Senior Sports Reporter
The Keene State College men’s basketball team is on their way to their sixth Little East Conference Championship game in the last seven seasons, and they’re doing it with a starting lineup that consists mostly of first-year players.
For the last handful of games, three of the Owls’ starting five players have been first-year athletes, and they’ve been making names for themselves early on in their college careers. Those three players have been Nate Siow (number 4), a guard from Lowell, Massachusetts, Mason Jean Baptiste (number 12), a guard from Lynn, Massachusetts and Jordan Santos (number 22), a guard from Hollis, New Hampshire.
So far this season, Jean Baptiste and Siow have been two of the most impactful players on offense for the Owls. Jean Baptiste is scoring an average of 14.6 points per game, which is the second highest scoring average on the Owl’s team. Siow is right behind Jean Baptiste on that list, as he is averaging 12.4 points per game, third most on the team. Siow is also leading the team in two other categories though, as he has the most assists (26) and steals (15) out of all the Owls’ players this season.
Meanwhile, Santos didn’t start the season playing a huge role on the Owls, but he has made massive improvements during the season to the point where he now plays just as many minutes per game as his first-year counterparts. On the season as a whole, Santos is averaging 6.4 points per game, as well as 3.1 rebounds per game.
Overall, Jean Baptiste and Santos are happy with the way their team has performed in their first seasons, but they know that improvements can still be made.
“I feel like we’ve got where we wanted to get, just being able to get out there and play some games, seeing what our team is like,” said Jean Baptiste. “I feel like game by game we’re getting better, but we still have little lapses here and there on the defensive side of the ball, rebounding, things like that. We still struggle with those little things. I think once we pick up those little things, we could be a really good team. We are a good team already, but I feel like we’ve just got to stay focused every day in practice, work hard, get better every day. Once we figure that out, figure the little things out, I think there’s really no team that should be able to stop us.”
“It’s been a good year with everything that’s going on,” said Santos. “It’s crazy, but we’re playing games at least. But I love these guys, these guys are good dudes, everybody. Seniors, everybody, we’re all bodying. Being able to be six and two [6-2 record] and going to the championship, I mean, there’s no better feeling than that right now, especially with a group that’s so young. It looks so promising. I’m looking forward to playing whenever we get to play, and then the next years to come. Hopefully we can get some fans in here soon, that’d be great.”
On the other hand, Siow thinks the team has lived up to their full potential on only one occasion this season.
“I feel like obviously we have a good record, but we haven’t really played, besides that game at [UMass] Dartmouth, to our potential yet,” Siow said. “We haven’t really played 40 minutes of real Keene State basketball, I feel like.”
The reason these first-year players might not be fully satisfied with their success yet could stem back to their high school careers. Each of the three players came from strong high school basketball programs, especially Jean Baptiste and Siow. Jean Baptiste played basketball at Lynn English High School, and his high school team technically won the Massachusetts state championship back-to-back years in his junior and senior seasons.
“My sophomore year is when I made the jump to transfer to Lynn English, and I graduated from Lynn English,” Jean Baptiste said. “My junior and senior year we won the state championship. My senior year we actually played Nate [Siow] in the north final. Then we moved on to play in TD Garden, and right before we were going to play our state championship, that’s when coronavirus hit and everything shut down. So they named us and Springfield Central [High School] co-champs.
So we never really got to play that game. In the moment, it took my heart out, I was distraught from it. Before that, my junior year was the first time our school had won in like 80 years. So we were trying to get that back-to-back, but things didn’t really work out.”
As Jean Baptiste mentioned, Siow also came from a very successful high school basketball team – the Lowell High School Red Raiders.
“High school, I came from a winning program,” Siow said. “I probably lost like ten games my whole high school career. So I just wanted to come here to win, obviously, coming from a winning program. Ever since my freshman year, I played a significant role., I started most of the games my freshman year leading up to senior year. Senior year was a big, big season, we went 22-1. We lost to Mason [Jean Baptiste’s team] in the [north] finals, it was a good one.”
