FARMINGTON —The University of Maine at Farmington trailed Maine Maritime Academy by a dozen points with four minutes left, and nothing was going the Beavers’ way.
D.J. Gerrish knew there was no time to spare, so the sophomore guard looked for a way to provide the Beavers with a spark. Whatever it took — stepping into a reverse dribble to knock the ball away or sneaking up behind a dribbler to poke it free for a steal, perhaps then finding an open teammate in transition — Gerrish was determined to do it.
“We couldn’t get anything going for 36 minutes of that game,” Gerrish said. “It was almost like we were going through the motions, including myself. There just came a time where I said, ‘We can’t lose this game. We’re in a great position to win the conference and this wouldn’t be good for us.’ So I just made a conscious effort to get every ball back and not let them score, and set up our scorers to be in a position where we could come back and win the game.”
UMF did just that, 69-65, and while others posted gaudier numbers than his four points, seven assists and three steals, there was no dispute that Gerrish was the key to the comeback win.
“He wouldn’t let us lose that game,” long-time UMF head coach Dick Meader said. “He put on outstanding pressure and made the difference. He really turned that game around.”
The Rumford product helped turn the Beavers’ season around. Since he was inserted into the starting lineup against Lyndon State on Jan. 22, UMF (14-11) is 12-2, has won its first North Atlantic Conference title and is headed to its first ever NCAA Division III Men’s Basketball Tournament to face Bridgewater State at 7 p.m. Thursday in Bridgewater, MA.
Anyone who saw Gerrish play for his father, Dirigo coach Dave Gerrish, and help lead Mountain Valley to back-to-back Western Maine titles and a Class B state championship in 2007 knows success seems to follow him. A point guard since second grade, he has used a combination of steadiness, heady play-making, defensive intensity and leadership to be the consummate “glue” guy for every team he’s played.
One of the most important things Gerrish has learned in basketball is that communication is key to developing success on an off the court. At political science major, he transferred to UMF in 2008 after a year at the University of Southern Maine, where he did not play basketball. After settling in with the Beavers last year, he became more of a vocal leader this year even though he was coming off the bench as a sophomore.
“I’m just comfortable with this group of guys. They react to me in a way that makes me comfortable doing that type of thing,” he said. “Especially on the defensive end, just trying to be encouraging to everybody and making sure we’re all on the same page.”
Gerrish felt comfortable doing that coming off the bench, but when he got the call to replace Maranacook’s Kevin Leary in the starting lineup, he took it to another level.
“I’ve really tried to step up as a leader at both ends of the floor, and both on and off the floor, since then,” he said. “It’s helped my confidence a lot. I’m just trying to do what is best for the team as a whole.”
“He’s just solid, solid and strong,” Meader said. “He sets the tone because the guys behind him see him playing and that he doesn’t let anyone get by him.”
Senior center Josh Tanguay is one of those guys playing behind him on defense and said he can’t help but feel a little bit sorry for whomever Gerrish is assigned to cover.
“Whenever D.J.’s on the court, we just know that defensively we’re going to be very sound,” Tanguay said.
“He brings defensive intensity,” Meader said. “He does a very good job with help principles when he’s away from the ball.”
The Beavers rely heavily on help defense, so Meader doesn’t typically have Gerrish guard the opposition’s top scorer. He wants his wiry 6-foot-1 guard available to do what he does best — slide over from off the ball to help stop penetration or double-team, just be a pest.
Gerrish said Meader’s system suits him perfectly, and it seems to suit the Beavers. Since Gerrish was inserted into the starting lineup, they are surrendering 58.5 points per game, 13.5 ppg less than when he was coming off the bench.
“I enjoy playing off the ball more than I do on the ball because then I’m able to see what’s going on on the floor, to play help-side for everybody, recognize the rotations that are being made, make the calls and tell people where they need to be,” Gerrish said.