FITCHBURG — There is something special about coaching one’s own children.
For the last few years, legendary Notre Dame of South Street headmaster Jeff Hammond has coached his two eldest sons, Ryan and William, as well as a handful of young ND students in the St. Bernard’s Parochial League on Saturday mornings.
This year Hammond and the Crusaders are taking it to the next level, as Notre Dame returns to MIAA basketball following a two-decades-long absence.
Hammond, who also returns to the sideline to coach this new era of Crusader youngsters, noted that several things precipitated the resurrection of Notre Dame’s varsity program.
“My kids went to South Street Elementary, and we loved South Street,” said Hammond, himself a former Notre Dame cager from the early 1980s. “We were looking for somewhere for Ryan to go, since they only go up to fourth grade. Around the same time, Sizer — then the North Central Charter School — started renting out a part of our building. That gave us the money to expand our school to the fifth and sixth grade.
“That block of students played in the Parochial League every year, and that group became ninth graders this year.”
That led to the question of where Ryan Hammond, currently in eighth grade, and his contemporaries would play when they reached the high school level.
Standing in the way was Notre Dame’s famous prep program, which started in the mid-1990s featuring some of the country’s top NBA prospects. ND Basketball was primarily for post-grads looking to boost their grades to NCAA enrollment standards, not for high school freshmen.
Also standing in the way, albeit partially: the MIAA.
“We didn’t want to lose the prep team — we loved the prep team — but the MIAA said we couldn’t have both,” Hammond said. “The prep team kids came from all over the country; these kids coming up are all local.”
The prep team now plays in Concord, N.H., still using the Notre Dame Prep moniker.
Hammond applied to rejoin the MIAA earlier this year, and had hoped to get everything done in April. It was delayed until June, which hampered ND’s efforts to get all of the scheduling it wanted to accomplish.
Notre Dame will play in the Worcester County Athletic Conference, which is primarily a small enrollment league (ND has 27 kids in the school, with uber-small class sizes.
“Staying small was the way we survived,” Hammond said.
Notre Dame will be alongside Sizer School, Trivium of Lancaster, as well as South Lancaster Academy, Bethany Christian Academy of Upton, St. Mary’s of Worcester, and North Brookfield — the lone public school in the bunch.
As part of their 18-game schedule, the Crusaders will play two non-league games with Leominster (Jan. 12 and Feb. 16) as well as Monty Tech (Jan. 3 and Feb. 3). ND opened last Wednesday with a loss to Lee; it’ll travel to Lenox on Saturday, Jan. 20.
“We would have played St. Bernard’s; they were looking for a few games,” Hammond said.
Notre Dame will host Trivium Wednesday at 5:30 p.m. up in the old South Street barn, and will host Paper City rival Sizer next Wednesday night.
The return match-up at the corner of Rindge and Mechanic is slated for Jan. 11.
ND’s core group of seven players –16 of the school’s 21 boys will don the Blue and Gray at the varsity and junior varsity levels — are mainly underclassmen, with Hammond’s two sons playing point guard (William, the seventh grader) and shooting guard (Ryan), respectively.
Three players — Russell Rau, Derrick Thomas, and Tom Simmons — are freshmen, with one sophomore (Steve Kaanta).
International student Adrian Shih (pronounced Sheesh) from Hong Kong is the lone senior on the team.
Hammond said that the school’s six girls practice with the boys’ team.
Last Wednesday, Hammond said Notre Dame made the drive out to the Berkshires and cut the deficit against the Wildcats to five by the end of the third quarter. Lee then pulled away in the fourth.
He acknowledged his young team “will take their lumps” as they play against older and bigger players.
“I think we should, judging from our first game, be competitive,” he said. “They are young kids, so they should do well, but we may have trouble matching-up physically. We competed in summer league. We can score. We may have trouble stopping the other team from rebounding, but the kids won’t get discouraged.”