The trip from Winter Park, Fla., John Pietkiewicz’s hometown, to St. Augustine, Fla., where Flagler College is located, is a relatively short one—a little less than two hours to be exact.
But for John Pietkiewicz (pronounced Pet-kav-ich), it took 2,800 miles, roughly 12 months, and a few life-changing lessons to make the trek from his hometown to St. Augustine.
And Pietkiewicz wouldn’t have it any other way.
After a successful career at Winter Park High School—including an appearance in the 6A State Championship game and several honors and accolades—the six-four combo guard decided he still needed more time before choosing a college.
So John looked to his father—who also played for Winter Park HS and then went on to stardom at Auburn University and eventually the NBA—for guidance, as he often does. Eventually the two decided it would be best for John to complete a post-graduate year of high school.
They settled on New Hampton School, where Pietkiewicz would experience a boarding school lifestyle, some of the best high school basketball in the nation—and lots of snow.
It was at New Hampton that John would, as he put it, “grow as a person and as a player.”
For starters, New Hampton is located in New Hampshire, a far cry from the sunny climate of Florida. And not unlike many students who find themselves miles apart from their families and in unknown surroundings, John’s head began to get clouded with doubt soon after his arrival.
“After the first month up there,” he says, “I was thinking, ‘Why did I go to New Hampton?’”
It didn’t take long for Pietkiewicz to get his answers.
While trudging through snow for brutal 6 AM workouts is no one’s idea of fun, it was during those workouts—which Pietkiewicz describes as “boot camp”—that each young man learned what it was going to take to compete at the next level.
Running the infamous workouts was Coach Mark Benetatos, who was dubbed “The Benefactor” due to his intense (and some would say bordering on insane) but rewarding workouts.
“The Benefactor's preseason workouts were the first two months of the school year,” Pietkiewicz says, “and they were literally the worst two months of my life. I dreaded every day of them.”
While Pietkiewicz insists that “Bobby Knight has nothing on [The Benefactor],” the Flagler guard also firmly believes—despite the yelling and flying chairs and ball racks—that Coach Benetatos “made us the toughest team and closest team I have ever been a part of…We pummeled teams we had no business beating, and we had a great year.”
A natural shooting guard, Pietkiewicz played the point at New Hampton, which is in the New England Prep School Athletic Conference, featuring a collection of extremely talented players in what is widely regarded as the toughest prep school conference in the nation.
Because of the talent level on the team, Pietkiewicz says, “Every practice, players were out for blood. If you took a day off you would get exposed.”
And that was just at practice.
Conference games were all out wars. Pietkiewicz would often find himself bringing up the ball against a Division I signee. The rest of the league was brimming with athletes, as each team featured players currently playing in this year’s NCAA tournament.
Each year, nearly every player in the conference goes on to play at the collegiate level. As Pietkiewicz puts it, “The competition was unreal, and every team was well coached too.”
After a grueling preseason and demanding regular season schedule, basketball ended about the time the New Hampshire snow began to melt. The Benefactor workouts were over, as was the Robert Frost poetry in English class.
Spring weather arrived, and in one or two more months, each player would be heading off to their respective colleges. In a lot of ways, Pietkiewicz and the rest of his teammates were back to being kids.
And that’s when tragedy struck.
On April 17, during a routine pick-up game after dinner, Guy Alang Ntang, a 19-year-old from Cameroon who had already signed to play for Greg Marshall’s Wichita State team the following year, collapsed on the court and was rushed by ambulance to Speare Memorial Hospital, in Plymouth.
Shortly after his arrival, Guy Alang Ntang was pronounced dead.
Not surprisingly, Ntang—whose parents and eight siblings still live in Yaounde, the capital of Cameroon—was well-liked and respected by his peers and teachers, who described him as “tenacious, vibrant, charismatic, and a role model for younger students.”
While certainly tragic and hard to accept at first, Pietkiewicz says the frightening experience was actually an important part of his growth process at New Hampton. In Pietkiewicz’s words, to “see one of our teammates collapse on the court right in front of us and die…it just drew us all closer. Guy was like a brother to all of us.”
About two months later, Pietkiewicz returned to Florida to prepare for college. While Pietkiewicz was recruited by Division I and Division II schools in the Northeast, he felt a return to Florida (and its abundant sunshine) would be the best fit for him, so he signed with Bo Clark’s Flagler College Saints.
And from his first game at Flagler, you could tell Pietkiewicz was a player.
To run out of the tunnel at the University of Florida’s O’Connell Center is exciting and nerve-wracking for players at Kentucky, Tennessee, and other top-notch programs.
For a student-athlete at a small, Division II college of 2,000 students, it’s literally a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
John Pietkiewicz made sure he made the most of it.
The crowd at Florida, the “Rowdy Reptiles,” as they are called, has become legendary—and in the process, a serious home court advantage for the Gators has been created.
Undaunted by the loud student section, Pietkiewicz coolly hit his first three-ball, and then two others before the 10-minute mark.
With eight minutes left in the first half, Flagler trailed only 23-17, with Pietkiewicz contributing over half of the team’s points.
In the second half, however, the tide quickly changed, Florida’s defense woke up, and shots didn’t come as easily for the Saints. Pietkiewicz ended the night with 12 points on 4-7 shooting from three-point range.
While the Florida game was a loss, Flagler didn’t have many after that, despite losing a starting wing player—Coach Clark’s son, JP—to injury. En route to a 20-7 season, Pietkiewicz led the team with 15.1 points per game and drained 81 threes at a 38% clip.
Pietkiewicz also hit 86% of his free throws, and was good for 3.6 assists per game from his shooting guard spot. The ICAA Conference also recognized Pietkiewicz on the All-Freshmen team and third team All-Conference.
Yet to hear it from the modest, team-first Pietkiewicz, you’d think he was nothing more than a scout player. “Everybody on our team is so unselfish,” he says. “I feel like from 1-13, every guy just cares about getting the W, which is the main reason we have been so successful this year.”
Not only is this young man happy to throw praise at all of those around him, it’s no surprise that those who interact with him have nothing but positive words about Pietkiewicz.
Jamie Arsenault, the head coach at New Hampton, says, “John was a leader on our team and will be a leader wherever he goes. I am confident that John will have many successful seasons at Flagler…and he will contribute any way he can to make wherever he is a better place.”
New Hampton assistant coach Mark Benetatos took the praise one step further: “John was one of the finest kids I ever worked with and coached during my twenty years of coaching.”
It’s clear Benetatos means what he says.
It’s one thing for a coach to allow his point guard to set up the offense. It’s something completely different for a self-proclaimed “overprotective dad” to trust a young man with every father’s most dreaded night: his daughter’s Prom.
And this is where Pietkiewicz separates himself from others his age. Coach Benetatos puts it best when he says that while “John is a very good basketball player, who he is as a person is his greatest strength.”
Plainly put, John Pietkiewicz is a kid you want to root for.
John’s early success at Flagler came as no surprise to those who know John, and much of that success can be credited to the growing up he did at New Hampton.
After initially suffering through the two worst months of his life, Pietkiewicz’s view of New Hampton is much different now that he can look back. Quite simply, he says, “It was one of the best experiences of my life…I'm forever thankful for the opportunity my Dad gave me to go play there.”
Looks like the journey was worth it.