VUHS hoop star Connor Merrill is back in town

MIDDLEBURY — Connor Merrill describes the first stop on his basketball journey after graduating from Vergennes Union High School in 2010 as both the most challenging and most valuable.
Merrill, a Panton native and former Independent Player of the Year, has landed back in Addison County after an all-star hoop career at Skidmore College (he scored 1,000 points there and at VUHS), followed by stints assisting successful Vermont Academy and Springfield College programs.
Now Merrill is assisting another perennially winning program, Coach Jeff Brown’s Middlebury College Panthers.
And he believes his first stay at Vermont Academy, a post-graduate year in 2010-2011, made all of that possible.
But it didn’t feel that way when he arrived at the school’s Saxton’s River campus. Merrill had been recruited by one coach running a modest program, but another, Jesse Bopp, took over before he arrived. Bopp had assisted at Florida and Virginia Commonwealth under top NCAA Division I coaches Billy Donovan and Shaka Smart, and Bopp had a different vision for Vermont Academy.
To put it mildly, Merrill recalled, Bopp did not plan to build around the VUHS forward: He wanted to groom top college prospects.
“It was a nightmare at first. It was just a night-and-day difference from what I was used to. Before I was a big fish in a small pond. I played basketball because I was good at it and I liked it. I went to Vermont Academy and I’m around a guy who had been around a recent back-to-back national champion and been around a coach like Shaka Smart,” Merrill said. “And he brought in inner-city kids from Baltimore, Toronto, Boston, from different points of the East Coast, and it was just a culture shock.”
And Bopp, who has since moved on to assist two more D-I programs that reached the NCAA tournament, had a different style than VUHS Coach Peter Quinn.
“Jesse, he was a screamer. He was on my case 25 hours a day, yelling at me, calling me all the names trying to get under my skin, trying to change me, just to make me tougher,” Merrill said. “And I really didn’t deal with it well for a while. I was down on myself. I didn’t have any confidence, and I really didn’t like basketball.”
But it paid off, Merrill said, and he is now so close to Bopp that he flew to Virginia for Bopp’s wedding earlier this month. And back then he bonded with his teammates.
“Something just clicked. I wanted to prove him wrong. So I just finally bought in, taking charges, diving on the floor, just being tougher, being meaner, being nastier. And we had no problems,” he said. “The last 10, 12 games of the year I finished really strong.”
And not only was Merrill competing in a league with future NBA players (Michael Carter-Williams, Nerlens Noel and Georges Niang), on a daily basis the future NCAA D-III player went up against future D-I athletes.
“Playing with three or four Division I players in pickup and practice every day, you’re going to get better,” Merrill said.
When Merrill graduated from VUHS he was recruited by Castleton and Colby-Sawyer colleges, and Skidmore had mild interest. As his play improved in prep school, Skidmore took more notice.
Merrill liked the coach and the campus, the school gave him a competitive aid package, the Skidmore team was competitive in the Liberty League, and he believed he could earn minutes quickly, even on a veteran squad.
His confidence was rewarded early in his freshman season. On a team with nine seniors, Merrill mostly sat the bench in the first few games. Then Skidmore struggled at Castleton in game four. Merrill subbed in and scored 17 points in a 108-99 overtime win, with family members and many friends looking on.
“I wanted to perform well in front of them. Luckily I did, and earned some minutes the rest of the year,” he said. “I was confident going into the year, too, after everything I had gone through at Vermont Academy.”
That season Merrill typically played up to 20 minutes a game. Skidmore upset Hobart in the league title game to earn an NCAA bid, and defeated NESCAC champion Wesleyan in the first round before losing a tight game in a regional final.
Skidmore won another NCAA tournament game in Merrill’s senior year. Merrill was a tri-captain and finished as a four-time all-league player, graduated as Skidmore’s career leader in blocked shots (212), ranked ninth in rebounds (543), and scored 1,256 points.
He believes Vermont Academy made it all possible.
“I think it changed everything. It got me to be much more competitive, understanding what it means to compete, and everything that goes into winning. And if I had never gone to prep school I never would have had the career I did in college,” he said.
Early in his Skidmore years Merrill caught the coaching bug.
“Initially it was just my love of the game,” Merrill said. “And then I realized just working a bunch of camps in between (school years) how fun it is working with kids and teaching them stuff, and just seeing the impact you can have on other people. I’ve been fortunate enough to be around really good coaches who have helped shape me and impact me, and I want to do it for other people.”
After he graduated he briefly worked that summer at Middlebury College as an unpaid assistant. But then his prep school alma mater — specifically former Panther assistant Alex Popp, who had taken over as Vermont Academy’s head coach and who Merrill also knew — got in touch about being a paid assistant there.
“I couldn’t turn that down. I talked to Jeff (Brown), and he totally understood,” Merrill said. “I went down there in November and stuck around for the year, and it was great. I learned a lot.”
There he helped the team win its first New England Preparatory School Athletic Council Class AA title, and he was part of the league’s Coaching Staff of the Year.
Merrill also coached current NBA player Bruce Brown and Xavier University starting junior forward Tyrique Jones, who is an athletic six-nine and 230 pounds, but whose skills needed refining.
To explain the joy of coaching Merrill talked about Jones. He recalled showing Jones a particular move one day, and then seeing Jones use it successfully the next day; Jones gave Merrill a non-verbal shout-out.
“I really took him under my wing and tried to show him a lot of my post moves,” Merrill recalled. “He was such a quick learner. I showed him a post move the day before, and in that game he used this one spin move, and he runs down the court and points at me. And this was like, this is why I’m in it. This is fun. That sold it even more for me. And that’s just on a small scale. That’s just on the court.”
After the season, Popp recommended Merrill to Springfield Coach Charlie Brock to be Brock’s graduate assistant, which would mean Merrill could earn a master’s in athletic administration while working with the hoop program.
Brock hired him, he was accepted to the program, and now Merrill has a backup plan as well as a new job.
“I envy guys like Jeff or Coach Brock down in Springfield who have such long tenures at really good schools. That’s something I want and I’m going to try to get,” he said. “But coaching is hard. It’s a hard industry to make it in. There’s definitely some luck in it. So I figured it’s good to have another background to fall back on.”
The Pride went 14-13 in Merrill’s first year, and then this past winter the team won its league, the NEWMAC, and then reached the NCAA D-III final four, the finest season in program history.
After two years Merrill earned his degree, and his graduate assistant position expired. He networked, and among others called Panther assistant Kyle Dudley, learning he was leaving to be the head coach at Connecticut’s Salisbury School. He contacted Brown and got the job.
“I knew Jeff, and knew how good a program this was, and knew this school, the athletic culture that exists here, it’s such a high-level athletic culture. I wanted to be part of it,” he said.
Merrill is also happy to be back in the neighborhood after years away on his hoop quest.
“I figured I’d have the opportunity to be around, close to home, be around my parents a little bit, and my friends,” he said. “I would love to stay around for a couple years. And then it’s coaching. You never know what’s going to happen.”
What he learned at Vermont Academy made him “realize how much harder and more aggressive I could have played” while at VUHS, Merrill said, but he also looks back fondly at his years at the school and is in touch with Commodore teammates and friends. And basketball in his hometown did inspire him to follow the right path.
“It was a good springboard,” he said. “Vergennes is a basketball town. People were in the stands watching Jesse Epstein, and then watching me, and they’re still watching games in Vergennes. So it’s a great community, and they’re passionate about basketball there.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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