The Ivy League Factory: Northfield Mount Hermon proof some prep schools are more than just hoops
For the third time in six weeks, John Carroll took out his iPhone, opened Twitter and began drafting a familiar tweet.
He was more than 700 miles away from the Northfield Mount Hermon campus in Gill, Massachusetts, where he has turned the basketball program into a perennial prep school powerhouse during his seven years as head coach.
Carroll has used the team’s Twitter account, @NMHbasketball, to stretch the team’s recognition beyond the 215-acre scenic campus and past the borders of Gill, a small, rural town on the banks of the Connecticut River located 10 miles south of where Vermont and New Hampshire meet. Those 140-character updates are shared with his more than 4,300 followers, which doubles Gill’s population combined with NMH’s enrollment.
The account is a must follow for college coaches, recruiting gurus and hoop junkies, alike, with the most compelling of tweets beginning the same exact way.
“He’s a ... " followed by the nickname of the college program his player just committed to. At a school like NMH, scholarship offers from high-major to low-major schools ranging from coast to coast make their way on campus. However, during Carroll’s tenure, more times than not those college-bound tweets end up being only one of eight mascots.
In the fall of 2015, when that trio joins their respective Ivy League programs, there will have been 24 players - in only eight years - to pass through the Northfield Mount Hermon-Ivy League pipeline that Carroll has constructed.
“I think it’s the best league in the country when it comes to the whole package,” Carroll said. “Having the academic program we have at Northfield Mount Hermon, our kids are looking for that when they go to college. So, it’s a really natural fit as far as Northfield Mount Hermon and the Ivy League.
“Then with the basketball side, a lot of it was timing. What we were doing, and what the Ivy League was doing were lining up hand-in-hand. The league was getting better as we were getting better. It all just matched.”
The school’s academic structure has made it a hotbed for high-academic programs. In order to get prospective student-athletes into school, Carroll must make sure that each individual can succeed socially, academically and athletically at NMH.
In that order. No exceptions.
“We never sacrifice character or academics for talent,” Carroll said. “Not every kid is interested in going to a school in that order, and that’s fine. For a kid who is coming here, it’s absolutely, positively in that order because they will be challenged in those areas.”
The Northfield Mount Hermon School, formed in 1971 when the Northfield School for Girls and the Mount Hermon School for Boys merged, offers a broader educational experience to its students, under its own College Model Academic Program (CMAP). At NMH, class periods are longer - 80 minutes - compared to other public and private schools which typically last up to 50 minutes. NMH students take an additional core course while also completing a year’s worth of coursework in one major class in a single semester. All in an effort to help students adjust to the college lifestyle.
“There are very few prep schools that prepare you as well as Northfield Mount Hermon does for the Ivy League,” said Sem Kroon, a 2014 graduate who will suit up for Yale next season. “Just the combinations of academics and athletics. Coming into Northfield Mount Hermon, I felt comfortable going to the Ivy League because of how the schedule is here.”
The influx of NMH players choosing the Ivy League has occurred simultaneously with the conference’s improvement. The university that has tapped into the pipeline the most often has become the conference’s dominant program as of late.
In 2007, the same year Carroll moved over one seat and became the head coach of his alma mater, Tommy Amaker was hired at Harvard, tasked with changing the culture of a program with no tradition, at an institution known for excellence. Amaker has revamped basketball at Harvard, as the Crimson have won at least a share of the last four Ivy League titles, made three straight NCAA tournaments appearances and notched two tournament wins.
Every single one of Amaker’s teams at Harvard have included at least one NMH graduate on the roster. From Dan McGeary, a University of New Hampshire transfer in 2007, to the quartet of Matt Brown, Evan Cummins, Zena Edosomwan and Laurent Rivard on this past season’s school-record, 27-win team.
Rivard, the 6-foot-5 sharpshooter from Quebec, had an impact on the Harvard program unlike any other NMH alum. The senior connected on 287 3-pointers in his career -- five of which came in the 2013 NCAA Tournament Round of 64 game against No. 3 seed New Mexico. Rivard finished with 17 points, but, more importantly, Harvard captured its first tournament victory in school history.
“It’s just shows that it’s possible to go to an Ivy League school, which is not necessarily recognized as one of the best leagues in basketball, yet you can still compete on a national level, and have a lot of success,” Rivard said.
In a three-year span, Harvard has gone from making its first NCAA tournament in 66 years to being a trendy upset pick come March. On the other side of the state, Rivard’s former team was also reaching unprecedented heights.
Northfield Mount Hermon plays in arguably the best basketball league in the country, the New England Prep School Athletic Council (NEPSAC), which produced NBA lottery picks Nik Stauskas, Noah Vonleh and T.J. Warren this past June. The six-team Class AAA, the most difficult of the NEPSAC divisions, has no shortage of talent.
In the 2012 NEPSAC Class AAA semifinals, Northfield Mount Hermon ran into what Carroll regards as the greatest prep team he’s ever seen in Brewster Academy (New Hampshire), which entered the game undefeated. That team eventually sent four players -- Warren, Mitch McGary, Semaj Christon and JaKarr Sampson -- to the 2014 NBA Draft; three of whom were drafted.
Behind 31 points from Ethan O’Day, who committed to Vermont, and five free throws to ice the game from Spike Albrecht -- a preview of future clutch postseason performances -- NMH upset Brewster, 87-83, in overtime. That win included contributions Cummins, who at that time had already committed to Harvard, and soon-to-be Ivy Leaguers Pete Miller (Princeton) and Anthony Dallier (Yale).
Two days later, NMH defeated St. Thomas More (Connecticut), 74-70, for the program’s first NEPSAC Class AAA championship.
