Jaywalking: Hastings enjoys new assignment

  • The Keene State University men’s basketball team hams it up with assistant coach Dave Hastings (shaved head, center) in the back. contributed photo

Monday, March 13, 2017

While many folks will spend the next few days pouring over NCAA Division I brackets, trying to pick the winner of whatever office pool or friends’ pool you take part in, Dave Hastings has already been feeling March Madness for more than a week now.

You might recall that Hastings is the former Pioneer Valley Regional School boys’ hoops coach. This past fall, Hastings was hired as an assistant coach at Keene State University, a Division III men’s basketball program. So he was with the team over the past 10 days as it earned an at-large bid into the 64-team NCAA Division III men’s baskeball field and then made a run all the way to the Elite 8 before bowing out this past weekend with a 102-79 loss to Babson College, the third-ranked team in the country, according to D3hoops.com.

That capped off quite a year for the coach, who has adapted to his new role as an assistant just fine, thank you. Hastings was hired by head coach Ryan Cain, who was in his second full year with the program after being hired as an interim head coach last winter. Cain, who was named the Division III Player of the Year in 2007 during his senior season at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, led the Owls to the Division III Sweet 16 last winter. Not a bad thing to add to your resume in order to land a full-time head coaching gig, and in May Keene officially hired him in that capacity.

The 31-year-old brought on Hastings this past fall as one of three assistants. Hastings said he spent some time acclimating himself with the new role. No longer was he in control of the team. He said that he quickly realized that Cain was a more vocal coach than even he was, so he assumed the role of a more calming presence during games and practice.

“I’ve been known to be pretty excitable and loud on the sideline, but with this group, I found myself to be more of the calming personality of the staff,” he said. “Maybe it’s my age or wisdom, but that’s my role within the team now. I try to keep things even-keel. I’m really relishing that role now.”

Hastings said he has helped work with the team’s press defense, something he tried to use during his high school career in order to keep games up-tempo, which he felt played into his team’s strength. He said he helped with practice preparation, and went out and did some advance scouting for the team.

His role with the team became more defined by the end of the regular season. The Owls went 17-8 during the regular season and finished second to Eastern Connecticut State University in the Little East Conference.

They then won a pair of conference-tournament games to reach the finals, where they took on the top-seeded Warriors. A last-second shot by the Warriors lifted them to a 72-70 win over the Owls, and gave the Warriors the automatic berth into the Division III Tournament. The Owls’ staff still felt like the team had done enough to get an at-large tourney bid, and that was affirmed when the Owls were named to the field.

By the time the Owls played in the conference tourney, Hastings had assumed a more defined role. He began making the in-game substitutions and became more of a vocal leader at practice when he got comfortable with the terminology the team used. What was the hardest thing about being an assistant after having served as a head coach for all these years?

“Sitting on the bench during games,” Hastings said. “I’ve never been one to sit down during games, but assistant coaches aren’t supposed to stand up.”

Keene State faced a daunting road ahead in the NCAAs, starting with Amherst College, the Owls’ first-round opponent. Amherst had just recently fallen out of the D-III Top 25, but had been ranked inside the top five earlier this season. Despite being separated by less than 50 miles, the two schools had not met in 18 years, and the game went right down to the wire, as Ty Nichols hit a 3-pointer with 2.5 seconds to play to break a 66-66 tie and send Keene State to a 69-66 win.

That sent the Owls on to face Ramapo College, the fifth-ranked team in the nation, and the school that was hosting the first two rounds on its campus in Mahwah, N.J. So the nation’s fifth-best team was playing a home game. That’s no easy task, but Nichols scored a career-high 32 points and Jake Collagan hit a go-ahead 3-pointer with 45 seconds to play to lift Keene State to a 92-91 win and send the Owls to the Sweet 16.

That sent the Owls to Wellesley, where Babson College, the third-ranked team in the nation, was serving as host. Keene State took on second-ranked Christopher Newport out of Newport News, Va. The Owls continued their impressive run with a 68-64 victory to move to the Elite 8.

“Exciting is an understatement for what it felt like,” Hastings said of the team’s run.

The Owls then had to take on Babson with a berth in the Final Four — and a trip to Salem, Va. — on the line. The third-ranked Beavers proved too much, shooting over 60 percent from the field and hitting 13 3-pointers en route to a 102-79 win.

Although, Keene State will lose four starters to graduation, the coaching staff was already discussing next season the ride home from the loss to Babson. That staff will likely include Hastings, who said he plans to remain with the program.

“It’s a different experience,” Hastings said of coaching a college team. “We meet with players pretty much every other week to discuss grades and help them set up work studies and summer jobs. There is more of a position of a parental figure at college. So that is different. But at the end of the day, basketball is still basketball.”

Anyone interested in heading out to the DCU Center in Worcester for Hopkins Academy’s state semifinal game against Maynard will have to wait a day.

Today’s blizzard necessitated MIAA postponement of the West-Central basketball games for a day. All games will be played Wednesday at their originally scheduled times.

Enjoy the snow.

Jason Butynski is a Greenfield native and Recorder sportswriter. His email address is jbutynski@recorder.com. Like him on Facebook and leave your feedback at www.facebook.com/jaybutynski.