April 02, 2012BURLINGTON, Vt. — Hard work pays off. That's one thing Wolfeboro's Luke Apfeld can surely attest to.
Apfeld could have easily walked (or hobbled) away from basketball after three ACL injuries in the course of 18 months forced him to miss his senior year at Brewster Academy and his freshman year at the University of Vermont. Nobody would've blamed him if the thought of another rehabilitation stint was just too much.
But Apfeld hung in there, did the work that was required and last month got the chance to do what every college basketball player in the country shoots for: Play in the Big Dance, the NCAA Tournament.
"Everything happens for a reason," Apfeld said. "A friend once told me that adversity breeds character. That was adversity at its fullest."
Apfeld, who was part of coach Jason Smith's Brewster program for three years, graduating in 2009, suffered his first ACL injury the summer before his senior season at Brewster. He then suffered the same injury in his other ACL in his first practice back with the team in January. Then, in November of his freshman year, he suffered yet another injury of the original ACL.
"Nothing ever goes according to plan," the former Bobcat said. "You're always going to have obstacles in the road, the faster you learn to deal with it, the quicker you move ahead."
Apfeld credits Vermont coach John Becker and assistant Matt O'Brien, both of whom have been with the program the entire time Apfeld has, with sticking with him despite the injuries and helping him get back to where he wants to be. He also noted that recruiting classmates Brendan Bald and Ben Crenca were also instrumental in helping keep his focus as he battled back.
"When you're surrounded by good teammates and good people, it makes everything a little easier," Apfeld said. "And this year I've played arguably the best basketball of my career."
The 6'7" Apfeld stared in 21 of the Catamounts' 35 games and averaged more than 21 minutes a game. He pulled down 143 rebounds and scored 347 points in just his second full season in collegiate action. He was third on the team in scoring, averaging 9.9 points a game and shot a team best 53.9 percent from the floor. His 16 blocks was good for second on the team. The highlight of the regular season was a 24-point performance over Towson in which he shot 11-for-11 from the floor, which tied for the best single-game shooting performance of the year in the entire country.
After graduating from Brewster in 2009, Apfeld sat out his first year with the injury, so while his recruiting classmates are listed as juniors, he is still listed as a sophomore and has two more years of eligibility left with UVM.
The Catamounts, who pulled one of the biggest upsets in recent NCAA tournament history in 2005, upsetting top-seeded Syracuse in the first round, are no stranger to the NCAA Tournament. The team was in the tournament in Apfeld's red shirt year, but this year was more enjoyable for the Brewster grad, as he was able to play a role on the court.
"It was a great experience," he said. "Obviously the loss wasn't satisfying, but the experience was great."
UVM didn't win the America East regular season title, but secured a berth in the NCAA Tournament with a 51-43 win over Stony Brook in the America East Tournament on March 10.
The Catamounts earned a 16th seed and took on Lamar in the First Four round of the tournament in Dayton, Ohio on March 14. After beating Lamar, the Catamounts earned the right to play top-seeded North Carolina in the next round on March 16 in Greensboro, N.C. The Catamounts fell to UNC 77-58, with Apfeld leading the way with eight rebounds on the night.
"To compete with a team the caliber of UNC was a dream come true for the guys," Apfeld said, noting that it was particularly great for seniors Pat Bergmann and Matt Glass to get the first-round win.
Apfeld also is well aware that the team's presence in the NCAA Tournament serves as a great recruiting tool to help the team improve continuously down the road.
"We are starting to make Vermont a household name," Apfeld said. "People know we can play because we've proven it and we have to continue to do that."
He noted that the team has played in some nationally televised games in some great atmospheres and that just helps to draw more recruits toward Burlington.
"We have many of our recruits at our games and the see this is not just a team tucked way up in Vermont," he said. "We're getting national recognition. What kid doesn't want to play on national television?"
Apfeld credited the Brewster program with preparing him for the rigors of college basketball and notes that the same recruiting strategy applies to the Bobcats, as their consistent placing of athletes in DI schools and trips to the national championship make the school a magnet for talent.
"Coach Smith has done a great job," Apfeld said. "He's one of the best coaches in the country and Brewster recruits itself because of his hard work."
He notes that the first thing Smith told the team on the first day of practice was he was there to make them basketball players, because those are the players who are going to play at the college level.
"And our practices every day simulated college practices," Apfeld said. "When you have 10 to 13 Division One players on your roster competing for playing time, everyone's a little stronger. You can't do anything but benefit from that."
While his team exited the NCAA Tournament a bit earlier than he would've liked, Apfeld is excited to see his former Brewster teammate Thomas Robinson in the Final Four with Kansas. Robinson, who is a finalist for the Naismith Trophy and is considered one of the best college players in the country this year, has been featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated and ESPN The Magazine and in countless publications, due both to his success on the court and his adversity off of the court. The former Bobcat lost three close family members in a short stretch of time last year and has come back stronger and stronger for the Jayhawks, proving Apfeld's theory about hard work working out.
"He's an unbelievable kid with an outstanding work ethic," Apfeld said of his former teammate. "And he knows every teammate and every coach he had at Brewster has his back.
"That's what can happen with hard work," he continued. "He's a phenomenal player and he's going to be in the NBA in a short time."
He notes that he and his former teammates who aren't lucky enough to still be in the tournament, live a bit vicariously through Robinson, but freely admits it couldn't have happened to a better guy.
"We're all proud of him and he deserves it," Apfeld said. "We all expected it."
As for himself, Apfeld said he's psyched to be healthy again and have his "sea legs" back under him after all the injuries. He credited the Vermont coaches, players and trainers for helping him work his way back.
"To see results and that I'm helping my team, that really means a lot to me," Apfeld said. "I didn't know if I was ever going to get back to the level I thought I'd be at."
He also credits his family for their support.
"I have to give a shout out to my family," he said. "They stuck with me the whole time, with nothing but good advice. Those were some rough months."
Looking ahead, he's hoping to help Vermont to the America East crown next season, then the conference tournament title and another bid in the NCAA Tournament.
"Hopefully we make it back to the dance and hopefully we get a favorable seed and see where it goes," he said. "Right now we're really concentrating on Vermont basketball.
"We're going to get back to work and be the best we can be," he added.
With another year of hard work under his belt, look for Luke Apfeld to be dancing again next year.
Joshua Spaulding can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 569-3126