The next season, NMH failed to repeat as NEPSAC champions, but still had a shot at adding another banner in the National Prep Championship, an eight-team, single-elimination tournament held at Albertus Magnus College in New Haven, Connecticut. After thrilling finishes in the quarter and semifinals, NMH found itself pitted against rival Brewster in the 2013 championship game.
The two teams had split the regular season series before Brewster avenged the previous season’s loss, eliminating NMH, 61-57, in the NEPSAC semifinals. In the fourth and final meeting, NMH led wire-to-wire for a 78-73 win, with strong performances from four Ivy-bound players.
“It’s mostly Ivy League guys against two Syracuse guys, West Virginia, N.C. State; stacked squad,” said Edosomwan, who enrolled at NMH for a postgraduate year in the fall of 2012.
Mike Fleming, who signed with Dartmouth, helped spark an early run to start the game with three 3-pointers. Edosomwan was a force in the paint defensively against a physical and versatile frontline. Miller, first off the bench, came up with timely plays on offense, and Dallier, the team’s fiery leader, scored 22 points, earning him MVP honors.
“For 2012, winning the New England championship was a breakthrough, and the National Prep Championship was a confirmation,” Carroll said. “It’s just further evidence that the talent in the Ivy League is growing by leaps and bounds.”
Those two seasons were a culmination of Carroll’s work, which began well before those players reached campus. He joined the coaching staff in 2001 as an assistant. That time on the bench, both as an assistant for six years and the first few seasons as a head coach, gave him ample time to learn the school and identify the type of players who would flourish in his system. The result is a 162-58 coaching record, and an unselfish brand of basketball.
“Our kids believe in one another, they develop a special bond. Chemistry is No. 1,” Carroll said. “We believe in ourselves as a group. That’s the way we are able to compete.”
A prospective student-athlete must not only prove he can thrive socially and academically at NMH, but also demonstrate a willingness to play a smart, team-first style.
In order to compete for championships, especially in a league as daunting as the NESPAC Class AAA, NMH relies on high basketball I.Q., knockdown shooting and ball movement. The team is taught to feed the hot hand, which led to nine different players scoring 25 or more points in a game during the 2013-2014 season.
“They really cheer and pull for the other’s success,” Carroll added.
That high level of chemistry shifts to budding rivalries at the next level. By the start of the 2015-2016 season, NMH will have former players on six different Ivy Leagues rosters.
“From 2008 on, there have been multiple guys committing to the Ivy League each season,” Carroll said.
The Northfield Mount Hermon Class of 2013 had seven Division I commits, four of them enrolled in different Ivy League programs.
Its Class of 2015 currently has three committed to the Ivies, though, that class could potentially have more on the way with rising seniors, like point guard Daquon Ervin and sharpshooter Aaron Falzon, still being heavily recruited by Ivy League schools.
At some point the pipeline fuels itself. When recruits visit schools, they’ll run into a former teammate, or share a connection with a past NMH player, bringing a level of familiarity and comfort to a program they are considering.
“It’s all one big family, even the players I’ve never met before,” Brown, the Harvard guard, said. “It’s a brotherhood.”
Carroll isn’t a product of the Ivy League. After graduating from Northfield Mount Hermon in 1989, he attended Assumption College, a Division II school in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he remains the program’s all-time 3-point shooter. He isn’t forcing the Ivy League on any of his players, in fact, the list of alumni includes plenty of high-major talent. That pipeline is merely a combination of similar academic values and timing. During each individual recruiting process, Carroll helps his players find the right fit.
Albrecht explored all of his options, entertaining an offer from Appalachian State to a meeting he had with the coaching staff at Williams College, one of the top liberal arts schools in the country with one of the best Division III programs. He became a late addition to Michigan’s recruiting class when John Beilein feared Trey Burke would bolt for the NBA Draft after his freshman season.
Sam Donahue, the older brother of Jackson, the 2015 Penn commit, always envisioned himself at Boston College, and ended up taking a preferred walk-on spot there in 2013.
On June 18, the night McManus pledged to the Quakers, Carroll was on the last leg of a midwest barnstorming tour with four of his upperclassmen, visiting 11 high-major schools in a week-long excursion.
The Ivy League has become a more viable option for basketball players in recent years, and will continue to be one moving forward. Recruits have taken notice of Harvard’s achievements. Jeremy Lin turned “Linsanity” in February 2012 into a respectable NBA career. In return, it has given NBA front offices a reason to look at the conference’s star players. Even exposure is better than in years past with 10 games aired on the NBC Sports Network during the 2013-2014 season.
But mainly, players like Edosomwan, the highest-rated recruit to ever commit to the Ivy League, have realized what a world-class education and access to alumni networks can provide for them once the ball stops bouncing.
“Especially with the league being as competitive as it is now, you get the best of both worlds,” Rivard said.
Harvard will be the favorite again next year, but the conference is more than the Crimson. Both Princeton and Yale have finished in the top half of the conference in each of the last six seasons. Brown and Columbia have made strides in the last few years under new head coaches. Cornell is four years removed from a Sweet 16 run, the last of three consecutive NCAA tournament appearances. Penn’s back-to-back losing seasons don’t overshadow its longstanding tradition on the hardwood. And Dartmouth keeps landing NMH graduates with the same consistency as Harvard.
“I think this is the greatest group of coaches the Ivy League has ever seen,” Carroll said. “I have confidence in all eight coaches who are in the league.”
As basketball in the Ivy league grows, so will its pipeline from Northfield Mount Hermon.
One tweet from John Carroll at a time.