WORCESTER, Mass. -- In most years, it's the same cycle, rinse and repeat, for Whitnsville Christian, the small Northbridge-based school with plenty of mettle during hoops season. Long kids, tall shooters, and a few Dutch last names to boot.
Friday night's 62-48 win over Holy Name showcased something different. When the Naps picked apart WC's 2-3 zone in the opening minutes with darting entry passes to the baselines, head coach Jeff Bajema called a timeout, the Crusaders abandoned the zone and took them straight up from therein. Six-foot-9 center Hans Miersma forcefully tossed his midsection around the undersized Holy Name frontcourt, and sophomore point guard Colin Richey repeatedly lowered his shoulder through the lane for some tough baskets, even an off-balance teardrop to boot.
When all was said and done, Bajema couldn't help but chuckle a little.
"Our rep has always been a little soft, and you know, I don’t think they can say that anymore," he cracked.
Indeed, this is not your typical Whitinsville Christian, which debuted in ESPNBoston's MIAA poll this week at No. 25, and looks like one of the state's best Division 3 teams through the first half of the schedule. Whereas some teams dream of having a 6-foot-7 forward to experiment with in the frontcourt, the Crusaders bring one off the bench (senior Justin Tienharra, who got six boards in Friday's win). From positions two through five, the Crusaders go 6-foot-5 or taller every game.
That size alone can be a headache for some. But when you have mobility in a player like Miersma -- who ended up with 15 points, eight rebounds and five blocks in the win -- that can turn into a migraine. Able to grab balls out of the air with his 6-foot-10 wingspan and throw a deep outlet pass, Miersma also has the ability to step out for a long two, which makes the Crusaders that much more difficult to stop in transition.
"Hans has got that European game. He can go out and hit the 15 to 18-footer, he’s a terrific passer for a big guy," Bajema said. "He’s gonna be a great college player. I think he’ll be a better college player than a high school player, because then he’ll be playing against guys his own size more. It’s troublesome sometimes guarding these 6-3 kids, but he’s gonna be good."
Says senior Taylor Bajema, who finished with a team-high 24 points, "Oh my gosh...when nobody’s got a shot, we can just give it to Hans. With that height advantage, Hans can score over anyone in Central Mass. He can usually almost always provide a basket for us underneath, big shots like that."
For Miersma and his teammates, the renewed strength all draws back to some grueling summer workouts with strength trainer Jesse Stanley at the Uxbridge affiliate of CrossFit Training. Four to five days a week all summer long, Miersma, Richey, Taylor Bajema, Peter Koopman and Tyler Vanden Akker went to Stanley for some military-style workouts -- "We went through a lot of pain together, I guess you could say," Miersma laughed.
Spliced in with series of burpees, an exercise consisting of a pushup followed by a jumping jack ("The worst thing ever invented," Miersma laughed), the workouts varied day to day. One day, it might be flipping tractor tires out in the field. The next, it might be carrying 25-pound weights three miles in the rain. The next, it could be running a half-mile through the streets with a 45-pound weight on one's shoulders.
"Hardcore every day, no lie, and we didn’t let up at all," Taylor Bajema said. "And really, that got us stronger for this year. That’s why I think we’re a lot stronger than last year. And it brought us closer together as friends. I think that shows out there too. We’re always making the extra pass, and things like that."
And maybe it didn't show Friday night (or maybe it was Taylor's ZigTech's), but the strength has also shown twofold in endurance. When the Crusaders' first scrimmage opponent of the preseason, New Mission, was late to arrive, Jeff Bajema had the kids go at each other in an intra-squad scrimmage. Some two hours later, Titans head coach Cory McCarthy walked through the gym doors, ready to go. Miersma and Co., maybe a bit fatigued, pushed on for another two hours and went toe to toe with the Titans' much-hyped quartet of Samir McDaniels, Darius Davis, Kachi Nzerem and Nate Anderson.
"Last year, these kids woulda just (said) ‘Oh naw, we don’t want to play, we’re dead'," Jeff Bajema said. "This year, they’re like ‘Yeah, let’s go’. They just love to play."
And with it, they inspired high praise from McCarthy.
"When I talk bout Division 3, I talk bout Watertown and Whitinsville Christian," McCarthy said. "We know what we have, and they (the Crusaders) play well they, they play a very tough man. I have alot of respect for that program, they were not scared at all to play us man to man, play us straight."
The most important factor may lie in the development of Richey, who has shown remarkable maturation from month to month. Teammates praise the 6-foot-2 sophomore for his vision on the break, able to set up teammates on the wing for uncontested perimeter shots, as well as his abandon going to the hole. All signs point to his best days coming ahead these next two years.
"He’s matured a lot from last year," Taylor Bajema said. "He’s just a great point guard. He’s perfect for us because he loves to run and I like to run, so I think we’re really good on the fast break. I think we’re at our best when we’re running and he’s leading it. So I try to get a head of steam, and he tries to look for me, just get easy buckets. He’s great, he’s a great point guard."
McCarthy, meanwhile, likens Richey's toughness to a city-like style of play.
"He's a son of a gun, he's a tough bastard," McCarthy said. "He's the type of kid that every coach wants to have. His style of play is not a typical suburban point guard -- he's very urban. He can play any style of basketball, he's not mechanical like some of these kids."
Surprised at Richey's progress? Jeff Bajema was blunt, and quick, in his retort.
"No, the kid’s a gym rat," he said.
And really, on this night, he could have been talking about anyone.