PITTSFIELD — One of the big challenges for a prep school basketball coach is to meld a team of players from different backgrounds with varying long-term goals into a cohesive unit in a matter of months.
Maine Central Institute head coach Dave Campbell was able to pull it off last winter, leading the school’s postgraduate team to the New England Preparatory School Athletic Council Class AAA championship.
Now comes the challenge of doing it again with a new cast of players, though MCI’s task should be made easier by three players who signed National Letters of Intent at Wright Gymnasium on Thursday to continue their careers at the NCAA Division I level beginning next fall.
James Farr, a 6-foot-9 forward from Evanston, Ill., will attend Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio, while 6-5 swingman Jared Brandon of Las Vegas will play at Cal State-Fullerton and 6-10 center Tobe Okafor from Lagos, Nigeria, is headed for Loyola Marymount in Los Angeles, Calif.
“Tobe’s best basketball is ahead of him,” said Campbell. “He’s a raw talent, he can block shots and rebound the basketball but offensively his skills are very green.
“Jared is very, very good at getting to the basket, he can get to the rim and has tremendous skills with the ball. And James is a multi-talented kid for his size. He handles, he penetrates well and he can shoot the 3.”
Farr, who led Evanston Township High School to the Illinois Class 4A state semifinals last year, chose Xavier over Ball State, Bradley and Indiana.
“James is an inside-outside forward who has the ability to rebound and stretch defenses with his face-up ability,” said Xavier coach Chris Mack in a press release. “James is a left-handed forward with a nice touch and IQ for the game.”
Farr is looking forward to joining a Xavier program currently ranked 14th in the country and coming off a sixth straight NCAA tournament appearance and fifth consecutive Atlantic 10 Conference regular-season title.
“To get to go to Xavier is an honor with how well they’ve done in the (NCAA) tournament,” said Farr, “and it’s amazing that they think I can help that institution and have an impact on their program.”
Brandon, who averaged 18 points per game last winter as a senior at Canyon Springs High School in Las Vegas, chose Cal State-Fullerton over interest from Cal, Illinois, New Mexico State and Pepperdine.
“Cal-State Fullerton is a great fit for me,” said Brandon. “When I took my visit, I loved watching their style of play, and I had a great relationship with the coaches and the players when I took my visit.”
Okafor will play at Loyola Marymount for fiery coach Max Good, a Maine native who guided the MCI postgraduate team to a 275-30 record — including a 79-game winning streak — and five NEPSAC championships during his 10-year stay in Pittsfield from 1989 through 1999.
“He’s a bit like coach Campbell,” said Okafor of Good. “He’s calmed down a bit from his early days. He yells when he has to, but he’s good at instructing his players.”
Okafor, who played at Mt. Zion Academy in North Carolina last year after arriving in the United States from Nigeria, also had drawn interest from Seton Hall, DePaul, Towson and Hartford.
Other key players for MCI this winter, according to Campbell, will include Jean-Pierre Charles, a 6-8 forward from Ottawa, Ontario, and 6-3 guard Tristan Thomas of Bangor, a third-team Bangor Daily News All-Maine choice last winter after helping Bangor High School win the Class A state title.
Thomas and Farr are the team’s co-captains.
“These guys should be able to make some headway come March,” said Campbell of his team. “We’ve got guys who can shoot the ball, we’ve got good size and at the point guard position we’ve got some guys who can get some things done.”