Brenden Boatwright’s emergence has come at the perfect time for Fort Lewis College men’s basketball, and it may lead a team that started 1-5 in Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference play to an unlikely spot in the conference tournament.
Boatwright, a 6-foot-9, 250-pound redshirt freshman, has had three breakthrough moments in each of the team’s last three weeks of play. Last Saturday in a rivalry game against Colorado Mesa University, he had the game-clinching blocked shot to help send the Skyhawks to a 79-76 home win and a weekend sweep to get within one game of eighth place in the RMAC standings at 4-7 with 11 games to go.
“It’s such an adrenaline rush,” Boatwright said after the win against Mesa in which he was 4-for-4 shooting for 10 points to go with four rebounds and two blocks. “The feeling of being in battle with your brothers is something that you can’t take for granted. It’s something that is eventually going to end for everybody. I’m glad I’m able to help the team win and blessed to be here.”
Boatwright was a big addition to the FLC program when he was signed out of high school in 2017. Not only was he already 6-9, he was the 2017 Gatorade Player of the Year at New Mexico’s Carlsbad High School, where he averaged 21.8 and 11 rebounds per game as a senior.
The tall outdoorsman immediately drew comparisons to FLC legend Alex Herrera, another 6-9 center out of Ignacio. Like Herrera, Boatwright took a redshirt season and sat on the bench the majority of his freshman year while he watched his team deliver a regular season conference championship and reach the NCAA Division II South Central Region tournament for a third consecutive season.
This year, Boatwright wasn’t getting much of a chance to contribute meaningful minutes with senior Division I transfer Otas Iyekekpolor added to the team. He had averaged less than seven minutes per game in the team’s eight games before the new year. When Boatwright was on the floor, he rushed when he had the ball in his hands.
That was until after the holiday break. Since then, Boatwright has made the most of his time on the floor. He had his first minor breakthrough Jan. 5 in overtime of a win at Chadron State in Nebraska. He had played only four minutes of regulation but was forced into action in overtime with FLC in foul trouble. He delivered with three big rebounds and six points to help FLC to a 100-88 victory.
Six days later, Boatwright played a career-high 20 minutes and scored a career-high 22 points with a perfect 12-of-12 showing at the free-throw line in a 100-99 loss to University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. The next night, matchups didn’t allow Boatwright more than nine minutes on the floor, and he scored only four points and had two rebounds. But, last weekend, Boatwright saw a combined 30 minutes against Western Colorado and Colorado Mesa and had the blocked shot that could help save FLC’s season.
Head coach Bob Pietrack marveled at his young big man after the game.
“When you’re as highly touted of a freshman as Boatwright is as a Gatorade Player of the Year in New Mexico, as a coach on our team, it would be like if you’re standing on the beach and you’re looking out and saw a boat coming,” Pietrack said. “We knew eventually the big boat would dock. The boat is here. He is here, and he’s been very good since Christmas break.”
FLC senior Alex Semadeni shared the spotlight with Boatwright in the wins against Chadron State and Colorado Mesa. He made three 3-pointers in the final 32 seconds of regulation, including the tying basket at the buzzer to send the game into overtime. He went on to score 37 points with 10 in overtime. In last weekend’s win against the Mavericks, it was Semadeni’s spinning drive to the basket that led to the game-winning layup before Boatwright’s blocked shot heroics.
Semadeni, a fifth-year senior captain for FLC, has been as happy as anyone to see Boatwright find success his redshirt freshman season.
“I know earlier in the year he was a little frustrated about how he was playing and lack of opportunity,” Semadeni said. “To see him respond to that adversity by working hard to now being in a position where he’s helped us win games, that’s what it’s all about.
“The Chadron game was his moment. Since then, his confidence has been soaring.”
Semadeni also knows what it is like to sit out a freshman season and then slowly make a presence felt in the FLC program. As an outgoing senior, he’s excited to see the play of Boatwright and true freshman Brendan LaRose, who he believes will carry on the program’s tradition.
“They’re both extremely talented players that aren’t used to sitting on the bench this much,” Semadeni said. “But they come out in practice every day and compete against us older guys, which gets us better. I’m just trying to remind them to focus on what they’re capable of. They’re going to be major forces in the league over the next few years, and I’m trying to tell them every lesson I wish I had heard when I was their age.”
Boatwright will look to keep chugging along when FLC embarks on a four-game road trip beginning this Friday and Saturday in Denver against Regis and Colorado Christian before a trip the following weekend to Utah to see Dixie State and Westminster. When FLC returns to Whalen Gymnasium on campus Feb. 8 against Colorado Christian, the Skyhawks hope to be playing for position in the RMAC tournament.
“It’s a fun time of year. It’s truly college basketball season,” Pietrack said. “The good thing about us is, we get along so good. We’re looking forward to going to Denver and hopefully playing better in Denver than the last time we were there.”
There is something that’s different than the last time FLC visited Denver: the big Boat has arrived.