GORHAM — Seven years ago, Conor Sullivan was a skinny 5-foot-8 point guard on the Scarborough High junior varsity who was wondering two things: Would he really grow taller as his dad Tom kept telling him and, more importantly, was it reasonable to keep thinking of playing college basketball?
Turns out both answers were yes.
Sullivan is now a sturdy but still lithe 6-foot-4, a senior tri-captain at the University of Southern Maine and returning first-team All-Little East performer.
In his breakout junior season, Sullivan averaged 14.8 points, 5.9 rebounds, 1.5 assists and 1.6 steals, shot over 49 percent and helped lead the Huskies to their first winning season since 2007-08 and best win total since 1992-93. They had a 15-13 overall record that included an 8-6 conference record, a home conference quarterfinal win and a berth in the ECAC tournament.
“Getting to host a playoff game, that was one of our big goals,” Sullivan said. “And we won. That was a cool atmosphere.”
You know what else Sullivan did? He threw down more than a half-dozen dunks last season.
Sullivan tells you this when asked and says they were not “anything too crazy.”
But seven years is not too long to remember what it was like to stare up at the 10-foot rim and think it was always going to be out of reach.
“When I was a freshman and sophomore in high school, I had people telling me I’d grow to be 6-3. I wanted to believe it but I never saw myself dunking a basketball,” Sullivan said.
USM Coach Karl Henrikson said it was a dunk that Sullivan didn’t put down that first raised his eyebrows.
Sullivan had grown nearly to his current height while still in high school and was starting on the Scarborough varsity as a senior. But he was still an unknown blip on the recruiting radar. Henrikson was at a holiday tournament when Sullivan elevated and missed a dunk.
“I noticed that he got up pretty high. I was glad he missed it,” Henrikson said.
Division III coaches have to look for what could be, not what is. In Sullivan, Henrikson saw potential with room to grow, physically as well as in his game.
“He was still so skinny as a freshman here. I think he weighed 165 pounds. There were times I was almost worried about putting him out there,” Henrikson said Thursday on the eve of the opener at Westfield State.
Sullivan saw increasing time his freshman season, then averaged 7.2 points and 4.6 rebounds as a sophomore starter but shot an underwhelming 39 percent.
“I think I was a little more timid to take big shots and be aggressive,” Sullivan said.
Last year he earned a reputation as a finisher.
“I think it was just having that year under my belt. I knew I belonged and I knew what I was capable of,” Sullivan said.
This year he’s looking to prove he can bury the jumper, shooting more than ever over the summer while rehabbing from arthroscopic knee surgery to repair meniscus damage.
Last season was also a step up for the men’s program at USM, which has long been in the shadow of the highly successful women’s team. Sullivan said Southern Maine might be the only place where part of the crowd leaves between the women’s and men’s games. He said he understands the phenomenon but believes this year’s team can keep the fans in the seats.
Senior captain James Odneal is another dynamic player who can shoot outside or take his 6-foot-6 frame to the hole.
Sophomore guard Connor Libby is expected to excel in his first full season, and there are recruits who may help.
Most of all the team kept believing. Kind of like Sullivan.
“That’s why I came here, to play basketball. If I had been done with the sport I probably would have gone to Orono, but I felt like coming out of high school there was so much left that I hadn’t done, that I was still going to grow a lot and improve a lot,” Sullivan said.
Steve Craig can be reached at 791-6413 or at: