Shepherd Hill boys basketball star Ryan Brooks gets life and basketball lessons from Holy Cross Hall of Fame mother Janet Hourihan Brooks

DUDLEY – By the time he was around 5 years old, Ryan Brooks was ambidextrously dribbling and perfecting a two-step layup, all in the comfort of his own living room and with loving and expert instruction from his mother, the legend of Holy Cross Janet Hourihan Brooks.

At her eldest son Dan’s baby shower, Janet received the usual onesies and diapers, along with a most fitting gift from her good friend Beth (Andreoli) Smiley — a Fisher-Price mini hoop.

As soon as Dan could sit up on his own, Janet said, he would shoot the small ball at the plastic panel and the 3-foot ledge that rose from the colored base. When Ryan, two years younger than Dan, was old enough, he would join his brother and as they got older the boys would move on to a 6ft taller basket. They dabbled in it at the ages of 10 and 8, and some pretty lively one-on-one games ensued.

“Most kids are told not to play ball in the house,” Janet laughed. “Here we had a hoop in the living room.”

Eventually, and before any of them flew down the chimney, Janet and her husband, Bill Brooks, got their sons to take action outside. They built them a half basketball court in the backyard of their Dudley home, where the family had many fun games of 21 and HORSE.

Left to right Ryan Brooks of Shepherd Hill, Janet Hourihan Brooks, Dan Brooks and Bill Brooks pose together after Dan graduated from Shepherd Hill.

“The mini hoop was legendary, and my brother and I played in it until we were too old for it,” Ryan, a star junior forward for the Shepherd Hill Regional basketball team, said after Wednesday’s training, “but that’s where I started playing. That’s where I learned.

The 6-foot-6 Ryan has blossomed this season for the Rams and first-year coach Mike Rapoza. Ryan, who leads Mid-Wach B in scoring (20.9 ppg) and is his team’s leading rebounder (11 rpg), helped Shepherd Hill to a 9-2 record heading into Friday’s game at the North Middlesex Regional.

“Ryan is such a smart player and he has incredible skills in all areas,” Rapoza said. “He’s a great passer, great inside scorer, great mid-range shooter and great 3-point shooter. He can affect plays in so many ways. We’re lucky to have a team that sticks to the concept of playing as a team and understands that our offense will work better if we pass things on to him, especially in the post, and let him be our decision maker on a lot of things. Guys love it. He’s fun to play with and so selfless. It’s worked really well so far.

Rapoza, a former Rams star, was an assistant at Shepherd Hill when two-time league star Dan Brooks played for the Rams. Dan, who won the 2020 state individual golf title, is a freshman at Siena College and a member of the Saints golf team.

Janet Hourihan Brooks was a dominant player for Holy Cross.

Cultivate the love of the game

Ryan and Dan got their athleticism from their father, who is from Brookline and played high school football, baseball, golf and tennis in Maine, and their basketball talent from their mother, who grew up at Needham and entered the Holy Cross Varsity Club Hall. of Fame in 1991. Neither 6-foot-1 Bill nor 5-foot-11 Janet knows where 6-foot-5 Ryan or Dan got the extra inches.

Janet held HC’s all-time rebounding record for 34 years until Lauren Manis broke it in 2020. In most elegant gestures, Janet was at the Hart Center the night Manis broke her mark and l congratulated in person after the game. Janet still holds the HC records for career rebound average and double-doubles, and ranks fourth in points.

Encouraged by her friend and former HC teammate Kim (Kelley) Benzan, Janet, who previously coached the girls’ teams at Needham High and Oxford High, and Bill began coaching Dan and Ryan when they were old enough to the organized ball, first at the Southbridge YMCA and later in the Dudley Youth Basketball League.

“They coached us through eighth grade,” Ryan said, “so that’s all I got until my high school years. Sometimes things get tough with your parents coaching, but in the end, it’s really fun. They made me play playmaker growing up, so that’s where I learned my ball handling skills.

“I learned a lot about my post-game from my mom and a lot about rebounding. (She taught me) that a lot of people don’t want to rebound the whole game, but if you keep going after you’ll eventually get the ball back. ball,” added Ryan. “That’s how she played, and I think I followed some of the same techniques. My dad was a great athlete, and he taught me a lot of mental toughness and not getting upset afterwards. Missing a shot. The team needs you. Don’t let them down.’ ”

Shepherd Hill's Ryan Brooks makes a play during a game last week.

