By BOB YORK
Last Wednesday, Kyle Kager, currently a junior at American University in Washington, DC, got a thumbs-up from the school to begin work on his master’s degree.
Last Thursday, Kager and his American teammates defeated Boston University, 55-36, to capture the Patriot League championship and earn the accompanying invite to the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament.
The turn of events means Deerfield Academy has yet again flexed both the brain and brawn that so many of its graduates exhibit in their college careers.
In Kager’s case, the 2011 Deerfield graduate’s tournament appearance might well be of historic proportion, as it could mark the first time that a Big Green basketball player has ever competed in the “Big Dance.”
“If there have been any other Deerfield players to have gone on to play in the NCAA tournament, I am not aware of them,” said Big Green basketball coach Conrad Pitcher. “That doesn’t mean it might not have happened before but if it has, it happened a long time ago.”
In fact, while staring into his rearview mirror, Pitcher could think of only one other former Deerfield player besides Kager who had gone on to play collegiate basketball on the Division I level. That player was Peter Rehnquist, who graduated from Deerfield in 2008 following a postgraduate year.
“Peter ended up making the team at Boston College as a walk-on,” said Pitcher of Rehnquist, who averaged 14 points and seven rebounds a game for the Big Green. “Kyle, on the other hand, was recruited by American.”
If Kager, a 6’8” forward, and his teammates got a kick out of last Thursday’s win, imagine how they will feel should they chalk up a victory this Thursday in the tournament’s West Region opener in Milwaukee, WI. For starters, it would be an upset of epic proportions … a clash of David vs. Goliath … a meeting of 15th seed American and the second seeded University of Wisconsin. The Eagles, who won the Patriot pennant, own a 13-5 league mark and a 20-12 overall showing. The Badgers, meanwhile, finished second in the Big 10 with a 12-6 league record and a 26-7 overall mark.
The game, which is scheduled for a 12:40 p.m. start on Thursday, will be televised on TruTV.
“Mostly everyone outside of our locker room probably won’t be giving us much of a chance,” said Kager, a former Deerfield standout who led the Big Green in scoring his senior season, averaging 17 points per game. “Before the season started, everyone had picked us to finish next to last in our league and we just won the Patriot League title. So, if nothing else, we’ve developed a great deal of confidence in our own game … and that’s a huge factor.
“Another key factor that helped us this season was winning our first 10 league games,” added Kager, whose club dropped a hard-fought 63-52 decision to Ohio State early in the season. “That gave us a bunch of confidence, especially when we had to play on BU’s home court for the league championship.”
Kager, who moved into the starting lineup this winter, took advantage of his increased playing time at forward by averaging six points and four rebounds a game. Plus, “I took more of a leadership role on the team this season and helped some of the younger players on the roster.”
One of the young players Kager has taken under his wing is his brother, Kade, who is a freshman guard on the team, “and it’s been a blast having him here,” Kager said of his younger brother, who played a postgraduate year at Taft before heading to American.
“I’m really happy for Kyle,” said Pitcher, who found a home for Kager in his backcourt and at 6’8”, the Deerfield mentor remembers fashioning a match-up nightmare for his opponents. “Kyle was always too big to cover for an opposing guard and he was too quick for a forward to cover him. Either way, they couldn’t stop him.
“Kyle was always a hard worker and it’s nice to see that all that hard work has paid off for him,” added Pitcher. “He’s really hung in there at American despite not playing an awful lot his freshman and sophomore years, plus they got a new coach this season and there’s never any guarantees when something like that takes place, either. Fortunately, though, he’s become a part of the equation and has become a key part of his team’s success.”
“I think I can speak for everyone on this team when I say this will be the biggest game of our lives,” said Kager. “I can also say that none of us will be surprised if we beat Wisconsin. We all have a great deal of confidence in ourselves and in each other, and if we go out there Thursday and leave everything we have on the court, we know good things can happen.”
All the success that American has met with has allowed Kager to do something on the basketball court this season that he has never experienced before.
“After beating BU for the league championship, we all got to cut down a piece of the net,” said Kager. “I was a little nervous, though. With all those people watching, I was afraid I might lose my balance and fall off the ladder.”
If Kager gets to cut down another net this season, one thing’s for sure—he won’t need a ladder.