Toomey finds home at Amherst
Initially, basketball coach David Hixon wasn’t going to offer Bishop McGuinness product Aaron Toomey a chance to play for him at Amherst College.
Unfamiliar with Amherst? Founded in 1821, it is a school of about 1,800 students located in the western Massachusetts town of Amherst, is regarded as one of the top liberal arts schools in the country, counts Calvin Coolidge among its alumni and was involved in the first intercollegiate baseball game in 1859.
It doesn’t play basketball in the NCAA’s top division. It is an NCAA Division III school and has became a power at that level under Hixon, who had 663 wins going into this season, his 36th. The Lord Jeffs won the national championship in 2007 and have regularly made the playoffs in recent years.
Division III is not the level at which Toomey wanted to his extend his career when his playing days at Bishop were over. He wanted a crack at the Division I.
That didn’t work out.
Putting a priority on academics, playing at Amherst became the alternative for Toomey. He wouldn’t have been given that option if Hixon had judged Toomey on reports that came out of a showcase camp.
“Aaron had broken a bone in his hand,” Hixon said. “He came up to a showcase up here. I checked with my friends who go to all the showcases and they had the same notes on him – adequate point guard, good defense, good passer. Not enough to make anyone recruit him.”
Hixon was contacted by Toomey’s high school coach, Josh Thompson.
“I got an email from his coach with a YouTube-type thing in it and he wrote, ‘Coach, if you are looking for a point guard, you should take a look at Aaron,’” Hixon said. “I watched it and called him 30 seconds after I started watching and said we’re interested. We hadn’t seen that in the tryout camp up here. After that, we recruited him pretty hard.”
Toomey said yes and it’s worked out well. The junior earned All-America honors from the National Basketball Coaches Association as the leading scorer and point guard on a team that is 29-2 and riding a 23-game winning streak. It hasn’t lost since Dec. 8 and will play Mary Hardin-Baylor for the Division III national championship April 7 in Atlanta after reaching the round of eight two years ago and was upset in the round of 16 last year.
“He has real natural instincts,” Hixon said. “Without a doubt, he is a student of the game. He figures things out. He can score. He’s tough-minded and a great competitor, all the things that made him great in high school.
“When I watched him in high school, he averaged 42 points per game in the playoffs, and you could tell he was a pretty good player. We’ve put some good players around him. He came in with some good players. ... He’s a great end-of-game guy. He’s a big-shot taker and big-shot maker. You put those things together and you’ve got a special kid.”
Toomey is averaging 17.4 points per game this season. He has dished 153 assists (an average of five per game) and 4.7 rebounds. He is hitting 42 percent of his 3-point shots and hitting 89 percent of his free throws (which is just shy of his school-record 91 percent set last year). He also wants to be the guy with the ball.
“I want to take that last shot,” he said.
Hixon also wants it in Toomey’s hands.
“He’s a good point guard,” Hixon said. “He sees things. The ball starts in his hands and I can pretty much guarantee the ball is going to wind up in the right place and that is in the basket one way or the other.
“Here’s an example. Last year in back-to-back games in our gym, he hit a 10-foot fallaway to win and the next day in the same situation, we ran the same set. Everyone including me thought Aaron was going to take the shot, but he kicked off to a shooter on the wing who hit a 3.”
Playing behind upperclassmen, Toomey first had to deal with coming off the bench his freshman year.
“I had to work to get back to the level where I was playing in high school,” he said.
He was uncertain that he could make a significant contribution until putting up 23 points and dishing six assists in his first game against Amherst’s big rival Williams, which Toomey likens to Duke-Carolina on a smaller scale but big enough that it drew coverage from legendary writer Bob Ryan of the Boston Globe.
“I had no idea it was so intense,” Toomey said. “The first couple of minutes, I struggled with the pace and physicality, but I made a couple of shots. That got me refocused. I had a great game and the coach had more confidence in me. That was the turning point in my career. My game has really developed.”
He continues to see the floor better and is better at creating a shot on his own. He’s been able to score well enough over the three seasons that he is ninth on the school’s all-time scoring list with 1,401 points and will need just 308 next season to climb to No. 1.
“There’s people around campus on the team and in my family that make sure I keep my eye on it,” Toomey said. “I’m aware of it. If I get it, great. But I’m going to go out there and do what my team needs me to do to win.”
That’s in the future. Right now, the focus is beating Mary Hardin-Baylor.
Coming into the season, Hixon didn’t know how far they would go after losing five seniors off a team that he thought would get to the national championship game but fell three rounds short.
“We have three seniors in addition to Aaron and when we started out 5-0 this year, I thought we may have something,” Hixon said. “Then we lost two of three and I didn’t know. The three senior captains called a meeting and we haven’t lost since.”
Toomey said there had been too much individual play and not enough thought about playing for the good of everyone.
“We knew that we had to go in a different direction,” Toomey recalled. “The captains said they didn’t want their careers to end the way we were going.”
They will head south on Thursday on the title-game trip. Toomey said he had been getting extra attention from defenses and won’t be surprised if he gets more of the same. Hixon said Mary Hardin-Baylor is very athletic and doesn’t have as much structured play as teams in the Northeast.
“We’ve won 23 in a row, but 24 would be special,” said Toomey, who won a high school title in 2009 at Bishop. “The seniors have stepped up and have been great. We come close to winning the championship my first two years. But if we don’t win that final game, the season is a failure given what they’ve accomplished here at Amherst.”