With 32 points, Ryan had a breakthrough against Shrewsbury last season. This year, he’s taken on a bigger scoring role and has been in double figures in every game, including a season-high 28 points in a win over Grafton.

“He can do anything on the court,” said senior teammate Treyden Finlay. “He opens up plans for all of us sitting in the paint. We will have an open corner 3 simply because it is there. It is a presence. It’s crazy what he’s done this year. He is a big part of our team.

Watching Ryan’s games this season, always through the lens of her coach, Janet sees herself in Ryan a bit.

“He’s more athletic than me,” Janet said, “but he’s a good passer like me, and he’s a good player and a good teammate, like Dan, and I’m proud of that.”

Mom’s inspiring battle with cancer

As parents and coaches, Janet and Bill instilled skills, intelligence, passion, fun, competitiveness and selflessness in their boys, and so much more.

For the past six years, Janet has battled cancer with ferocity, courage and positivity, all traits that Ryan and Dan have taken on.

“She’s amazing,” Ryan said. “She makes our lives feel completely normal, even though her life is the opposite of normal. Waking up every day and knowing she’s going to keep a positive mindset no matter what. happens, she is amazing.

Ryan was in fifth grade when doctors discovered a tumor on the tail of Janet’s pancreas. Months of chemotherapy, then radiotherapy and surgery followed. She was in remission for two years before blood markers showed major abnormalities and a series of CT scans, PET scans and ultrasounds eventually revealed a recurrence in two lymph nodes deep in her abdominal region.

She resumed chemotherapy three years ago, and continues.

“I’m holding on,” Janet said, “but I’m not making much progress. At this point, staying stable is kind of a win in itself. I will probably be on (chemo) or some version of it forever. We go from CT scan to CT scan hoping that whatever we do keeps me stable and the situation doesn’t get worse.

Ryan Brooks of Shepherd Hill has become one of Mid-Wach B's finest players.

Janet’s diagnosis and subsequent health issues were, of course, frightening and worrying for her sons. They handled it with love, care and composure.

“I think his positivity keeps Ryan going all the time,” Rapoza said. “You never really see it affect her or you wouldn’t even know it. A lot of that comes from him and a lot of that comes from Janet and Bill and the attitude of this family – it’s so great every day.

Janet, a workers’ compensation manager at Wyman-Gordon for 17 years, has worked mostly remotely since the pandemic began. When she worked as a human resources manager at Staples, Rapoza’s grandfather was her boss. She continues to coach, along with Ryan, in the Dudley Youth League.

“Some days,” Janet said, “I don’t feel like cooking dinner, and I’ll say (to my husband and kids), ‘Sorry guys, you guys are alone.’ But because I worked all the time and because I coached all the time I think I try to be a good example of “not feeling sorry for myself” and not letting cancer be the focus of my life. Cancer is something I have to deal with; it’s a chronic disease for me, but it’s not talked about a lot. I think it’s been hard on my kids – you wouldn’t expect to go through something like that – but they and my husband have been rocks.

Janet and Ryan coach Dudley’s kindergarten and first graders, and when the town’s youth league needed someone to coach the boys in grades two through four, they got him too. supported.

“We have fun and make constant memories together,” Janet said. “There are things that I can no longer demonstrate, but I have learned to adapt and use other people to demonstrate. You don’t curl up when you have cancer; that’s not how it works. You live.”

Ryan, who aspires to play basketball in college, study sports management and coaching, enjoyed doing it alongside his mother.

“It’s a good combination,” Ryan said. “She’s the lady of discipline, and I can teach them new things. It’s great fun to be back in the league where I started.

The Shepherd Hill drive, followed by a 45-minute shootout, ended around 5:30 a.m. Wednesday. When Ryan got home, he did what he always does when he comes home from school.

“I go to my mom’s (home) office and give her a hug,” Ryan said. “It’s the first thing I do. She is definitely an inspiration and motivation. She is doing everything she can to ensure that we continue to be successful, and I couldn’t be more grateful.

—Contact Jennifer Toland at Follow her on Twitter @JenTolandTG.

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