Editor’s Note: This is a modified and extended piece of an article Eugene Rapay wrote for the Jan. 30, 2016 issue of the Enterprise. Due to the hard word count and other restraints, an altered version of that piece is featured here on VUBenchMob.com
He’s gotten to meet President Barack Obama, sit elbow-to-elbow with some of the greatest athletes at the ESPYs–athletes like LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Reggie Miller–visit Spain, and be a part of a victory tour of National Championship proportions.
Yet through all this, Eric Paschall is happiest to do be able to do one thing–above all of the fanfare, glitz, and glamour.
“Just being able to play this year,” said Paschall, smiling. “I’ll say that.”
He waited with excitement for the 2016-17 college basketball season to begin. According to the NCAA’s transfer rules, a player has to sit out a year, should an athlete decide to leave school and enroll somewhere else. After a spending a successful year at Fordham, where he averaged 16.9 points per game and 5.5 rebounds per game en route to Atlantic 10 Rookie of the Year honors, he was ready to finally suit up and play on game days, doing so on the biggest stage of his life.
The regularly sold-out Pavilion features crowds approximately four to five times larger than the ones he saw at Fordham. Enjoying the championship fanfare and now playing for the No. 1-ranked team in the country seemed like a pipedream, especially during his Fordham days or when he was a high school player at St. Thomas More (Conn.) or in his hometown of Dobbs Ferry (N.Y.).
The 6-foot-7 forward is seemingly larger than life to those who live in the small town of Dobbs Ferry, which rests by the Hudson River approximately 20 minutes away from New York City. He spent the first three years of his high school career there, wearing the blue and white as a member of the Eagles.
Dobbs Ferry is typically known for its football program. Since the turn of the millennium, it has raked in four state titles in seven championship game appearances. Meanwhile, the basketball program hadn’t even won a sectional title in 50 years, last doing so in 1967. Dobbs Ferry just wasn’t a basketball town. It wasn’t known for its talents on the hardwood. It rarely sent players to play at the collegiate level, let alone Division I.
Sure, it had Mark Blount in the 90s, who played at the University of Pittsburgh and got to enjoy a lengthy journeyman career in the NBA, but the town could hardly claim the one-year transfer student as its own. Paschall was a rare breed of homegrown basketball talent that Dobbs Ferry hadn’t seen before, and soon it would celebrate every 3-pointer or highflying play he would make, with the same enthusiasm as a touchdown.
“I started watching him even before he came up as a freshman, paying attention to what he was doing in middle school still,” said Scott Patrillo, Dobbs Ferry’s varsity basketball head coach, who coached Paschall from 2010-2013. “You could see even from that point that he was a special talent. He had great size at that point for a kid his age. Watching him outside of the school, handling a basketball, his shooting form at such a young age was so good for a kid his age. We just knew he was going to be something special.”
However, it wasn’t always easy for Paschall, who seemingly had blazed the trail to get to where he is now with ease. He elevated himself at each step of the way before becoming a member of the Wildcats, but there was a moment when the journey almost ended preemptively.
While he earned the luxury of being named to the varsity squad as a freshman, he quickly learned that his teammates were not going to take him lightly. Instead of being the star he envisioned, he went through some growing pains and frustration as a player on the bench.
“Eric was playing against kids much older than him, and I think what he thought was, no one was going to put him to work,” Patrillo said. “There was a rule amongst the kids we had at the time–it was a bunch of veteran kids, tough guys—‘Everybody had to fight, everybody had to work.’ They wanted to make sure Eric was going to do the same thing. He got banged around a little bit.”
The frustration culminated into a point where he almost quit the team. He was overwhelmed and a stoppage to playing basketball was very much a reality.
“I just told him, these guys are tough,” Patrillo said. “It’s kind of one of those things–you’re one of them, but you have to go out and show you’re one of them and that you belong here. You’ll fight, you’ll stand up, you’ll battle, and you’ll earn their respect very quickly when you do that.”
That’s exactly what he did. He remained on the team and finished out the rest of the season. It was the spark that lit the match, which started an inferno.
“It taught me to never give up,” Paschall said. “I learned a lot from that lesson, not playing my freshman year. It’s made me grown as a person and a basketball player.”
He blossomed into a star on the court the following year as a sophomore and then exploded onto the scene as a junior, when he was named New York’s Class B Player of the Year and Section I’s Mr. Basketball.
