After a solid basketball career at Old Town High School, Adam Richardson was almost prepared to move on from organized athletics as he pursued his academic future at Maine Maritime Academy.
“It was totally academic-based,” said Richardson of his decision to attend college in coastal Castine, where he is a power engineering technology major. “I didn’t even get recruited for basketball. I emailed the old coach and said I’d like to get a shot at playing, I was coming down there anyway.”
Four years later, Richardson is at the forefront of what may be a modest renaissance of the MMA men’s basketball program.
The 6-foot-4 center from Bradley already has been named North Atlantic Conference player of the week twice this season and leads the league in points per game (17.8) and field-goal percentage (.640).
Richardson’s leadership has helped the Mariners enter Saturday’s home game against the University of Maine at Presque Isle with a 6-7 record.
That already represents the most victories in a season for the program since MMA’s 10-14 finish in 2011.
The Mariners also are 3-2 in conference play, not bad for a team whose best record since 2011 for a full 18-game NAC schedule is 4-14.
“I think we’re more confident now,” said Richardson, the lone senior on the roster. “We’ve played a lot of close games and pulled some out finally, so I think no one’s afraid coming into these games now.”
Recruiting for basketball is different at Maine Maritime Academy than for most other NCAA Division III programs because the school’s academic offerings are concentrated on engineering, management, science and transportation, often with a nautical focus.
“We’re a unique school, but what we do get is guys who fit what we do,” second-year MMA head coach Dan McNeely said. “We’re different academically, we’re different culture-wise, but to be honest that’s why I took the job, because I like the uniqueness.”
The 32-year-old McNeely, who played on the 2006 Division III national runner-up team at Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio, arrived at MMA after six years as an college assistant coach.
His approach includes elements of the Princeton offense, a strategy developed by legendary former Tigers basketball coach Pete Carril that features constant motion, picks, back-door cuts and disciplined teamwork.
That system has yielded an average of 17.5 assists on 27 field goals per game for MMA so far this season.
“We don’t do anything like where I’ve been in the past, but that’s OK,” McNeely said. “There are a lot of different ways to win and that makes every day exciting at Maine Maritime. I knew it would be tough but that’s what’s fun about it.”
Maine Maritime players see McNeely’s system as a complement to their disciplined academic regimens.
“The offense we’re running takes a little getting used to, but I feel like in order to be successful down here we have to play the way we play and that’s our motto: ‘We play our way,’” said Nicholas DePatsy, a junior forward from Waldoboro who earned Bangor Daily News All-Maine status while a senior at Medomak Valley High School.
“In order for us to win, I feel we all have to buy into that motto and if we don’t, it shows. But to me that’s basketball. If you’re not sharing the basketball, if it’s one pass and a jack, it’s not fun for the team.”
Maine Maritime went 5-20 overall, 4-14 in NAC play, during McNeely’s first year with the team.
“Last year was a feeling-out process on offense, and now we’re kind of getting it down,” said DePatsy, who averages 13.6 points and 4.2 rebounds per game while making nearly 40 percent of his 3-point attempts.
“Now with the guys who have returned and the new guys coach is bringing in, it just took a couple of games to blend together and then we started to click.”
The Mariners have lost their last three contests, all on the road, beginning with a weekend trip to New York and a split at new NAC member SUNY Canton, followed by defeats at Husson University of Bangor and Colby College of Waterville.
But MMA’s 79-69 loss at Husson on Jan. 11 was far different than a year earlier when the Eagles twice defeated the Mariners by an average of 35 points.
“If you look at what they’ve done over the last five years they’ve made some progress,” Husson head coach Warren Carusosaid. “They’re not deep but they work hard and play well together and certainly understand their system. To their credit, that keeps them in games and puts them in position to win and that’s something they’ve done pretty well this year.”
The more veteran players on of this year’s MMA team, including captains Richardson, DePatsy and junior center Riley MacLeod of Bucksport, hope this winter’s start will evolve into more long lasting success for a program that hasn’t experienced even a .500 campaign since 2007.
“That’s the goal, and it only takes one year, in my mind, for that to happen,” said DePatsy. “It’s about one group as a team buying in, and once that happens it sets up the rest of it for the guys who are here and the new kids coming in because at that point they expect to win.”