's team is pretty young, with eight freshmen and four sophomores on the roster. The Spartans aren't quite as small as MCLA, but they do have 14 of 19 players either 6-foot-3 or smaller.

The veterans are graduate student Oluwadare Sowunmi, a 6-foot-4 forward, and 5-10 senior guard Eric Shaw. Remy Brown, a 6-3 swingman, is the top returning scorer from 2019-20, when he averaged 11 points and 4.1 rebounds per game, shooting 43 percent from 3-point range.

Howard Herman can be reached at  hherman@berkshireeagle.com or 413-496-6253. 

Sportswriter-Columnist

Howard Herman is a sports columnist at The Berkshire Eagle. The dean of full-time sportswriters in Western Mass., he has been with the Eagle since 1988, and is a member of the New England Baseball and Basketball Hall of Fame.