Nov. 30, 2006
He is quiet and unassuming, yet junior forward Nick Stafford always seems to be on the scene when there's trouble and something needs to get done.
Stafford is the guy who pulls aside a freshman during practice to tell him about a mistake, how to correct it and then pat him on the back.
"For the young guys, they look up to me as a leader," Stafford said. "Because they are young and want to do the best they can do, they are going to make mistakes. Sometimes they need someone to hey, `don't worry.' I've been there before and want to help them to push through it."
On the court, Stafford fills a niche role of hustling for loose balls, playing strong defense in the post and bringing a physical presence on the court. With his leadership, work ethic and three years of experience, Stafford worked his way back into the Dayton Flyers rotation and contributed on and off the court to UD's hot 5-1 start.
Looking back, it's been one learning experience after another for Stafford.
"On the court, I've learned so much of myself and about basketball," Stafford said. "You think you know it until you get somewhere, and then you find out that you don't know anything."
After a promising freshman season in Dayton, Stafford believed he was on the fast track becoming a Flyer icon. In his first year of action at UD, Stafford played in 28 games with 12 starts.
Then he returned for his sophomore season not in peak physical condition and suffered injuries during an auto accident last December. Although his body healed, Stafford struggled to get back on track and was reduced to 12 games with no starts.
"Last year I ran into a couple of obstacles and setbacks," said Stafford. "I don't think I worked as hard as I should have during the off-season. As a player, you want to go out and compete. That's what gets me ready is going out there to compete."
Refocused and energized, Stafford has embraced his position as a mentor to the Flyers' battery of young talent.
Stafford may not be the ultimate cog or the final piece in the puzzle, but head coach Brian Gregory sees the multi-positional 6-8 forward as an exceedingly essential part of the team's success.
"Give him all the credit," Gregory said. "A lot of guys would have wallowed in self-pity last year because (he) had played some as a freshman. I'm really pleased. He gives us great energy."
He was a unique mid-year recruit in 2003-04; but having missed the pre-season and the first eight games of the season, he was redshirted. A 2003 graduate of Worcester Academy, he joined the University of Dayton basketball program on December 18.
After graduating in June and not getting his eligibility initially approved by the NCAA Clearinghouse, Stafford filed an appeal. While waiting for the appeal to be heard, he enrolled as a part-time student at Springfield (MA) Technical Community College. When the appeal was successful, Stafford was cleared to play NCAA Division I basketball and signed with UD.
The familiarity of the UD campus and basketball system helped him make an immediate impact in his freshman season. He averaged 1.8 points and 2.0 rebounds a game, and ranked second on the team in blocked shots with 11.
However, after scoring only four points the entire season and picking up a single rebound during the 2005-06 campaign, Gregory believed if Stafford wanted to return to his freshman success, he needed to outwork everybody else on the team.
"The guy never dropped his head once last year," said Gregory. "He practiced hard. He was on the scout team all year long and got better. We met at the end of spring, and I told him, `Here's what you need to do. You have the opportunity to get as many minutes as you earn.' Guys play the minutes they earn around here."
Stafford earned those minutes and his production on the court followed. Through six games this season, Stafford is averaging 1.2 points and rebounds per game.
His return to the court helped Dayton gel together as a team and encourage them to believe the Flyers are for real.
"Guys are buying into the system," said Stafford. "It's an older team that has been through the wars. The sophomores are a year older and the freshmen are playing more minutes. Then there are the veterans like myself, Norman (Plummer), Monty (Scott) and Brian (Roberts), all upperclassmen who have been there. With that mix, everybody has bought into the system and is playing well."
The Flyers' lineup is intriguing because for as many youngsters as they have, there are also veterans to provide support. Relationships like the one Stafford and the younger players forged this season has developed further, helping Dayton turn into a deep and dangerous squad.
"You give them tough love at the same time you can congratulate them when they do something well," Stafford said. "You can't be tough all of the time. Sometimes they will say the coaches are always on them and people don't want to hear that. People are going to mess up. When they do something well, you have to let them know about it. When they do something wrong, let them know, but tell them how to get better as well."
A rugged 6-foot-8, 225-pounder, Stafford leads as much by as example as he does with words. He's slated to serve as the backup to Dayton's big men like Plummer, Charles Little and Kurt Huelsman, but could actually fill a variety of needs depending on how healthy the Flyers can stay throughout the season.
In addition to his leadership, Stafford has a knack for guarding people and brings athleticism. On the offensive end, Stafford will attack the glass, set screens and create havoc down low for opponents.
For now, Stafford is enjoying the ride, continuing to learn and working hard to keep the team's success going.
"I want to let people know our team will be a special team this year," Stafford said. "I've learned a lot. People look up to you, especially in the Dayton community. They look up to you as a role model because you are on television. Basketball is big around here."