Minnerath follows unusual path to Titans

DETROIT — Nick Minnerath pumped in 3-pointers, soft hooks and turn-around jumpers. He set picks, raced to save loose balls from going out of bounds, and made all eight free throws taken. The 6-foot-9 marksman with hops put on a show.

Minnerath scored a career-high 36 points Thursday night for University of Detroit Mercy, and did everything for the Titans but win the game. His hurried trey off an in-bounds pass with 2.1 seconds remaining missed its mark, and Valparaiso escaped Calihan Hall with a comeback 89-88 victory.

It was a bad ending for a player who has become a very good story.

I’m not sure what the odds are of a player with Minnerath’s past becoming a force in a major college program, but slim and none come to mind.

He hails from Truro, Mass., a Cape Cod town with just more than 2,000 residents; broke his ankle and missed all but two games of his senior season at Nauset High in North Eastham; worked in construction and a convenience store for two years after high school; ended up at Jackson Community College based on the email inquiry of his father’s girlfriend; became a YouTube “sensation” and caught the eye of the UDM coaching staff; and is making an amazing comeback one year after tearing both the anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments in his right knee.

Minnerath not only came from nowhere, but traveled the chuck-hole indented road from obscurity all the way to Detroit.  

He grew up in the next-to-last town on the hooked peninsula between Cape Cod Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. It’s an area over-run with tourists in summers and a ghost town in winters. His father, Michael, is the North District ranger for the Cape Cod National Seashore.

“Basketball is non-existent there,” Nick Minnerath said. “They are not serious about basketball there. It’s amazing there in the summer, though. I love to hit the beach and boogie-board. But in the winter we do nothing.”

He said the indoor gym in the area was “too expensive” and so he would shovel off an outdoor court to hone his game in the winter. Minnerath always loved the game. “I’m a big Celtics fan,” he said. “Paul Pierce is my favorite player.”

I asked whether Chris “Birdman” Andersen, a 10-year NBA veteran with the Nuggets and Hornets, also was a favorite. Both Minnerath and the “Birdman” have similar body frames, are extremely athletic and have more tattoos than you can count.

“People always compare me to him because I’m a big white guy with the tattoos and all,” Minnerath said. “But I didn’t particularly follow him.”

When Minnerath broke his ankle in the second game of his senior season in high school, the dreams of playing in college all but died.

“I worked construction and at a convenience store,” the 23-year-old Minnerath said. “But after two years of that, I knew that definitely was not what I wanted to do the rest of my life.”

But how does a forgotten kid who is not even a dot on the recruiting landscape get discovered?

“My dad’s girlfriend, Janet Barricman, sent emails to the coaches of all kinds of schools,” Minnerath said. “Steve Finamore, the coach at Jackson had me come down for a look and gave me a chance.”

Minnerath averaged 22.8 points and 21.0 points in two seasons at Jackson CC, earning NJCAA Division II third-team All-America and Western Conference Player of the Year honors in 2010. He also earned an associate degree in general studies with a 3.3 grade-point average.

“We all went to watch him play,” said Titans assistant coach Jay Smith, the former Central Michigan head coach and Michigan assistant, “and he blew us away. He was tough, could run, shoot, jump, do everything. The kid was a YouTube sensation in junior college. He’s just a hell of a story.”

Minnerath was UDM’s co-MVP in 2010-11, averaging 11.2 points and 4.8 rebounds. He led the Titans with 83-percent free throw shooting, scored a previous career-high 26 against Cleveland State and was becoming an all-around force at forward.

But in the fifth game of last season, against Bowling Green, he suffered the knee injury that required surgery and again put his future in doubt.

“I was taking a charge,” Minnerath said, “and the guy landed on my leg and blew it out.”

He became a medical red-shirt, watched from the bench and cheered as his teammates won the Horizon League Tournament and reached the NCAA Tournament.

“That was hard,” Minnerath said. “It was the hardest thing I ever had to do. But you have got to be a good teammate.”

Titans coach Ray McCallum said, “About this time last year, Nick had the surgery. And nobody I’ve been around has worked harder to get back. … He’s feeling more comfortable. He’s consistent and playing at a high level. I’m really proud of this young man. He played the hardest of anyone on the floor, and that’s a really good sign for what he’s been through.”

Minnerath, averaging 13.2 points and 5.8 rebounds, had 16 points and 11 rebounds in the previous game, a 74-62 loss at Cleveland State. He’s on a roll headed into Saturday’s 6:30 p.m. ET home game against the University of Illinois-Chicago on FOX Sports Detroit PLUS.

“It felt natural from the start,” Minnerath said of Thursday night’s 36-point perfromance. “My teammates did a good job of finding me. It’s been a long time coming, and I’m getting better every day.”

Valparaiso coach Bryce Drew said, “Two years ago, he was a really exciting player. It would have been scary to see how good they would’ve been last year with him. He was fantastic tonight. He scored any way you could write it up. I put a big man on him and put a small man on him, and he still found ways to score.”

Until that last shot of the game.

“I was just sick to my stomach after missing it,” Minnerath said.

But adversity has never stopped Minnerath from picking himself up and working hard.

“What’s happened to me, it’s just memorable in every way,” Minnerath said. “Especially after getting hurt again and coming back.

“For me, every day’s a gift.”