BY Jay N. Miller
EASTON — While this week's trip to the NCAA Div. 2 Elite Eight national tournament at Northern Kentucky University is a noteworthy achievement for the Stonehill College men's basketball team, it is not out of the ordinary.
Since Brockton native David McLaughlin took over the head coaching post on Jan. 2, 2004, the Skyhawks have been regular postseason competitors, with five 20-win seasons, three trips to the NCAA Div. 2 Regional tourney, and a Div. 2 Final Four berth in 2005-06, where they lost to eventual national champion Winona State.
Along the way, McLaughlin has won a pair of Northeast-10 Coach of the Year awards, while compiling a won-lost mark of 177-83.
At noon today, the Skyhawks (24-8) were scheduled face Mid-Atlantic Regional champ West Liberty at the Highland Heights, Ky., host site.
Such regional and national success for the Skyhawks was a bit difficult to envision when McLaughlin took over as interim coach in the middle of the 2003-04 season for Kevin O'Brien, who was fired after a 4-5 start in his fourth season.
After playing basketball at Colby College and graduating in 1997, McLaughlin had been a graduate assistant at Suffolk while earning his master's degree in education.
He coached the Northeast squad to a gold medal in the 1999 Bay State Games, and landed a job as assistant coach at Wesleyan for two years. McLaughlin was in his fourth year as a Stonehill assistant by 2004, but the team was floundering and winless in the NE-10.
Stonehill Athletic Director Paula Sullivan, who knows a thing or two about winning basketball, made a change at the top and elevated McLaughlin for the rest of that season. The Skyhawks went 5-12 the rest of the way, but Sullivan saw something in the young coach she liked, and felt he had things going in the right direction.
Named permanent head coach the next season, McLaughlin took the team that had struggled to win eight games in 2003-04 and guided it to a 20-8 mark in 2004-05. The next year, it all came together with a team led in part by guard Chris Kraus, who now serves as McLaughlin's top assistant. That team won 27 games and came within sight of a national crown.
Since then, McLaughlin's team's have most recently racked up four consecutive 20-win campaigns, from 2008-09 (21-9), to 2009-10 (24-6), to 2010-11 (22-8), to this year's team (24-8 so far).
McLaughlin, whose Stonehill office is decorated with an array of Larry Bird photos and assorted basketball memorabilia, lives in Easton, with his wife, Jenna, and their three children.
"We always talk about defense defining us on some level," said McLaughlin. "Our players all know that our priorities are defense, making our opponents work as hard as possible for every point they get.
"Offensively, we want to let the game come to us, and that's an outlook that values the ball, working inside-out, and knowing a good shot versus a great shot. Taking that approach demands a great deal of discipline, and also togetherness – this is not a style that is concerned with individual statistics."
One of the hallmarks of this year's Stonehill team has been its bench. The Skyhawks bench, primarily forward Raheem May-Thompson, and long-range shooters Mitch Amelio and Adam Fazzini, has outscored its opposition by more than seven points a game.
In the postseason that margin has been even wider as Skyhawks' subs outscored their postseason foes by almost 12 points a game. It has become a McLaughlin-team trademark that there is little difference between his starters and subs with a regular rotation keeping players fresh.
It is also a product of the fierce competition that McLaughlin encourages at practice.
"Our bench gave us a huge lift in the NCAA Regional," McLaughlin noted. "That was not a big surprise to me, when I see them competing every day, but games where everyone contributed as much as they did in Worcester, a complete team effort, make it one of the more gratifying tournament runs we've ever had."
"Coach McLaughlin allows you a lot of freedom," said May-Thompson. "He lets you read the game, so our offense is not too structured. He allows us to give him ideas so that we feel like every game plan has a lot of our input."
Eight years since taking over, McLaughlin has become the winningest basketball coach in Stonehill history, putting solid high school prospects on their recruiting radar.
"I will always be eternally grateful to Paula Sullivan for giving me the chance," said McLaughlin. "It was my first head coaching job.
"That first group responded and worked hard, with Chris Kraus as a sophomore. They went from eight wins to 20, to 27 wins in our third year together, and I was fortunate to start off with such a solid group, with character and leadership.
"Now we have a senior group that has averaged 23 wins a year, which is remarkable, but again, it is a superb group of young men."
"It is hard to have a good year, after a good year, after a good year," McLaughlin added. "One key to the continuity is the way our upperclassmen mentored our younger kids. We look for not just good players, but quality men, and right now, we see Patrick Lee, Sean Lowry and Andre Tongo teaches the younger kids, like (freshman center) Jack Cole how to play Stonehill basketball."
The other ingredient in Stonehill's continued success is recruiting and a winning tradition gets you some notoriety. But so many blue chip prospects want to aim for Div. 1, even if they might never get off the pine there.
"The biggest selling point we have with Stonehill is the academics," said McLaughlin. "It's easy for young men to notice a winning program, but we also have excellent academics, and a beautiful campus.
"There's a recent study, ranking over 300 Div. 2 schools nationally, for both academic excellence and athletic success, which ranks Stonehill No. 2 among them – in the whole country. So the college sells itself to a large extent. But there's also the size of this school, where it is small enough that you know you'll be getting the kind of attention from the faculty and the athletic staff that you just can't get at the big schools.
"We try to stress to kids we're recruiting that there's a nice balance here, between sports and academics," said McLaughlin.