Photo Illustration by Soren Frantz

“That’s an area that we’ll constantly recruit out of,” said Ryan Cain, the men’s basketball head coach at Keene State College, talking about the Central Massachusetts area.

Right now, the team has three players from high schools in the central Mass area.

Jeff Hunter, from Assabet Valley, is a returning starter who enters his second year at KSC.

Nick Redden, from Algonquin Regional, is also a second year player who contributed off the bench last year.

Tyler Dill is currently enjoying his first year at Keene State after transferring from New England College for the spring semester. Dill went to high school at Narragansett Regional.

All three players had similar beginnings to basketball like many Central Mass players. Recreational basketball was played mostly throughout elementary and middle school, while travel basketball started up around fifth grade and was played up until high school. All three players also played for their school before their freshman year in high school. Amateur Athletic Union basketball (AAU) was in the mix for all three players during their years before college.

Redden’s high school years started with junior varsity.

“We had a pretty good season,” said Redden, referring to his freshman year.

Redden’s sophomore year saw him starting most games on varsity. The team went 14-6 before losing in Algonquin’s first playoff game.

His junior year, he started every game on varsity.

“I took a big jump that year,” he said.

In Redden’s senior year, he was joined by Alex Karaban. Karaban is one the best high school prospects in New England. ESPN currently ranks him as the 54th best high school prospect in the class of 2022. Between the two of them, a loaded senior class and a few others, such as recent Keene State Basketball commit Patrick Freeman, Algonquin was one of the best around that year. Some argue that Algonquin was the best true Central Mass team that year, as the team lost to Acton Boxborough Regional in the district final.

“[Karaban] could do everything,” Redden said. “The best thing that happened [when playing with him] was that I never had to worry about producing every night. I knew if I had an off night and stuff wasn’t going my way, I knew Alex was going to pick it up because he was such a great player. Same thing with him; if he had an off night, I would pick up his slack.”

“Nick Redden, for his position, is about as good a shooter as you’re going to find,” said Cain, who took advantage of Redden’s ability to shoot throughout the season last year. At Keene State, Redden shot 32 percent last year when outside the arc. The six feet four inches tall forward had the green light to shoot it from very deep in high school, with some of his shots coming from about where the National Basketball Association (NBA) three point line resides. In Redden’s senior year, he had 54 makes from beyond the arc and in three games, he had at least six threes.

A Friday night at Algonquin when the boys were playing was never a bad place to be, as long as you were rooting for the home team. During Redden’s senior campaign, they went undefeated on Friday nights in their home gym.

“The atmosphere was great,” said Redden. “We always have a lot of buzz around our team because we had some pretty good success. We always had good crowds, great atmospheric games. Not just students showing up, but the younger kids in the community and parents of kids who aren’t even on the team.”

“I think Central Mass has some of the best fans in the area,” added Cain. “The quality of basketball and the environment that the guys get to play in, I think it definitely prepares them for the transition to college.”

Redden was a two-time league all star, and was chosen to play in the Central Mass Select game his junior year. He was a captain his senior year.

Former teammate and current high school senior Patrick Freeman recently committed to Keene State to play basketball on the men’s team. Freeman was the starting point guard at Algonquin during Redden’s senior year.

“[Redden is] one of the best players I’ve played with for sure,” said Freeman. “Everything he brought, just the way he was and how he carried himself was something that I looked up to as a sophomore, and I hope that continues in college.”

“Playing with him is going to be a lot of fun,” Redden said. “If you watch the film, he probably had almost 80 percent of the assists for threes and stuff. Having him will be great.”

Like the others, Freeman enjoyed playing in Central Mass.

“It’s produced good players over the years. It’s a great thing to have; I came from that, I’m a CMASS product,” added Freeman.

Like Redden, Hunter was not a big contributor on varsity until his sophomore year, but was on the squad at Assabet Valley his freshman year.

“I had one game where I practically scored all my points in,” said Hunter. “We were down about eight, and they put me in just to see what would happen and I hit like five or six threes in a row.”

Anyone who has seen Hunter play in his junior or senior year of high school does not know him as a shooter, but rather as a driving big man and one of the best dunkers in Central Mass. However, still being under six feet tall at the time, his game relied more on the three point shot.

“As I got taller, I developed playing more inside of the hoop and not shooting as much.” added Hunter, who now stands at six feet seven inches.

