HARWICH – Isaiah Stafford first started playing basketball in the fourth grade. After watching professional basketball on television, he was ready for his own Paul Pierce moment, eventually parlaying his skills honed on a Harwich travel team into a spot on Monomoy's varsity team. This week, Stafford was selected to the Massachusetts Basketball Coaches Association All-Academic Team, proving that hard work pays off.
Stafford, one of the 2018-2019 team's three captains, was nominated for the award by Monomoy head coach Keith Arnold, who had an easy answer when asked why.
“Because he's Isaiah,” Arnold said with a knowing chuckle. “Having coached this long, kids like Isaiah come by very rarely.”
Arnold recalled Stafford making varsity as a sophomore when he was a stalwart defender for the Sharks. Through the years, however, Stafford progressed, earning more and more playing time. As a junior, Arnold remembered his impressive left-handed layups that seemed impossible but somehow went in more often than not. This season Stafford scored not only with his soaring layups but also from the perimeter. His prowess earned him an All-Star nod from the Cape and Islands League, along with the MBAC nomination from Arnold.
“In the three years we've been at Monomoy as a coaching staff, he's been the one constant from the time he was a sophomore coming off the bench,” said Arnold.
Stafford said he received a letter announcing the award last Friday and was stunned, contacting his head coach immediately and with gratitude.
“I had no clue. I thought it was amazing,” Stafford said. “I called Coach Arnold and he told me they only pick five students from each of the divisions (South, North, Central, West). I was so honored to be one of the five students from my division (South).” The award will be given at a special breakfast banquet at Holy Cross in Worcester on May 5.
Stafford said that since he was a young boy, basketball has held a special place in his life.
“My first experience with basketball came when I played on a Harwich travel team,” he said. “A couple of the guys I still play with today, so that was a good experience for me.”
He'd already become a big fan of the game by watching it on television.
“The Celtics had good teams,” he said. “I just knew that was the sport I wanted to play after watching it professionally. I always had a dream of going into the NBA. Obviously it's not going to pan out, but that's how I started really getting into it.”
As he progressed through school and various programs, he stuck with his favorite game, which he said became a source of respite when his high school course load grew more demanding as his senior year approached.
“It's meant a lot to me, especially in school,” Stafford said. “I'm taking some difficult courses. It's always been there to take the stress away. It's something I can go out for a couple hours and have fun with.”
While having fun, Stafford also scored dozens of points for the teams, playing first on Monomoy's junior varsity squad, and then for the last three seasons, on varsity.
“My first experience getting to know Isaiah came when I served as his freshman basketball coach,” said Stafford's MRHS guidance counselor Jonathan Bennett in a college letter of recommendation regarding Stafford. “If I could seek out one player for others to emulate, it would be Isaiah and all that he brings to the court.”
Arnold described Stafford's leadership as quiet but effective. At first, Stafford's chill demeanor had Arnold wondering what Stafford's captaincy might look like. He wasn't disappointed.
“This was the first year we had three captains,” Arnold said. “There were some games where I'd go to the captains and say, 'You guys have got to take some ownership.' Isaiah's presence was always there without him making any noise.”
Then, prior to the start of one game, Arnold walked into the locker room before the game to find a scene that he said he'll long remember.
“Isaiah was actually standing up in front of the white board diagramming x's and o's,” Arnold said. “I wanted to take a picture because all of a sudden this quiet kid now owns that team.”
And own it he did, seeing the Sharks through a double overtime victory against Bourne in the playoffs, and before that, a number of key wins in the regular season, including two against formerly unbeaten Cape Cod Academy.
But there is one game that will always stand out in Stafford's mind. During his sophomore season with the team, the Sharks went from winning one game during the previous season to battling through to the South Sectional finals. Though they faced a tough opponent in Cathedral, the experience was something special.
“My freshman year I was on JV and the varsity team only won one game,” said Stafford. “My sophomore year I made it onto varsity team and we ended up making it to the South Sectional finals. That was a huge turnaround and I was really glad that I was able to be a part of that.”
Stafford said what made the playoff games so memorable and exciting wasn't just the game play on the court, but the support from the fans in the stands. At Monomoy's final game of the 2018-2019 season the fan section was so large it took up more than half of that side of the bleachers.
“I think the biggest thing that I'll remember is all the home playoff games we had and the atmosphere our student section created,” Stafford said. “It was incredible, and we were able to win a couple of those games.”
Arnold said teammates and fans valued Stafford as well, as evidenced by a surprisingly touching moment during that last game, the MIAA Div. 3 South quarterfinals when players and fans became teary-eyed as Stafford stepped off the court in the fourth quarter, his high school career coming to an end.
“One thing I have never seen in all my years is when I took him out of the tournament game,” Arnold said. “How the bench was emotional about him coming out. They really felt respect for him, but sadness that he was leaving.”
Stafford said the experience of playing on a team comprised of diverse players from various backgrounds will serve him well going forward. He graduates from MRHS in June and will pursue a political science major, with the possibility of becoming a lawyer or politician in the future.
“Being able to work on a team, with so many different people coming from so many different areas, I'll be able to take that into my work life,” Stafford said. “Even if I don't mesh with people right away I'll be able to work things out and reach a common goal in the future.”
But there's more to the stellar senior than his mad basketball skills. Off the court, Stafford is a notable student ranked ninth in his class. His courses are either advanced placement, college prep, or honors, and his GPA is above 4.0. But that's not all. Fans of Monomoy's music program know that Stafford has been a member of the Select Choir for four years and has won an array of local and state awards for his talents, including being selected to perform for an East Coast Regional All-Star choir in Pittsburgh, Pa.
“He is a scholar, musician, athlete, and consummate gentleman and is strong in all four facets,” said Monomoy music teacher Rose Richard. “I was so proud during the All-State Music Festival his sophomore year to secure special permission for him to be excused from an evening rehearsal when our boys varsity basketball team was playing in the state tournament. I was even more proud to accompany him to a choral event involving top singers from Maine to Washington, D.C. last year in Pittsburgh!”
Stafford said with regards to basketball he is indebted to Arnold and his coaching staff for their dedication and support, and to his parents, Lisa and Howard, who ensured that Stafford and younger brother Eli, school choice students residing in Mashpee, made it to school and practices and rarely missed a game.
“Coach Arnold had a huge impact, and I really can't thank him and Coach Taylor enough for all they did,” Stafford said. “And my parents, they've been incredible helping me and my brother Eli get to practices and coming to games.”
“Everything he's accomplished he's worked for as well as anybody I've ever coached,” Arnold said. “He is the real deal.”