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For sixth former Bryce Daley, some of the most valuable experiences he’s had involving basketball have come away from the court rather than on it. And that is something, considering that Daley was last season’s most valuable player as a junior and that he is the favorite to receive the award again this winter.
And what a difference a season makes. The basketball team is currently riding a five-game winning streak, and, after going 9-3 since January 10, have pulled themselves over the .500 mark after starting the season 1-6. It has been a remarkable turnaround – especially coming off a 4-18 campaign in 2016-17 – and Daley has been at the heart of it. As the team’s floor leader at point guard, he runs an offense that includes four starters who arrived on the Hilltop just last September. Getting to know each other and mastering head coach Harlan Dodson’s offense took the newcomers time – and meant absorbing some achingly close defeats. In one three-game stretch, all losses, the combined difference in the final scores was a scant five points. One subsequent loss was also by two points. Move those games to the win column, and, well, you’re suddenly in the playoff picture.
But playoff talk is still at least a season away, and replacing Daley is not going to be easy. In close games, he has been the one indispensable in the Knight line-up, the only player to stay on the court for the entire 32 minutes.
Dealing with adversity is nothing new for Daley. His road has been fraught with obstacles, at least in recent years. Everything was going as planned through his freshman year at Pittsfield (MA) High School, where he started at point guard for the varsity basketball team, except for one bump in the road a few years earlier. He had been playing AAU ball for the elite Albany City Rocks since the third grade, from late March to early August. For several years, he managed to moonlight on the baseball field, playing the sport in which his father had excelled, first at Pittsfield High and then at Boston College, where he started at shortstop for four years.
A brief side-trip is in order: Berkshire County is steeped in baseball tradition and lore, having produced such standout Major Leaguers as Golden Glove shortstop Mark Belanger and All-Star closer Jeff Reardon as well as administrator Dan Duquette, twice recognized as the Sporting News Major League Baseball Executive of the Year. What’s more, mention of a game played on the Pittsfield Common and involving bases and batted balls (and broken windows!) was unearthed a few years ago in the town records from the 1790s, the earliest known reference on these shores to something resembling America’s National Pastime.
Yes, baseball is a Big Deal in the Berkshires, and Daley understood that there was an expectation he would follow in his father’s footsteps. “I was always hearing my dad’s friends refer to me as ‘Rocky’s [Daley’s father’s] boy,’” Daley recalls, “and of course I looked up to my dad and wanted to please him.”
But the rigors of playing AAU basketball through the baseball season became too much for Daley. He had to make a choice between the two sports, and basketball won out. He dreaded telling his father that he had decided to stop playing baseball. He needn’t have worried. “When I told my dad,” Daley continues, “I didn’t know what to expect. I was afraid he’d be disappointed. Instead, he told me how he’d had to make a tough choice, too, when he was my age, only he decided to give up basketball to concentrate on baseball. I really appreciated how supportive he was about my choice.”
Daley’s hoop skills developed apace. His arrival at Pittsfield High was eagerly anticipated by a coaching staff that had marked his progress since Daley’s formative years on the court at Pittsfield’s legendary Boys’ and Girls’ Club – a pipeline for generations of standout athletes in the Berkshires. Through that freshman year at PHS, Daley seemed to be right on script.
Then, during the summer before sophomore year, Daley’s knees began to hurt. “I thought nothing of it at first,” Daley remembers. “I revved up my physical regimen, figuring the pain would go away. Instead, it grew worse, to the point where every step was painful.”
A specialist in Boston delivered the bad news: Osgood-Schlatter disease, an inflammatory condition that can occur during adolescence and involves the tendon connecting the kneecap to the shinbone. Daley would need to avoid physical activity and rest his knees for the foreseeable future, including the duration of the basketball season. Although the long-term prognosis for Osgood-Schlatter is excellent, the news was devastating. Miss his sophomore basketball season? Say what? And despite the prognosis, Daley found his confidence shaken.
Nevertheless, Daley soldiered on. It helped that teammates who had been through the same struggle during their own growth spurts approached him and told him to stay positive. He embarked on a supervised rehab-training program. He attended every practice. He soon realized that he could see things from the sideline that he was not aware of on the court, adding to his already considerable basketball IQ.
Not that the missed season was without incident. In true sophomoric fashion, Daley decided to suit up for games against arch-rivals Lenox and Taconic, after watching his team fall behind in the first half. Concocting a witches’ potion of Advil, Icy Pack, Tiger Balm, and knee wraps, he took to the court in the second half of both games. “We lost to Lenox by three,” he is quick to point out, “but came back to beat Taconic by double-digits.”
While that was all, as far as any departure from the prescribed recovery program was concerned, there was something else brewing during that lost season: unbeknownst to his coaches and teammates, Daley was dipping his toes into prep school waters. “It made sophomore year even more chaotic,” Daley admits, “but it was a direction that my parents and I all agreed would give me more opportunities down the line as a student and athlete. We kept discussions within the family until just before applying.”
At that point, Daley was faced with another of those challenging off-court situations. “I told my head coach first,” Daley recounts. “He had been very supportive during my rehabilitation and was looking forward to having me back for my junior and senior seasons, so it wasn’t easy breaking the news. He was disappointed but said he wanted the best for me. When I told my friends, they had a similar reaction: sad but understanding.”
Daley was accepted to all five schools where he applied, including Salisbury. He elected to attend Phillips Exeter Academy, one of the most academically rigorous secondary schools in the country. By the time he headed off to New Hampshire as a repeat sophomore, Daley had been medically cleared to return to the basketball court. Exeter had one of the top teams in New England that winter, 2015-16, advancing to the Class A championship game before losing by two points to Williston-Northampton, a team they had beaten during the regular season. Daley was the first or second man off the bench for the Big Red.
“I started here and there,” Daley says of his Exeter experience, “but Coach mostly went with older guys who knew the complex offense, which was new to me. It was frustrating to have a back-up role, but I understood the importance of team chemistry. I did what I could to maximize my minutes and do my best when I was on the court.”