Coming off an injury, Hunter was the starting power forward his sophomore year. He was about six feet two inches tall at the time.

“I scored about 150 points. Nothing outrageous,” Hunter said, referring to his sophomore season.

It wasn’t until his junior year when Hunter really started to turn heads. Hunter went from six feet two inches to about six feet six inches.

“That’s when it was like, ‘alright, you can see a big difference.’ You could tell the team was Gerry [McManus] and Jeff’s team.” said Hunter referring to his lifelong best friend. “That’s when we took off. We went 23-2 and lost in the district semifinal, against Maynard. I ended my junior year scoring 406 points.”

For many years, Maynard was one of the best teams in Central Mass, and would frequently win the Division four district championship, as well as the Clark Tournament.

“Gerry’s my best friend to this day.” said Hunter. “That kid is just a different type of player. The bond me and him had on the court, I don’t know if anybody will have the bond that me and him had.”

Like Hunter, McManus was also a 1000 point scorer at Assabet Valley.

“It was just something that we had. We just clicked together,” said Hunter. “I think it was just being lifelong friends that made it so much better. Gerry and I both knew what we were going to do before we did it.”

With Assabet being led by a tall, frequently dunking, athletic big man, as well as a shifty point guard who could practically score at will, local media definitely started to take notice at the start of Hunter’s junior year.

“We played Keefe Tech our junior year. We beat them 116-48. I think I had 24 points in eight minutes or something like that, some ridiculous number that doesn’t even make sense,” Hunter said. “That’s when the Telegram and other reporters started to realise, ‘Oh, Assabet’s actually pretty good.’”

Hunter’s junior year is also when dunking started to be more a part of his high school game. Toward the end of his sophomore campaign, the team was shooting in their around before their Vocational State Championship game. Before then, Hunter was able to throw it down is a less exciting fashion, the simple reaching one handed dunk.

“Gerry was like ‘Yo, you gotta be able to dunk,’” Hunter said. “He was like ‘Dude, just try and catch this dunk and jump off two feet,’ and he threw it off the backboard and I jumped off two feet and dunked it my sophomore year. I was like ‘Holy wow, that was like a lot easier than I thought.’ So ever since then, the entire rest of my sophomore year, I always kept trying to do different dunks and see where it would take me. You could just see over that summer, after working out that summer, you could just see the progress going up.”

“His athleticism is crazy,” Dill said, when asked about Hunter. “You don’t really see that from people around Central Mass. You don’t really see some crazy dunks like that, but yeah, those are impressive.”

Cain was also impressed with Hunter’s athleticism when he first started recruiting him.

“Being that long, that athletic, that versatile, just has a ton of value. He’s kind of your modern big man these days with all the skills that he has.” Cain said.

It’s not often you see players as tall as Hunter having the green light to shoot threes in Central Mass. Part of what made him so special was his ability to spread the floor with his shooting ability.

Hunter was a three-time league all star. He was a captain of the team his junior and senior year.

Tyler Dill is as good as any shooter you’ll find coming out of Central Mass.

“It’s no fluke,” said Paul Howes, the head coach for Maynard High School said, referring to the stat line of Tyler Dill, in an interview after a game when Maynard bested Narragansett in a Classic Mid-Wach E match-up. Dill had eight three-pointers that game, including a deep buzzer beater at the end of the first half and a buzzer beater three at the end of the third quarter. Dill ended the game with 34 points.

However, Dill’s best moment in high school basketball came in the Clark Tournament, when second-seeded Narragansett beat fourth-seeded Maynard, to take home the title.

“Without a doubt,” Dill said. “It was everything surrounding the game that made it that much more important. To be playing in a Clark finals game was just like, ‘wow.’”

The week before the district tournament starts, the Clark Tournament occurs. The schools with the 16 best records in Central Mass will be placed into two brackets, the large school bracket, and the small school bracket. Each bracket has three rounds, hence creating two winners each year, one being the small school, and the other being the large school. It is one of the most well-known high school tournaments, and has been running every year, with one exception, since 1939.

“Towards the end of the game, when we started to make a run, and we were up by a good amount with less than a minute to go, the excitement kind of set in. We always knew the game wasn’t over, but we knew it was about to be, and it was just pure excitement. I probably have never felt that.”

