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West Catholic's Adam Clark bets on himself to end up at Merrimack

05/15/2023, 9:15am EDT
By Rich Flanagan

Rich Flanagan (@richflanagan33)

March 25 will be the day Adam “Budd” Clark remembers for the rest of his life.

He had a career game with 32 points to lead West Catholic to the first state championship in program history as the Burrs dismantled Deer Lakes, 83-55 in the GIANT Center in Hershey. The celebration with teammates, coaches and the West Catholic community instantly transformed into core memories that he will recall decades from now. 

After receiving his medal and having the opportunity to hoist the PIAA plaque, he met two coaches from a private college about a half hour north of Boston.

West Catholic senior Budd Clark goes up for a shot during the PIAA Class 3A championship game. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)

Merrimack College head coach Joe Gallo and assistant Micky Burtnyk were on hand to watch Clark’s historic performance and one week later he received a formal offer. Clark noted that “they started recruiting me during the state run” and his outstanding play down the stretch convinced Gallo that not only could he play at the Division I level but absolutely succeed. It was finally a dream realized for Clark.

“I’ve wanted to play Division I basketball since I was a little kid,” Clark said. “It feels great to finally accomplish this one goal in my life. It’s a check of the box on my list.”

Clark committed to the Warriors on May 6, after initially committing to Coppin State on Christmas Eve. He committed to then head coach Juan Dixon – former National Champion at the University of Maryland and NBA veteran – but Dixon and the program parted ways in March, which put Clark’s future in jeopardy. He decommitted shortly afterward and one of the premier players in the Philadelphia Catholic League was back on the market.

West Catholic head coach Miguel Bocachica understood the reasoning why Clark reopened his recruitment and instead of angst about his point guard’s plans, he was convinced everything would turn out just fine.

“I wasn’t sure how things would go, but I knew two things,” Bocachica said. “One, Adam had gotten better from the second he committed to Coppin State to the second that he decommitted. It wasn’t a surprise that more teams were interested then once he was committed, everyone stopped calling and recruiting him. But anyone that was around and watching him knew he got better.”

“Two, I knew he was going to get what was best for him. As disappointed as he was when the whole Coppin thing went down, he got right back to betting on himself and knew something was going to come his way. You never really know because the portal is a monster but as time went on, he got more mature and that’s what college coaches want. They want a kid that’s mature.”

With the NCAA transfer portal as robust as ever and scholarships for incoming freshmen limited, Clark took his play up a notch, first leading the Burrs to their first city title since 1953 then averaging 21.4 points per game on his way to a state title. Offers from Bucknell, Boston University, Saint Francis (Pa.) and Fairleigh Dickinson – fresh off a win over No. 1 Purdue in the NCAA Tournament – came flying in after the state championship but the first offer that he received after that momentous event was Merrimack and that stuck with him.

“It seemed like the best fit for me,” Clark said. “When I visited in April, it seemed like a real brotherhood, and everyone had good relationships with each other. The basketball part just takes care of itself.”

Gallo is no stranger to recruiting in southeastern Pa. with former Archbishop Wood standout Jaylen Stinson on the roster, but Bocachica is actually the reason the Warriors knew Clark was still available that late in the season.

“I played with Coach Burtnyk’s brother, Brian in Montana at the University of Great Falls,” Bocachica said. “The whole Merrimack thing started with me communicating with him because of my relationship with his brother.”

Bocachica used that connection to spur Clark’s recruitment and eventual commitment to Merrimack in the same way Clark spurred West Catholic’s unforeseen rise over the past two seasons. 

The Burrs won 41 games over the last two years with half of those coming in the Philadelphia Catholic League. They won 12 league games during Clark’s junior season then made the semifinals at the Palestra for the first time since 1999 and later the program’s first state quarterfinal appearance ever. 

This season topped that with another trip to the Palestra followed by the city and state crowns. Clark capped off a season few in Philadelphia high school hoops history have by averaging 18.8 points, 5.2 rebounds, 5.0 assists and 3.8 steals per game. He scored 20-or-more points in 13 out of 30 games this season and finished with 1,253 career points (began his career at Boys’ Latin).

Clark relished the historical aspect of what he and his team accomplished during their time at the school located at 45th & Chestnut.

“We made a lot of history,” Clark said. “Without winning the Catholic League championship, we still made history. I’m just glad Coach Boc trusted me and brought me on board to do these special things.”

Gallo and the Warriors are coming off a peculiar season after winning their first Northeast Conference (NEC) Tournament Championship over Fairleigh Dickinson. The only issue was they did not receive an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament as Merrimack College was not eligible to NCAA transition rules stemming from the school’s acceptance to move to Division I. Merrimack will officially receive full membership beginning in the 2023-24 season.

Furthermore, Merrimack is one of the rare teams at the Division I level that plays a zone defense, especially now that Jim Boeheim has retired from Syracuse. The Warriors play what is known as a “No 3s” zone defense where the top two guards have their heels on the top of the key to prevent straightaway threes and lobs to the high posts, and the wings come up wide to the three-point line across the wing and finally the forward in the middle has his heels on the restricted area to prevent a dump-ins to the lane.

While Clark noted that offensively “they use a lot of ball screens and have an open system, so I can make plays and play freely,” he’s very much looking forward to what he can do at one of the guard spots in this expansive zone.

“They play zone and with my instincts, they think I could be a great fit at the top of that zone,” Clark said. “I’m fast with my hands and good on both sides of the ball.”

Clark flourished against some of the elite guards in the area such as Reading’s Ruben Rodriguez (Rider), Roman Catholic’s Xzayvier Brown (St. Joe’s), Archbishop Ryan’s Darren Williams (Florida Gulf Coast), Archbishop Wood’s Jalil Bethea and Neumann-Goretti’s Robert Wright III, the Baylor commit headed to Montverde Academy (Fla.) next season. He was the only West Catholic player in double figures (15) against Camden (N.J.) with its two Kentucky signees D.J. Wagner and Aaron Bradshaw.

Bocachica saw Clark transcend from a score-first guard to a polished floor general and knows that things like coming into the gym at 6 a.m. to get shots up and run through drills will pay major dividends as he moves to the next level.

“First, {Merrimack is] getting an absolute steal,” Bocachica said. “I may sound biased, but I think he can play anywhere in any environment because he’s a hooper. Secondly, they’re getting a leader and a guard that is complete. He came in as a little scorer, but he left as a complete point guard. He’s a kid who brings swagger and mojo, and I think his heart and will to play will get him on the court. He’s tough to keep off a basketball court.”

Clark was the best-kept secret for the last two seasons, and he will soon be moving to a campus that is a little over five hours from his current school. He will again have to prove himself on a team that has been a regular contender in its conference during its transition period. 

Merrimack has compiled a 45-25 record in the NEC over the last four seasons and the program figures to be in the mix in its first season of postseason eligibility. The Warriors lost leading scorers Jordan Minor (Virginia) and Ziggy Reid (Youngstown State), but rising sophomore Javon Bennett averaged 9.6 ppg and made 46 three-pointers in 27 starts in his first collegiate season while fellow freshman Jordan Derkack (7.4 ppg, 4.0 rpg in 20 starts) showed promise.

The plan for Clark at Merrimack will be the same. Like he did during his high school career, he’s going to prove himself to the many schools that missed out on the opportunity to bring him to their program. Even if it’s a decent drive from him, it’s a new beginning that he is ready to embrace.

“It’s going to be a new feeling being far from home,” Clark said. “It will be something I’m happy to get used to.”

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