Off the court was another story. “Homework,” Daley explains, “took hours and hours. I would start at 8:00 in the evening and work most days until 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning. Compared to the average Exeter student,” he self-reflects, “I wasn’t as quick to pick things up. I need repetition and opportunities to re-do, re-read, and re-write. But there was no time for that. It was all I could do just to keep up with daily work. Three nights a week, I met with tutors and teachers, and I managed to maintain a B/B- average. The amount of academic work it took, though, prevented me from catching up on the court after missing a full year of basketball.”
Between the lack of time to get to the gym on his own and the reduction in playing time, coming off the bench, Daley again found himself battling self-doubt. He tried to share his concerns with his coach, but he would tell Daley that he was “almost there,” seeming to deflect the conversation about Exeter’s academic pressures, although he did help Daley find academic support. The player did not tell the coach that he had started to question whether Exeter was the best fit for him.
Eventually, though, the time came to have that conversation – not a conversation that Daley looked forward to but one he knew he had to broach. So after spring vacation, he went to his Exeter coach and told him he was taking a second look at Salisbury and the other schools he had previously been accepted to. The coach tried to dissuade him. Further conversations ensued. But by late April, Daley had made up his mind and told his coach he was leaving Exeter. “It was not easy,” characterizes Daley of those exchanges with the coach. “The last five weeks of school that spring were very awkward.”
Back when he had been rehabbing from Osgood-Schlatter, watching the Pittsfield High season from the sideline, and visiting prep schools, Daley had been impressed by a practice he attended at New Hampton School in New Hampshire’s Lakes Region. He liked the coach’s style and was excited by the offense he had his team running. That coach was none other than Harlan Dodson. While Daley was packing up for his move to Exeter, Dodson was loading his earthly belongings into a U-Haul for a move to Connecticut to teach history and take over Salisbury’s basketball program. If Daley needed any further convincing that Salisbury would be a good fit for him, a friend from Pittsfield – Jake Hescock ’16 – allayed any lingering doubts.
Final good-byes at Exeter were fraught. “My final conversation with the Exeter coach was tense,” Daley describes. “He did wish me well, though, and that helped with closure.” One of the most telling stories about Daley involves how that relationship continued to evolve after he had moved on from Exeter. “The coach and I stayed in touch,” Daley reveals. “I wanted to keep the bond we had formed, and I did appreciate all that he had done for me. I learned some serious life lessons from him, like fighting through adversity.”
Daley, who is on track to achieve High Honors for the fifth consecutive trimester this winter, anticipates pursuing a pre-business curriculum or possibly sports management when he enters the University of Massachusetts at Lowell this June. (Yes – June. Varsity athletes at many Division I colleges are guided to get credits out of the way during the summer so that they may take a reduced academic load during their varsity season. Daley will take three courses this summer. “It will also be a great opportunity to work out with my new teammates,” Daley observes excitedly of the upside to spending part of his summer in the classroom.)
And he looks forward to playing for Pat Duquette, Lowell’s head coach and the nephew of the aforementioned Dan Duquette. Beyond college, Daley dreams of playing professionally overseas. “That would be super-cool,” he exudes. “I would love to experience a different culture in another part of the world while getting paid for doing something I love.” His coaches at Lowell, it turns out, played in foreign leagues before making the transition to prowling the sidelines and pouring inspiration onto clipboards in the closing minutes of tight games. “I look forward to tapping into them to learn more about playing abroad,” Daley shares, “and to hearing about their experiences.”
Daley, whose AAU team played in tournaments all over the United States, counts an exhibition game in New York City last summer against China’s U18 team among his greatest experiences on the court. One of his best experiences at an AAU event, however, occurred away from the court. “I bumped into my Exeter coach at an AAU tournament in Eastern Massachusetts,” Daley reveals. “I talked with him for quite a while. We even joked around some, which we hadn’t done since the early part of the winter when I was at Exeter,” Daley remarks thoughtfully. “We had a good conversation. We both understood why the transfer happened and why it had to happen.”
While Daley speaks of his time at Exeter as a period when he “had almost no time to enjoy being a kid,” it is apparent that this is a young man who has learned a thing or two about handling himself and the situations life presents with a maturity and aplomb that are every bit as impressive as his considerable skills on a basketball court.
- Procter Smith
Think Carnac the Magnificent. If you’re too young to remember Carnac, a recurring character on The Tonight Show when Johnny Carson hosted, this turban-bedecked “mystic from the East,” who possessed “borderline infinite wisdom,” would hold a sealed envelope up to his forehead and then “divine” the answer to the question contained in the envelope before revealing that question. Got it? Let’s give it a try. Here’s the answer: “The Bach International Music Festival, the Carmel (California) Home and Garden Tour, Kurt Godel, Costco double-chocolate-chip muffins, Frederic Chopin’s ‘Fantasie Impromptu,’ imaginary numbers, ‘cutting’ eight pounds in two days, psychological warfare, Bobby Fischer, and the Doughboy Wrestling Club.”
If you can’t imagine the question for such a convoluted conglomeration of subjects, well, that was the point of the Carnac schtick: only when the envelope was opened to reveal the question would Carnac’s answer make sense. So here’s the question: “What are some of the subjects you had best brush up on before sitting down for a conversation with Salisbury post-graduate Stephen Willis?”
Actually, the question is somewhat unfair to Willis, a thoughtful, engaging, and down-to-earth teenager. Willis is straightforward in talking about his enthusiasms and accomplishments and is perfectly happy to explain things in “layman’s terms” when the subjects take an interviewer into uncharted waters and uncertain depths. Throughout the course of a recent interview, Willis made sure that his interviewer was safely buoyed.
A young man of protean capabilities and notable achievements, Willis made his mark here on the Hilltop during the fall as a scholar to be reckoned with, earning High Honors with a course load that includes five AP courses. He is a mathematician of renown, a member of the varsity math team who discovered “imaginary numbers” while surfing the Internet in 10th grade and who amuses himself by finding solutions for advanced mathematical formulae he also comes across on the internet. His interest in the highest levels of math eventually led him to Douglas Hofstadter’s “Godel, Escher, Bach,” the author’s landmark study of mathematician-philosopher Kurt Godel and the relation of artist Martin Escher and composer Johann Sebastian Bach to Godel’s theories on human consciousness and “symbolic representation.” Willis is also an avid chess player, who has studied the games of legendary American grandmaster and World Champion Bobby Fischer – “the greatest of all time,” opines Willis, who manages to fit in a game of Internet chess most days here at Salisbury. He plans to major in mathematics at Williams College, where he will enter next fall.
