By: Taylor Hall
Four-tenths of a second left in the first period of overtime, score tied 67-67, and the Freeman Center is silent with everybody up on their feet. Aaron McFarland is at the line with two free throws and a chance to win the game. McFarland rises up and releases the ball. Everyone gasps for a breath. SWOOSH! The Freeman Center erupts now that the Captains seize the lead, 68-67. Now, with one free throw left, the Freeman is hushed once again. McFarland sends the ball off the rim, not giving Salisbury any time to rebound and put up a shot. As the buzzer sounds, the Freeman Center once again erupts as the Captains are now Capital Athletic Conference champions.
McFarland says that “this win was one of the biggest reliefs he has ever felt”. The Captains win avenged last season’s loss to Salisbury in the CAC title game, where in a similar shoot-out; the Sea Gulls were awarded two free throws with seven-tenths of a second left in regulation, winning 58-57. The heartbreaking defeat served as fuel for the next 229 days, where each rep and each shot meant a little more than before. He says, “there wasn’t a day that went by that he did not think about that loss and dreamt of redemption”.
As a freshman coming in , McFarland said that he was so concerned with what everyone else thought and he was just trying to get numbers so that way people would know he was good. Under senior guard, Mike Cherry’s quiet leadership this would quickly change. McFarland defines Cherry’s career in two respects: “being a great ball player and being a great leader”. Cherry was a four year starter who could straight get buckets, ending his career 9TH all time in CNU scoring with 1,479 points.
Being the big man on campus when McFarland arrived, Cherry quickly embraced McFarland and the other six freshmen not as potential threats for playing time, but rather “giving them nothing but love and support” from the beginning. Cherry became like a “big brother” to McFarland, teaching valuable lessons on and off the court, along with cracking the occasional joke, just as brothers always do.
“Mike never said much, but he always did a lot to help the team, epitomizing what it means to lead by example.” Midway through Cherry’s senior season, Marcus Carter began to emerge as a star at the guard spot. Unselfishly, Cherry let the freshman Carter take over and become the lead guy. Watching Cherry allow Carter to take the reins on a team that was supposed to be his, taught McFarland a valuable lesson on selflessness and being a true team player. He learned that no one player will ever be above the team and that everyone has a role. Whether it is sitting on the bench and clapping, running the offense, guarding the other team’s best player, or coming off the bench to give the starters a break; glamorous or not, these are the roles that come along as being a part of the team and are needed for the team to be great. Watching this unfold, served as a defining moment in McFarland’s career, this is the moment where he says that “he fully and wholeheartedly bought into the program”.
Losing his mentor, Mike Cherry, to graduation over the offseason, McFarland stepped up as leader among the team, embracing the lessons of unity and selflessness which Cherry instilled upon him. McFarland pays homage to Cherry by saying, “his physical absence will be missed, but his maturity and hard work ethic have forever been engraved into the program. Mike has not just affected me, he has affected our whole culture.” McFarland being a vocal guy was taught a lot by Cherry’s quiet leadership, learning how to lead by action; which he uses together to be an emotional leader among the team. He aspires to be the guy who “picks the team up when they are down and takes them to a whole ‘nother level when they are already on a high.”
At the end of his freshman season, Coach Krikorian told McFarland, “that he needed to have a more well-rounded game, since he was just a shooter at the time.” Using Coach K’s advice, McFarland was determined to become a better defensive player and to hone in on his shooting over the offseason.
Last season left McFarland feeling disrespected by many of teams, because they would often try to isolate him as soon as he walked on the court to get a quick bucket. Now with the team losing Cherry, who was also known to be a defensive anchor at the guard spot, McFarland knew this was something he needed to work on. Over the offseason, he relied heavily on conditioning and studying film. He conditioned in order to increase his lateral movement and speed, to better his ability to stay with the ball handler. McFarland also spent hours in the film room, studying film where he played poorly on help-side defense and film where the team’s best help-side defender, Kevin Regimbal, played great D, and tried to incorporate what he could do better.
