Feb. 6, 2003
by Ken Kleppel
A single occasion can be remembered in many different ways. Perhaps Friday, Aug. 23, 2002, is one of those days.
On that afternoon, Notre Dame basketball’s class of 2006 converged for the first time-as a full unit-in the confines of the Joyce Center. A prophetic sports journalist may one day describe the group’s first meeting, whose collective signing marked and simultaneously foreshadowed, the ongoing momentum of a program’s return to national prominence, as something to the effect of . . .
Outlined against a blue, gray August sky the Four Freshmen rode again. In dramatic lore they are known as diaper-dandy, blue-chipper, high school phenom, and even McDonald’s All-American. But these are only aliases. Their real names are Quinn, Cornett, Peterkin and Francis.
The guard and his three frontcourt-men will form the crest of the South Bend cyclone before which fighting BIG EAST teams will be swept over the precipice at the Joyce Center as 11,000 spectators peer down upon the bewildering panorama spread out over the blue and gold hard court below.
The four emanate from the Heartland of America, the Windy City, the Virgin Islands and the birthplace of the American Revolution. But they now call their homes Morrissey Manor, Carroll Hall, Saint Edward’s Hall and Knott Hall. And a common goal ties all four competitors-to form a bridge to a championship future from a championship past.
And from Roslindale, Mass., just miles away from Paul Revere’s legendary cries of “the British are coming,” freshman Torin Francis offers a humble forewarning to college basketball nation of the continued emergence of the Notre Dame program.
“We have a lot of younger guys, and the coaches are thinking as the years go on, that the younger guys will step up,” says Francis.
“As we contribute for the veterans, they’ll bring in new guys to contribute with us. As our name gets bigger more recruits will come in and we’ll just become a more established program.”
His actions-and credentials-convey an even stronger message.
Notre Dame’s second McDonald’s and Parade All-American in as many seasons, Francis has started all 19 games for the Irish, averaging 10.6 points and a team-leading 8.8 rebounds per contest.
Named to the BB&T Classic all-tournament team after leading the Irish to the tournament crown, Francis averaged 20.5 points, 9.0 rebounds, and 5.5 blocked shots while shooting 75.5 percent from the floor in the two-day affair.
And after just four weeks of BIG EAST competition, Francis is carving his own niche among a series of Irish power forwards that include Pat Garrity, Troy Murphy and Ryan Humphrey.
“When I go out on the court, I feel like I’m going out there to get the job done, says Francis.
“I’m going out there to win. I feel like I don’t have to score 30 or 40 points to win, but I can just do whatever I can to contribute to the team. We win together as a team.”
Last spring, Francis was honored with the Morgan Wootten Award as the McDonald’s Boys National Player of the Year, an award given annually to the top scholar-athlete selected to play in the McDonald’s All-American Game.
Within three months, Francis would play under a Wootten pupil in Irish head coach Mike Brey. But the transition to life at Notre Dame for Francis is as seamless as his jump shot, or as natural as his courtside swagger. Throughout his high school basketball odyssey, Francis kept a steadfast focus on his family and schoolwork at Tabor Academy. He took part in several leadership positions across campus, serving as president of his senior class, a dormitory proctor and the sports editor of the student newspaper, the Tabor Log.
Academics, and the respect of his mother Brynell-before all else-matters most to Francis.
“My mother helped me with the ethics that I have right now,” says Francis.
“When I was younger, she always put an emphasis on academics. That resulted in my work ethic on the basketball court because she always said that if I didn’t get good grades, I wouldn’t be able to play basketball. Now I always have the mindset that I have to do well in the classroom. That mentality carries over on the court because I am never satisfied. My mother has always given me that drive.” A devout Christian faith drives fellow freshman Rick Cornett.
Nicknamed “Preach” because of his refusal to curse and willingness to talk about God to others, Cornett starred on the hard court at suburban Chicago’s Homewood Christian Academy and led his team to three consecutive Association of Christian Schools International state championships from 2000-02. In the spring of his senior season, Homewood Christian retired his No. 11 basketball jersey.
But what the Academy, and its graduating class of nine students, could not retire is his mission to honor God through his actions and example.
“God is a big part of my life,” says Cornett.
“I’ve been brought up in a Christian home and taught the ways that a Christian should go and follow in Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior. The religious features of Notre Dame played into my decision to come here, and that’s a really important thing because God is always going to be first in my life.”
A chain with a cross hangs around his neck off the court represents his devotion to Christ. Yet, his trademark headband characterizes the lunch-pail attitude and physical inside game that yields success for Cornett on the court.
He is a two-time participant in the Nike All-America Camp and a member of the gold-medal team in the summer of 2001 at the USA Basketball Development Festival Tournament. He also teamed with guard Chris Quinn in leading the Team-7-UP Ohio squad to the championship of the Junior International Tournament in Milan, Italy, last spring and sparked the Illinois Warriors to an AAU national championship in Orlando, Fla.
