LYNDON CENTER, Vt. — Impact freshman.
This is a term given to first-year student-athletes who make significant contributions to the success of an athletic program and on the Lyndon campus that term has a name: Antonio Mena.
For Mena, the road to a starting berth in the Hornet men's basketball lineup wasn't an easy one. A product of the highly-successful Central Falls (R.I.) High School program, he was one of 17 athletes – including nine first-year players – vying for playing time in an up-and-coming program.
"Playing in high school was a lot easier than competing at the college level," he said. "Coming from a winning team (Central Falls played in three straight Rhode Island Class B state championship games - winning the title in 2010), and sitting the bench here early in the season was tough. But I felt if I worked hard the playing time would come. I focused on rebounding, boxing out, playing defense and getting along with the coaches and team. So far everything has worked out well."
With a roster that feature only one senior, three juniors and five sophomores, Lyndon head coach Joe Krupinski put together a challenging non-conference schedule which featured perennial NCAA Division III powers Plattsburgh State, Middlebury and Springfield; as well as a Division I matchup with Brown University, a member of the prestigious Ivy League. In the 12-game stretch, Krupinski gave everyone an opportunity to display their abilities and in doing so prepared them for the upcoming North Atlantic Conference season where nearly every game counts.
Upon completion of the non-conference portion of the schedule the Hornets found themselves with an overall record of 1-1. What they eventually realized is that this "tryout", of sorts, gave Krupinski an indication of which team members were prepared to compete in the NAC, and fortunately for Mena, he was one of them.
In 14 NAC contests, Lyndon defied the pre-season polls where they were picked to finish sixth out of eight teams in the conference standings. The Hornets finished the campaign with a final NAC mark of 10-4, good enough for second-place and a bye in the first round of the league playoffs.
Mena played an important role in Lyndon's success, playing in all 14 conference games, including six starts. His 22.5 minutes-per-game ranked fourth on the team and he shot an impressive .544 from the floor. Mena's 8.9 rebounds was tops on the squad in conference play and he also managed to hand out 2.3 assists per game while collecting 19 steals.
His play was so consistent, Krupinski called upon him several times to guard some of the NAC's top scorers including Husson's Josh Jones, the league's 2010-11 Player of the Year and tournament Most Valuable Player.
"It's not about being a leader for me," said Mena. "I love playing basketball and I love to rebound. When we lost Jason (Gray) to foul trouble against Husson, I told the coach I wanted to guard Jones and he let me guard him. It wasn't easy. Everything seemed to come my way, but I managed to box him out and jump higher that he did. It was a nice experience for me."
In league play, Mena recorded five double-doubles. He managed to save his best performances for last as Lyndon earned a berth in the conference's Final Four. On Friday, Feb. 25, Mena scored 21 points and grabbed 17 rebounds in a 111-108 semifinal victory over Thomas before tallying 13 points to go with 11 rebounds in the Hornets' 84-73 title game loss to Husson.
His efforts landed him a selection to the 2010-11 NAC All-Tournament Team.
"I felt if I could help the team get along and work together, we'd get a chance to make it to the tournament," he said. "It's important for a young team to move on from problems. I thought it would be better for me to be the bigger man and help the team move forward. At that time it was important that we do the right things in practice every day and continue to work hard."
As most coaches would attest, the contributions Mena has made are crucial to the success of any program who wishes to compete at the championship level. Athletes who score in abundance may always get the headlines, but it's the players who rebound, pass, and play scrappy defense who make the difference.
Patience always plays an important role in the development of that type of player, and Mena is quick to pass on his experiences on to those athletes playing at the prep level who wish to compete in the collegiate ranks.
"It's important that you work hard and never give up," he said. "You can never let it get to the point where you put your head down because you're not getting playing time. If you can always practice hard, do the right things, stayed focused and move on from problems, everything will take care of itself."