It seems like last years high school boys basketball season is a distant memory. Although area high schools were fortunate enough to finish their regular season, the pandemic quickly and systematically shut everything down. The effects are painfully obvious and has impacted everything. Seniors with dreams of finding a school where they can continue their basketball careers were dashed.
One athlete that is trying to defy the odds is Our Lady of Lourdes High School senior point guard, Willy Hart. After a very successful junior year where Hart captained and guided his team to a 13-7 regular season, he was looking forward to spring AAU where he could continue to work on his skills. The spring is also the beginning of the post season college recruiting process. “I remember planning our Edge Athletics program knowing we had many athletes that had college level potential,” said Jim Santoro. Santoro is the Director of Edge Athletics and head coach at Our Lady of Lourdes High school where Hart has played for him since his freshmen year. “We had planned on bringing in college coaches to watch our practices as an enhancement to exposure tournaments,” he added. Well, due to Covid’s onslaught, the practices were shut down a week after they started and all of the tournaments were cancelled.
April, May, and June were completely eliminated for athletes looking to work on their skills in the off-season. But Hart was one of those athletes that turned an obstacle into an opportunity. “I was pretty upset and disappointed because I didn’t know what was going to be next for me because it seemed like there were so many uncertainties. I decided to take advantage of the time off and work out and run everyday. I thought I could improve myself with the resources I had that maybe other players didn’t,” Hart said.
It wasn’t until early July where restrictions for at least some level of basketball were relaxed, allowing Hart to get back on the court. And back he came. “When I saw Will for the first time in months, there was something very different about him,” Santoro said. “He was a little leaner, a bit taller, and after watching him workout…he was a lot more determined,” his coach added. During the shutdown, Willy spent his time in a makeshift weight room that he had in his house, something his coach had been pushing him to do for the last year. The pure strength he acquired enhanced his already advanced skill set…and is much needed if one wants to play at the college level.
It didn’t take long for Santoro to conclude that his point guard had become college level material, an uncertainty throughout the regular season. In fact, Santoro realized it after just three consecutive days of working Will out. “After that third day, I was convinced that Willy had a shot not only to play in college but to play at a higher level. He was shooting the ball incredibly well from behind the arc, he was much stronger to the basket and his athleticism seemed to come out of nowhere even throwing down a one handed dunk with ease,” Santoro said. Couple that with his already great court vision, high game IQ, the fact that he grew another inch or two (now standing at 6’3″), and you have a college ready player.
Santoro acted quickly, soliciting input from assistants Tom Jordan, Matt Petruzzelli, and Matt Covucci. All agreed that Willy had made significant and impressive strides. “I have to admit, I was a little skeptical when coach (Santoro) told me about Willy. I mean…it was only 3 months. How much could happen in 3 months?,” Petruzzelli wondered. “But I was somewhat in awe after I watched him play for the first time since the regular season ended,” Petruzzelli recalled. Coach Jordan’s reaction wasn’t too much different. “After Willy had been back in the gym for a week or two, I had a chance to work with him along with some current Division I players,” Jordan recalled. “Although coach Santoro had told me what to expect, I still was a little surprised at what I saw and how well he competed against them. He had the tools and it was just a matter of Willy wanting it and working at it,” Jordan said. And lastly, Covucci’s initial response after seeing Hart throw one down? “Wow, where did that come from,” Covucci joked.
Generally known for being fairly reserved about over promoting his athletes, Santoro felt he should tell Hart what he thought his level of potential was. “Willy needed to hear it from me because I knew how modest and critical he was of himself,” Santoro said. So after Santoro broke the news about how he felt about him, Hart’s reaction was predictable. “I was really surprised and didn’t really believe him at all. My whole life I’ve always been small and un-athletic and the only thing that kept me competitive was my IQ and skill. I know how hard it is to play at any level in college and I couldn’t imagine myself being there,” Hart said.
But after Hart digested his coaches comments, he became somewhat excited that same night sending his coach the following text, “I want it coach and I’m willing to work as hard as it takes. I understand that even D3 is no joke and D1 especially is another level. I understand the talent and time it takes to go D1 so I know if I’m not good enough I’m not good enough and I’m fine with that,” Hart explained. “With that being said I want to get everything out of this next year for our team and myself so I’m going to continue to do everything in my power to do so. I’m all in,” he added. For the rest of the summer, he would invest hours each day in the weight room and even more hours working on his game.
Those hours included being outdoors at the parks and indoors training with his Edge Athletics team. But without the benefit of exposure tournaments or camps, the opportunity for Will to get that much needed exposure was diminishing. To make matters worse, there was also talk of the high school sports season being delayed or even cancelled altogether.
That’s when his coach began to really lean on some of his college contacts. He started with coach Martin McCann, the head coach at Daytona State, a Division I Junior College in Florida. McCann is a former player of Santoro’s and is an up and coming coach that is quickly moving up the college ranks. Santoro called his former player after that third day he worked out Hart. “I remember the first call I got from coach Santoro and was intrigued how excited he was about Willy,” McCann said. “Coach doesn’t oversell his athletes so when I was listening to him describe Willy and how confident he was about Willy’s potential, I knew there was something definitely worth looking at,” McCann said.
Since then, McCann has tuned in to several of Hart’s workouts with his Edge team through Zoom. “Im not quite sure what level Willy can play at yet but we continue to evaluate him,” McaCann said. In fact, not only is McCann following Willy’s progress, but the Edge gym has become a regular stomping ground for college coaches at every level. And its not just watching through Zoom. Coaches are physically coming to the gym in hopes of getting a glimpse of not only Willy, but a chance to see and recruit some of the top players in the county. All of this was new to Hart. “There was a sense of surprise and a shock of reality that it was actually happening. Coach had talked about it but to actually see them there in person and be able to talk to them was great,” Hart said.
And its not just about college coaches watching the workouts. It’s been an opportunity for players to work with coach Jordan, Petruzzelli, and Covucci, most of Santoro’s assistants and all considered to be some of the top skills trainers in the area. “The workouts are incredibly important, not only because of the college coaches but because so many other schools and players do not have the resources that Edge provides. So many players are stuck at their home still with no way to stay in shape and continuing to play. The workouts are a way for all of us edge players to gain an advantage over other schools and programs,” Hart said.
The process has not only led to interest from college coaches, it has actually started the recruiting process for Will. He has already toured college campuses and plans on going on several other trips after the first of the year. He’s not exactly sure how this will all play out or where he will ultimately land but he feels good about where he is. “I feel a lot better and have a lot more confidence in my game and my ability to play at the next level. I am looking forward to hopefully finding a home in college to play and get a great education,” Hart said.
But one thing is for certain, Will’s not letting the pandemic inhibit his goal of playing basketball in college. The many coaches that are currently involved with recruiting him are also very happy to hear that.
Check out Willy’s highlights prior to his transformation!