Joe Cremo knows some people wonder why he “only” went to the University at Albany to continue his basketball career after graduating from Scotia-Glenville High School.
That’s because they’ve asked him that to his face.
Surely, they say, better opportunities were there for Cremo — now a rising sophomore at UAlbany — after a high school career which ended with back-to-back state championships.
“I’ve talked to those people,” said a laughing Cremo, “but I really don’t listen to them.”
That ability and attitude are why UAlbany head coach Will Brown felt Cremo — named America’s East Sixth Man and Rookie of the Year after his freshman season — could handle the obstacles associated with being the hometown kid on an area college team.
“We’ve always tried to recruit locally, but so much goes into that,” said Brown, whose team starts offseason workouts Monday. “It’s not as simple as just recruiting a local kid. It’s a process.”
That goes for both athletes and coaches. Each group has its own concerns about such a marriage.
For athletes, hometown pride is important . . . as is the desire to experience college life like other young adults, which often means going away from home. Finding the right fit — read: playing time — is another major factor.
With area college coaches, the issues around bringing in local talent are both wide-ranging and dependent on a program’s level.
What Division II and Division III coaches such as College of Saint Rose women’s soccer coach Laurie Darling Gutheil and Skidmore College field hockey coach Beth Hallenbeck mainly contend with in terms of bringing academically and athletically qualified local players is the desire many student-athletes have: to leave home for college. Both coaches aggressively seek local players, anyway, and it often reaps rewards.
Darling Gutheil’s program regularly has at least a handful of area players and built its first national-level team nearly two decades ago with key players from Burnt Hills, Clifton Park and Guilderland.
“They were instrumental in us gaining a regional, and then national, level of success,” Darling Gutheil said.
This past fall, 2014 Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake graduate Morgan Burchhardt led Darling Gutheil’s team in scoring. For Burchhardt, the chance to play for a top program with mom and dad able to watch was the main draw.
“I couldn’t pass that up,” Burchhardt said.
But other kids do.
“It’s a shame, sometimes, when [players] go out of the area when they could fit in really well at a program like Skidmore,” said Hallenbeck, whose All-Americans this past fall were Jenn Hanks from Niskayuna and Dani DeGregory from Greenwich. “Why not play at a great school and at a place that’s close enough for [friends and family] to come watch?”
There’s a flip side to that, too. College coaches might find themselves slammed in the court of public opinion if a local product goes elsewhere, but they also can’t chase empty leads. Local kids only end up at local programs, Siena College women’s basketball coach Ali Jaques said, if that’s what they want.
“Siena is a great opportunity for a lot of people,” Jaques said. “If I have to oversell and talk a [player] into Siena, then it’s probably not the right school for them.”
Like Jaques, Brown leads a Division I program in an area that cares a lot about college hoops. Sometimes, that cautions him away from local players. He makes sure to at least see every high-profile player who comes through the area, but won’t offer a scholarship unless the player is immediately capable of joining his rotation or wants to redshirt.
“A local kid is under a microscope,” said Brown, from both fans and media. “You need to make sure that local kid you’re taking is going to play right away, in my opinion. If he’s not playing, then he’s [going to] feel the pressure of staying home and being the local kid [who’s] not playing in front of the local fans.”
When he was younger, Cremo said he had no intention of heading to UAlbany. For him, that had to do with wanting to play for a school he watched on TV.
“I wanted to play at Syracuse,” he said. “But as I got older, I wanted to play somewhere I could fit in, play and make an impact.”
Thomas Huerter, whose father played men’s basketball for Siena College, was the same way. While the son’s commitment to Siena seemed preordained to outsiders, that’s not how he felt.
“When I was younger, I didn’t want to stay local,” said Huerter, whose brother Kevin opted for the University of Maryland to play his college basketball. “I wanted to get up, go and get out. I wanted to write my own story.”
What made Huerter want to play his college hoops in the Capital Region were the experiences he had in the past couple years. As a senior at Shenendehowa, he won a state championship and marveled at the support his team received from its community. This past school year, Huerter went through a post-graduate year at Cheshire Academy. Many of his teammates there, he said, either came from less successful high school programs or areas that didn’t show much enthusiasm for sports. Those players, he said, were all committed to schools at least a few hours from home.
“They almost want to forget about [their high school experience],” Huerter said.
Marika Contompasis starred the past few falls for the girls’ soccer team at Niskayuna. She’s a Division I talent who will play her college soccer starting this fall for Union College, just down the road from where she grew up. Contompasis picked Union for a number of reasons, but her main one is the team’s culture reminds her of what she knows. The success she had playing at Niskayuna — which won the 2015 Section II Class AA title — made her crave finding such a situation.
“[My high school experience] definitely made me look at how teams interact with one another,” Contompasis said, “and when I went to a clinic at Union, it felt like when I played at Niskayuna.”
For other folks, though, making sure a local college doesn’t feel too much like home is also important.
When Marissa Folts, a 2015 Saratoga Springs graduate, took her overnight visit to Skidmore, Hallenbeck matched Folts with Hanks. That was on purpose. Niskayuna’s Hanks, who graduated this spring, helped to alleviate Folts’ concerns about going to a college 15 minutes from her Wilton home — and where her parents work.
“One of the main things [Hanks] told me was to make sure I lived on campus so that I got that college feel,” she said.
Folts doesn’t regret picking Skidmore over the Massachusetts colleges she initially preferred. She occasionally sees her father walking around Skidmore’s grounds, but that’s generally the only time she remembers she’s near her home while on campus.
“I honestly don’t feel like I’m in Saratoga — unless we go out onto Broadway,” she said. “Then, I know where I am all the time.”
Cremo likes being the local guy. He lives on campus at UAlbany, but heads home on weekends when his schedule allows. That gives him time to catch up with family and help out at the youth basketball programs that helped him develop as a youngster.
That attachment Cremo has for his hometown was one of the main reasons Brown honed in on the player. Brown said he’s offered roster spots to the best of the Capital Region’s prep players of the past decade, but went the hardest after Cremo.
“He’s more of a homebody,” Brown said with a laugh. “I knew we’d have a great shot at him.”