Amherst boys basketball building toward future in pandemic season

  • Amherst Regional boys basketball coach Basil Stewart is in his first year leading the program. He’s focused on crafting a defensive identity and fostering a competitive spirit. STAFF PHOTO/KYLE GRABOWSKI

  • Junior guard Zayde Sadiq is one of four Amherst Regional boys basketball captains leading the program this season. STAFF PHOTO/KYLE GRABOWSKI

  • Amherst Reginal junior Evan Stewart sometimes has to remind himself that Basil Stewart is his coach, not just his brother.  “Sometimes I have to check myself and be like, ‘I have to respect him, he’s my coach,’ and try to agree with him,” Evan Stewart said. STAFF PHOTO/KYLE GRABOWSKI

  • Amherst Regional junior Isa Castro-McCauley is one of the Hurricanes’ four captains this season. Amherst has alreadh matched last year’s win total. STAFF PHOTO/KYLE GRABOWSKI

Staff Writer
Published: 2/18/2021 5:34:23 PM

Amherst Regional’s road back to the Western Massachusetts boys basketball championship began this season, even though there are no tournaments this winter.

The Hurricanes missed the postseason the past two years with an inexperienced roster, a rarity this century. The last time Amherst sat out consecutive postseasons came between 2006 and 2009, spanning four straight sectional tournaments. Amherst played in the Western Mass. final in three consecutive seasons from 2015-2017.

Junior captain Isa Castro-McCauley has been a varsity player since he was a freshman and experienced those low points.

“It was a rough few years just trying to keep a positive attitude and continue the dynasty that’s been here for so long,” he said.

Playing the 2021 season amidst a pandemic provides, in its own way, a fresh start. The Hurricanes and first-year coach Basil Stewart, a 2011 Amherst graduate that played for Jim Matuszko, didn’t cut anyone who wanted to play, putting 14 players on both the varsity and junior varsity squads.

“This year is a lot more about just having fun, a more light-hearted year trying to keep people in good spirits,” Castro-McCauley said.

The Amherst-Pelham Regional School District is still in a fully-remote learning mode, so basketball practices and games offer the Hurricanes some of the few chances to see their friends in person. Following COVID-19 protocols like wearing masks, spacing out the benches and sanitizing regularly has been a small price to keep playing. Senior Michael Camara said the energy hasn’t been the same without fans in the gym, but the players have created their own energy.

“It’s very little motivating I need to do, so it’s kind of nice,” Stewart said. “They’re very diligent with the COVID rules so they can keep this thing going. They make it easy for me.”

He doesn’t always make playing easy for them, though. Stewart wanted to establish a defensive identity early, relying on the team’s athleticism to make opponent’s lives difficult while kickstarting a fast-break offense.

“Defense isn’t an option. It needs to be played with intensity and seriousness no matter who you’re playing against,” Stewart said. “No matter what the score is. I hope that’s something they carry from this season and into the next.”

Stewart isn’t sure he’ll be there next season. Several factors aligned to allow him to coach this winter. Amherst needed a coach a week before tryouts were set to begin after last year’s coach Jamahl Jackson decided not to return, so athletic director Victoria Stewart asked Basil Stewart, her brother, if he would help their alma mater out. Basil Stewart works in commercial real estate in Boston but can work remotely, so he took an hour to mull the decision over before deciding to do it. He coached youth basketball previously and is familiar with this group since they’re in the same age range as his younger brothers Evan Stewart (junior) and Brandon Stewart (freshman).

“It’s something to do, too, and make sure it’s done right so the kids can continue to play,” he said.

Both Evan and Brandon Stewart were planning on trying out for the team, so Basil Stewart checked with them before fully committing.

“We appreciated that. It’s sometimes odd, but I definitely like it,” Evan Stewart said. “Sometimes I have to check myself and be like, ‘I have to respect him, he’s my coach,’ and try to agree with him.”

Basil Stewart’s methods have worked so far. Amherst is 9-3, already surpassing last season’s win total in just 11 games. Some of the wins have been comfortable against smaller schools, but the Hurricanes have recently added games against Division 1 opponents they play in a normal season, too, like Pope Francis and Chicopee.

“We’re trying to get as many games against Division 1 teams as we possibly can so there isn’t that shock next year,” Basil Stewart said.

Hurricanes players said they appreciate the opportunity to test themselves against teams in the region’s upper echelon, using them as a measuring stick to see how they match up.

“We’re getting to the point where we can compete with the best teams in Western Mass.,” Camara said. “If we had playoffs this year, I think we definitely would have made playoffs and we would have been able to compete. Knowing that we can compete with these top teams is really good. I think we take pride in that.” 

Kyle Grabowski can be reached at Follow him on Twitter

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