The banner hangs in the gymnasium at Northfield Mount Hermon, a college preparatory high school nestled near the Connecticut River in northern Massachusetts. In white block letters over a maroon background, it reads: "Boys Basketball New England Champions, 2012."
The story behind that banner is one Ethan O’Day doesn’t tire of telling. His team-high 31 points powered the Hoggers over top-seeded and unbeaten Brewster Academy in the semifinal, and the point guard, a senior named Spike Albrecht, earned MVP honors two days later as NMH secured its first New England Championship.
A lot has changed since that season. O’Day left for Vermont; Tommy Carpenter for Dartmouth; Evan Cummins for Harvard; Albrecht for Michigan. NMH won the national title the following year.
They’re all captains now, at Vermont, Dartmouth, Harvard, and, yes, even Michigan. Albrecht, who ended that 2012 title run with only one offer -- from Appalachian State -- committed to John Beilein and Michigan a month later.
This is the story of the season which made that possible.
Albrecht figured all he needed was one more year.
When his senior season at Crown Point (Indiana) High School didn’t produce the type of interest it likely deserved, the point guard pursued prep school, giving himself another year to potentially attract more attention from colleges. He chose coach John Carroll and NMH, because, as he explained at the time, nearly all the basketball program’s graduates earned Division I offers.
So Albrecht left the comfort of Crown Point for NMH, where, as O’Day explained, there wasn’t much else to do other than eat, sleep, and play basketball. He lived in Tron, the same dormitory as Carpenter and Cummins, and friendships soon blossomed.
Albrecht became known in Tron as a jokester. His teammates remember how he would hide in his bed during room checks just to give the hall monitors a brief scare -- and, for everyone else, a knowing laugh.
"Everyone gravitated to him," O’Day said. "Everyone loved him. He was very socially engaged with everyone -- he’s a funny guy."
He was a Midwestern kid with some strange stories, like the one about his fear of food. As Albrecht explained to his NMH teammates, in sixth grade he had choked on a Subway sandwich. Believing himself incapable of safe and proper ingestion, Albrecht avoided hard foods for two years and was especially fearful of potato chips, which he only resumed eating during his senior year of high school.
If nothing else, Albrecht was memorable.
In his first game for NMH, Albrecht scored 12 points on 3-for-8 shooting in a narrow victory. In his second, the point guard went 1-for-10 from the floor, and he tallied just eight points total over the following two games.
And so continued a string of difficult scoring performances, a slow beginning to a season that was supposed to punch his ticket to a Division I program.
There were times, Carroll said, when Albrecht questioned if basketball might not be in his future. But there were also growing positives, like the point guard’s impressive assist-to-turnover ratio and instinct for making smart passes. Cummins, like his teammates, said he grew accustomed to turning for a pass and finding Albrecht already sending the ball in his direction.
And as a painful leg injury began to fade -- though he played the entire year with discomfort -- Albrecht’s numbers began to rise.
"He’s one of those rare leaders where he can lead in multiple ways: He can get on guys’ backs, he can lead by example, and he can lead by being a nice guy," Carpenter said.
Added O’Day: "I can’t say enough about his passing, to be honest. Probably the best I’ve ever played with."
In the NEPSAC AAA quarterfinals, Albrecht recorded 12 points with six assists, two steals and no turnovers. In the semifinals, against a Brewster Academy roster that featured Mitch McGary, T.J. Warren and JaKarr Sampson, Albrecht added 12 points and eight assists to only one turnover.
Albrecht delivered the dagger in the championship game, too, pouring in 23 points with nine assists and three steals. His three-pointer from two feet behind the arc put NMH up by seven with 36 seconds left, and the point guard later iced the game with a pair of free throws.
A pump of his fist and a last-gasp, half-court heave later, NMH mobbed Albrecht -- the game’s MVP -- at midcourt.
"As far as being captain in name, we had a ton of leaders on that team," Cummins said. "Spike really set the tone as our point guard. That really trickled down to the rest of the guys.
"... Spike really started putting it all together, and we rallied around him."
Carroll desperately hoped a college coach would trust his eyes. He needed someone who would throw away the rankings, forget who else was recruiting a player, and believe what his eyes were telling him.
Because Carroll and Albrecht’s NMH teammates knew what they saw from the point guard deserved more recognition than he was receiving.
"It was mind-blowing playing with him every single day and seeing him not get recruited by even mid-majors or low-majors that he most certainly deserved to be at," Cummins said.
Albrecht had a 5.5-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. He was, in Carroll’s opinion, the best dribble-drive player the league had seen in at least 15 years. Albrecht exuded confidence and leadership, and he had a tremendous understanding for the game -- he knew when to play it safe, and, more importantly, when to take a risk.
He just needed a coaching staff that was willing to do the same.
"We say it all the time here: With college coaches, who’s brave enough to believe their eyes?" Carroll said. "Few are."
Fortunately for Albrecht -- who wasn’t rated by any major scouting service -- one program in need of a point guard had a staff willing to gamble. And, like NMH, that program utilized a two-guard offense with plenty of pick-and-roll movement.
Michigan sent Jeff Meyer to NMH’s next game, a National Quarterfinals loss during which Albrecht scored just nine points but dished out 14 assists. The Wolverines invited Albrecht to campus in early April and extended a scholarship, which he quickly accepted.
"You’re either going to make me look like a genius or get me fired for recruiting him," Beilein told Albrecht.
But Beilein and Meyer had trusted their eyes, and that decision proved worthwhile.
In 2013, Albrecht made four straight three-pointers and scored 17 points in the first half of the National Championship. In 2013-14, he led the Wolverines in assists six times despite starting just one game. Last season, he was elected co-captain and later team MVP.
Similar to his time at NMH, he spent last year playing through significant pain.
Albrecht is a senior now, and that New England Championship banner is nearly four years old. He’s still close with O’Day, Carpenter, Cummins -- the three other captains -- and some of the others, too, like Ryan Oliver at Siena.
Back in Massachusetts, he’s still "a legend," according to Carroll. He’s the model player who turned very little into an offer from Michigan and national stardom, seemingly overnight.
And he still has one more year with the Wolverines.
"He just has one of those things about him," Carpenter said. "No matter how good you know he is, you’re still not expecting him to do the things he does.
"What he’s done at Michigan, it doesn’t surprise me. Remember when he did the same things in the New England tournament? It doesn’t surprise me at all."