During the winter, Willis has established another mark for himself on the Hilltop: through 22 wrestling matches, he is undefeated. At the past weekend’s Western New England Independent School Wrestling Championships, he ran the field in the 160-pound weight class on his way to being named Outstanding Wrestler in Western New England.
Given their relatively extreme range in size, from the 106-pound class up to 285 – name another sport that boasts such diversity in its starting line-up – it is well-nigh impossible to pick a wrestler out of a cluster of athletes. That one over there looks like a jockey, while over here is what appears to be an offensive lineman. At a trim 160 pounds, Willis could as easily have played soccer or tennis or whatever sports are particularly amendable to someone with his quintessentially average frame. Anyone meeting Willis could certainly be forgiven for failing to recognize or sense that he or she is in the presence of a champion wrestler.
Yet that is precisely what Willis achieved last winter in his senior year at Lexington (Massachusetts) High School, going undefeated through the regular season, including, for the second straight year, the championship in his weight class at the Framingham H.S. Holiday Classic. “My father had flown up from Virginia to see me wrestle in the Framingham tournament my sophomore year,” Willis recalls, “and I did poorly, finishing 7th or 8th [in a field of 16 at 145 lbs.]. I felt bad and promised my father I would win the following year.”
No idle promise, that, though certainly made in the heat of the moment. When Stephen Willis sets a goal, he will abide nothing less than accomplishing it. Given the lack of seriousness with which Willis had approached the sport of wrestling up to that point, however, delivering a championship trophy to his father seemed improbable – unless, of course, one could find a top year-round program, reconfigure one’s life to fit the availability of that program, and then dedicate oneself to a radical physical and nutritional regimen to bring about a self-transformation.
“There were two seniors on the Lexington team my sophomore year,” Willis continues, “who were the undisputed leaders. They had been pushing the rest of us to join an ‘off-season’ club in Lowell [MA], the Doughboy Wrestling Club. They emphasized the importance of getting off-season coaching and competition. After losing in front of my father, one of the first things I did was join Doughboy.”
“After that embarrassing performance my sophomore year,” Willis says, embarking on the story of his transformation, “I started training seven days a week: four days in the weight room and three days at Doughboy. For the first nine months, I was completely decimated. I was simply not cardiovascularly prepared. The training was brutal. Ask any wrestler here,” Willis asserts, “all of whom are three-sport athletes, and they’ll all tell you the same thing: wrestling is the toughest of all their sports, both the training demands and the intensity of actual competition. But once you’re under the spell of wrestling,” he adds, pointedly, “easier accomplishments are no longer as satisfying.”
As a member of Doughboy, in the fall of 2016, Willis competed at one of the strongest high-school showcases in the country, the “Super 32” in Greensboro, North Carolina. Every wrestler there had placed in post-season competition to qualify to compete. Willis had qualified with his first wins at the national level, wrestling in the “Pop and Flo National Duals” in Lake Placid, New York, in the spring of his junior year. “I experienced a new level of elation there,” says Willis of his successes at Lake Placid, “beating several wrestlers from top programs around the country.”
That experience was not, however, replicated in Greensboro. “I went 0-2,” Willis readily confesses of his foray into the South. “Despite the coaching and all the extra workouts, plus taking off 15 pounds so I could compete at a lower weight class, I did poorly.” Though disappointed with his showing, Willis turned the experience into a positive. “I used the poor performance as motivation,” he asserts. “I was never better prepared going into a regular season” – Willis had been wrestling since seventh grade in Carmel – “than I was for my senior year. In addition to the experience at Super 32, all the out-of-season workouts prepped me for a successful season.” And by anyone’s metric, winter 2016-17 was a success: a 30-0 record at 152 pounds and four gold medals at in-season tournaments. The only blemish came in the finals of the Massachusetts State Tournament. There, he lost in the finals to a wrestler who went on to earn All-American recognition (accorded the top eight finishers in each weight class) at the U.S. Nationals.
Now Lowell is not exactly a couple of towns over from Lexington; it’s a half-hour’s drive on a good day – “and that’s not including the rush-hour traffic on 495 we would have to bust through most days,” Willis is quick to add, also voicing his appreciation for the sacrifice made by his mother, a professor of Russian literature at Harvard University, in making the trek three days a week for more than two years. “While I was training inside the club,” Willis notes, speaking of what is by far the best wrestling facility in the Greater Boston area as well as one of the best in New England, “she was usually out in the car, grading papers, I guess.”
Given the rigors of the sport and the demands of Willis’s training regimen – to say nothing of the unusual dieting practices known among wrestlers as “cutting” – it should come as no surprise that Willis’s mother insisted on doing the driving. “She didn’t want me behind the wheel in an exhausted or dehydrated physical state,” he explains.
About those dieting practices, which Willis’s mother also aided and abetted by shopping for kale, spinach, berries, and other assorted ingredients for the smoothies that became a staple of his food intake: the idea is to take off weight – in Willis’s case up to eight pounds – in the two-day run-up to the weigh-in before a meet. That’s right, eight pounds. Then, once a wrestler has weighed in, he is free to eat anything he wants in the hour or so between the weigh-in and his match. Every ounce and every pound he can somehow metabolize in that small window of time will give him further advantage over his opponent.
