by Dan Gardella
FAIRFIELD- After every practice last season, you could see Aaron Clarke sticking around to get extra shots up with assistant coach Kevin Papacs. His post-practice routine included making ten shots from five spots around the perimeter before calling it a day. The six-foot-one guard wanted to make sure his shots were ones he would possible see in game situations.
But this summer, Clarke has been making sure more than just his outside shooting takes a step up prior to next season.
“I’ve been trying to improve on being an-all around better play,” said Clarke. “Getting my teammates involved more, trying to turn the ball over less and most importantly being a better leader. That’s where I feel I can improve the most.”
Clarke will undoubtedly be the Pioneers’ go-to guy in 2020-21 following a mass exodus of players from Sacred Heart’s most successful team in the program’s Division I history. Clarke is just one of four players returning from last season’s team.
With so many newcomers entering the program for next season, Clarke believes his biggest improvement needs to be on the leadership side.
“I try to lead by example more than with my words. I need to communicate more with my team rather than lead with actions on the court,” said Clarke.
It helps that Clarke had leaders such as Sean Hohen, E.J. Anosike, and others through his first two seasons in Fairfield.
“We’ve created a new culture at Sacred Heart and if you keep implementing the culture, people will come. If you’re always putting in extra work, more guys will follow,” said Clarke.
From the moment Clarke came to Sacred Heart in the fall of 2018, he was overlooked by the dynamic backcourt of Cameron Parker and Koreem Ozier. Being put in a new role such as a sixth man was new to him.
“It was definitely hard. It was eye-opening and something I hadn’t experienced before. More so just being in a new role. It was humbling, I’ll tell you that, which made me work hard. That’s what kept me to keep pushing. I knew my time would come,” said Clarke.
That time would come halfway through his sophomore season.
On Jan. 15, Parker broke his ankle against St. Francis, leaving Clarke in the driver’s seat for the final 15 games of the season. At the time, Clarke was only averaging 21 minutes a night.
“I was ready to jump right in,” said Clarke. “I try to prepare whether I’m starting or not as if I’m going to have huge impact on the game. My mentality didn’t change. Things were just on a bigger scale now that I was starting. I knew I had to be more productive since I was playing more minutes.”
While many people thought Sacred Heart would struggle in Parker’s absence, Clarke would help Sacred Heart go 10-5 down the stretch, while averaging 14 points and 4 assists in 34 minutes per game.
“I believe Aaron was a top-15 player in the league down the stretch. Had he started faster out of the gate and not struggled with some injuries, he could’ve been an All-League third team guy,” said head coach Anthony Latina.
Clarke tweaked his knee in a November matchup with Quinnipiac that forced him to miss a handful of games last season. As he continues to get his body in shape for next season, he is making sure he is 100% healthy.
“Most of the lower body workouts I haven’t been able to do,” said Clarke. “I just started physical therapy. Besides that, I’ve been trying to get my lateral back and make my footwork quicker. I want to take my game to the next level, especially defensively.”
While Clarke has been home in Parsippany, New Jersey, he has training with other New Jersey natives who are playing college basketball at a high level. One of those players is former Harvard standout and Seton Hall transfer, Bryce Aiken.
Aiken is just one of the many players who are in the New Jersey “brotherhood”, as Clarke sees it.
“Since I’ve been home, I can go to a park or a gym and play pickup basketball and see guys from all over the state. Everyone is in there to get better. By working out with guys like Bryce, it makes me want to work harder. When I play or workout with them, I want to match their intensity level and one-up them. It helps me personally up my game.”
As the summer continues and a season hopes to be played, Clarke is ready to lead a young Pioneer team by carrying the newly created culture into the 2020-21 season.
“The most important thing to me is to be Northeast Conference champs at the end of the year and I’ll do anything to reach that.”