This is the story of a journey. A trip that brought three teammates, friends, together from Seattle, New York City, and Medford, to a small college in Western Massachusetts. A pilgrimage through hardship and injury, triumph and brilliance, that led to the championship city, Salem, Virginia, the Mecca of Division III sports.
The three seniors on the Williams College men’s basketball team were not alone, however. They were helmed by Coach Harry Sheehy ’75, who was perhaps the greatest Williams basketball player of his generation. Driven by underclassmen, who not only supported the team along the past, but provided excitement for the future. But this ship, as well as this tribute, belongs to the captains.
It is all left behind them now, four seasons of near perfection. Mike Nogelo ’98, Grant Farmer ’98 and Brendan McGuire ’98, perhaps the most solid baskestball class Williams has seen in at least a decade, sat around one Thursday night and soaked it all in. They have elevated Williams basketball to a new level, built a new tier upon which future teams will rest. Over four years, they had 100 wins and only 14 losses; the longest home win streak in Williams history; four appearances in the NCAA tournament, in which they hold a 14-4 record; and two consecutive third place finishes in Division III.
When McGuire came to Williams as a freshman, he ran into the wall that so many Williams athletes are familiar with. After being recruited by schools like Colgate and Dartmouth, programs that would offer him a spot on the bench but promise him nothing else, he decided to come to Williams and play. And coming from a successful high school basketball program, at which he was the star, McGuire thought the transition would be seamless.
“It definitely was my hardest year,” McGuire said. “I was plagued by ankle injuries all year long, I was frustrated. I wasn’t playing to my potential.” And he was humbled by how good everyone else was. With a smile, McGuire remembers the first time he heard about Mike Nogelo. “I heard about this guy, knew we played the same position, and I thought I could take him, no problem.”
So McGuire changed his game, became a different kind of player. After his first season, he put on about 30 pounds of bulk. He worked on his inside game, rebounding, defense, setting screens. And now, can anybody remember a game when McGuire didn’t sacrifice his body on a charge? Or take on a true center who might have four inches on him? “I’m really proud of Brendan. He is what hard work can do,” commented Coach Sheehy. “He changed his body. He became a very good basketball player by the end of his career.”
Farmer was different. He was penciled to start from day one. He was recruited heavily by Division I programs, but was impressed with the Williams program, “from the coach down.” He wanted the chance for a national championship.
He was the point guard, the field commander. Understand, it is impressive enough to start as a first-year player, but to come in and right away undertake the responsibility of directing the team on the court is remarkable. He has vision and understands the game better than most.
“When Grant is at his best, we are at our best,” Sheehy said.
But Farmer knows adversity. It was his sophomore year, the first game after losing to Division I Davidson in overtime, when he came down funny on his knee. “I went into the training room, and [trainer] Mike Frawley told me what it was,” said Farmer. His ACL had torn, his season was over, and his future was in doubt. But he made it back, and was as good as ever.
When Nogelo found out what had happened to Farmer, he started to cry. Mike knew what it took to rehab a torn ACL. In the middle of his junior year in high school, Mike tore his ACL. Just like that, there were questions as to whether Mike would ever be a player again. Already, Division I scouts said he was a step too slow, but with a bad knee, they forgot about him. That was a mistake. “I had to recruit myself to schools after the injury,” Nogelo said. And just like that, the best player in Williams College basketball history picked his school.
But doubts, and the injury, lingered. Two days before tryouts his freshman year, he hurt the same knee again. He had arthroscopic surgery and missed everything before Christmas. And when he came back, he knew he wasn’t at full strength. “I played about 18-20 minutes a game, but I was just off. Sometimes, I wanted the knee to go again, so the year would be over, and I could start over.”
And when his sophomore season came, he became to Williams what Michael Jordan is to the Bulls. The star, the big game player, the one who would make you think “Oh my god, did I just see that?” He became a three-time All-American, a member of every all-star team that you could think of, the perennial NESCAC and ECAC player of the year, the Jostens Award winner, the national Division III player of the year. And he would do it all with this look in his eye, a quiet resolve that let everyone know that he was going to win, even if he had to play the other team five on one.