“It’s all perfectly legal,” Willis reassures the interviewer. He then proceeds to impart the knowledge he has acquired over the past three years about taking weight off and putting weight on in unimaginably short periods of time. “Two nights out” – a certain excitement enters Willis’s voice as he goes through what became for him a weekly drill – “I would have a small dinner. The next morning, I would eat a 690-calorie Costco double-chocolate-chip muffin, which is extremely light and extremely calorically dense. Every Friday lunchtime at school, I went to a teammate’s house for a shot of espresso from his ‘Keurig’ [coffee maker] to increase my metabolism, increase my energy, and suppress my appetite. No salt, no carbs, nothing that would hold water, because water equals weight. I know the science involving protein, carbohydrates, calories, and water, and I would stop drinking water. A liter’s intake adds 2.2 pounds to body weight, so water was absolutely out.”
Most weeks, Willis cut eight pounds, more than any other wrestler on the Lexington team, most of whom were taking off no more than three pounds. Some weeks, he needed to drop only six pounds to make weight. “That was easy,” he quips. “But eight pounds, that was tough. I had to dig deep to overcome the thirst and hunger. But it’s not as if the body is going to die from missing lunch and dinner for a day.”
“Didn’t all this deprivation weaken you right before a match?” he is asked.
Willis chuckles and continues to educate his listener. “As soon as I had weighed in,” he shares, “I would drink a liter of water. Then another liter after the first match and a third after the second [match].”
Quickly digestible foods were another mainstay of the post-weigh-in in-take. “An apple and honey…a bagel…sandwiches…wraps. Basically anything high in carbs. Then,” Willis elaborates further, “something with fats for long-term energy, especially peanut butter, banana, and Nutella sandwiches on whole wheat, my favorite post-weigh-in, pre-match meal.”
Willis’s success gave him a further advantage in tournaments. Because he invariably received the top seed in his class, he would wrestle the lowest seed in the opening round, guys he could “beat with my hands tied.” The second match would be more difficult, but by then Willis could feel his strength and endurance coming back. And by the third match of the tournament, he would be back to full strength. Not that cutting ever became easy. “Cutting is no fun,” Willis clarifies. “It’s not really healthy, and it takes away from enjoying the sport.”
In turn, Willis vowed to himself that he would not cut weight this season at Salisbury. “I’ve maintained a nice, slow diet this season,” he says with seeming relief, “to maintain my weight for the 160-pound class. After the past two wrestling seasons, it has been a total change to diet down naturally. I feel much better.” On his new diet, Willis totally avoids sugar (desserts) and pasta, despite their ready availability at every meal. “Not having to cut makes it much easier to love the sport,” Willis reflects, adding, “and I LOVE the animal desire of wrestling, how it satisfies my competitive streak, and the tangible fulfillment every time you have your hand raised [by the referee, after a win].”
As Willis speaks, a listener senses some other instinct at work as well. It turns out that Willis is also a master of psychological warfare. “Especially the top wrestlers,” Willis expounds, “guys who are better wrestlers than I am. But if I can get inside their heads, their technical superiority can be neutralized.” It is clear that he delights in doing things, both prior to and during a match, to create a sense of uncertainty and self-doubt in his opponents’ minds. And he has seen it work, as his grin during the telling attests.
“You remind me of a Bobby Fisher in tights and headgear,” he is told, an acknowledgement of Fischer’s will to crush his opponents psychologically as well as mentally.
Willis’s grin broadens. “I like that,” he affirms, nodding his head.
Make no mistake, though: for all his passion towards his chosen sport, Willis draws a hard line. “’Wrestling’ is not who I am,” he asserts. “I ‘wrestle,’ but I do not identify myself as ‘a wrestler.’” To understand that assertion a little better, perhaps this is a good point at which to bring up the promising – and remunerative – career as a musician that Willis gave up to devote himself to becoming a champion wrestler. As a pianist, Willis’s solo repertoire includes such staples of the concert stage as Mozart’s “Preludium,” Beethoven’s “Pathetique” Sonata, Chopin’s Nocturne No. 2, Opus 9, and the Polish virtuoso-composer’s aforementioned “Fantasie Impromptu.” (You know how to use YouTube; go ahead and track down any one of these to sample the demands such compositions make on a performer.) Willis’s real passion as a pianist, though, is chamber music, especially pieces written for two or three musicians.
“Of all the chamber groups I played with,” Willis shares, his affection evident, “the Tango Trio was my favorite. The energy we had, playing together, was so much fun. The other two members of the group, a boy [who played violin] and a girl [who played cello], were my best friends. When we weren’t collaborating musically, we would go to the movies together or go out for ice cream. I miss those friendships.”
For a year-and-a-half, the Tango Trio was one of the busiest chamber groups in the Carmel area, where the Willis family lived for four years before moving to Lexington. [Ed. note: Willis was born in Almaty, Kazakhstan, and has also lived, chronologically, in Moscow, Russia; Amsterdam, The Netherlands;
Tampa, Florida; Berlin, Germany; Austin, Texas; and Staunton, Virginia. In addition to English, he is fluent in Russian and French. But all of that is a story for another time.] “We played professionally for restaurants, weddings, the Carmel International Film Festival, even the annual Carmel Home and Garden Tour,” recalls Willis, “as well as for musical showcases like the Bach International Music Festival.” In the process, Willis and his string-wielding confederates amassed an impressive repertoire of chamber music by a broad variety of composers from the Baroque, Classical, and Romantic Periods. While Willis has gone “cold turkey” with his former aspirations as a musician, his younger brother, a junior at Lexington H.S., has matured into an accomplished violinist, touring South America with the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra as one of the few members of that esteemed aggregation who is not studying at the New England Conservatory of Music or at Harvard.
Music has also been a way for Willis to give back to his community. Beyond the hours of service required of every student at Willis’s old school in Carmel, he provided free piano lessons through an organization called Keeping Music Alive to young children in Salinas, California, an impoverished agricultural area. In addition, he played regularly for residents at a long-term care facility near Carmel.
As a post-graduate this year at Salisbury, in addition to solidifying his college plans, Willis has set a high goal: to achieve All-American recognition. Talking with Willis about setting and achieving goals is a bracing experience. He takes the process of setting a goal seriously, pursues that goal obsessively, and accepts nothing short of achieving that goal completely. He effectively leaves no room for failure. Indeed, that refusal to leave himself wiggle room makes pursuit of his goals that much more thrilling for Willis.