“In practice, we would run 5-on-5 half-court scrimmages and literally whatever team Eric was on, would win,” said Danny Foresti, a sophomore at Villanova, who was Paschall’s high school teammate from 2013-14. “It got to the point where he would sit out sometimes so other teams could win, so we could play without him. When he was in, he would just dominate too much.”
Paschall helped take the Eagles to the sectional title game three times, but in each of those trips, Dobbs Ferry came away empty handed.
For Paschall’s senior year, the Eagles were penciled in as a favorite to finally win it, but that quickly changed as he opted to transfer to St. Thomas More (Conn.)—a basketball powerhouse that has produced players like Detroit Pistons center Andre Drummond and current teammate Omari Spellman.
“We knew this right from the moment he was in eighth grade that it was a possibility that he was going to go to prep school and play at a different level,” Patrillo said. “There were no harsh feelings, not even amongst the players.”
Before leaving Dobbs Ferry, Paschall had committed to play at Fordham over offers from VCU, George Mason, Providence, and Manhattan. His senior year at St. Thomas More was a tune-up year for the rigors of collegiate basketball that lay ahead.
Upon graduating high school, he eventually enjoyed a solid freshman season at Fordham that put him in the national spotlight once he announced his intention to transfer out. Suitors from top-tier programs that hadn’t really looked at him in high school, were certainly looking now.
Eventually, his search of a new home ended at the Main Line.
“It’s close to home, great basketball, and great academics,” said Paschall of his decision to come to ‘Nova. “I just love the coaching, there’s a real family aspect with all the alumni, it’s just a great place here.”
Paschall arrived at Villanova at the right time too, as the Wildcats won the National Championship that same year. They beat North Carolina, 77-74, after Kris Jenkins’ buzzer-beating three solidified their place in the history books. Although he couldn’t play in any of the games during the title run, he participated in practices and is satisfied with his behind-the-scenes role in the journey towards the university’s first NCAA championship in 31 years.
“It made me a lot hungrier,” Paschall said of his redshirt season. “Last year, I felt like I still felt like I helped the team by simulating the best players on the other teams, and it helped me work on my defense as well, so last year was a great year for me. I feel like I was a part of it. Me and Donte [DiVincenzo] did a lot in practice that a lot of people didn’t get to see, so it’s preparing everybody else for the games.”
The wait has been worth it, as the former small town star is now a steady contributor in Villanova’s rotation. Making matters even sweeter, the Wildcats are currently the No. 1-ranked team in the nation.
“He’s really developing for us; I think he can get a lot better,” said Villanova head coach Jay Wright. “He’s very versatile. He’s learning his way, but while he’s learning, he’s impactful defensively; he’s impactful on the glass. As a post player, offensively–I think he’s got a lot of better basketball ahead of him, but he’s still impacting our team.”
So far, so good for the redshirt sophomore this season, who’s producing 7.4 points per game and 3.7 rebounds per game, while averaging just under 20 minutes per game.
While he was a star player and focal point for opponents all throughout his previous stops at Fordham, St. Thomas More (Conn.), and Dobbs Ferry, the diminished role from being a top starter to a rotational player off the bench is something that doesn’t bother him.
“I like it; I can bring energy to the team in different ways, mostly defensively and rebounding,” Paschall said. “It doesn’t bother me. I have great players around me, that’s why I transferred, just to play with great people.”
His playing time isn’t the only facet of his game that has changed. Those who remember him fondly lighting up the scoreboard in high school as a skinny shooting guard or small forward won’t recognize the player that he is now. (He’s also ditched the pre-game ritual of going to Taco Bell.)
Paschall now stands at 6-foot-7 and a bulked-up 250 pounds and is a staple in Villanova’s frontcourt—unafraid to rumble with opposing big guys down low. However, his guard skills and shooting ability makes him an all-around threat, despite his bigger size. It’s a transition that’s been just as smooth as everything else.
“When I was younger, I used to play the five, too,” Paschall said. “So I could develop guard skills, but always have big man skills. The switch to four or five doesn’t bother me, especially the way Coach Wright plays.”
His blend of skills has served him well, as he’s finding his niche within the team. His versatility is an excellent fit for Wright’s system at Villanova, one that’s filled with multi-faceted players and stretch bigs.
While he’s situated in his new home, playing in front of sold-out crowds and on national television is something that he’s still getting used to. At the same time, it’s something the small town native welcomes with open arms.
“Not this high,” he said, smiling, when asked about imagining playing on a bigger stage. “I hoped to play D-I when I was younger, but to be at this level is a blessing. It’s definitely a blessing.”