Ed. Note — This story appeared in Monday’s edition of The Eagle Tribune
NORTH ANDOVER — Alyssa Casey was a dominant high school basketball player. Anyone who follows the local hoops scene in the Merrimack Valley knows that. Casey was a unstoppable force at Andover High School as a senior, returning from a foot injury that cost her almost her entire junior season, Casey led Andover to a D1 North Championship while also being named Boston Globe All-Scholastic. She was a two-time MVP of the MVC.
Casey committed to Merrimack last year and rumblings around the athletic department was that she could be a game-changer for the women’s basketball program. Fast forward a little more than one year, and Casey has won the NE10 Rookie of the Week award six times, which is tied for the most in the last seven years within the league. Only a freshman, Casey is second on the team (and seventh in the league) averaging 14.9 points per game, scoring in double-digits in 14 out of her 18 games this season. Meanwhile, she leads Merrimack with 113 rebounds and is second on the team in steals.
In a 2016 Eagle Tribune story, Casey said she had scholarship offers from NJIT in Division I, as well as Assumption and Southern New Hampshire. A National Honor Society student, Harvard, Brown and Columbia were also recruiting her. Ivy League schools can’t give athletic scholarships.
So what made her choose Merrimack? The school just a few miles from where she grew up.
“The team made me want to come here,” Casey said. “I felt like everyone was a family and there was a ton of support. The coaches were amazing but mainly, when I was here on my visit, the friendship that everyone had on the team on and off the court, that made me want to come here and be a part of it. It’s the best decision I’ve ever made. I can’t picture myself anywhere else but here.”
Despite the immediate impact she’s had on the team, Casey admits there have been some speed bumps. The speed of the game is faster than even she anticipated, and as a post player, she recognizes that she needs to get stronger as her career progresses.
“The biggest adjustment for me was the speed of the game. In high school our coach had us play fast when we ran the ball, but the speed here is 10 times faster than what I was expecting. But you adjust to it pretty quickly.
“I lifted and I worked out in high school, but I’ve never had a strength coach,” she said. “He’s there whenever I need him and he’s helped me a lot to get me ready to compete with older girls who are just bigger and stronger. My teammates helped a lot with that, too, telling me that we needed to take the weight room seriously because strength was going to be so much different at this level. I know I can text anyone on my team, right now, if I wanted to shoot around or go lift. In high school I always had a size advantage. Now, I’m nowhere near the biggest player on the court, so I need to continue to get stronger.”
The work ethic is what often separates college athletes from the rest of the back. Balancing life as a business student and basketball player can be tough, but Casey said that everyone on the team holds each other accountable.
“In college, everyone is putting the effort in like this is your job,” she said. “In high school there are some girls who are just doing it for fun, and that’s awesome, I loved my high school team, but this is another level. You really need to budget your time with school because you’re putting a lot of hours and hard work into basketball, and I love it.”
“The school is a perfect fit for me academically. I love all my classes and then I get to do what I love, play basketball, with my best friends. It’s honestly amazing.”
Merrimack is 11-8 (7-7 NE10), surprising many in the league after being picked to finish sixth in their division by the league’s coaches in the preseason. Merrimack is currently one game out of fourth and just two games out of third place.
The Warriors host Assumption on Wednesday night and then play a big game with Saint Anselm on Saturday afternoon; the Hawks are currently one game ahead of the Warriors in the NE10 standings. After hosting Franklin Pierce on Feb. 7, the Warriors will then host Southern New Hampshire — a team two games ahead of them — on Feb. 10.
Merrimack’s next four games are against two games underneath them in the standings and two games against the two teams just ahead of them.
It’s going to be a big two weeks …