Beyond college, Willis’s goal is to teach and do research at the university level. His AP Physics C course last year in Lexington helped crystalize his thinking about the future. “It was my hardest course last year and also my favorite,” Willis pronounces. “For the first time, I saw real-world uses for math, particularly calculus. I want to see and understand how the universe around me works, and math will help me accomplish that. It is a tool I am able to use to make the real world intelligible. I find the specificity, exactness, and rationality of math and science greatly appeal to me.”
Those who have had to face Willis on the wrestling mat would certainly be among the first to agree that Stephen Willis will undoubtedly accomplish whatever he sets his mind to.
- Procter Smith
If single-mindedness of purpose, dogged determination, and utter fearlessness count for anything at all, fourth-former Ilya Usau will travel far on his life’s journey. The destination for that journey, for the near-future anyway, could not be clearer in the mind of the varsity hockey player from Minsk, Belarus: “I want to be able to earn a living playing hockey,” he states straightforwardly.
A dozen other players from Belarus have made that journey ahead of him, starting with Alexander Andrijevski, who had a cup of coffee with the NHL’s Chicago Blackhawks, appearing in one game during the 1992-93 season. The most successful Belarusian to play in the NHL, ice hockey’s premier professional league, was Mikhail Grabovski, who laced up his skates 534 times for four teams between 2006 and 2016, including five seasons with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Grabovski’s 296 career points top the totals of all other NHL players from his homeland, as do his numbers for goals (125) and assists (171).
While Usau understands that the odds are long, he is doing his best to ensure that he gets everything he can out of each stop along the way. This season, he has been a steady contributor to a Salisbury team that has started the season by going unbeaten through its first fourteen games, 13-0-1, and currently holds the top spot in the New England prep hockey rankings. The sixteen-year-old has 5 goals and 8 assists for the Knights, who feature a deep and balanced attack. As Usau will tell you, head coach Andrew Will emphasizes playing hockey “the right way” – the phrase crossed Usau’s lips a dozen or more times over the course of a recent interview – and that means, foremost, putting the team ahead of individual accomplishments.
Indeed, no Salisbury player’s name currently appears among the top 30 scorers in New England. Think about that for a moment. Considering the team’s #1-ranking, isn’t that circumstance – the absence of a Salisbury player among the prep scoring leaders – a remarkable testimony both to the Knights’ depth of talent and to the level of Usau and his teammates’ buy-in to Will’s philosophy?
“Playing the right way” also means going into each game with a blank slate. “Approach each game as a new game with a 0-0-0 record,” Usau elaborates on the concept. “The last game, the last week, they don’t matter,” he asserts – no small mental exercise for a group that has gone 14 games now without a defeat and that knows every opponent they face wants the bragging rights accorded the team that puts a numerical “one” in the Knights’ loss column.
And one further insight from a young man whose hockey sense at times makes him seem old beyond his years: “It doesn’t matter who scores a goal,” he asserts. “The team gets the goal.”
Usau is the first in his family to discover the game of hockey. Given the hardships his homeland has endured in recent generations, it is perhaps not surprising to find that recreational pursuits are a relatively recent development. He began skating when he was three or four years old and tried his hand at hockey when a friend of his father’s happened to mention how much fun his young son was having with the game. Although the other boy was a year or two older, Usau, born in 2001, was welcomed into the fraternity of 1999s and 2000s.
“The team practiced for three hours,” Usau recalls, “from 5:00 to 8:00. The weakest players skated from 5 to 6, the intermediate players from 6 to 7, and the best players during the last hour, from 7 to 8.”
It took about six months before the coaches pulled Usau from the 5:00 group and put him with the 7:00’s. The following year he joined his natural club team, the Junost Minsk 2001s, and he has not looked back since. Nor has he pursued or so much as even dabbled in another sport. “Belarus kids specialize early,” he explains laconically.
Usau remained with Junost Minsk from 2006 to 2014. J-M sponsors Belarus’s professional hockey league as well as hosting the country’s open championship every year in each age group. From 2008 to 2014, Usau’s club team won the national championship for the 2001s every year. For the last four of those championships, Usau skated on his team’s top line.
During his years with J-M, Usau’s coach was a man by the name of Igor Filin. The coach’s influence on Usau has been profound. “Coach Filin taught me to focus on every shot as if it’s the last shot I will ever have,” Usau recounts with the solemnity of a true disciple, “to do everything I can to put the puck in the net as if you would never have that chance again.”
Filin continues to mentor Usau’s hockey development. After appearing in a tournament in Slovakia in 2015, Usau was approached by a representative of a developmental program in the United States, Evolution Elite Hockey Academy in Denver, Colorado. Both the owner of the academy and the hockey coach there are Russian – Belarus was formerly part of the Soviet Union, and Russian is Usau’s first language – and Usau was ready to leap at the opportunity to move to America. “Every young Belarusian player wants to study and play in the U.S. or Canada,” says Usau, his excitement still evident three years later, “the hockey is so much better. Coach Filin encouraged me to go.”
So off he went, 14 years old, flying alone and for the first time to the United States, and oh, by the way, without knowing a word of English. “On the plane,” he recounts, “I was handed immigration papers to fill out. I couldn’t read the directions. Fortunately, when we landed in the U.S., there was a Russian-speaking man at the airport who helped me out.”
Usau spent two years with Evolution Elite before coming to Salisbury. Given his fluency in English today, most listeners would probably not guess that he has just over two years of the language under his belt – a tribute to New America School, where he and other players at the Academy attended classes. “My first year,” describes Usau, who was one of six Belarusian students when he started there, “I took five English classes daily and one period of math. The school was 95% international,” he continues, “with most of the 100-or-so students from Mexico and Spain. Basically, everyone was there to learn English.”
In Usau’s second year with Evolution Elite, his team won the U-15 state and regional tournaments, AAA-level, to advance to nationals in Scottsdale, Arizona. There, they lost to the Yale Bulldogs in the championship game. Around this time, Usau came to the attention of Jan Hejda, a former NHL player, who asked Usau if he had ever considered playing prep hockey in New England. Hejda explained the advantages of doing so – a higher level of hockey, coupled with a rigorous academic program – and the next thing Usau knew, he was off to Salisbury, entering the Class of 2020 this past fall. “I didn’t consider any other school,” Usau shares. “It was the only school Mr. Hejda recommended. My first visit to Salisbury was when I arrived in September. That was also the first time I met Mr. Will.”
