Farmingdale State's Donald Lawes -- the best shot blocker statistically in NCAA basketball -- stood just 5-51/2 as a high school freshman at Forest Hills. Too short for the sport, he instead became a gymnast. Now in his senior year in college, he's listed at 6-7 for the Rams (18-8), who will be within one win of the Division III NCAA Tournament if they can beat host Mount Saint Mary (20-5) Thursday in the semifinals of the Skyline Conference tournament.
Lawes never played organized basketball until he graduated from high school and attended upstate Cayuga CC. By then, he was 6-4. He had a personal-best 11 blocks in one game and transferred to Farmingdale last season, where 7-1 AJ Matthews set the season record with 99 in 2010-11. Lawes now has the record with 116 and is averaging 4.5 per game to lead all NCAA divisions. He is averaging 12.7 points and 8.8 rebounds.
"I just try to use my athleticism and my long arms because I do have a seven-foot wing span," he said. "I just use that to my advantage, plus I can jump pretty high. I was a gymnast , that's why I can jump so high."
Lawes played sparingly last season but learned from watching Matthews, who is playing professionally in Lithuania.
"He's crazy athletic," Lawes said. "I just try to push myself to be better. He's where I want to be right now. I definitely said to myself from the beginning of the season that I wanted to be No. 1 . I also said I will break the record. Both of those happened."
Farmingdale coach Brendan Twomey said he can't take any credit for honing Lawes' shot-blocking skills.
"I was a shooting guard and I'm 6-1, so I'm not really one to talk when it comes to blocking shots," Twomey said. "But he just has a knack for timing. He's very long, very athletic. He leaves enough space between him and the guy shooting the ball where he doesn't get too many fouls. I've been around Division III basketball about 15 years and he's the best shot-blocker I've seen as a player or coach. It's not so much his height, it's his length. He's also quick off his feet."
Farmingdale lost twice to Mount Saint Mary during the regular season. "It was kind of hard for me to get my shot blocks off because they are mostly a [outside] shooting team. It kind of messed me," Lawes said of Saturday's 69-58 loss.
Twomey said Farmingdale will have to make adjustments if the opposition stays away from Lawes.
"Down the stretch a lot of teams haven't really been going at him," he said, "so he really hasn't had the opportunity. They really try to stay out of the paint when he's in the game. We didn't shoot well up there, we were 1-for-17 from three-point range, and I'm hoping we can hit some shots to help our guys down low."
It will be another homecoming for Twomey, who was Mount Saint Mary's all-time leading scorer when he graduated in 2004. His father, Dan, a retired lieutenant in the New York City Fire Department, is the athletic director at the Newburgh, N.Y., school.
"I still have strong ties there," the coach said. "Just going back to the gym and seeing some familiar faces. It's a little weird sitting on the other bench. Once the game starts, all that stuff goes out the window.
"I pretty much talk to my dad every other day. We don't talk that much about X's and O's, just things like 'How are you doing?' If Mount St. Mary wins, he's happy for them; if I win, he'll be happy for me."
It will be much more difficult for his dad, who said, "I can't win, either, because somebody loses. In this particular case, it's a senior-laden team we have and it's one of my favorite groups of kids. It's really tough, it's my son coaching and then I've got these guys who are around here all the time.
"Everybody was talking to me, 'Man, I wouldn't want to be you.' It's really tough to do. With the stakes higher, it's even magnified a little more. After this game you are one game away from going to The Dance."