When the 2017-18 season ended against Bloomfield (N.J.) College in the semifinal of the East Regional, Ryan Boulter was just two points shy of the 1,000-point mark for his college career. The former Mansfield standout and Hockomock League MVP, who scored more than 1,300 points for the Hornets, wasted no time in reaching the milestone this year. In fact, it took only one shot.
The Merrimack College senior forward made a back cut down the right side of the lane for an easy layup just 30 seconds into the season opener against Holy Family University (Pa.). “I wanted to get it out of the way early, but I didn’t expect to get it on the first basket like I did,” Boulter said in a phone call on Friday morning.
Despite the milestone not having the same level of pomp and circumstance that chasing 1,000 points does in high school, for instance the game continued without a break, Boulter recognized the magnitude of the achievement. He said, “I knew I was two points away and all of my teammates knew about it. They all congratulated me during the game and after the game. It was pretty special.”
Boulter led the Warriors with 19 points in the 69-50 win over Holy Family and was the 45th player in program history to reach the 1,000-point mark (junior guard Juvaris Hayes also reached that mark last season). The milestone meant even more for Boulter because coming out of high school there were questions about his ability to play at the Div. II level. He received few looks from schools outside of Div. III until longtime Merrimack coach Bert Hammel (who passed away this October) offered him the chance to come to North Andover.
“A lot of people didn’t really expect me to play Div. II,” Boulter admitted. “I had a lot of Div. III offers, but a lot of people didn’t really recruit me for Div. II except Bert, so it’s really meant a lot for me to score 1,000 points here.”
It didn’t take Boulter long to prove that he deserved the chance to play in Div. II. The 6-foot-7 forward came off the bench in 23 games during his freshman season, averaging six points per game and shooting more than 38 percent from beyond the arc. Boulter took off in his sophomore season under new head coach Joe Gallo (who took over when Hammel retired), earning third team All-NE-10 honors as Merrimack’s leading scorer at 18 points per game.
There were high expectations coming into last season and Merrimack largely lived up them as a team, winning 20 games, but Boulter was sidelined for a dozen games in the middle of the season with a foot injury. Despite the setback and dealing with the first significant injury of his basketball career, he was still second on the team with more than 13 points per game and shot more than 43 percent from three-point range.
“It was pretty frustrating, coming back and missing about two months and trying to get your legs back into it,” he explained. “Having to play off the bench and having to play a certain amount of minutes was something I had to get used to but at the end of the season I started to get my feel back a little bit.”
The injury provided extra motivation for this season. The Warriors were ranked second in the preseason NE-10 coaches poll, behind St. Anselm, are expected to challenge for the conference title, and to make a run in the postseason. After missing time as a junior, Boulter is ready to get back to the all-conference level he reached as a sophomore.
He said, “It was really painful not being out there with the guys and it motivated me this off-season to really focus on my body, get it right to play a full season, and get this team to where we know we can be at the end of the year.”
The reason that expectations are so high for the Warriors is the depth on the team. Boulter said that this team is the deepest he has ever played with. He explained, “Especially in the starting five, everyone can shoot, dribble, pass, rebound, and we’ve got three or four guys coming off the bench who can do the same thing.”
Watch highlights of Merrimack running its offense and you see players constantly switching positions, spreading the floor, making cuts to the basket, and stretching the defense all across the court. “It’s incredible because we don’t care about who’s the leading scorer each game, we just care about winning and focusing on our goals,” Boulter said.
The Merrimack system also looks very similar to the offense that Boulter was part of at Mansfield, where he and the Hornets compiled a 72-9 record over his career, reached a state title game (where Boulter, just a sophomore, hit three free throws in the final seconds to force overtime against Putnam) and two sectional finals.
Boulter carried that culture of success, and the knowledge of what it takes to win games, into his collegiate career.
“Coach (Mike) Vaughan, that’s what he drilled into us every day in high school,” he said, “just focus on winning. It doesn’t matter if you’re in class or on the basketball court just focus on winning and having that mindset that you’re a winner.”
He added, “It makes it fun, even in practice, to have a great group of guys who just care about winning and don’t really care about their stats and all that.”
Last winter, Mansfield won its first ever state championship and Ryan’s younger brother Tyler played a critical role in the Hornets’ tournament run. Ryan had several close calls, including the overtime loss to Putnam in the final and a pair of thrilling match-ups with loaded Catholic Memorial teams in the South sectional, and he was excited for his brother being part of the first Hornets team to reach the pinnacle.
“I was very happy for him,” Boulter said. “He kind of had to live up to high expectation being my little brother, but I was really proud of him. He played his heart out and I was really happy that he won it.
“When I got there,” he continued, “I wasn’t really expecting to have the team really go far but [Coach Vaughan] really brings out the best in everyone and brings out that competitive nature in every practice. He really gets on us to get us where we want to be and he knows how great those teams can be. It’s amazing to see that program keep growing each and every year.”
It is only three games into the new season (Merrimack played Bentley on Saturday afternoon) but Boulter is already seeing signs that the Warriors can reach their goals this year – winning the NE-10 title and getting out of the East Regional. He pointed to the 72-42 win against Assumption on Wednesday night as an example of what the team can achieve.
“That’s probably the best defensive game we’ve played in my four years here,” he said. “If we focus on the defensive end for 40 minutes, then we’ll be very hard to beat because we know with our talent that our offense will come. If we can play as well as we did the other night on the defensive end then we can go really far this year.”
The season started with a personal milestone, but Ryan Boulter is focused on ending the season, and his Merrimack career, with an even bigger prize – the NE-10 title.
Ed. Note – Merrimack suffered a 65-59 loss at Bentley on Saturday to even its record at 2-2. Boulter scored six points in 37 minutes, shooting 2-of-6 from three.