How do you build a strong high school basketball program? Start with the foundation.
Over the past two decades, Michael Wilder has passionately put in his time with the Waltham Youth Basketball Association. Now in his fifth season as varsity boys’ basketball coach at his alma mater, he is reaping the benefits — his Hawks are off to an 8-1 start for the first time in recent memory.
Wilder played under 31-year coach Joe Cacciatore at Waltham before he worked his tail off to become a rotational player at Clark University. After graduating in 1997, he returned home and began volunteering at the youth level.
In 2001, Wilder was diagnosed with bladder cancer. Yet after a brief hiatus, he decided that nothing was going to keep him from his goal of building up Waltham youth basketball to one day resurrect a dormant high school program.
“I’m a passionate dude and I thought, ‘You know what, life’s short, I’m going to do what I want to do,’ ” said Wilder, who has been cancer free for over a decade.
Wilder took a job as an assistant under Cacciatore in 2003, and bided his time for over a decade until Cacciatore decided to retire in 2015 with Wilder designated as the fifth coach in program history.
In his 10-plus years as an assistant, the fourth-generation Watch City native would coach on Friday nights, then get back in his alma mater’s gym at 9 a.m. for five hours of continuous sessions with Waltham’s first-through-fourth grade teams.
In order to help those youngsters lay the groundwork for strong fundamentals, Wilder and his volunteer staff used smaller balls and hoops to correspond with each age group.
“The plan was always about fundamentals,” said Wilder. “It was all about getting each group to learn where they fit on the court and how to be unselfish. And if you watch [the varsity team] play now, that’s what we do. We space the court and move the ball.”
Wilder posted an 11-29 record his first two years, then steered the Hawks to a 27-15 record the last two years with a state tournament victory in 2018.
Waltham (8-1, 4-0 Dual County League) is now on track for the program’s first DCL Small title and first league title since it won the Greater Boston League in 2004.
Senior Ryan Power is a true product of the youth program. The 6-foot-2, 190-pound forward grew up in a house adjacent to the Wilders, began training with Wilder in fourth grade, and has volunteered with his youth program each of the last three summers.
“Every day the high school team starts practice with the same drill – dribbling, reverse-pivot, and jab steps – that [Wilder] does with the young kids,” said Power, who is averaging 21 points per game and can soon become the fifth player in program history to reach 1,000 career points.
“It starts with what he teaches us from day one and it really translates [to the varsity level.] So he’s able to use us as an example.”
When Wilder was hired as coach, his brother, Brian (a fellow Waltham alum and 1,000-point scorer at Colby-Sawyer College) took over the youth program.
Wilder still plays a role at the youth level and coaches AAU with the Middlesex Magic club. His son, Brendan, is now part of Waltham’s undefeated freshman team, indicating the long-term viability of the program.
“That’s the biggest reward for me,” said Wilder. “To see my son’s team become the first freshman class to start [10-0] it shows that we’re continuing to build, and hopefully we can have some sustained success.”
During his time on the youth circuit, Wilder took note of how Metrowest Basketball general manager Mike Vaughan , the head coach at Mansfield High, creates a model for sustained success at the youth level. With help from Vaughan, he began to implement his own model in Waltham.
Now Wilder is getting excellent play from Power and fellow senior Tyrone Monosiet,who have led the Hawks to quality wins over Boston Latin, Malden Catholic, and defending D1 Central champion Acton-Boxborough.
But like the program as a whole, Power is flying under the radar as a college prospect.
“[Power] is kind of a hidden secret,” said Wilder. “He’s a classic example of a kid who benefitted from starting ball the right way, beginning in fourth grade. That’s what it’s been like for us the last couple years.
“Nobody really knows who we are, but I kind of like being the underdog type.”
His players seem to like that role as well. According to Power, Wilder doesn’t yell or give motivational speeches to a tight-knit group that has played together for nearly 10 years. But that doesn’t diminish the intensity of their player-coach relationships.
“[Wilder] is a great motivator on the court and a better person off the court,” said Power. “He was such an encouraging coach that he really made me fall in love with the sport.
“Ask anybody on the team, we’d all run through a brick wall for him.”
For Wilder, leading Waltham to a rare league title would be a great accomplishment. Perhaps even greater would be creating a winning atmosphere to instill a sense of pride for his fellow Waltham residents.
“Just like building a house, [Wilder] started with a solid foundation and that will be there for years to come,” said Vaughan. “We saw a glimpse last year and now we’re really starting to see the fruits of his labor.”
■ There are tournaments to watch across the state over MLK weekend, including the Hoop Hall Classic in Springfield. The action begins Thursday with four MIAA boys’ matchups, followed by four MIAA girls’ games on Friday night. Beginning at 9 a.m. Saturday, powerhouse boys’ programs from across the country tangle, capped by an 8 p.m. game featuring California’s Sierra Canyon — the No. 7 team in USA Today’s national Top 25. In addition to local product Shy Odom (Chestnut Hill), Sierra Canyon features Lebron James Jr. and Zaire Wade, the the son of Dwyane Wade. Dorchester native Terrence Clarke, a Kentucky signee, leads Brewster Academy (N.H.) onto the court on Sunday afternoon.
No. 1 Montverede (Fla.) faces No. 6 IMG Academy (Fla.) in a matchup featuring 10 recruits in ESPN’s Top 100 for the Class of 2020.
In all, 14 of the Top 20 nationally-ranked teams will compete at Springfield’s Blake Arena over three full days of basketball. Springfield Central and St. John’s Prep cap the action Monday with an MIAA matchup.
■ The BABC Classic continues at Cathedral High with four prep school matchups on Saturday and Sunday. Brookline and Bridgewater-Raynham follow the action at 4:30 p.m. Sunday. On Monday, O’Bryant faces St. John’s Prep at 11 a.m., followed by Everett and Snowden at 12:20 p.m. Then, Cambridge and TechBoston tangle in premier matchup at 1:40 p.m.
■ The Medford and Somerville boys’ and girls’ programs face off at Cousens Gymnasium (12 p.m. And 2 p.m.) on Sunday in the fourth annual Tufts Classic. Admission is free and fans are asked to bring a donation for local food pantries.
■ BC High graduate Carl Pierre, a junior guard at UMass, recently became the 52nd player in program history to top 1,000 career points . . . Hull senior guard Trevor MacDonald topped the 1,000-point barrier in a 60-46 win over Carver on Tuesday . . . Plymouth North’s JayQuan Leonard scored his 1,000th point during a 46-32 win over Silver Lake.
Games to Watch
Wednesday, Brighton at Burke, 5:30 p.m. – Kurtis Martin has the Bengals playing well in his second season as head coach. Brighton takes on an athletic Burke squad in a Boston City League South showdown.
Friday, Newton North at Needham, 6:30 p.m. – The Tigers dropped an early-season Bay State Conference tilt to Natick for the second straight year, but are still the team to beat in the BSC Carey Division. BSC Herget leader Needham awaits their rivals in a crossover matchup.
Friday, Scituate at Hanover, 6:30 p.m. – These Patriot League rivals split the season series last year before Scituate pulled out a 62-56 win over Hanover in the Division 2 South quarterfinals.
Friday, Catholic Memorial at BC High, 7 p.m. – While the Eagles swept the Knights last year en route to a share of the Catholic Conference title, those wins came by a combined 3 points. Will we have another photo finish on Morrissey Boulevard?
Monday, TechBoston at Cambridge, 1:40 p.m. – The two-time defending D2 state champions challenge themselves against another D1 power, as they take on Cambridge in the BABC MLK Classic at Cathedral.
Nate Weitzer can be reached at email@example.com.