With nearly 20 years of Division I head coaching experience under his belt, sniffing out talent has never been a problem for Ed DeChellis.
Usually the struggle for DeChellis, now in his fourth season at the helm for Annapolis, lies convincing talented players to come play for Navy, where in exchange for getting to play Division I basketball and four-years of free education from a great institution, they must commit to five years of active duty in the armed forces upon graduation – and all but give up on any dreams of playing professional hoops.
But in the case of Navy senior Brandon Venturini, the team’s second leading scorer, it was the exact opposite.
“I knew since about the sixth grade that I wanted to go to the Naval Academy,” says Venturini, who made the team out of an open walk-on tryout during DeChellis’ first year in the fall of 2011. “I didn’t know until my senior year of high school that I wanted to try to play basketball there and I didn’t know until the fall of my freshman year of college that I’d actually have a shot of being on the team.”
“It’s kind of funny,” says DeChellis. “Usually when we first start recruiting a kid, we have to sell them on what a great experience going to Annapolis is and how much a degree from here will be with them for their entire life. With a lot of talented high school players, they don’t want to have to commit to serving in the Navy on active duty. For Brandon, he was sold since he was a kid on Navy, he had to sell us on his abilities as a player.”
Now in his final season of college basketball, Venturini has become and indispensible part of DeChellis program as a tough, physical combo guard who stretches the floor from downtown and gets after it on defense and is currently averaging 12.7 points per game while shooting 37.4 percent from three. Much more importantly, he’s emerged as a team leader who helped keep the team above water when it was rocked by injuries earlier in the year.
“He’s definitely a vital part of our program,” says DeChellis. “He has a definite skill in that he can really shoot the basketball, and he has a willingness to dive into any role we’ve asked of him.”
Three years ago, Venturini was scrapping, scratching and clawing just to try and make the team.
“I wasn’t recruited here,” says Venturini, one of four seniors on the team. “They had an open tryout that was like a boot camp, and I went everyday. I practiced every day with the freshmen who were all recruited here.”
“It became apparent early on during tryouts that he had a definite skill that translates at the Division I level: the ability to shoot the basketball,” says DeChellis.
But when pressed, DeChellis and Venturini both admit that neither of them dreamt that Venturini would wind up playing the role he has for the team.
“I’ve seen a lot in my career, so I don’t want to say anything surprises me,” says DeChellis, “but, no, I didn’t think Brandon would wind up being a go-to scorer for us.”
“Not right away,” adds Venturini on whether he entertained daydreams of being a star. “I was just trying to make the team.”
Where it all began
Venturini grew up in Allendale, a middle-class community in Michigan that sits along the Grand River. By the time he was nearing the end of grade school, he knew exactly where he wanted to go to college and what he wanted to do.
“My brother actually was in the academy, he graduated in 2009,” says Venturini of his brother, Aaron, now a Naval helicopter pilot six years his senior. “I’m one of those younger brothers who wants to do everything their older brother does, so I’ve been wanting to come here since the sixth grade.”
At the time, Venturini, whose sister, Lauren, is a lieutenant in the Air Force and whose grandfather went to the Chilean Naval Academy, had no interest in, let alone dreams of, playing basketball.
“I liked soccer growing up,” he says. “That was my favorite sport, I played it all the time.”
At the end of middle school, Venturini started playing organized basketball. It was yet another case of the younger brother following the lead of his older brother and “hero.”
“I started playing for my middle school team. It was actually my brother who pushed me to play college basketball. He was the one who had me in the gym all the time, who was training me,” laughs Venturini.
It was that brotherly bond that led Venturini, who also earned All-Conference honors in golf as a high school senior, to decide to focus on basketball as his sport, and to go farther in the game than Aaron, who played junior varsity basketball at the Naval Academy, had.
“We kind of made a pact my junior year that I would be in the gym and in the weight room all the time with him and I would try to play college ball,” he says.
Still, Venturini admits that it wasn’t until after earned his third-straight all-conference honors and been named to the Western Michigan Dream Team as a senior, that he was truly sold on trying to play college ball.
“It wasn’t really until after my senior season of high school that I was sure I wanted to play college basketball.”
From there, Venturini enrolled for a post graduate year at the Naval Academy Prep School (NAPS), where he had to try out and make the team, and spent the season in the shadows of players recruited by the Navy coaching staff.
During the season, Venturini approached the then coaching staff at Navy about trying out for the varsity.
“They told me that I’d have a spot on the JV team,” he says.
But during that offseason, Navy’s staff was let go and DeChellis was hired, opening the door – albeit just a crack — for Venturini to take a shot at the varsity.
Making the team
“We definitely needed bodies,” says DeChellis of his first season at Navy and the open tryouts. “Brandon came in and really impressed us with his ability to shoot the ball, but also his effort, the extra time he put in, and his commitment to being coached and soaking everything in.”
“I was a little freshman,” says Venturini. “I was just trying to do whatever it took to get someone to notice me.”
“At the end of tryouts, the coaching staff told me when practice would be and that I’d better show up and keep bringing it,” he says.
His first phone call after making the team: “My brother and my family,” he says.
Growing with the game
Venturini’s career at Annapolis hasn’t exactly coincided with banner years for the program, which went 3-26 his first season, 8-23 his sophomore year and 9-21 last season. But according to DeChellis, the muscular 6-footer has been crucial to rebuilding the program.
“You need guys like Brandon who show up and put in hard work, push their teammates, and hold everyone accountable every single day.”
As a freshman, Venturini saw action in 26 games, averaging 11 minutes, 2.8 points and one rebound per contest. As a sophomore, he was one of just two player to start all 31 games, and ranked third on the team in scoring (8.8 points per game). Last year, his role time once again increased, as he started all 30 games (one of just two players to do so) and ranked second on the team in scoring (11.5 points per game) and sixth in the Patriot League in steals (1.5 steals per game).
“He’s a guy who has just grown every single season through hard work and doing things the right way,” says DeChellis.
Going out with a bang
Venturini’s final year was supposed to coincide with Navy turning the corner as a program, but in the early going, it looked like it would be a disaster, as the Midshippmen lost star senior Worth Smith early on to a knee injury, before losing two more players to knee injuries and another to a broken jaw.
“That was pretty rough because we were missing a lot of key players who had played a lot of minutes,” says Venturini of the stretch that saw Navy begin the season going 2-7.
According to DeChellis, Venturini was instrumental in keeping the team’s spirits up and moving in the right direction.
“We had to play a lot of young, impressionable kids a lot of minutes early,” says DeChellis. “And the fact that Brandon kept showing up made a big impression on them not to give up and to keep fighting.”
With Smith and several other reinforcements rejoining the fold, Navy has turned the season around, and currently sits at 8-13 on the season – just one win away from the best mark of Venturini’s career – and 4-5 in conference play.
But Venturini isn’t satisfied with simply helping to stem the tide and turn the program around.
“There’s nothing I want more than to win a championship and get to the [NCAA] Tournament,” he says. “We only have so many guaranteed games left if we stay healthy. For me and Worth [Smith] and Kevin [Alter] and Earl [McLaurin], the four seniors, we’ve been thinking about that for a long time, and we’re trying to get everybody riled up and excited.”
Not bad for a kid who didn’t even know if he wanted to play basketball five years ago, let alone whether he’d even have a team to play for.