Castine—Seven months into his new role as head mens basketball coach at Maine Maritime Academy, David Muchnick is looking to the future.
The team is now 2-17 this year, with a win at home on January 24 against Johnson State during the academy’s annual alumni basketball weekend.
But the win-loss record doesn’t tell the whole story.
“We are a much better team than our record indicates,” Muchnick said in a recent interview.
With only one senior on the roster, the Mariners are the youngest team in the NCAA New England Conference, although Muchnick is quick to say that this is “not an excuse.” Instead, he describes it “as a learning year for a lot of players.”
And, as a new head coach, Muchnick is recruiting for next year at the same time he guides his current team through the season. Or, as he puts it, he’s “planning for the future but focused on the present.”
His goal, he said, is to “turn our basketball program into a successful one.”
As a career coach for Division III teams—he spent nine years as an assistant coach at three different schools and the last half of 2013-14 as an interim head coach—he is familiar with the challenges of recruiting standout players without the golden apple of a scholarship to offer. Instead, his job is to convince them of the quality of the education they will receive.
For MMA, this doesn’t mean a potential student-athlete needs to be interested in the maritime industry. With business and engineering degrees available, MMA is “a less secretive secret” than it once was, Muchnick said, especially with its 2014 ranking by Money Magazine as the top public college based on educational quality, affordability and alumni earnings.
“Our name as a strong, technical school is out around the country,” Muchnick said. He estimates that two-thirds of interested recruits for next year are not necessarily interested in the maritime industry but are considering business and engineering programs.
While Muchnick is familiar with recruiting for a maritime academy—his last four years were with the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, New York—the hurdles at MMA are different.
“The challenges are the cost of the education,” he said, especially compared to USMMA where full scholarships are available in return for service stints with the military.
A second challenge is the comparatively isolated location of MMA. And, finally, Muchnick pointed to the job of educating people that MMA “is not just a state school.”
“It’s finding those student-athletes and getting them interested, showing them [MMA] can lead to the path of their success.”
Or, as he describes it, “recruiting…from the back end,” where the academic program and “the close-knit family environment” of MMA and Castine are stressed.
Muchnick appears to have succeeded, with potential recruits “coming next year from every time zone.”
And because of his experience at USMMA, Muchnick is also familiar with the different demands regimental student-athletes face, although he said athletes get some accommodations, such as not as many watch assignments on the T/V State of Maine during the sport season.
The team has 10 members, with six in the regiment, but began with 14, losing players to low academic grades and injuries—and to “finding out who wants to be here…who’s buying into what we’re teaching.”
After all, a new coach often means a new approach.
“The people that have stuck it out are the more internally motivated,” Muchnick says, which serves to improve the overall basketball program.
“We can continue to do what we’ve always done,” he said, “and we’ll continue to get what we’ve always gotten.”
To change that pattern, Muchnick said he has asked his players “to do things they’ve never been asked to before.”
And his team has stepped up too, he said, training, lifting weights and playing pick-up games, on their own, year-round, which helped them prepare for practices that are “significantly harder than they were used to.”
His team knows what winning takes, Muchnick said. “Winning doesn’t happen by accident.”
While Muchnick is recruiting for next year, nine of his 10 players will compete with the new recruits for a spot as starter.
“One of my core beliefs is that competition breeds success,” he said. Players work hard to keep their spots, while the “players behind are motivated to get more minutes” on the court.
“Our team success for this year and probably next year is not going to necessarily be determined by wins and losses but by the product we put on the floor [and] what it looks like.”
The Mariners’ season record mirrors, so far, that of last year, when the team finished 2-23. “I don’t think our [current] record shows the progress we’ve made this last six months,” Muchnick said. “We’ve been in a lot of close games. We’ve gone from losing big to losing a lot smaller.”
A personal transition
As transplant from Kings Point to the Blue Hill Peninsula, Muchnick has gone from big city to small town living, from a place where he could grab a pizza any time of the day or night to a place “where it’s a challenge to find a gallon of milk” seven days a week.
He says the adjustment “is the first thing that every one asks me about, from opponents to refs to recruits and their families. The only answer I can give is that what I’m doing on a daily basis, what has been such a dream of mine, outweighs [any negatives].”
His description of talking to potential recruits echoes his own response to his move to the Peninsula.
“You talk to student-athletes. What’s the most important aspect [of college]? The social life? Then maybe MMA’s not the place for you.”
But, if you “buy into a vision of the rest of your life,” then the perspective changes.
Athletic director Steve Peed and women’s basketball coach Craig Dagan have continued their tenure at MMA despite other opportunities and coaching experiences, Muchnick said. He also points to the academy administration: “What sold me on the school was the leadership of Steve Peed, [Vice President] Liz True and [President Bill] Brennan.”
And, as a member of the local community, Muchnick has continued the academy’s involvement with youth sports, organizing two half-time scrimmages of middle school teams in February, helped by assistant coach Keenan Eaton, who coached Castine’s Adams School boys team for two years.
In addition, Muchnick will help lead two basketball camps at MMA this summer, one week for boys and girls ages 6 through 13, and a long weekend for high school athletes. This “high school prospect camp” is open to “anybody that wants to be essentially immersed in what college basketball is like,” Muchnick said, and will also include potential recruitment to the MMA team.
“As we get more well known and continue to grow our program, we’ll see more connection and familiarity” with the Peninsula community, he concluded. “Ultimately I chose to be here….I intend on staying a long time.”