“That Clark Tournament is just good basketball,” Cain said. “Year-in-year-out, you end up recruiting guys that ultimately play in that tournament. It’s just some of the best basketball. It’s a chance for teams to play against some teams before the districts happen that you may not see them play against. It’s kind of the prize before the prize. It was just such an incredible environment. It really brought the entire Worcester basketball community together.”

“I think that’s the best Central Mass tournament by far before you get to the district tournaments,” Cain added.

Dill credits watching professional basketball as his inspiration to start playing.

“It first started in third or fourth grade, watching a bunch of Youtube videos, and kind of followed in the professional’s footsteps to get into [basketball].” said Dill. “It’s always been a dream of mine since about middle school to [play college basketball]. I wanted to follow their story and make my own. Definitely middle school is when I really started to take the time and thinking about playing at the next level.”

Similar to Redden, Dill saw a big jump in his game from his junior year to his senior year. Aside from winning the Clark Tournament, Dill went from averaging 11.5 points per game to 20.9. Narragansett also did much better in the district tournament, as there were district finalists in Dill’s senior year. The year before, they were one and done.

“That was definitely the biggest transition in basketball I’ve seen myself in,” said Dill. “We had a really strong year, one of the best in our school’s history.”

When you think about the community of Narragansett, your thoughts are not necessarily that it’s a heavily populated area. Instead, your thoughts may be a town in the middle of nowhere, a town that you might even consider in Western Massachusetts. The area that is oddly far away from many Central Mass schools. Despite all that, the fans at Narragansett are very supportive of their team. For the Clark Tournament, as well as many neutral sites during the district tournament, the drives can be over 45 minutes, yet the team still gets great crowds.

“It’s incredible support,” said Dill in an interview after his Clark Tournament championship win. “We have the best support. We’re a little town in Templeton and we have our whole little village here coming out to support us. It means a lot.”

When Freddie Monette-Harris, a junior teammate of Dill’s at the time, was asked the same question, he simply stated, “What Tyler said,” agreeing that the support from such a small area was impressive.

Monette-Harris was the other big contributor on the court to Narragansett success in the 2018-2019 season. Like Dill, Monette-Harris is a lights out shooter, giving teams the need to make sure two players have no open looks. That year, Monette-Harris averaged 3.1 shots per game.

“He’s phenomenal, such a dynamic player,” Dill said of Monette-Harris. “We can always count on him to lock in on one of the main guys on the other team, or knock down a three if we need it by the stretch.”

“I feel like we have similar playing styles,” added Dill. “He likes to shoot, I like to shoot. If we can get in the paint, we can. And we kind of play off each other in that case, so if I’m driving he’s in the corner, and vice versa. I feel like we really worked out because we have that same energy level and that same playing style, where we knew where eachother was going to be on the floor, and we had that chemistry going into the game.”

Dill initially played basketball at New England College in Henniker, NH during his first year of college. However, Dill transferred to Keene State, making his decision public on April 9, 2020.

“I knew it wasn’t the right fit at my other college. The difficult decision was ultimately what school I’m going to attend the next three years. I wanted it to be somewhere where I know I was going to stay for three years. I didn’t want to transfer again. I saw Keene, this was one of my options my senior year, one of my top options. It just never worked out my senior year, but I’m here now and that’s all that matters.”

“We really recruited him hard last year as a transfer,” added Cain. “We’re very excited to have him with us.”

Dill was a three-time league all star. He was selected for the Central Mass select senior team, and was a finalist for the Telegram and Gazette Superteam. He received Narragansett’s Most Outstanding award his senior year. He was also a T&G division three all star as a senior. He transferred to Keene State this offseason from NEC, where he averaged 4.3 points per game.

Final Thoughts

“The top teams are very competitive every year and it’s always a good challenge,” Redden said, about playing in Central Mass. All three players play some of the best teams in Central Mass, as each program makes sure to have a tough schedule. Assabet and Narragansett frequently played teams in higher divisions that they were in throughout the regular season, as well as during the Clark or Vocational State tournaments. Algonquin, being a division one school, would play many of the best division one teams across Central Mass, many of the best schools outside their division in Central Mass, and some teams outside of Central Mass that were among the best in the state.

“All three of those guys are just good players as a whole,” said Cain. “They all played for good programs, good teams, good coaches, so they kind of had the whole package, all three of those guys, from a recruiting standpoint.”

 

Ethan Winer can be contacted at:

ewiner@kscequinox.com