Vermont Academy basketball was center stage

SAXTONS RIVER, Vt. – Area sports fans looking for high-level high school basketball have flocked to Vermont Academy in recent years. There have been a whole lot more wins than losses, but in the end, the biggest thing is that future Division 1 college players have made their way into the Black and Orange uniforms and you can really get a preview of coming attractions at the college level.

Georgi Funtarov. Photo courtesy of Vermont Academy

This was never truer than recently in the NCAA Mens Basketball Tournament. No less than five former VA players played in that event. Few schools could ever claim such a number. This is likely a peak that might be hard to equal in the future.

When I spoke to current VA coach Alex Popp about this accomplishment, he admitted, “I pinch myself a little bit. We did catch lightning in a bottle.”

Popp went on to talk about his recruiting ways a little saying, “We try to locate kids who are willing to do the work and are passionate about the game of basketball. It helps with my collegiate background and experience because there are guys that say, he has been where we want to go.”

Popp was on the basketball staff at Holy Cross, before coming to Vermont Academy.

Some readers may wonder if Popp was at the collegiate level, why go back to a lower level to take a coaching job. Isn’t it about working your way up the ladder? Popp says,

“I really wanted to have the chance to call my own timeouts, make my own decisions, even mistakes. I am learning a lot in this position and I really enjoy working with these players.”

Looking at the players, who were on the NCAA Tournament teams rosters, one is a senior and four were currently freshmen in terms of eligibility in the 2016-17 season.

Pat Fisher. Photo courtesy of Vermont Academy.

The senior was Georgi Funterov of UCal Davis and chances are, even though every NCAA player lives a dream of actually being in the tournament, Funterov and UCal Davis really didn’t expect to be there. Their season does prove that dreams can come true. Funterov saw limited action, but being part of the experience on a successful team, is something special. He averaged a point a game in the 13 games he saw action in and was on the floor an average of almost six minutes during those contests. Funterov was at VA prior to Popp’s arrival.

Pat Fisher and Sam Japhet-Mathias also saw limited time this winter, but both are shining stars aligned for the future and in Fisher’s case, he will still have four years of eligibility remaining. Fisher unfortunately came down with mono early this winter, his freshmen season at Winthrop.

Popp called Fisher, “the best kid ever. He was part of our foundation. He was a rare combination of high SAT’s and grades and a tough kid. Usually kids like this are soft, but he was a unique talent. Believe it or not, I found him because I ended up in the wrong gym, when I had gone to see another player.”

Japhet-Mathias was another athlete brought to Vermont by an indirect route. Popp tells us, “we were suppose to get Emmit Holt (present starter for Providence College). We learned late, he wasn’t coming and we had some summertime money and we were able to get Japhet-Mathias. He is a Nigerian from London. When we saw him, he was such a big dude and displayed play at an advanced level with footwork and good hands. This year with Wake Forest, he was a role guy, who showed physicality, but his time is coming.”

Sam Japhet-Mathias. Photo courtesy of Vermont Academy

The other two former Wildcats were smack dab in the middle of all the action for their teams. Bruce Brown, the face of Wildcat basketball for three years, played a major role as a freshman for the Miami Hurricanes in the storied Atlantic Coast Conference. He jumped on to the scene in an early season game, when he provided the school with the second triple double in the school’s history. He not only made VA proud with his play on the court, but he was also recognized on the All ACC Academic Team, a tremendous accomplishment for the Sports Administration major.

Popp was not surprised at all with Brown’s contributions on the hardwood. “How could I be surprised after all I witnessed him do. He was one of those players who would always rise to the occasion. The bigger the game, he would come in laser focused. When we played a bigger opponent, he would come and do what he had to do.”

Popp went on about Brown, “Looking back at when I first met him outside the gym at the Boston Shootout, I’ve had the privilege of being around a lot of great basketball players and there was something about his presence I noticed right away. He was confident, he was always self-assured and showed love to all.”

Brown put on quite a display against national champion North Carolina during the regular season scoring 30 points in the game. For the season, Brown played about 32 minutes a game, and averaged 11.8 points and 5.6 rebounds and 3.2 assists. The Hurricanes were eliminated from the tournament in their first game, but Brown was impressive in defeat.

Tyrique Jones and Xavier went much deeper into the tournament and Jones was even shown on screen, shouting out some love to Vermont Academy. Popp calls him for his performance, “the star of the group.” Like Brown, Jones is quite a success story.

Popp notes: “he’s been opportunistic with what has come his way. Xavier is very well known to develop power forwards.” Popp tells us that it is something he obviously can give in return to his athletes. “We work hard to fit the players we have here to the right program for them.”

Tyrique Jones. Photo courtesy of Vermont Academy

Jones shot a very strong 60.2 percent from the floor for Xavier during the winter, averaging 4.2 points and 3.1 rebounds in a typical 11 minutes of action each game. Asking Popp about Jones’ shout out to his school for the part they had in his growth, the VA coach said,

“That moved me to tears. Coaching at times can be a thankless job. To hear Tyrique articulate that was priceless.”

Priceless is also close to what the Vermont Academy Basketball experience can be like. Each winter, the Wildcats are in the mix with the best teams in New England. For area fans, who already are part of the big crowds at Williams Gym, you already know this. For the rest of you, put a mark on your calendar for next Halloween when next year’s schedule will be out. You won’t need to trick, because checking out some games during the winter months, will be your treat.

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