FORTVILLE — The least recruited player among four senior starters, Jake Stafford wasn’t sure what his basketball future held in the late winter of 2010 — if it included basketball, at all.
Part of the Mt. Vernon sectional-winning team, Stafford averaged 10.3 points and 4.2 rebounds that season, but he watched talented teammates Daniel Turner, PJ Hubert and DeArmond Davis get looks from NCAA Division I schools, while Stafford received interest from NAIA Marian, Goshen and the like.
“It was tough, because they’re all really good players and I was kind of the fourth man,” Stafford said. “I was considered good ... but I think I was underrated, and I didn’t get the looks that they got. I wasn’t even 100 percent sure I was going to play in college.
“But, that put me in a position where I had to prove myself even more, and I think it’s helped me a lot over the years. And look where I’m at now in my career.”
Where Stafford is now is starting at forward for the Marian basketball team. The six-foot-4 junior is averaging 11.4 points and a team-high 7 rebounds for a 9-4 Knights team that figures to only improve under first-year coach Todd Lickliter, the former Butler and Iowa chief.
Stafford was also a starting double-digit scorer as a sophomore.
“I’ve got a chance to have a 1,000-point career at Marian, which is something that I never did at Mt. Vernon because I really didn’t need to,” he said. “I didn’t play that role. Now, I’m one of the top kids on this team, and they count on me to score.”
Stafford’s former Marauders teammates, who guided the club to a 39-7 record over their final two seasons capped by a regional championship loss to Danville, are also on the college hardcourt. Turner made an immediate impact as a freshman at DI Wisconsin-Green Bay, but the forward and former Indiana All-Star is currently on the mend from his second major knee injury. Hubert, a shooting guard, is battling for minutes at DI IUPUI. And Davis, after receiving a varying amount of interest from Kent State, Western Michigan and IUPUI, landed at NAIA Davenport (Mich.), where the forward/center is playing a major role on a No. 6-ranked team.
Mt. Vernon coach Steve Lynch, like many high school coaches, bends over backwards to get his players seen by his colleagues at the next level. A former college coach himself, Lynch has myriad university contacts. But, he recalls that Stafford was overlooked by some of his coaching brethren.
“I thought Jake coming out of high school ... it’s tough when you have three teammates being recruited at the level Daniel, PJ and DeArmond were being recruited at,” Lynch said. “And I couldn’t always convince people of Jake’s talent. And with three guys like that around him, his stats weren’t always going to jump out at you.
“But, Marian has been a great level for him to go and really excel, and with his size and strength advantage that he has, he really performed well.”
The key for any prospective college player, Stafford and Lynch agreed, is finding that perfect fit. Keeping the bench warm on a major college program might not be as rewarding as being heavily involved on a smaller school team.
“Just finding the right level, the level that fits you, the campus,” Lynch explained. “And the team that you can excel on, all of that probably makes that experience just as enjoyable as playing any other level.”
Stafford, a Business Management major, is witness to the rewards that a successful lower-level sports program can bring. Marian’s football team won the NAIA championship earlier this month.
“It’s small, but it’s a good atmosphere,” Stafford said of the Marian campus. “It’s almost like an upgraded high school. We don’t have a lot of kids, but at the same time, the teams have a lot of success. The football team just won a national title ... and we just got a new coach with Lickliter, so things are definitely changing. And I think for years to come, Marian will be a really good school and to be apart of.
“I’ve told many people to look into Marian and take that route, because even though it’s small, it’s a lot of fun and you can have a good basketball team. There’s a lot of good competition that we play.”
Lynch is proud of Stafford for sticking with it. By the time Stafford’s senior season in Fortville was coming to a close, Turner and Hubert had long since committed to their college teams, and Davis wasn’t far behind.
Stafford could have easily given up on the recruiting process, and on basketball.
“I’m stealing this quote, but kids that love it, find a way. And kids that don’t, find an excuse,” Lynch said. “And I think what you’re seeing with Jake or any of the guys, they love the game enough that they found a way to be successful, and that’s what made that group in 2010 so special. They really truly loved the game and loved playing on the same team with each other.”
CATHING UP WITH MV'S 'BIG 4'
Over the final two seasons of their high school careers, DeArmond Davis, PJ Hubert, Jake Stafford and Daniel Turner led the Mt. Vernon boys basketball team to a 39-7 record, two Hancock County Tournament championships and a pair of Hoosier Heritage Conference titles. In their senior year of 2009-10, the quartet guided the Marauders to their first sectional title since 1999. All four players went on to play collegiately. Here’s how the college juniors are doing:
Davis, Davenport University (NAIA), Michigan — A full-time starter for the No. 6-ranked Panthers (11-2), the 6-7 forward is averaging 7.1 points and 5.1 rebounds.
Hubert, IUPUI (DI), Indianapolis — The 6-5 shooting guard is averaging a college career best 5.4 points and has seen action in 13 of 15 games, with three starts, for the Jaguars (5-10).
Stafford, Marian (NAIA), Indianapolis — A starter in all 13 games for the Knights (9-4), the 6-4 forward is registering 11.4 points and a team-best 7.0 rebounds per game. Stafford has led Marian in scoring or rebounding (or both) in eight of the team’s contests. Stafford leads the Knights in blocks and is second in steals.
Turner, Wisconsin-Green Bay (DI) — Sidelined most of this season recovering from his second knee injury in a year. The 6-6 forward figured heavily in the Phoenix rotation as a freshman, then suffered a season-ending knee injury Dec. 31, 2011. He went down again five games into this, his junior season, Nov. 20, and underwent ACL surgery. He is expected to return to the court in January for Wisconsin-Green Bay (5-7).