Bert Hammel has been the head coach for the Merrimack College men's basketball team for 31 years, and in that time he's learned that no matter how good a recruiting pitch may be, sometimes there's a higher power at work.
Occasionally, Lady Luck comes knocking, and a college coach simply has to open the door to let a game-changing player walk into his program. In Hammel's case, he feels that player is Danvers resident and former Bishop Fenwick star Mike Clifford.
Clifford scored 1,706 points during a high school career that included one year at Danvers High and three at Fenwick, and opted for Division 1 University of Buffalo out of high school. But after getting lost in the shuffle for two years with the Bulls, Clifford made the decision to transfer early this spring.
"Recruiting is not an exact science to begin with. You just get lucky sometimes," Hammel said. "(Clifford) is one of those special players that every once in a while falls into your lap."
Hammel knew all about Clifford coming out of high school, but he also knew that Division 1 was the likely destination for Clifford based on his size and skill level.
The 6-foot-7 Clifford never found his niche in Buffalo, however, and started to feel his college basketball window closing.
"A couple people told me he was unhappy and wanted to be closer to home. We jumped all over it," Hammel said. "We were able to make contact with him, and he came home on a weekend and visited. We sat down and talked with him like any recruit, but it was different because he had been through it before. It (Merrimack) was where he was comfortable, and he wanted to have his family near and be able to come watch him play."
Ultimately, playing is all Clifford wants to do.
In two years with the Bulls, Clifford played in only 25 games for a total of 71 minutes. He shot 14-for-24 with 33 points and 26 rebounds. Clifford used to put up numbers like that in a single game for the Crusaders. He knew he wasn't going to simply walk onto campus as a freshman and become a star, but he was never able to crack the Buffalo lineup.
"Me and the coach didn't see eye-to-eye, and I wanted to be close to home," Clifford said about his Buffalo experience. "I decided that I didn't want to sit another year. I've done enough sitting out, so I ruled out Division 1 schools. I also really felt like I connected with the coach (Hammel) and felt like I have a great chance to win there."
Clifford considered Boston University and the University of New Hampshire when he initially decided to transfer, but by rule he would have had to sit out a year, which was something he didn't want to do.
That's when the Northeast-10 Conference schools came into play, especially Merrimack.
"I knew that it was a very competitive league, and it's definitely one of the biggest reasons why I chose Merrimack," the 20-year-old Clifford said.
Clifford has two years of eligibility left to make his mark on the Warriors.
Hammel expects that to happen almost immediately.
"He's got the ability to play inside and out, which is kind of rare in Division 2," Hammel said. "I love the way he plays. He's just very physical inside before he catches the basketball, and then when he does he has a lot of finesse to his game. You don't see that often. He can rebound and run the floor. Our fast break is what we like to consider our main offense, and I can see him in different roles, setting up inside but also trailing and pulling up to hit a foul line jump shot."
Clifford has taken the opportunity to get to know his new teammates this summer, and he's eager to start the next phase of his college basketball career.
"I think he'll be a great addition. I think he puts us in the upper part of the conference. He gives us something we're not used to. Our guards can play with lower Division 1 guards; that's common knowledge. But what we lack is the difference between us and the low majors, and that's an inside presence. He gives us that, and we haven't had it in a long time," Hammel said.
"We've got four starters returning, and we've a got a point guard coming in, so the whole thing is not on his shoulders. I think he's going to fit in great."