Peter Kaasila wasn’t much different than the other kids in Plaistow, N.H.
“I pretty much played everything,” said the Amherst College senior, who came a bit late to basketball.
“I didn’t take it serious until sixth grade.” He was pushing 6 feet. “I was always pretty tall.”
Maybe he just got tired of the inevitable suggestion about playing basketball.
So he did.
It hasn’t always been a smooth ride. He chose the wrong private school — St. Mark’s in Southborough — for playing time, but the right college in order to flourish at the Division 3 level. Now 6-foot-9 and 265 pounds, Kaasila is a big reason why Amherst has stormed to the national championship game, and will face the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor (27-5) Sunday afternoon in Atlanta for the title.
The Lord Jeffs (29-2) have not lost since Dec. 6, when the team fell to Babson, 78-70. Kaasila, a captain playing 25 minutes per game, is averaging 12.8 points and six rebounds while shooting 64 percent from the field.
Head coach Dave Hixon picked up Kaasila’s trail at summer camps during his days at Timberlane Regional High in Plaistow, and at Academic Elite camps.
“He was very interested in academics,” said Hixon. “We stayed in touch with him.”
Kaasila left Timberlane after two years to enroll at St. Mark’s, repeating his sophomore year and graduating in 2009. Great school, bad timing.
St. Mark’s was a national power led by 6-10 stalwarts Erik Murphy and Nate Lubick, who went on to become starters at Division 1 Florida and Georgetown, respectively. “Playing behind those kids, Peter didn’t play very much,” said Hixon.
Team scrimmages were interesting. Going up against Murphy and Lubick every day in practice toughened Kaasila. “It was hard to get a shot off,’’ he said. “I’d always been the tallest kid.”
Kaasila had considered going to Governor’s Academy in Newbury, where he might have gotten more minutes. “I went to St. Mark’s because I decided I wanted to play basketball after college,” he said.
“I liked St. Mark’s. I’m not saying I didn’t get discouraged; it was pretty tough. I basically didn’t play. But I made great friends there.”
Dixon went to a couple of St. Mark’s games. Half of the crowd in the gym seemed to be recruiters from top Division 1 colleges trying to get on the good side of Lubick and Murphy.
“It was a shame Peter had to play behind all those great kids, but it was good for us,” said Hixon. The Amherst coach loved his size. “No fat. All muscle. He was a skilled big body. I was afraid a Patriot or Ivy League school would take him.
“But we hung with him. He made a late decision.” Hixon said that the St. Mark’s coach at the time, Dave Lubick, felt Amherst would be “a good fit” for Kaasila.
Kaasila saw some action in his freshman year at Amherst.
“He still wasn’t starting as a sophomore, but he was coming along,” said Hixon. “He was getting mentally tougher.”
Last season he was a battle-tested starter. “I was definitely more comfortable,” said Kaasila.
Hixon said Kaasila “can score going to his left or right. He likes to range outside sometimes. But I like him on the blocks. Teams have to figure out how to defend him. He demands the ball now when he’s open. That’s a big step because he’s a shy kid.”
Hixon played hoops for his father, Wilbur, at Andover High.
In 1970, Dave’s senior year, Andover won the Class C Tech Tourney championship at Boston Garden. Playing for his father “had its moments,” said Hixon. “He only threw three kids out of practice. It was always me.”
But the basketball bond was strong. Will Hixon has been inducted into four basketball halls of fame: Andover High, Plymouth (N.H.) State, Mass. High School Coaches, and New England. “I’ve introduced him in every one,” said his proud son.
Hixon has racked up a 663-250 record in 36 years at Amherst, the fifth-best career record in Division 3. He led the Lord Jeffs to the national title in 2007, beating Virginia Wesleyan. Amherst returned to the championship game the next year, losing to Washington University, of St. Louis.
A chance at a national ring means a lot to Kaasila.
“Only one team is going to end the season with a win,” he said. “We’re being very serious about it.”
Earlier in the season, the team’s chances were not looking that good, after Amherst lost two straight to slip to 6-2. Kaasila and the other two captains, Allen Williamson and Willy Workman, called a team meeting.
“We said, ‘This is not what this team is about,’ ’’ Kaasila said. “The next game we beat a good Brandeis team . We played excellent.”
Amherst never looked back. The Lord Jeffs will arrive in Atlanta with a 23-game winning streak.
“I’m ecstatic,” said Kaasila.
By the way, Florida and Georgetown are all done.