Once it was time for each of the three players to move on from high school, they all had different paths that landed them in the same place at Keene State College. However, they each had a few similar and a few different reasons for joining the Owl nation.
“I mean, it was an in-state school for me, a good school,” said Santos. “I knew Coach [Ryan] Cain, Coach Cain had been recruiting me for a while. I know Coach Dickson, Coach ‘Mags’ [Magyar], they recruited me a lot. More so it was kind of staying home, being able to go to a local school. I knew some kids here and stuff already, so it was more so just kind of being more comfortable, it was a comfortable fit.”
“Going to Keene, the [Keene State] coaches were really on me my junior year,” said Jean Baptiste. “They just stuck with me, they were talking to me throughout my years of high school. I felt like when it came down to make the choice, I just had to go with what felt right and where I felt the most welcomed, who showed the most love, and it just came down to making a decision to come to Keene, and I don’t regret it now.”
“It was down to Keene State and Salem State [University],” said Siow. “My boy, Sean, he played at Lowell High too, he went to Salem. It was going to be his last year, so I was like, I want to play with him, but also I wouldn’t play with him for a long time. And I know Sidi [Diallo], he’s not playing this year, but he’s here [at Keene State], so are two Lowell guys. So I just wanted to come in, play with some people I know. And I knew ‘Nicky Naps’ [Nick Napolitano] too, he recruited me hard.”
Ever since finding a home on the Keene State men’s basketball team, the three first-year players have made a ton of connections and have found new families and friends.
“Jeff [Hunter] was probably the first person, Jeff and ‘Nicky Naps’ [Nick Napolitano], they were the first two who reached out to me,” said Santos. “When I was getting recruited here, they reached out to me and said, ‘We want you here, want you to become part of the family. We’re trying to build something.’ So it kind of gave me that first welcome. I’d known Nate [Siow] for a long time, Mason [Jean Baptiste] I’d heard about, Mason played in Massachusetts, two-time state champion, so he’s got an impressive resume. I knew a lot of the dudes before, but just built a good relationship, already had some relationships like I said, I already had a relationship with Nate. So it was already kind of a close-knit kind of thing we had going, we were just a bunch of free kids who built together, open-minded. We all get along and we all laugh, good or bad, wins or losses.”
“My transition, it’s been smooth,” said Siow. “It wasn’t hard or anything, the guys welcomed me in, open arms. I mean, they wanted me to lead the team right away, so I had no problem with that. James [Anozie] is a beast, once he catches the ball it’s like just get out of the way, let him work. Jeff [Hunter], it’s the same way. Me, Mason [Jean Baptiste], Jeric [Cichon] or Jordan [Santos] when he comes in, we just attack. I attack, I find Mason or I find Jordan. We clicked right away, we bonded so quickly. We hang out every day. It was right on the first day we stepped foot on campus, all of us, we just bonded quick. So I feel like for years to come we’re going to be straight.”
“The jump for me to go to college, I feel like I eased my way into it because my teammates really showed me the way,” said Jean Baptiste. “They brought me in, welcomed me with open arms. I didn’t really feel like it was anything different, it was just playing basketball, just with different people pretty much. Now we’re six or seven games deep and I feel like we’ve really grown on each other. I think we would’ve really had a good year if it was a full season. But I think we’re really growing on each other, we’re learning, figuring out what players could do what better and things like that. So we’re just figuring each other out, we’re getting our chemistry. I think game by game you could see we’re getting it together as a team.”
“I’ve gotten really close with guys like Jeric [Cichon], Didier [Mathelier] and Jeff [Hunter],” Jean Baptiste continued. “Mostly all the older guys, they’ve really helped me, they’ve looked out for me, given me points and advice on what to look out for. They’ve helped just showing me the college game; not playing too fast but still having urgency on the court, and just reading things on court. So big shoutout to those guys for helping me.”
Now, with only one game left to win a championship, the three first-year phenomenons all have the same idea in mind: finish their first year out on a high note.
“We’re looking to make some history, early in our careers,” said Jean Baptiste.
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