And how has the adjustment to the Hilltop gone? Given the past record of this intrepid adventurer, what would you suppose? For starters, Usau met the academic rigors by achieving Honors for the fall trimester, despite a challenging transition. “The international school had only a four-day week,” Usau expands on the description of his Colorado educational experience, “and there was no homework.”
“No homework ever?” he is asked by an incredulous listener.
“No homework,” he re-states. “Ever.”
During the fall, when he wasn’t busy adapting to the demands of a six-day class-week and two-to-three hours of homework nightly, Usau played “split-season” hockey, as do many elite players here on the Hilltop and throughout the prep-hockey world. His team? None other than the Yale Bulldogs. As the old adage goes, “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.”
Playing for Evolution Elite, Usau and his teammates logged upwards of 70 games-per-season. “We play 30 games in the split-season league,” Usau points out, “and when you add that to Salisbury’s 25-game season, it helps make up the difference in the game experience that it is so important to acquire.”
In addition, Usau made Belarus’s U-17 national team, giving him the opportunity to play in events such as the tournament in Calgary, Alberta, where Belarus competed over the last week of the Christmas vacation. Belarus went 2-2 in group play, eliminating them from the 20-team event, which was won by a U.S. team from Virginia. “There was a very high level of play,” sums up Usau of the experience, “comparable to the quick, physical play you see in the preps.”
And, when he is back home in Belarus, Usau continues to skate and even review Salisbury game-film with Igor Filin, the long-time coach providing a strong connecting filament across continents and stopping points on hockey’s highways.
Despite his experiences playing at the highest levels of the game for his age-group and in venues across the world, Usau describes playing in the Flood Center with something like awe. “The excitement of home games here at Salisbury is unlike anything I have experienced before,” he says of the atmosphere in Rudd Rink when Hilltop fans fill the seats. “As a player, I feel myself feeding off the crowd’s energy.”
Hockey players – and top athletes in general – can be a superstitious lot. When Usau is asked if he has any superstitions, especially with his Salisbury team enjoying the level of success it has had, he affirms that he does. When invited to share some of those, you might think, by his response, that he was guarding a hoard of Almas caviar: access is strictly off limits. “I don’t tell anybody that,” he intones, and the subject is closed.
Last fall, Usau committed to the University of Connecticut, an up-and-coming school in the college-hockey universe. This time, Usau has had a chance to see the campus, and Storrs made an impression: “It’s so big,” he shares, “that you need transportation to get around.” A far cry, in other words, from the cozy confines of the Hilltop and the well-worn footpaths from dorm to class buildings to dining hall to rink. But just another step on the journey for a young man who embraces every challenge life presents.
- Procter Smith
“Band of brothers” has become a popular rallying cry on the Hilltop, invoking Shakespeare’s words from Henry V to spur Salisbury’s athletes to heroic performances. Says the titular king in rallying his men on the eve of battle against superior French forces, forces his English army would stunningly overcome later that day, “This story shall the good man teach his son,/And [St. Crispin’s Day] shall ne’er go by,/But we in it shall be remembered –/We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.”
Occasionally, though, “band of brothers” takes on another meaning, when members of the same family follow each other to the Hilltop, often bolstering the ranks of the School’s athletic teams. Such is the case with Addi Teye-Botchway ’18, the third member of his family to don a Knights’ uniform to represent a varsity team for Salisbury. Most recently a member of the varsity soccer team, Addi is the last in a line of Teye-Botchways, having been preceded by brothers Adlai ’13 and Addon ’15.
Addi Judah Gabriel Mensa Teye-Botchway bears two Biblical names – testimony to his parents’ devoutness – along with the traditional Ghanaian name “given to third-borns,” Teye-Botchway explains, “Mensa.” All three brothers have Ghanaian middle names, a reflection of their paternal heritage. The Teye-Botchway brothers’ father, an ophthalmologist, comes from Ghana. Although the family lives in Bermuda, ties to Ghana remain strong. How strong? Well, Teye-Botchway sees his great-grandmother there at least every other year. Furthermore, a great-aunt was married to John Atta Mills, the late president of the country (2009-2013). “I felt close to my uncle, the president,” Teye-Botchway reminisces, “and miss him. He always had something memorable to tell me, whether relating to school, sports, manners, or whatever.”
As to the alliterativeness of the three brothers’ first names? “My mother is fond of the ‘ad-’ sound,” Teye-Botchway affirms.
Teye-Botchway also has strong ties to Bermuda, where his mother was born and where his family makes its home. His descendants there date back to the 1600s. In addition to his African line, his ancestry includes Portugese and, on his mother's side, Native American; his maternal grandparents are members of the Pequot and Wampanoag Nations.
Growing up in Bermuda, Teye-Botchway's main sport was cricket. Enrolling as a sixth-grader at Fessenden School (a highly regarded junior boarding school outside Boston), Teye-Botchway left the quintessentially English sport behind and began to focus on soccer. The sport was already in his blood, as one of his grandfathers was skilled enough to have received a contract offer from Westham United in the English League. At Fessenden, Teye-Botchway's coach moved him from goalie to striker, where he became a prolific goal-scorer. By the ninth grade, however, the Fessenden coach needed his skills as a defender and moved him to the back-line.
And there he has remained. For all three of his years at Salisbury, Teye-Botchway continued to play at fullback for varsity soccer, earning All-New England recognition. After competing for the varsity squash team in the 2016-17 season, he is concentrating this winter on soccer as a member of the Black Rock Football Club, a Berkshire County-based program founded in 2013 by former Berkshire School coach, Jon Moodey. Teye-Botchway is one of six Salisbury players competing for Black Rock this winter. The club offers a range of programs and age-grouped teams to provide year-round support and opportunities for skilled players. In addition to twice-weekly practices, Teye-Botchway’s team plays games most weekends, either on the road or at its “home field,” the Premier Sports Complex in Winsted, CT.
