Note to our readers: We chose to start our preview of the 2013-14 basketball season by taking a moment to reflect on what won’t be there—namely Nolan Thompson, Jake Wolfin and Peter Lynch. By doing so, we hope to reflect further on what we know about this year’s team and what years past can tell us about the future. Below we’ve included a segment of our radio show during which we interviewed Nolan, Jake and Pete about their careers at Middlebury. The three graduated captains compiled a program-best 104 wins, 4 NCAA Tournament berths, two trips to Salem and a NESCAC title. While the accolades speak to what the group accomplished, their impact on the program will be remembered in other ways.
Four years ago few people knew that Jeff Brown had recruited — or mostly recruited — three players who would form the nucleus of the winningest group in the history of Middlebury basketball. Jake Wolfin was a familiar name and an intriguing prospect for those who closely followed New England recruiting news, but Peter Lynch’s commitment to Middlebury drew little fanfare and fewer expectations. Nolan Thompson, who, four years later headlined the class, meanwhile, wasn’t even on the team when he got to campus and was just another hopeful walk-on. Could he be a practice player who eventually carved out a role as a junior or a senior? Possibly, but that was the extent of any reasonable expectations for a player who was lightly-recruited even within his home state of Ohio.
Flash forward a couple of months and Nolan Thompson and Jake Wolfin are starting for a team with expectations of winning a NESCAC championship and making its third straight appearance in the NCAA Tournament. That first season wasn’t always pretty or effective — Wolfin had a penchant for throwing the ball away, either by trying to thread the needle with pinpoint passes or pulling up for an ill-advised transition three, while Thompson looked overmatched at times on both ends of the floor — but it was an important first step in the development of two of the most decorated backcourt players in program history.
Lynch, meanwhile, worked in relative anonymity for his first two seasons, developing behind Andrew Locke, Ryan Sharry and Jamal Davis, who collectively formed Middlebury’s most talented front court in recent memory. When Lynch did play early in his career it sent the crowd searching for number 44 in their programs and by the time they had found his name, Lynch had often been whistled for a foul. In his first two seasons Lynch averaged a shrill 5.2 fouls per 40 minutes, leading the team in fouls per minute — an inauspicious beginning that caused many to wonder if Lynch had the size, talent or discipline to be a significant or consistent contributor.
Lynch, then, perhaps even more than Thompson, represents what someone can accomplish when one works tirelessly to improve one’s game. Russ Reilly said this spring that Lynch “came as close as any athlete I’ve ever coached to reaching his god-given abilities.” Ultimately that is what made Lynch, Wolfin and Thompson remarkable. While it’s fitting that they won more games than any other four-year class, their contribution would have been no less significant (if somewhat less dramatic) had they won 103 games, or 99 games 0r 70. The recent success Middlebury has enjoyed is as much due to the culmination of great character and commitment as it is talent. There are certain individuals — Mike Walsh, Ben Rudin, Tim Edwards and now Nolan Thompson, to name a few — who have willed the program to new levels, the force of their character every bit as important as their skill on the court.
While other classes have had tremendous success, what made this class unique was that all three guys were tremendous leaders, as well. Perhaps because Nolan was the most visible and exceptional of the three, we, and others, underrated the importance of Wolfin and Lynch as leaders. What I noticed in our interview with all three of them (which can be heard above) was how seriously and intentionally they approached practice and the time they spent with their other teammates. Each year Nolan chose a different player to mentor and introduce to the program. Last year he worked with Dean Brierley and this year it was Henry Pendergast. Whether Brierley and Pendergast ultimately have successful careers at Middlebury remains to be seen, but they have developed a reputation as two guys who are constantly in the gym working on their games, on a team that prides itself on being the best-prepared group in the country. It’s one thing, therefore, to be the hardest-working guy on a team, as Nolan was. It’s altogether another thing to instill that same dedication into the fabric of the team by taking a personal involvement in the growth of players who were unlikely to ever seriously impact the team’s success during Nolan’s final two seasons.
Jake, meanwhile, will be remembered for his love of winning. At the risk of sounding cliché, there are certain people who love winning and others who hate losing. (Gregg Popovich spoke about this during the NBA Finals last year). I never asked Jake this, but I always got the sense that Jake loved winning more than he hated losing. His jump shot, which was inconsistent over the course of his career, was never better than in big moments. Nolan and Pete talked about how Jake wanted to take every big shot — both in practice and in games. This year alone he hit shots that altered the flow of the game late against Williams, Amherst, Cortland and Ithaca, four of the five most important games Middlebury played last season. What people didn’t see, however, was how regularly Jake did exactly that in practice as well.
What’s immediately apparent about all three guys — and this is true for all great teammates — is that their absence will be as noticeable in practice as it will be come game time. Perhaps nobody understands this better than Peter Lynch, who spent two years essentially as a practice player, developing behind Andrew Locke and Ryan Sharry. Not gifted with great height or Division I athleticism, Lynch worked his way first into the rotation, then into the starting lineup, and ultimately into the Middlebury record book by becoming the best practice player he could. His offensive game was defined by his unrivaled footwork, which led to a wide array of post moves and scoring looks that he otherwise wouldn’t have had. Like Thompson’s leadership and Wolfin’s on-court demeanor, Lynch’s offensive skill set was a product of his personality and his dedication to improving in practice.
More than the 104 career wins, four NCAA Tournament berths and even the NESCAC title, the legacy this group leaves is a commitment to practice and devotion to team that is unmatched by any other group I’ve ever been around. Thompson, Wolfin and Lynch will be missed, but their legacy will be far more tangible than a banner hanging in Pepin and a note in the record books; it will be felt every day in practice by their teammates who assume the responsibility of passing it on to the next freshman class.