WOONSOCKET — As Christmas approaches, college students are returning home from their campuses near and far away, reuniting with hometown friends, high school pals and former teammates.
Very few students in a working-class city like Woonsocket proceed in a straight line from high school graduation to earning their college diploma in four or even five years. Some have to work to earn money for college. Others start off at one college, find they made the wrong choice for themselves and return home, choosing to attend CCRI or Rhode Island College as their goals change.
It’s all totally natural. Life is a series of choices, particularly when high school ends and the real world beckons.
Just three years ago this month, the Woonsocket High varsity boys basketball team was making a name for itself, burying early-season opponents and drawing attention as a potential Division I state championship squad. The team was led by seniors Brett Coderre, Mike Akinrola and Prince Artey. Junior point guard Antjuan Jones and sophomore forward Michael LaPlante were the most athletic and talented players on the team. A supporting cast of backup players like Lee Vazquez made key contributions as Woonsocket went all the way to the state finals before losing by two points to the dynastic Bishop Hendricken program.
So what has happened to this close-knit group of teammates in the intervening three years?
Brett Coderre went off to Western New England University and played football for one season before realizing that he wanted to major in education and become a teacher. Coderre came home to Rhode Island College, where he is a junior “pulling the best grades of his life,” according to his father, George Coderre.
“Big Mike” Akinrola is the starting center on RIC’s basketball team. The 6-foot-6 junior is averaging 13 points and six rebounds per game.
“Freshman year was a real struggle for Mike,” George Coderre said of his adopted son. “Adapting to the work load was tough. Last year, Mike made real strides, both in the classroom and on the basketball court. He’s doing real well.”
Prince Artey, a gifted soccer player and defensive specialist on the hoop squad, attends CCRI and still holds out the dream of transferring to URI and playing Division I soccer.
“Prince dislocated a shoulder playing soccer at CCRI,” Coderre revealed. “He’s doing fine and working towards his college degree.”
Antjuan Jones briefly attended North Platte Junior College in Nebraska before coming home after enduring one harsh winter in the nation’s hinterlands. He attends CCRI at the moment and plans to enroll at Dean College in Franklin, Mass. this coming spring.
“Me and Tron Griffith are going to Dean together,” said Jones, who works at the Boys and Girls Club when he’s not attending classes at CCRI.
Lee Vazquez is attending a small college in Western Massachusetts, quietly working on his degree.
And then there’s the case of Michael LaPlante, the 6-foot-4 sophomore forward whose dunking ability wowed crowds and intimidated opponents. LaPlante earned the attention of URI coach Jim Baron, who saw the high-flying wing man lead the Villa Novans to a victory over his son Billy’s Bishop Hendricken team in mid-January, 2008. Baron filed LaPlante’s name away for future recruiting purposes.
After the 2008 season ended, LaPlante was approached by St. Andrew’s School head coach Mike Hart, whose basketball program has sent numerous players to Division I college schools over the past decade. Faced with a choice between staying with his friends at Woonsocket or transferring to a private school where academics and basketball would become his main two focuses, LaPlante chose to go with Mike Hart.
The marriage lasted only until June of 2010, turning sour even before then. LaPlante, according to Hart, had low SAT scores and would not qualify for a Division I college scholarship due to his academic shortcomings.
“Mike really worked hard on his basketball and was very coachable,” Hart said over the phone on Wednesday. “He was having trouble with his grades and that was going to hurt him with his college choices. We ended up reclassifying him as a student and giving him a diploma with the Class of 2010.
“I think Mike could have attracted attention from low Division I schools like Quinnipiac if he had kept his grades up,” Hart added. “I told him he was not a Big East type of player. He thought he was. The thing with URI fell through last spring and I think that was a turning point for Mike. He seemed to lose interest after that.
“Mike needs to go to junior college, get his grades up, and try to get a scholarship that way,” Hart added.
Woonsocket native Dennis Harmon, an assistant coach on the current high school team and a prominent youth basketball mentor through his job with the Boys & Girls Club, has his own take on the saga of Michael LaPlante.
“I was definitely surprised Michael left Woonsocket High for St. Andrew’s,” Harmon said on Wednesday afternoon. “He had to go 20 miles to school each day, hitching a ride with one of his coaches, or getting there on his own. Nothing against Woonsocket High, which is a good school, but St. Andrew’s has a tougher academic curriculum. Michael was heading off to a private school and dealing with a whole set of new pressures.”
Harmon spoke about today’s basketball world, where AAU basketball competes for the elite high school players, giving them mass exposure to college coaches at tournaments throughout the year.
“Michael played some AAU ball,” Harmon said. “But it’s a dangerous business. College coaches and recruiters are looking at one set of kids one year, and then the next year a new wave of kids comes in. I think Michael just got lost in the shuffle.”
Harmon thinks LaPlante can travel the same circuitous path as Woonsocket’s Tyrone Nared, a 6-foot-8 forward who played at CCRI for two years, then transferred to Monroe Community College in New York City.
“Tyrone got a lot of exposure in New York,” Harmon said. “He was recruited by the coach at Creighton University (Dana Altman). When Altman got the job at Oregon, he asked some of his recruits to go there with him and Tyrone accepted.”
Nared, a junior at Oregon, is averaging 4.6 points in 14 minutes per game this season for the Ducks.
“It is amazing that Woonsocket has turned out two talented players like Tyrone and Michael in the past few years,” Harmon said. “You kind of look around and wonder ‘Who’s next?’ Tyrone took the AAU route, not the college prep route, to get his exposure. I think Michael has to do the same thing, go to a junior college and get noticed by a Division I school. “
LaPlante is rumored heading to a junior college in Florida. The young man from Woonsocket can perhaps take solace in the fact that many of his old teammates didn’t travel in a straight line from high school to college.
There are always some bumps in the road for young people. Negotiating over them is part of life’s journey. It never seems easy at the time but all of these former Woonsocket players will look back on these years as a solid learning experience, one that toughened them for the even longer and more complex journey that awaits them farther down the road.