Nogelo still had one more hurdle, though. During preseason this year, he fell awkwardly on his foot and stress-fractured a bone. While the general college community held its collective breath, the team, the coach and the player were unusually calm.
Sheehy said, “The timing was perfect, really. We became a better team because of it, and when he came back, he was still one of the best college basketball players in the country.” Nogelo’s attitude? “I had doubts, but I put a positive spin on it. I guess I was fortunate to have it happen then.”
“People don’t realize how much he’s improved over his four years,” said Sheehy. “He always did something to make himself better. Each year, he would come back with something new. He enjoys the process of improving, of getting better, and that is something that a lot of players are missing today.”
Coach Sheehy sat in his office one afternoon and praised his seniors. “Their accomplishments speak for themselves. They’ve earned it all. I feel blessed to have coached this group of kids. I enjoy every day of this team. Most coaches dream of going to the Final Four just once, but I’ve been twice in the past two years. I’m both blessed and spoiled, because I was just along for the ride.” Yeah, right.
“Coach Sheehy is the backbone of our program. He wins games,” Farmer said. “We could have the same players and a different coach, and we wouldn’t be as good.” Nogelo added, “Our team is not that big, quick, or athletic. But we win, and coaching has a lot to do with it.”
Last year, Sheehy was diagnosed with diabetes. It has taken 40 pounds away from his frame, leaves him lightheaded after every practice and game, and even caused him to faint after the Connecticut College game. But he is not slowed, his intensity has not dropped at all. Because when you coach this team, you don’t have that option.
“I was actually kind of amazed that we made it back this year,” Sheehy said when asked about the Final Four. “Every night, teams are at their best playing us. The pressure was extreme. The other three teams from last year’s Final Four [Alvernia, Nebraska Wesleyan, and Illinois Wesleyan] didn’t make it back.”
In the semi-final, Williams ran into eventual national champion Wisconsin-Platteville and lost 82-68. Led by Andre Dalton with 31, the Pioneers hit 64% of their three-point attempts and outrebounded the Ephs 40-30. Although Williams was able to score the first 11 points of the game, and lead by as much as 15, Dalton threw in 21 points in the first half to give Platteville the halftime
lead, 42-36. Matt Hunt ’99 led the Ephs with 20 points, while Nogelo added 18 points and ten rebounds.
In the consolation game, Williams used eight first half steals to create a 47-35 halftime cushion over Wilkes College. Although Wilkes fought to within eight points with five minutes left in the game, Nogelo and Hunt each hit a three-pointer to put a nail in the coffin and seal the victory. Nogelo scored 38 points in his final collegiate game, and finished his career with 2,001 points, while Hunt threw in 24.
So what’s next? Nogelo is talking to agents and thinking about playing in Europe. Farmer also wants to go to Europe and find somewhere to play. McGuire is probably going to be a teacher and an assistant coach. Speaking for all of them, Farmer reflected and said, “I’m not ready to stop playing. I just don’t want to leave yet.”
And the team rolls on. Returning next year are Jim Frew ’99, winner of the New England Unsung Hero basketball award, Hunt, who could hit just about any shot from anywhere on the floor, and Mike Holland ’99, a tenacious defender and rebounder. Jim Sheehy ’00, another great point guard. Emmanuel Benjamin ’01, who is six and a half feet of pure athletic talent.
The 1997-8 basketball team will live forever in legacy. The coaches will be our modest heroes: Sheehy the backbone, Zoltek the most influential but the least recognized, Nugent the motivator, and LeFave the support.
McGuire will always be the worker, the inspiration to become something you once never imagined possible. Farmer will always be the winner, because he took the team on his shoulders night after night and led them to the promise land. Nogelo will always be the star, and we saw in him perfection, grace, and brilliance.
Concluded Sheehy, “The momentum that they’ve provided us with will not die for years.”