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PROVIDENCE — Making an impact on a college team as a freshman isn’t an easy thing to do under the best of circumstances, but former Westerly High boys’ basketball standout Austin Cilley managed it despite several obstacles.
The Bulldogs’ all-time leading scorer averaged a team high 12.4 points per game (and a had a team high 48 3-pointers) and earned first-team All-Rookie honors for Division III Rhode Island College despite a case of mononucleosis and a fractured vertebrae.
In a seven-game stretch from mid-December to late January, Cilley led his team in scoring five times, including a season-high 26 points against Keene State Jan. 11.
“It was great,” Cilley said. “My goal coming in was to start for my team and I knew I was capable of that. I was starting pretty much every game.”
Just as the Anchormen’s freshman guard seemed to be finding his stride, he injured his back.
“I had a guy land on my back in January,” Cilley said. “I kept playing after that, but my legs started to hurt around my calves and my they started to feel heavy too.
“It hurt a bit but it was really my legs, I couldn’t cut or move the way I wanted to. So after about six weeks I went to the doctor and they took an x-ray just as a precaution. That’s when I found out I fractured my L-5 vertebrae, which is the lowest vertebrae in you back.”
The spine injury was not the only problem the checkup found either.
“They did a blood test because diabetes runs in my family and they found that I had mono 3 to 6 months earlier. So I was probably dealing with mono at the beginning of the year and my back at the end of the year.
“The vertebrae moved a whole millimeter, which may not sound like a lot, but it is when it’s your spine.
“The doctor’s told me the injury could be career threatening if I kept playing on it so I had to stop even though that meant I couldn’t play in the rest of the Little East Conference Tournament or the (Division III) NCAA tournament.”
The Anchormen won all three of its games in the Little East Tournament and claimed its second consecutive conference tournament title.
“We played (Eastern Connecticut) at East Conn. in the tournament finals. Even though I didn’t play I was still at the game and that was a great atmosphere. The crowd was really into it and we came away with a win (70-61).”
Rhode Island College lost its first and only NCAA tournament game 79-54 to York (N.Y.) and finished the season with a 20-9 mark (11-3 Little East Conference).
The end of the Anchormen’s season did not mean the end of Cilley’s basketball work. The soon-to-be sophomore had begun rehabilitation on his back en route to a return to the floor next season.
“I’ve been doing (physical therapy) for a week now. It’s still early, but it’s kind of bumming me out I just want to get back into my routine,” he said. “Hopefully, I’ll be done in another 3 or 4 weeks but they told me eight.
“The good news is they told me after I’m done and it’s healed up enough so that it doesn’t move anymore that it should be even stronger than it was before.”
Cilley graduated from Westerly with 1,523 points surpassing Bobby Serra’s previous record of 1,385, which was established in the 1950s. Cilley holds the Westerly record for 3-pointers in a career (233), season (97) and game (9). Cilley was a second-team All-State selection.
Being healthy for next season is a must if Cilley wants to achieve some of his lofty goals.
“It would definitely be a team goal to get to the (Division III) Final Four. I’d also like us to win the Little East Conference all four years I’m here. No one (at RIC) has ever won all four years they’ve been here.
“Individually, I’d like to win the Little East player of the year award. I wanted to win rookie of the year this year but the injuries got in the way.”
Cilley said he has a much better idea of the work entailed in realizing his goals now with a year of collegiate basketball under his belt.
“The time commitment for everything is so much more now than in high school,” he said. “You need to be on time for everything, there are mandatory study halls, it’s just a way bigger commitment.”
The on-the-court adjustment was easier for Cilley.
“Coach (Bob Walsh) pretty much just lets me play however I want offensively and we pretty much play the same man-to-man help-side defense that coach (Mike) Gleason ran in high school.
“It is a little different now because we play no middle help so when you come out on the wing for defensive help you also have to make sure you stay in position enough to keep someone from coming through the middle.”
Cilley, an undecided major, said going to Rhode Island College was definitely the right decision.
“It was a great choice to go here — Little East Champions my first year. It’s all about winning.”