Queens Div. I refugees find home in NYCAC

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Sherm Whittenburg’s crash course in Division I basketball came quickly three years ago.

As a highly touted point guard out of Hillcrest High School, the 6-foot scorer from Jamaica didn’t research Marist College. He knew it was a Division I offer and that was good enough.

Whittenberg showed flashes, but never escaped the shadow of Sean Kennedy, a two-time first-team All Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference player for the Red Foxes. It was time for a change and he found a new home at Division II Adelphi.

“Not to take anything away from that program, but I didn’t learn anything in two years at Marist,” said Whittenburg, now a senior at Adelphi. “I came here and basketball was more for the love of ball rather than the politics. Marist I saw a lot of the politics, it’s all about money, all about winning — not about actually building a team. It wasn’t the place for me.”

Like many highly regarded players out of New York City, Whittenburg originally scoffed at the idea of playing Division II.

Instead it was Division I or bust.

“I didn’t respect it. I came down here with the attitude that I’m going to kill here, average 30,” he said. “But when I came here I saw how hard the guys play. Our open gym is harder than I ever practiced at Marist.”

Whittenburg is one of five former Queens high school standouts who have made the switch to the New York Collegiate Athletic Conference from Division I schools.

Also making the move is Juma Allen, the former Christ the King star who went to Wagner and is now at Adelphi; Daryl Boykins out of McClancy High School, who went from St. Peter’s to St. Thomas Aquinas; former St. Mary’s star Joel Suarez, who left Hofstra to play at C.W. Post; and Jermaine Clark, a Jamaica native who played high school ball at St. Patrick’s (N.J.) and was a standout at Fairfield University before finishing his collegiate career at Bridgeport.

“Division II is great, I don’t have any regrets leaving Wagner at all,” Allen said. “Everyone gets caught up in D-I, D-II without having a D-II experience, without coming to a D-II game. D-II is just like D-I.”

Allen, a 6-foot-6 junior from South Ozone Park, left Wagner because he didn’t see eye to eye with its head coach, Dereck Whittenburg (no relation to Sherm Whittenburg), primarily over playing time.

“I thought I should have been playing a little more and I guess he expected more than I thought I was giving. It was nothing personal,” said Allen, who is sidelined with a torn medial anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee. “Now I realize I wasn’t working as hard as I could have. I’m in much better shape now and my game is up another level all from hard work. I don’t think I gave 100 percent at Wagner.”

Suarez also got caught in the hype of playing Division I basketball after a solid senior season at St. Mary’s in Manhasset. At the time the LeFrak City native was part of a spectacular senior point guard class, which included Omar Cook, Taliek Brown and Andre Barrett, who all went on to play in the Big East.

Suarez opted to also play locally, for Jay Wright at Hofstra. It appeared Suarez was being groomed to take the ball from graduated Speedy Claxton, the former Christ the King standout who was drafted by the Philadelphia 76’ers.

Although he showed flashes of brilliance as a freshman, Suarez was frustrated and finally left a year later, after Queens Village native Tom Pecora took over for Wright, who departed for the head coaching job at Villanova.

“It didn’t really work out. Let’s just say I’m at a better place here. I guess they didn’t know how to use me,” said Suarez, who will have two years of eligibility when he takes the court next year after sitting out this year after transferring. “I made a big mistake going to Hofstra out of high school, but you have to learn from your mistakes.”

Suarez also said he is better prepared for life after basketball at C.W. Post.

“At Hofstra it was pretty much art, swimming classes, aerobics; I wasn’t planning on becoming a gym teacher, so therefore I don’t need to take those classes,” Suarez said. “Over here I’m taking strong classes that will help me get a good job.”

Boykins also expected more playing time at St. Peter’s College, after becoming former Bishop Loughlin coach Bob Leckie’s first signee. Two years later, the 6-foot-1 guard from Jamaica is reunited with former McClancy teammates Tramaine Stevens and Kevin Bishop.

“I didn’t fit in their program. I didn’t get what I felt I deserved,” Boykins said. “It just didn’t work out, politics.”

Jermaine Clark was one of the most explosive players in the MAAC Conference for three years. But following his junior year, in which he averaged 11.6 points per game at Fairfield, Stags coach Tim O’Toole suspended the 6-foot-5 guard.

“After my junior year, he suspended me when the season was over and he told me if I pass all my classes I can come back and play next year,” Clark said. “I did that and he still said I can’t play.”

Clark put basketball aside for a year and graduated from Fairfield before transferring to Bridgeport for one year as a graduate student.

“What makes him good is fundamentals and he has the best basketball IQ on our team,” Bridgeport coach Mike Ruane said of Clark. “It was a no-brainier. I knew him in high school and anybody in this league would have done it.”

Clark averaged 15.3 points per game for Bridgeport, but was snubbed of any postseason honors.

“It was a great year, but it’s just sad to see that every coach in this league don’t like me so they don’t want to put me on an all-conference team,” Clark said. “I don’t care if you don’t like me; you have to respect what I do on the court.”

“He was preseason first team, he averaged 15 and we won 22 games. He obviously should have gotten something but it’s all political, anyway,” added Ruane, who was named NYCAC Coach of the Year. “ Yeah, he could have been all-conference but the coaches pick and if they don’t like you, you’re not getting it.”

Reach Associate Sports Editor Dylan Butler by email at TimesLedger@aol.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 143.

Posted 7:02 pm, October 10, 2011
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