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The underdog

Bas­ket­ball, like life, is unpre­dictable, a game in which the underdog has the poten­tial to become the star—if only for one series, one game, one play.

Caleb Don­nelly, the walk-​​on guard for the North­eastern Uni­ver­sity men’s bas­ket­ball team, is a prime example.

Don­nelly scored 27 points in the Colo­nial Ath­letic Asso­ci­a­tion tour­na­ment last week, three more than in his pre­vious 14 games com­bined. He sank seven 3-​​point shots, catching and releasing the ball like the pro­to­typ­ical NBA marksman. He hit four big free throws, displaying grace under fire. And—lest we forget—he helped the Huskies defeat three con­sec­u­tive con­fer­ence oppo­nents en route to their first NCAA tour­na­ment berth since 1991.

“I focused on playing fear­lessly,” Don­nelly recalled in a post-​​practice inter­view on Thursday after­noon in the Cabot Center. “The oppor­tu­nity pre­sented itself and I shot well.”

But forget his stats. Pre­tend that his CAA Cham­pi­onship per­for­mance did not belie his reg­ular season showing, in which he scored just 2.7 points per game. The very fact that he was on the court at all—that his 6-​​foot-​​1-​​inch, 181-​​pound frame was bedecked in the Huskies’ sleeve­less black jersey and matching shorts—testified to his work ethic and unwa­vering ded­i­ca­tion to improving his game, to never let­ting go of his child­hood dream.

‘Agent Smooth’

Don­nelly scored more than 1,000 points for Alvirne High School, twice leading his squad to the New Hamp­shire Inter­scholastic Ath­letic Asso­ci­a­tion Final Four. He posted big num­bers for Northeastern’s club team too, quickly earning the nick­name “Agent Smooth” in honor of his deft scoring touch.

After solid­i­fying his status as one of the league’s best players—after dom­i­nating oppo­nents for two con­sec­u­tive seasons—he chal­lenged him­self to win a spot on the Huskies’ 11-​​man roster. “It’s always been a dream of mine to play Divi­sion 1 col­lege bas­ket­ball,” Don­nelly said. “I would have regretted not giving it a shot and trying out.”

His “shot” arrived in the summer of 2013, when head coach Bill Coen allowed him to prac­tice with the team. He made the squad, red­shirted his first year, and quickly became one of the Huskies’ most vocal leaders.

“Whether I’m on the bench or in the game, my role is to keep guys focused and ener­gized,” Don­nelly said. “This game is more than 50 per­cent mental and having sup­portive coaches and team­mates can build confidence.”

The ‘machine’

Don­nelly, Coen said, is the first player to arrive at prac­tice and the last to leave.

His pri­mary focus is honing the accu­racy of his 3-​​point shot, his biggest basketball strength: In 30 games this season, he’s hit 55 per­cent of his shots from beyond the arc, going 27 for 49.

“Caleb’s a machine,” said for­ward Scott Eatherton, his road room­mate. “He puts up a lot of shots every day and that’s why he knocks them down in the games.”

When he’s not fine-​​tuning his 3-​​point stroke, Don­nelly is watching game film, studying his favorite teams and players. He recently replayed high­lights from NBA sharp­shooter Stephen Curry’s mas­terful run in the 2008 NCAA tour­na­ment, where he scored 128 points in four games. And he rev­eled in re-​​watching the past 10 NCAA cham­pi­onships, dating back to North Carolina’s 2005 vic­tory over Illinois.

“It reminds me of where we want to go as a team,” Don­nelly said, “and it shows me what it’s like to be on that stage and stay focused on basketball.”

‘Fanat­i­cally disciplined’

His work ethic, to be sure, is his greatest intan­gible attribute, an invalu­able asset whether he’s draining threes in prac­tice or studying for a final exam in Snell Library.

He was recently named the co-​​winner of the CAA’s pres­ti­gious Dean Ehlers Lead­er­ship Award, which is pre­sented annu­ally to the student-​​athlete who “embodies the highest stan­dards of lead­er­ship, integrity, and sports­man­ship in con­junc­tion with his aca­d­emic and ath­letic achievement.”

“Caleb is incred­ibly orga­nized, fanat­i­cally dis­ci­plined, and fanat­i­cally obsessed with being suc­cessful,” Coen said. “Each and every deci­sion he makes is well thought out and superbly executed.”

His resume reads like the curriculum vitae of the quintessential valedictorian: Don­nelly, BS/MS’16, owns a 3.99 GPA in the chem­ical engi­neering mas­ters and bach­e­lors pro­gram; has taught inner-​​city youth how to build solar-​​powered toy cars; and was named to the “Hunt­ington 100” in 2014.

He attrib­uted his indus­trious nature to his mom, who’s in sales, and his dad, who’s in ship­ping and receiving. “Both my par­ents are incred­ibly hard working,” he said. “They’ve devoted every­thing to help me achieve my dreams.”

His pro­fes­sional dream, he noted, is to apply his engi­neering acumen to the world of sports. For now, he’s just looking for­ward to going dancing and win­ning a few more bas­ket­ball games. “It’s been a long journey, but all the hard work is finally paying off,” he said. “I’m very excited for the oppor­tu­nity our team has and I can’t wait for the tour­na­ment to get started.”

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