HAVERHILL — After every player and coach associated with Northern Essex Community College had their chance to help cut down the NJCAA Region 21 championship net, forward Edwin SamMbaka said they missed a coach.

He started chanting, Gretch-yn! Gretch-yn! Gretch-yn!” before everyone associated with the team joined in.

“Gretchyn” is Gretchyn Gallagher, one of five academic “coaches” at NECC, most of whom work with student-athletes.

Gallagher made the trip to Holyoke to see the NECC team, which means she got a hotel – on her dime – to see the semifinals and championship over the weekend.

“I did not want to get on that ladder,” said Gallagher, who lives in North Andover and works under academic adviser Linda Giampa.

“But the pressure was on,” she said. “I had to do it. I had to be there.”

Yes, she had to cut the net, according to several players, especially SamMbaka.

“I wouldn’t be here without her,” SamMbaka said. “I wouldn’t have made it without our academic coaches. They aren’t just coaches. They’re like our moms, too.”

Coach Darren Stratton said they are the unsung heroes on the Haverhill campus, particularly with the basketball team the last two years.

“We didn’t lose one player to grades last year and this year,” Stratton said. “Not one. Last year, we make it to the region championship. This year, we win the region championship and are going to the nationals. That doesn’t happen without our academic coaches.”

The baseball team, another team with an elite national reputation, hasn’t lost a player this school year due to grades.

Amy Joyall has been the liaison to the athletics office for academic office/coaches. The North Andover resident has been doing it for seven years.

“It’s been my favorite ...” said Joyall, a married mother of three who worked in banking before joining the NECC family.

“One of my favorite jobs that I’ve ever had,” said Joyall, who spent 14 years at Bank of Boston.

“It’s been a second career for me,” she noted. “The diversity of our students is special. And it’s not just athletes. We have students as old as 50 and as young as 18. No two students are alike, all with different needs and stories.”

Joyall said the work ethic of the athletes and their desire to get more out of the “education” part of being a student-athlete is inspiring.

She said the players stop by the academic offices every day to not only get extra help or finish their homework, but to “steal” candy from the candy jar.

“It’s a safe environment, a judgment-free zone,” Joyall said of the academic adviser offices. “We do expect them to work hard. It’s not a good idea to pop into our offices and say you haven’t started a paper due later that day.”

Freshman Tre Fite is among the players who admit they might not get through NECC without this group of academic coaches.

Fite is 30 and has two children. They are back in Massillon, Pennsylvania, where he grew up.

“I meet with Gretchyn twice a week and she’s my savior,” Fite said. “If I need flash cards, notebooks, whatever, we get it. I’m so lucky to have them.”

SamMBaka said Joyall has gone above and beyond her “academic” responsibilities, popping into the apartment of six foreign students who live in Haverhill to drop off food, including a large pan of pasta and meatballs recently.

“They do more than they’re supposed to for us and honestly, it makes us want to work harder to make them proud,” SamMbaka said.

The academic coaches try to attend every home game. Gallagher thought it was important to be there for the Region 21 championship last weekend in Holyoke.

“My son is a student at UMass Amherst so it was a great opportunity to see him,” Gallagher said. “And also a great opportunity to see my favorite team.”

Joyall said what makes this all work, meshing academics and athletics, is because the coaches are all in, particularly when it comes to students getting their degrees.

“The coaches get it,” Joyall said. “If one of their players really needs extra help, they will allow the player to miss practice and get their house in order. That means a lot.”

Student-athlete Peter Lopata’s goal is to go to a four-year school, play basketball and, of course, graduate with the opportunity for a good job.

“I know people might not look at Northern Essex that way,” said Lopata, who meets with Joyall once a week to talk about his academic work. “The best part is I am developing good habits here that I will take with me.”

Stratton said winning in the classroom is a direct correlation with his team winning on the court.

“Would we be here, playing for a national championship, without our academic coaches?” Stratton said. “My guess? No. We are so lucky to have them and a school committed to being there for their students.”

You can email Bill Burt at bburt@eagletribune.com.

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