Teye-Botchway was actually recruited for the Black Rock program during his fifth-form season, when one of Moodey's scouts saw him play. "Almost every school in Western New England is represented on the club," Teye-Botchway shares. Although the strain of competing for both Black Rock and varsity squash last year eventually proved too much for him, and he had to drop his participation with the soccer club, he adds, with pride, that last year's Black Rock U-18 team won the Connecticut State Club Soccer Cup. While the decision to step away from squash and concentrate this winter on soccer was not easy, Teye-Botchway is excited to have re-enlisted with Black Rock. "It's the best type of experience," he enthuses, "playing with top players. It also has terrific potential," he points out, commenting on the addition of Black Rock to the prep sports landscape, "to attract more soccer talent to Salisbury and other prep schools."
During his Salisbury academic career, Teye-Botchway has compiled a daunting resume that includes AP English Language, AP Biology, AP Spanish, AP Environmental Science, and multiple honors sections. Despite the rigors of such a curriculum, he has earned Honors or High Honors recognition for all seven of his trimesters on the Hilltop. He counts the sciences – and especially biology – as his favorite subject area.
Through his father’s work and professional associations, Teye-Botchway has had many opportunities to put his scientific studies into practice. He has, for example, worked at Community Veterinary Services in Bermuda, observing and filming surgery on animals. He has also accompanied his father to observe procedures at the private clinic where Dr. Teye-Botchway performs surgery.
Teye-Botchway’s parents have also set an example for their sons with their charitable outreach. Dr. and Mrs. Teye-Botchway run a personal charity for low-income families in Bermuda – the Charrs Foundation. No surprise, then, that Teye-Botchway himself has been actively involved in the Red Cross blood drives here on the Hilltop. His record of service to the Salisbury community also includes a prefectship in Carr.
Teye-Botchway has his college sights set on several schools in the Boston area, a list headed by Tufts University. “They have an excellent pre-med program,” he observes, “and they have been a perennial contender in recent years for the NESCAC men’s soccer championship.” Ultimately, the doctor’s son would like to pursue an M.D. himself, perhaps specializing in neurology or, like his father, in ophthalmology.
Last summer, Teye-Botchway did course work at Cambridge University in England – the country, incidentally, where his parents met while his father was doing his residency in Leeds and where his two older brothers were born – “majoring” in medical science and “minoring” in medicine and the brain. “These were graded, accredited college courses,” Teye-Botchway remarks, “part of the ‘Oxbridge Program,’ which has locations in France, Spain, and other countries in addition to the Cambridge campus.”
With coaxing, the modest Teye-Botchway acknowledges that he earned A’s for both his major and minor coursework. “It was the best summer camp I’ve ever been to,” he recalls fondly.
“There were 150 students from every continent except Antarctica, none of whom I had known before the program, many of whom have become close friends. I loved experiencing what college will be like, with the freedom to come and go, for example, when we weren’t in class, and,” he smiles broadly, “a midnight check-in!”
Spend a little time with this young citizen of the world, and your thinking about the future, however grim, will likely take on a more hopeful cast. How could it not, with the strongly intertwined strands of scholarly pursuit, athletic accomplishment, devotion to family, and service to others that make up the many parts of a young man like Addi Teye-Botchway?
- Procter Smith
When he arrived at Salisbury as a third former in September of 2014 from the Park Slope section of Brooklyn, New York, Dylan Sanchez struggled with many of the same academic adjustments that other first-year students face: nightly school work, structured study hours, time management, and unfamiliar surroundings, to name the principal such challenges. He would need to get two trimesters under his belt before he achieved Honors for the first time in the spring trimester of that third form year.
Likewise, while bringing a strong baseball resume with him to the Hilltop, Sanchez had little or no experience in other sports. Despite his never having played more than an occasional game of touch, he decided to try out for football that first fall. In the winter, it was a little easier to choose basketball, but only insofar as he had started playing the sport two years earlier, as a seventh grader.
Flash forward three years, and the Sanchez we encounter at the start of his sixth form year at Salisbury is a three-sport varsity athlete, while in the classroom, he has rung up four consecutive trimesters as an Honors student. He characterizes himself as “more of a ‘humanities guy’ than a ‘math-science guy,’ ” though he cites Mr. Colling’s chemistry class and environmental science with Mr. Scoville as two of his favorite courses during his Salisbury career. For the past three years, he has been an Honors English student. U.S. History has been his favorite history class, despite the rigors of Mr. Russell’s writing assignments. He has also continued into his fourth year of Chinese with Mr. Luo.
As well, Sanchez has emerged as a community leader. He serves as a prefect in Quaile. For the past three years, he has volunteered for the Big Brothers program, spending time with the same young boy – now a fifth grader – every Friday afternoon. “He has become more talkative,” Sanchez says of his young friend, who lives locally, “as we have gotten to know each other better and better. I like being a role model for him and the other boys,” Sanchez adds, “especially through sports. It’s fun for both sides.” And Sanchez has also acted as a Peer Leader for the past three years. “Helping new students who aren’t familiar with this kind of [boarding school] environment is gratifying,” states Sanchez. “[The Peer Leader Program] allows someone new to feel not so far away from home.” This year, he has become a member of the Salisbury chapter of the One Love Foundation in their work to raise consciousness about and to end relationship violence.
If the theme of “giving back” resonates clearly and strongly through his many contributions to the Salisbury community – he also tours prospective students and their families for the Key Society on behalf of the Admissions Office – it is likely because Sanchez knows for himself what it feels like to be the beneficiary of other people’s generous gifts of time and support. He would be the first to acknowledge that probably the single greatest factor in his coming to Salisbury School was the Boys’ Club of New York, an organization that identifies minority students who demonstrate a potential to benefit from and succeed in the boarding school experience and then grooms those young men for the long road ahead, from after-school enrichment programs to SSAT prep courses to mock-interviews and support for the application process to follow-up after a boy has matriculated to a prep school.
