Noah Fager knew to reach a goal of playing college basketball he would have to work hard and long before achieving his athletic objective.
“I wasn’t necessarily the most talented player to begin with,” Fager says. “I remember in the eighth grade I couldn’t even make a layup. But I put in a lot of hours and got better and better.”
On Wednesday, Fager showed just how much improvement he’s made over the years by signing scholarship players to extend his playing career at Tennessee Wesleyan University.
“I want to help my college team any way I can,” said Fager, who averaged 13 points and 4.7 rebounds while leading the Hurricanes to the Region 3-3A tournament title (a program first) and a win over Blackman in the sectional (another first) before losing to eventual state champion Memphis East 76-56 in the quarterfinals.
“If a player goes down (injury) I want to come in for that guy and make it to where they don’t notice he’s gone. If they want something done, I want to do it. Today I’m really excited for the chance I have at Tennessee Wesleyan.”
TWU assistant coach Ray Stone, who attended Fager’s signing party at East Hamilton, believes the Bulldogs have met a recruiting goal of thier own by landing one of only two seniors on the Hurricanes roster in 2016-17.
“We try to recruit guys that fit our system,” Stone said. “Noah is used to playing hard and playing in a system at East Hamilton that’s similar in many ways to what we do at Tennessee Wesleyan. That should make the transition to college ball easier for him.”
The Bulldogs have won five Appalachian Athletic Conference titles and appeared in five NAIA national tournaments in coach Mike Poe’s 13 seasons. Poe has an overall record of 238-171. The Bulldogs went 18-13 last season, including an 11-9 AAC mark.
East Hamilton coach Rodney English and Poe have a relationship covering two decades, dating to when Poe coached at Science Hill High School and when English was at nearby East Tennessee State University.
English telephoned Poe and told him about Fager’s contribution to the Hurricanes’ program and his potential to be a standout player at the college level.
“(Poe) came down the next day and looked at Noah,” English said. “Coach Poe said, ‘Rodney, I knew he’d be good because you said he was good. I’ve got to have him.’ They got it done.”
Fager, who shot 46 percent from 3-point distance, toured the TWU campus in Athens, Tennessee, multiple times, watched the Bulldogs practice, saw a couple of games and his choosing to join Poe’s program was in the end easy.
“It’s a small school but is athletically oriented,” said Fager, who also considered Milligan, which is also an AAC member. “It seems like everybody there is playing some kind of sport. I knew that I definitely wanted to go there. I like the coaches, the team, everything about the school.
“They play similar to what we play here at East Hamilton. They like an up-beat, fast-paced, get-the-ball-and-go style. And they see me playing at the three or four and that’s basically the same thing I did in high school.”
In 2014-15, East Hamilton finished 14-16 and lost to Ooltewah in the District 5-3A tournament. The following season the Hurricanes wound up 19-12 and lost again in the district tourney to McMinn County.
The ‘Canes were 0-2 in the postseason in English’s first two seasons.
East Hamilton changed course this past season by winning nine of the first 10 games. On Jan. 19, the Hurricanes lost to Tyner 49-39. They followed up with six straight district wins, including a thrilling 78-77 overtime victory at Cleveland that was the Blue Raiders’ only regular-season setback in league play.
The Blue Raiders avenged that loss with a 30-point blowout against East Hamilton for the District 5-3A tournament title. Nine days later the ‘Canes beat Walker Valley for the Region 3-3A title.
Four days after that win East Hamilton upended Blackman 72-68 in the sectional to earn its first trip to Murfreesboro and the boys’ state tournament.
Memphis East proved too much for the Hurricanes and their inexperience playing in the bright lights of the TSSAA state tourney stage.
Still, Fager has nothing but fond memories of the season as he turns his attention to new challenges at TWU.
“I couldn’t be more thankful for my team,” he said. “As a senior, going to state is the way you want to go out for sure. Had it been a year earlier I think that would be devastating to end a career again in the district tournament.
“And I know coach English coming to East Hamilton helped me become a better player. He showed me the difference between a bad player and a good player and what I had to do to reach the next level.”
Even with thoughts of Fager leaving East Hamilton and heading to TWU, English is finding it rough to let him go.
“To help our program, every morning he comes in to work out, and remember we start school at 7:15,” English said. “He works on his ball-handling and lateral movement, but the thing I’m most proud of he’s bringing Vandrele Wilson and one of our freshmen with him. He told them, ‘This is how you get there. You have to do more than what coach English has asked of you.’ I don’t know how we’re going to replace that.
“I have great kids in our program, but from the work and commitment level Noah has put into this, I don’t have another kid that’s more deserving than what Noah is doing right now. Justin (Dozier) came up to me (Tuesday) and said, ‘Coach, Noah is signing tomorrow, right?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, he is.’ And Justin says, ‘Coach, Noah did a lot of things for us. How are we going to replace that?’
“Dozier is my best player but he didn’t say, ‘Coach, is my role going to be bigger next year?’ Instead, he said, ‘Coach, how are we going to replace what Noah did for us?’ When your peers say things like that, you know what kind of impact Noah has had on these guys.”
East Hamilton’s basketball program is losing that.
TWU becomes the beneficiary of Fager’s basketball skills on and off the court.
“Noah is a great competitor,” Stone said. “He never backs down, he’s a great shooter and his overall upside is high. I think he will be a great asset to our program.”
(Contact Larry Fleming at email@example.com and on Twitter @larryfleming44)