By Rick Eggleston, Telegram
Worcester, Mass. - Nicknames have always been part of sports. The Gipper. The Gooch. The Goose. The Chief. If it's something players are used to, it's that they are referred to by a name other than their first or last.
For Clark University sophomore Brian Vayda, the connotation seemed automatic - Darth, as in Vader. Unfortunately for headline writers, nothing could be further from the truth when it comes to the Sturbridge native and former Tantasqua Regional basketball star.
"We're a team of nicknames, and just about everyone has one, but he doesn't," Cougar coach Paul Phillips said. "Darth Vader did not work for him because he's such a nice kid."
So when a reporter and photographer were scheduled to meet with Vayda at a recent practice, Phillips started calling his top recruit from last season "Cool." "With people coming to see him, we called him 'Cool Vayda,' " Phillips said. "I don't know if he even realizes it, but if there's a humble kid, it's him."
There's little flashy about Vayda, who started every game for the Cougars as a freshman. Thanks to plenty of hard work and determination, the 6-foot-5 power forward earned NEWMAC Rookie of the Year honors.
"I was surprised. I didn't think coming in I was going to have the impact that I did," said Vayda, whose 7.4 rebounds per game led the team. He was third in scoring averaging (12.4 ppg). "I thought I was going to be more of a role player who came in off the bench."
Vayda didn't have to wait long to make his debut off the bench after a teammate was injured during the first preseason scrimmage. It turned out to be Vayda's final time on the pine.
Six double-double performances and 17 double-digit scoring games were offensive highlights for Vayda, who was also named D3hoops.com Northeast Rookie of the Year.
"He never was a freshman - he's one of those special players who doesn't come along often," Phillips said of Vayda, who led Tantasqua to a Division 2 state championship in 2007 and a state final appearance in '08. "He's a high-level Division 3 player who brings so many different things. You ask him to post up, he'll post up. You ask him to play the wing, he's on the wing. Drive to the basket, he'll drive to the basket. He's very versatile and tough to play against. He's just so smart. He learns what he needs to out there - he's a coach's dream."
Vayda's court sense will undoubtedly be tested this season, as teams - particularly in the NEWMAC - now know what he's capable of.
"He knows that he's not going to sneak up on anybody this year," Phillips said. "Everyone knows who he is, so he's got a giant target on his back.
"Guys are going to hit him hard around the pick and are going to want to talk to him and grab his shirt. But when you wonder if he's ready for it, you know he is."
Indeed, the business management major will be.
"Last year, I kind of slid in there unnoticed, but this year most of the focus is going to be on me," Vayda said. "I guess that's kind of good because it will provide opportunities for other guys on the team."
It's a team built to and bent on improving on last season's 10-16 record. Vayda leads an experienced corps of sophomores, while five seniors provide added talent, depth and leadership.
"We have some very good sophomores who played a lot of minutes last year," Phillips said. "They were put right into the fire, and they've got a lot of experience."
Aside from Vayda, three-time MVP senior forward Mark Alexander, sophomore forward Mitch Renshaw, who played at Wachusett, senior guard Chris LoPiano and senior Slader Lyell comprise the Cougars' starting five.
"We have the talent and experience, but this year we definitely have that leadership," Vayda said. "This year we're focusing a lot on our technique and defense - our defense is something I like being a part of now. We're determined to get the program back on track and into the postseason."