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Merrimack head coach Joe Gallo reflects on historic transition year

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In Merrimack’s first season in Division 1, the Warriors have a one-game lead atop the NEC standings.

Photo by Jim Stankiewicz

It didn’t happen overnight, but the timeline Merrimack had in mind to jump to the Division 1 escalated rapidly once they found the new face of the program, who ironically, wasn’t a new face to Merrimack at all.

Former Merrimack guard and class of 2004 graduate Joe Gallo had spent time around the northeast in various coaching roles. From Merrimack to Dartmouth, running the Hoop Group camps for a year, bookended by a stint on the Robert Morris staff (when they beat Kentucky, no less) the road back to North Andover always kept Gallo close to his roots.

When Gallo was introduced as the program’s next head coach in May of 2016, they knew they had their guy for the jump to the D1 ranks.

“When I interviewed it was known,” Gallo said, recalling interviewing for the school’s coaching vacancy before the 2016 season. “‘You’re our Division 2 coach but we needed someone with Division 1 recruiting experience that can make this transition when the time does come.’”

“It happened sooner than we thought,” Gallo added. “But it’s great. A lot of the press we’ve been getting — I’ve been getting texts and phone calls from alums and teammates I haven’t heard from in a while who have been following the story — it’s just been great. It’s special.”

The Warriors sit at 18-10 overall and 12-3 in NEC play. Sitting atop the conference rankings, Gallo and his roster of defensive-minded stalwarts have leaped over the bar set for them and haven’t looked back.

Giving “March Madness” a new spin

The NCAA gives programs transitioning to Division 1 a probationary period, preventing them from partaking in any NCAA-sanctioned postseason events.

So, what does that mean for Merrimack?

No conference tournament. No NIT bid, should they win the regular-season title. No NCAA tournament.

The CBI and CIT, however, are fair game. Despite this mandatory exclusion from the tournaments, Gallo doesn’t allow it to pigeonhole what he can accomplish on the recruiting trail.

“We’re fully transparent with everybody from the very beginning,” Gallo told me of how he recruits during the probation period. “It’s something we talk about early on [with recruits], and when it gets closer to decision time we remind them again. We want everyone knowing what they’re getting into.”

“We’ve put together a really good freshman class and I love our 2020 guys that we have committed,” Gallo added. “I don’t think it’s affected us a whole lot so far in recruiting.”

Gallo noted the approach doesn’t deviate much from what most one bid leagues do on the recruiting trail.

“We’re open and honest with them, then we sell everything else,” he said. “We sell the school, our program, we build great relationships, then at the end we ask recruits what’s important to them. They talk about the academics, the relationships [and] the playing style. We always remind them why would you not come here for something that is a small percentage chance of happening at other schools who are offering [scholarships]? Most kids we recruit have offers from other schools in one-bid leagues, so we say if you truly love [Merrimack], are you going to gamble on something that has a 6-8% chance of happening elsewhere?”

Building for the future

Currently, Merrimack sits at 164th in KenPom in roster experience. Led by three seniors, the roster overall is comprised of some pretty young faces. With six freshmen on the roster, it’s not lost on Gallo how important it is to blend youth with experience at this point.

“It’s huge,” Gallo said of having such a large freshman class. “Four of those guys have played in pretty much every game, and three of them play pretty major minutes. At some points [in the season] Jordan Minor, Ziggy Reid, Mykel Derring all had nights where if they didn’t play, we wouldn’t have won. Not only is it important to have such a big class [of freshman] to start this transition, it’s also huge that four of them have played pretty good minutes in pretty meaningful games.”

With the season drawing closer to the end, Gallo admits he’s no longer viewing his crop of young players, as freshmen and “freshman mistakes” should be a thing of the past.

Garden State of mind

Merrimack isn’t just fueled by the freshman. The Warriors rely heavily on their senior trio of Jaleel Lord, Juvaris Hayes and Idris Joyner — all of whom share a common bond. They all played for Hall of Famer Bob Hurley Sr. at Saint Anthony’s in Jersey City, New Jersey during their high school days.

“This wasn’t something they started this year,” Gallo said of his senior’s productivity level. “Our program is our program and I’m thankful those guys came in with me. We’ve grown together but for me to take over a program and have Saint Anthony’s guys and also in those first two classes, Linden guys [Khalief Crawford and Mikey Watkins].”

To say it’s worked out with these players would be an understatement. As of Feb. 18, Jaleel Lord netted his 1,000th career point at Merrimack and Juvaris Hayes leads the nation in steals per game at 3.8 per outing.

“In my first two years, five of my guys came from Saint Anthony’s and Linden,” Gallo said. “And there’s not much better DNA — as far as competitors and winning ways — as those two high school programs.”

A once in a lifetime season

Coach Gallo’s transparency and honesty isn’t exclusive to recruits, and no one seems to be more honest and critical of the team’s performance than Gallo himself.

When asked if he could go back to the summer and told his past self what the Warriors would accomplish this season, would he have believed it?

“Probably not, no.”

“I knew we’d be competitive,” Gallo added. “I had a feeling we’d be in a lot of close games. Even after a loss, I tell them I don’t feel any different about our talents or you as a team. On July 8, when we got here for summer school, every single one of us would’ve signed up for a one-game lead [in the NEC] with three games left and two of them being at home. We all surprised ourselves a little bit. But after a few non-conference wins and after we beat Sacred Heart on the road, it kicked in that if we stick to our plan and play our system we’ll have a chance to beat anyone in the league and we’ve been able to do that.”

To Gallo’s admission, the team hadn’t given much thought to the probationary period until recently.

“Maybe it’s a little bit extra motivation, but when they put on the Merrimack jersey, these guys are trying to go and win,” Gallo said.

Despite new scenery at the D1 level, Gallo hasn’t changed much of his approach compared to seasons past.

“It’s a lot harder to score this year,” Gallo said. “People’s recovery time is quicker, gaps shrink quicker, some of the players and athleticism is different but we follow the same schedule here. We follow the same formula here for four years now. What you get when you move up levels is you get a bigger, stronger, faster player each tier, but there are some damn good coaches in Division 2. Some of the best coaches we’ve faced came from the Northeast 10.”

And while it may sound like business as usual for Joe Gallo and his staff, the moment isn’t lost on him.

“It’s unique,” Gallo says of Merrimack’s first year in D1. “You’re never going to be in a position like this again. What I think we’ll look back on is I told our guys if we go and win a regular-season championship, we’re going to look back and I don’t know if any of our lifetimes we’ll see anybody surpass some of the things we’re doing.”

Chances are, Gallo will be right about that.