Foundation of Amherst boys basketball’s success laid on AAU circuit

  • Amherst Regional’s Isa Mahal Castro McCauley puts in a breakaway layup against Pittsfield in the second quarter Thursday in Amherst. PHOTO BY DAN LITTLE

  • Amherst Regional’s Evan Stewart (21), left, drives the ball defended by Pittsfield’s Carter Mungin (23) in the third quarter Thursday in Amherst. PHOTO BY DAN LITTLE

  • Many on Amherst Regional’s current boys varsity basketball roster played together on the Mass Hoops Jaguars AAU team. In the top row, from left to right: Top row (left to right): Jaxson Smith, Nolan Klaes, Tafari Proctor, Matt Slate (West Springfield), Jack Letendre (Palmer), Kyle Harris (South Hadley), Nate Sadjak (Belchertown), Calvin Yorn, Isa Castro McCauley. Bottom row: Brandon Stewart, Evan Stewart, Victoria Stewart. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO / VICTORIA STEWART

Staff Writer
Published: 1/21/2022 7:37:41 PM

AMHERST — Technically, Amherst Regional athletic director Victoria Stewart only has two brothers that play for the Hurricanes basketball team: senior Evan Stewart and sophomore Brandon Stewart.

But she considers nearly all of them family because of the bonds they formed when she coached many of the varsity players on Mass Hoops Jaguars AAU teams.

“I think of them all as they’re my brothers, so it really is special to see them all playing still and doing well,” Victoria Stewart said.

Amherst’s entire starting lineup played for the Jaguars and so did most of the team’s nine seniors. It started when Evan Stewart and Isa Castro-McCauley were in third grade.

Victoria’s father Basil Stewart is the director of the Jaguars, a nonprofit, and wanted to start teams for his younger sons’ age groups. Brandon Stewart and Castro-McCauley played against teams two years older than they were because there weren’t competitions for players that young yet.

Victoria Stewart was an easy choice to coach the team since she had experience playing at UMass and coaching as an assistant at Amherst College.

“You teach the kids more than just basketball,” she said.

Others joined a year or two later like Nolan Klaes, Ryder Rietkerk and Calvin Yorn. Those five were on the team the entire time, while others like Zayd Sadiq, Jaxson Smith and Keidy Cardoso filtered in for a year or few at a time.

“It’s rare to see AAU teams stay together for so long, especially with the boys,” Victoria Stewart said. “They tend to separate when they get older.”

It wasn’t just kids from Amherst, either. Belchertown seniors Nate Sajdak, Carson Boscher and Kiernan Cornish also played with the Jaguars, as did Palmer’s Jack Letendre and Springfield International’s Sidney Borges.

“It’s funny when you see them playing against each other,” Victoria Stewart said. 

The team traveled around the country playing tournaments together as close as Springfield and Albany and as far as national events in Virginia and Florida. Their families got to know each other, and they became one themselves.

“It’s really just the trips, spending time in the hotel. You’re just talking and playing video games, running around the hotel with each other,” Castro-McCauley said. “That carries over to on the court.”

The Jaguars learned how to play with and for each other. They prided themselves on defense. Causing a shot-clock violation or a key defensive stop fired the team up as much as a slam dunk would have.

“The defense was always the biggest thing,” Victoria Stewart said. “They feed off of it. It will get them hyped and they’re going to be on a roll.”

They only lost one game their final AAU season and have continued that roll for the Hurricanes. Amherst is 7-2 and riding a seven-game winning streak after taking down Sci-Tech on Wednesday. The Hurricanes were ranked N0. 10 in Division 2 in the MIAA’s initial statewide power rankings. They host East Longmeadow at 1 p.m. Saturday.

“We carried that chemistry from AAU. It helps us a lot and we can lean on it in the game,” Evan Stewart said. “We know each other’s play styles. we know exactly where to find each other. So it’s gonna be great going forward.”

The connection, particularly with Victoria Stewart, persists off the court as well. They know they can come into her office and know it’s a good place to be on a bad day. She wants that to be that case with all of Amherst’s athletes, not just the basketball players or her AAU players, but they, especially, know their big sister is there for them.

“It makes my job a lot easier,” Victoria Stewart said. “I do my job for the kids.”

They’re also there for each other. If someone is getting pressured or hits the floor, they don’t let him face it on his own.

“They always have each other’s backs,” Victoria Stewart said. “They won’t give up.”

Kyle Grabowski can be reached at kgrabowski@gazettenet.com. Follow him on Twitter @kylegrbwsk.

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