NORTH ANDOVER — Joe Gallo took over as Merrimack’s head basketball coach this past May and one of his first recruiting calls was Juvaris Hayes, a New Jersey guard who committed about one month after Gallo accepted the job.
Admittedly, it was a last-minute decision for Hayes, who was finishing his senior season at St. Anthony’s High School.
“It all happened quickly,” he said. “Believe it or not, it was a last-minute decision. I thought that Coach and I had a good bond and I decided to come here. I love it now. It was a great decision.”
Merrimack feels the same way about Hayes.
(Ed. Note – a version of this story also appears in The Eagle Tribune)
Through seven games, the freshman has been a nightly starter. He’s second on the team with 15 points per game, leads the team with seven rebounds per game and also leads the Warriors with 55 assists.
This week, he was named the Northeast-10 Conference Player of the Week and Rookie of the Week, the first time since 2011 the league has given a dual honor. On Sunday against Concordia, Hayes had Merrimack’s first triple-double in at least 16 years (that’s as far back as the Warriors’ records go) and then on Wednesday night against Saint Michael’s, Hayes finished just one rebound short of a second-straight triple-double, scoring 20 points and dishing out 12 assists while pulling down nine boards in a lopsided Merrimack win.
Most importantly though, the Warriors have been winning. Despite a young roster and picked to finish near the bottom in the NE-10 Coaches Poll, the Warriors are undefeated in NE-10 play (3-0) and have a 6-1 overall record.
“We have a good group,” said Hayes. “We all push each other and everyone is capable of carrying us on any given night. Troy (McLaughlin) has had big games, (Ryan) Boulter is a lights-out shooter, Anthony (Barry) grabs a lot of boards, we have a lot of players who can contribute in a lot of ways.”
Boulter scored 30 points against Saint Michael’s on Wednesday and leads the team with 16.9 points per game.
Merrimack’s scoring has been really spread out, with four players averaging in double figures and Lord not far behind and neither is Kyle Howes (8.1 points).
“Our scoring needs to be spread out on this team,” Gallo said. “We don’t have one guy who is our go-to offensive player. I think it needs to be by committee and right now we have four guys in double figures and another two guys who are capable. We talk about that. We play nine guys double-digit minutes and we would like five guys to have double-digit points. That’s how it has to be.
“If you asked me in September, I would have thought that we might struggle to score a little bit. We spend a lot of times shooting the ball. We trying to spend at least 15 minutes getting balls up in practice. I think that really good offensive teams continue to work on individual improvement and making shots.”
St. Anthony’s is a prolific high school program in New Jersey, winning the state title last season and being ranked No. 1 in the state for most of the year. St. Anthony’s has a history of sending players to Division I schools and Hayes came to Merrimack this season along with another St. Anthony’s alum, Jaleel Lord.
Lord has started six of seven games for the Warriors, averaging nine points.
“He’s like my brother,” Hayes said of Lord. “We have had a long relationship and we’re always connected on the court. If one of us is going bad, the other guy picks it up. We’ve been playing for five years now, and we’ve always fed off of each other.”
St. Anthony’s alumni include current San Antonio Spur Kyle Anderson. Overall, the program has produced 150 Division I players under head coach Bob Hurley and has won 28 state championships and four national championships in his 39 years. Hurley has also produced five first-round NBA draft picks.
“Coach (Gallo) knows the high school I came from, and he knows the work we had to go through just to get here,” Hayes said. “Knowing that program, he pushes us even more. That’s making us better. He pushes everyone and he makes sure we’re being consistent.
“It was a big-time decision just for me to go to a high school like (St. Anthony’s). Coach Hurley was on me all the time. I came in there with a big head but I was more of a role player there, and Coach Hurley turned me into a team player. I’m proud of that. I want to do whatever it takes for us to win.”
Hayes is shooting 66.0 percent from the floor this season and is shooting 54.5 percent from three-point range.
As a team, the Warriors are shooting 38.4 percent from beyond the arc, attempting 41 more three-pointers than their opponents.
“Coach is big on shooting,” Hayes said. “We do a lot of shooting in practice to keep our touch. We pride ourselves on being good shooters and that’s a focus in practice. We run a lot of drills to focus on shooting and we’re always keeping our minds on the bigger picture.”
That bigger picture includes hanging some banners in gym at Hammel Court.
“We hate to lose,” Hayes said. “I think that plays into us having success. We play as hard as we can and we go really hard in practice. Our practices are really physical. I think that is why we’re clicking so much. We hate losing.”
The Warriors get back to work this Saturday on the road at Saint Anselm. Merrimack returns home on Tuesday against Franklin Pierce.