Already acquiring a reputation in the Notre Dame lockerroom for strong, physical play, Cornett continues to adjust to the college game.
“I am just trying to pick up everything I can from our post players, from our perimeter players and from our coaches,” says Cornett.
“Omari [Peterkin] and I are always working extra with Coach (Lewis) Preston. We are just trying to get better and be more physical, while picking up every little thing that we can. We are going to be impact players for this team soon and we have to be ready to step in and play right away.”
In the process of completing a freshman season for the Irish in which he has not seen action, Omari Peterkin shares the sentiment.
“We’re helping our teammates play better, and at the same time are preparing ourselves for the future,” says Peterkin.
“We work with each other everyday in practice, working together and preparing ourselves for the future because we know that we are going to be big impact players.”
Perhaps Peterkin’s route to the Golden Dome is most diverse of all.
Although a senior standout at the Antilles School in his native St. Thomas of the Virgin Islands, Peterkin received limited attention from national college recruiters. But all that changed when Myron Corbett, the women’s basketball coach at nearby Charlotte Amalie High School, helped increase national awareness of Peterkin’s skill, speed, soft hands and smarts, in addition to what was widely known about his impressive physical frame.
Using connections within collegiate coaching circles, Corbett distributed a performance tape of Peterkin’s ability to top college personnel. Indiana, Connecticut and Notre Dame immediately took notice.
“I chose Notre Dame mainly because of the academics,” says Peterkin.
“I was really impressed by the school and its reputation all together. Getting a degree from here was a big and important step. Also the guys here-my teammates and the coaches-just seemed like one big family. I feel close to them and as I get to know them, they are really good people.”
Academics are always prioritized for Peterkin, whose father Rupert is a doctor in the Virgin Islands and whose brother Michael is a medical student at Cornell. Peterkin himself served as president of the National Honor Society at Antilles and as a representative on the student council.
Yet, Peterkin credits the easy-going nature of his aunt Nova Joseph, in addition to that of his parents, as a steadying influence in helping ease the transition to Notre Dame life.
“My family altogether, but my aunt in particular, has been a big influence,” says Peterkin.
“She is the one who is really down to earth. She’s been the one who has always talked to me the most about religion and with making good choices in life. She’s made all the difference.”
A runner-up for Ohio’s Mr. Basketball Award in 2002, Dublin native Chris Quinn found his own personal difference-maker through the most unique of circumstances.
Spending his early childhood in the Chicago-area, Quinn admired high school standout Chris Collins, son of Washington Wizards head coach and former NBA great Doug Collins. Chris Collins would go on to play collegiate at Duke and is currently an assistant coach at his alma mater.
What started out as a class project that required Quinn to write a letter to a person he admired has turned into a close family friendship. Quinn would ultimately spend much time with the Collins family and learn the fundamentals of the game from an all-time great.
“Coach [Doug] Collins is just a big influence on me in the world of basketball and I have a lot of respect for him,” says Quinn.
Quinn and the elder Collins renewed acquaintances this past December at the BB&T Classic in Washington D.C. The two shared dinner after Notre Dame’s 79-67 upset win over Maryland at the MCI Center, and Collins attended the Irish victory over Texas in the championship round.
While Collins surely counseled Quinn that weekend on the rigors of college basketball, Quinn could have easily advised Collins on ways to guide the Wizards into the Eastern Conference playoffs, because he has done a little bit of everything for the Irish just weeks into his rookie campaign.
In helping spark the Irish to a championship in the BB&T Tournament, Quinn played 50 minutes over the two-day period without committing a single turnover. He leads the Irish in three-point percentage and assist-to-turnover ratio, while averaging nearly 16.3 minutes, 4.5 points, and 1.53 assists per outing. Time and again, he has provided the Irish offense with an immediate boost off the bench and as a calming influence in the lineup over the course of the season.
“I go in there and try to do what I know I can do,” says Quinn.
“At times I help the team on offense move the ball around a little bit. I basically try to come off the bench and do whatever I can to help the team win.”
Such an unselfish attitude is a prevailing theme of today’s “Four Freshmen.”
As are terms on the student council, national honors society recognition and a commitment to academics.
As are respect for family, appreciation of a Christian faith and proven ability to persevere through challenges.
Behind the all-tournament, all-state and All-American accolades lay traces of leadership, sportsmanship and ultimately the Notre Dame spirit.
“I think that the attitudes that we bring to this game and this University are that we will not be denied in anything we do,” says Cornett.
“That we are going to play as hard as we can, and leave everything out there. We are going to try to do whatever we can to do because that’s just part of us and how we are.
We are all different in our own ways, but we are like a family.”
Historical prose and all, the “Four Freshmen” ride again-a link to the past, a spark in the present and a bridge to the future.
From day one.