Traditionally, sports have been a significant piece of the Boys’ Club’s offerings, too, as evidenced by the impressive lineage of student-athletes who preceded Sanchez to the Hilltop, including brothers Anthony ’08 and George ’15 Hewitt, Jay Fabien ’11, Michael White ’11, and Jhonny Perez ’14. Ben Mitchell ’05 was the first such Boys’ Club member at Salisbury, arriving in the fall of 2001. Every year since, according to long-time Director of Admissions Peter Gilbert, Salisbury has had at least one student from the Boys’ Club.
Mitchell’s father, Bill Mitchell, had a lot to do with that, prior to his recent retirement as one of the organization’s directors and keenest ambassadors. In accepting a national award bestowed on Salisbury in 2007 by the Boys’ Club of New York, Gilbert acknowledged Bill Mitchell and other visionaries who pioneered the relationships with Salisbury and other leading prep schools. “We are a better school because of you and the many BC-sponsored students who have attended Salisbury,” Gilbert remarked on that august occasion. “Salisbury School holds to the principle that education is a partnership: a partnership between a young man and his teachers, a partnership between the School and a family, and a partnership between the admissions office and a venerable institution like the BCNY. We work together with the singular goal to help boys grow and mature into men.”
Clearly, the Boys’ Club knew what it was about in helping Sanchez on the path to Salisbury, and Sanchez has, in turn, shown his appreciation and aptitude in myriad ways from the classroom to his athletic teams to his community involvement. Says Sanchez of the Boys’ Club’s role in his life, “Bill Mitchell and men like him encouraged me to pursue my dreams. They helped me get to Salisbury and prepare for the experience. The Boys’ Club continues to be an important part of my life, and I appreciate the opportunity to go back there on vacations from Salisbury to share my experiences with others.”
The ascent to the mantle of “three-sport varsity athlete” has been a gradual one for Sanchez. He has had to “earn his stripes” by steadily developing his skills, sport by sport. As a third former, he played on the junior varsity in both football and basketball. In the spring, he made the varsity baseball team, where he spent most of that first season on the bench. “I started two games at shortstop and pitched four innings in relief over the course of the spring,” recalls Sanchez. “I had six or seven at-bats total.”
As a fourth former, Sanchez played on special teams for a varsity football team that went all the way to the New England Championship game, where Salisbury fell to Choate. In the winter, he returned to j.v. basketball and moved into the starting line-up at point guard. And in the spring, he opened the season as the starting second baseman and never looked back, holding down the ninth spot in the batting order, finishing the season at .250, and continuing to provide occasional late-inning relief on the mound.
Fifth-form year would mark Sanchez’s first playing on three varsity teams. In football, he became a two-way starter: wide receiver on offense, cornerback on defense. For the first time, and despite just three seasons of organized hoops behind him, he made varsity basketball. He began last winter as the eighth man on the team, but when starter Mason Evarts was lost for the season in December, Sanchez suddenly found himself entering games as the first or second man off the bench. In the spring, Sanchez helped bring continuity to a team that was playing for its third varsity baseball coach in three years, as Kevin Huber took over the reins from Xander Jones, who had succeeded John Toffey. Again, Sanchez started at second while providing Coach Huber with pitching experience, continuing to make relief appearances as well as one or two starts. He moved around in the batting order, occasionally leading off for the Knights, switch-hitting for the first time in his career, and finishing the year with a .275 average. “I started batting from both sides playing whiffle-ball as a kid but never in hardball,” Sanchez says of his evolution as a switch-hitter. “Playing summer ball [in 2016], I decided to give it a serious try, and the results were encouraging. Last spring,” recounts Sanchez, whose natural swing is from the right side of the plate, “Coach Huber helped me with adjustments to my left-handed swing. I’m going to keep working on it.”
This fall, Sanchez’s leadership has helped buoy a varsity football team beset by injuries and still looking for its first win, five games into the schedule. He will return for a second season of varsity basketball next winter, and Coach Huber has high expectations for Sanchez when baseball season rolls around. “As a baseball player,” the veteran coach offers, “Dylan is very talented and multifaceted. We will be relying on him heavily this spring, and I expect that he will have a great year. In my opinion, Dylan’s best baseball is ahead of him.”
Sanchez’s involvement with baseball and steady development as a player has also been fueled by summer activity. For the past two summers, he has worked at the Home Run Baseball Camp in the Parade Grounds complex of Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. There, he has worked with boys and girls ages 4 to 13 – when he was not otherwise occupied playing for the Brooklyn Bulldogs in summer tournaments and college showcases. Among his many appearances at summer ’17 events were the I-95 Metro-North Showcase at the New York Yankees’ minor league ballpark in Trenton, New Jersey; the Head First Honor Roll Camp at Baseball Heaven on Long Island; and large regional events in Providence, Rhode Island, and Columbus, Ohio. The Bulldogs won a tournament in Tom’s River, New Jersey, the weekend after the Salisbury school year ended. At the Rhode Island tournament, the Bulldogs placed 4th out of 20 teams. At another event in New Jersey, Sanchez played in front of coaches from more than 30 colleges.
“I want to play ball in college,” Sanchez affirms. With prompting from an interested fan, he acknowledges that a number of schools have approached him, including Princeton, Dartmouth, and Cornell, as well as such Division III programs as Middlebury, Ursinus, Wesleyan, and three California colleges: Occidental, Redlands, and Chapman. “My mom is from California,” Sanchez observes, perhaps indicating a westward tilt, “so I’ve spent a fair amount of time out there.” He would like to pursue a sports-related field, such as writing, broadcast commentary, or sports management.
In wrapping up a recent interview, Sanchez spoke of the role Salisbury School has played in his life. “Salisbury has shaped me as a person,” Sanchez stated, humbly and sincerely. “Sports definitely helped me settle in as a third former, but I have also learned how to ask for help here. I have felt comfortable trying new things. I have developed friendships with people from all over the world. I believe it makes you smarter having a wide variety of people to talk to, and Salisbury has given me that.”
And you, Mr. Sanchez, have reciprocated in so many ways.