Statistically, as a freshman, McFarland did not have a disappointing year. Shooting 40.8% from the field and 35.8% from beyond the arc, averaging 10 points per game; it was a season many would be content with, but not McFarland. Off the bench, he was a vital part of the Captains game plan but through some of his “sporadic and not smart” shot selections left him not being the marksman he inspired to be.
Over the off season, McFarland pushed himself to make a total of 1,000 shots a day, concentrating on form and control, for a constant knock down. Working on three-point shooting, free throws, pull-up jumpers, floater, and crossovers to the basket, McFarland would get lost in the gym for hours; mixing business with pleasure, drive with passion. Between waking up early to put work in and occasionally missing dinner for a late night trip to gym, McFarland dedicated four hours each day to bettering himself, putting in work that he hoped would soon pay off.
Welcome in the 2015-2016 season, with a team hungry for redemption and a rising star in McFarland, who is ready for the spotlight. With McFarland’s and the team’s expectations high, the team got off to a hot start. Blowing out opponents and jumping out to a 9-0 start, the Captains quickly started receiving national attention and rankings, as they rose to the number 11 spot in d3hoops Top 25 by week 3. Coming off the bench and averaging just under 17 points per game on 54% over the same period, McFarland was off to a great start as well.
On December 30th, in the 2015 Crowne Plaza Captains Shootout championship game, the Captains met the Scranton University Royals. In a game that went down to the wire, the Royals handed the Captains their first loss of the season, 65-58. The loss showed the team that they are beatable, and they cannot show up thinking they are better than everyone else when they step on to the court. The team did not take the loss as a defeat but as an opportunity to rise above. McFarland says that this loss “helped the team regain their focus” and helped bring the team together as one.
In the loss, McFarland posted his worst shooting percentage of the season, shooting 27% from the field. Hating losing more than just about anyone; McFarland was extremely frustrated with his performance and immediately started making the proper adjustments. He struggled on offense due to the matchup zone Scranton was running, so he spent several hours watching film learning how to attack the zone effectively. Reflecting on one Cherry’s lessons about being an assassin on the court, “it’s either kill or be killed;” McFarland was determined to not be killed on the court again. McFarland spent a lot of time practicing finishing at the basket with a bigger defender on him as well as trying to expand his range beyond the arc in order to create more lane opportunities for the other players.
Over the next three day the Captains were preached that “we (the team) do not get worse every day; instead we get better with each passing day,” by Coach K. In their next game out, the Captains ousted Southern Virginia University, 75-40. McFarland bounced back with 13 points, shooting 50% from the field. With their season back on track, the Captain’s went on to win 14 straight, improving to 24-1 before entering the conference championship. The Captain’s drew St. Mary’s for the first round of the conference championship, where they narrowly escaped, 58-57. Finally, the moment that the team has waited upon for the last year was here, the rematch with Salisbury in the conference championship. Following the monumental win, the team can now say they can win a close game when it really matters. Most importantly, Aaron can now declare himself as a champion for the first time in his career, after being seven-tenths of a second away last season. This win also came with the sweet taste of revenge.
This season, McFarland came out of nowhere and became a star; his improvements on defense and shooting were put on showcase and he has become an emotional leader on the team. His hard work has definitely payed off. He has become a force on defense, strapping up offenders and stealing the ball 20 times. On offense, McFarland has been putting up good numbers. Averaging 14 points per game, shooting 47% from the field and 43.5% from beyond the arc, he has quickly became known CNU’s own splash brother. McFarland puts on a three-point shooting spectacle for the fans a regular basis. The two statistics that he is the most proud about improving from last season are his assist-to-turnover ratio and his free throw percentage, which are both tremendously better from last season. McFarland’s season has earned him 1st Team All-CAC honors, which is an honor he refuses to take credit for. Instead tributes the credit to his teammates, coaches, and most importantly his mentor Mike Cherry, saying “without them I would be nowhere near close to the player I am today.”