January 12, 2011

Lyndon student-athletes featured in Providence Journal

By MIKE SZOSTAK
Providence Journal Sports Writer

PROVIDENCE, R.I. - What are the odds of three kids who played basketball at Central Falls High School going to college together in Vermont's remote Northeast Kingdom, playing basketball there and returning home to play Brown?

That's where Rob Alers, Antonio Mena and George Carle have landed. They will be in uniform for Lyndon State College on Saturday, Jan. 8 at 7:30 p.m. against Brown at the Pizzitola Center.

"I'm very excited because I'll have a lot of fans cheering for me," Alers said Thursday in a telephone interview from Lyndonville, Vt., home of the Hornets.

"I'm so excited to see my family again and to see my fans," Mena added.

"It's a great chance to play in front of my mom again," Carle said, "and my little brothers."

Alers and Mena were the heroes of Central Falls' Division III state championship team last season. Alers, the cool 5-foot-11 guard, was first-team All-State. Mena, the athletic 6-1 guard, secured his name in Central Falls lore when he sank two free throws with no time on the clock to send the final against Johnston into overtime. The Warriors won by three.

After the season, they answered the recruiting pitch of Lyndon State coach Joe Krupinski: Get out of the gritty city. Go to school in the clean, crisp environment of rural Vermont. Play basketball for a team making its NCAA Division III debut.

Carle, a 6-3 forward and captain of the 2009 Central Falls team that lost to Moses Brown in the D-III final, decided to join his cousin, Alers, and his friend, Mena, and resurrect his basketball career after a year at the University of Rhode Island. He had tried to make the 2010 Rams as a walk-on, but, as he put it, "the team was set."

"A big part of our mission is to educate first-generation college students," says Krupinski. "We're getting more inner-city kids, and Lyndon State gives them a good chance to succeed if they are willing to put in the work."

He learned of Alers and Mena through coaching acquaintances in Rhode Island. Central Falls coach Brian Crookes was helpful as well, and Krupinski praised him for the way he taught them to play the game.

The Central Falls trio has worked hard in the classroom and on the basketball court. Alers and Mena reported 3.1 GPAs after their first semester. Carle has come on strong academically after a bit of a struggle early on.

On the court they are defining their roles on a young team. Alers has played in every game for the 1-8 Hornets and is averaging 8.6 minutes and 3.2 points as the first or second guard off the bench. Mena has appeared in seven games and is averaging 9.8 minutes and 2.7 points. Carle has played 10 minutes in two games and scored five points.

"It's been up and down," Alers said. "It took a while to get used to the change of pace from high school to college. It's much faster."

Mena said that "everything is different. There are bigger guys you have to play, and a lot of plays you have to learn. You have to maintain a lot of focus on the court."

"I had to knock off the rust. Not playing full speed basketball for a year took its toll," said Carle, who worked out at Brown before heading north.

"They have been great," Krupinski said of his Rhode Island delegation. "I like them as people. They are great members of the school community. They are great teammates. Rob has been solid from day one. Antonio has come on of late, and George has had very good practices since the start of the second semester."

Coming from a high school team that lost five games in three years, Alers, Mena and Carle have not liked losing eight of their first nine college games.

"Frustrating," Alers said, "but this week practice is going good. Everybody is working hard."

The team has been competitive and had leads in some games.

"It's tough losing," Mena said. "We got to try to work together to keep the lead up."

Lyndon State plays in the North Atlantic Conference. The school sponsored a reputable NAIA program for years and began to transition to NCAA Division III in 2006. This is the first season Lyndon State is eligible for postseason play.

Krupinski scheduled this game because he knows Brown coach Jesse Agel from their earlier Vermont days — Agel was an assistant at UVM and Krupinski an assistant at Saint Michael's — and because he tries to schedule a Division I school every year. Last year it was Dartmouth.

The Hornets will take another difficult test Sunday at Middlebury, ranked No. 6 in D-III.

The Northeast Kingdom comprises three counties and is home to the Jay Peak and Burke Mountain ski areas. It's so far north that Jay Peak's primary market is Montreal.

"Lyndonville is a great little town," Mena said. "There's not much to do."

Historically, the Northeast Kingdom gets the most snow in the state. Carle laughed when asked about the weather.

"Crazy! The weather is real crazy. It can be sunny and snowing real hard at the same time. Cold? Man, I got a lot of hot chocolate for that."

mszostak@projo.com