Four-Point Play: Toomey's Tenure in Purple
Issue   |   Fri, 05/23/2014 - 12:01
Photo courtesy of Office of Public Affairs
"Nothing matches winning a national championship," Toomey said. "The moment the final buzzer went off, emotions started pouring out."

Conquering adversity is always a part of life for athletes. The greatest players in sports have an extraordinary ability to motivate themselves, overcome obstacles and capitalize upon every opportunity that comes their way. Div. III National Player of the Year Aaron Toomey, senior point guard on the men’s basketball team, has certainly had to conquer some adversity during his basketball career — he ended up at Amherst after a high school injury left him unable to play Div. I ball. And yet, Toomey never let any injury stop him. He has made the most of his four years here at Amherst, leading the team to three consecutive NESCAC titles and a national title in 2013.

A Young Sports Fanatic

When he was younger, Toomey played a lot of sports, and that’s all he ever wanted to do.

“Whether it be with a basketball, soccer ball or baseball, I was always playing a sport,” he reflected on his childhood. “My dad and my brother were my biggest influences growing up. My dad got me into sports, and I instantly loved them. My brother, who is a year older than me, was always bigger and stronger and always challenged me to be better even if he didn’t realize it.”

Toomey had many different sources of influence growing up and over the course of his basketball career. Toomey said that growing up, he looked up to Chris Paul for what he does both on and off the court. Like Toomey, Paul is slightly undersized and plays point guard.

“He handles himself so well off the court and is a top three NBA player at the same time,” Toomey said. “I’ve always loved watching him play.”

Toomey’s journey to Amherst did not come exactly the way he envisioned it. Between his junior and senior years of high school, Toomey broke his hand, which proved to be a frustrating setback in the recruiting process.

“It was the worst possible time to go down with an injury,” Toomey said.

Rather than pursue his dream of playing Div. I basketball, Toomey was forced to watch from the sidelines as many of his teammates earned scholarships to big name schools. Playing Div. III basketball became Toomey’s Plan B.

Making the most of the hand he was dealt, Toomey decided to play for Amherst. He said that he was attracted to the college both for its basketball program and for its strong academics.

“It was a tough decision for me, but my family kept reminding me that nowhere matched what Amherst could offer me,” he said.

The Road to a National Championship

Like any incoming college first-year, Toomey was eager to find ways to prove himself to coach David Hixon ’75 and the rest of the staff during his first season. His big moment came during his first appearance in the storied rivalry between Amherst and Williams. Toomey recalled that every Amherst-Williams game in which he played would draw a huge crowd. He said that the “great atmosphere” of an Amherst-Williams game always brought out the best in both sides.

“It’s the greatest rivalry I have ever been a part of,” Toomey said. “Every time the two schools meet, no matter the sport, it is special.”

After taking a couple minutes to adjust to the pace and physicality that first Amherst-Williams game, Toomey poured in 23 points and added six assists. It was an auspicious start to an extraordinary basketball career. That year, Toomey was voted NESCAC Rookie of the Year. By the end of his four years on the team, he would go on to stand alone as the all-time leading scorer in Amherst College history.

Toomey spent his first two seasons at Amherst developing his game and progressing as a player both mentally and physically.

“Aaron was a really tough competitor,” Hixon said. “Even in practices, he hated to lose, no matter the drill or contest.”

By the time junior year came around, Toomey was ready to start creating his legacy.

Coming into the year, the team lost five seniors from a solid squad that had previously fallen a few rounds short of the national championship game. The team started the year with five wins and zero losses, but proceeded to lose two of their next three games.

After a team meeting called by the captains, Amherst began a historic run to the national title game with Toomey leading the way. Hixon described Toomey as a “coach on the floor.” He recalled that Toomey was “always coming to the bench during any stoppage” to ask coaches if there was anything at all they saw that could be done to make the team better.

The then-junior averaged 17.4 points, five assists and 4.7 rebounds per game, earning All-American honors from the National Basketball Coaches Association. He would later take home Div. III National Player of the Year honors, selected from a pool of hundreds of players across the country.

The team headed to Atlanta for the national championship game, playing before a crowd of close to 7,000 fans. Their opponents, Mary-Hardin Baylor, put up a good fight right up until the end, when Toomey hit a game-sealing three-pointer that secured Amherst’s second national championship in the school’s history. The Jeffs ended up winning 87-70.

“Nothing matches winning a national championship,” Toomey said. “The moment the final buzzer went off, emotions started pouring out.”

Toomey said that the close bonds between him and his teammates made their success all the more rewarding.

“Being able to celebrate an accomplishment like that with my best friends was the best feeling ever,” he said.

“We are a family,” he added. “Both present and past players. It’s a huge family that will always be connected in a special way.”

Hixon said that Toomey was always aware of his teammates while on the court and was generous to his teammates when he needed to be.

“Although he ended as our leading scorer, Aaron was about winning first, and if a teammate who could make a shot was open, Aaron would hit him for the easier basket,” Hixon said. “If not, Aaron would find a way to create a game winner himself!”

Toomey said he appreciated being able to share the championship with Hixon, saying that he “could not have asked for a better person to play for the last four years.”

“Hix is one of the best there is,” Toomey said. “At any level.”

Wrapping Up an Impressive Four Years

Coming back for his senior year after the championship, Toomey’s expectations were high for the team once again, and he certainly did his part. The senior averaged 20.5 points per game and led the NESCAC conference with 6.4 assists per game. He was NESCAC Player of the Year for a second straight year, making him only the second person in league history to earn this honor, after Andrew Olson ‘08, another Amherst player who accomplished the feat in 2008.

As a team, Amherst went 27-3 before falling to archrival Williams in the national semifinals. Regardless, Toomey’s time on the court at Amherst left him as one of the most decorated players in school history. And Toomey has no regrets.

“Amherst basketball has become a national power, and I was extremely happy to be able to be a part of that tradition,” he said.

After he graduates this year, Toomey will certainly be missed.

“Aaron Toomey is one of the finest players to don an Amherst uniform in the 43 years I’ve been connected with the program,” Hixon said.

Unsurprisingly, Toomey does not plan to give up basketball just yet. After graduating this spring, he plans on continuing his basketball career overseas in Europe. Last season, another Amherst standout, Willy Workman ’13, was able to make the roster of a professional team in Israel; Toomey hopes to follow in his footsteps.

Until then, though, the star of the Amherst basketball team for the past four years is enjoying a little break from the sport. In his free time, Toomey is a huge Cubs fan (unfortunately for him) and loves to play golf. Over the course of the next few weeks, he will take some time to reflect on his time at Amherst both academically and athletically, before taking on a new set of challenges with his overseas career.

“I am very excited about the process and look forward to the challenges ahead,” he said.