There weren’t any spots left on the team’s roster.
Tony Bergeron was coming into his first season as the head coach of the Woodstock Academy boys basketball team last winter. His roster was full, but he would still receive numerous calls and texts from Elijah Winston; trying to find anyway he could to get on the team.
“He kept calling and texting asking if anything was open,” said Bergeron. “I was so impressed about how he advocated for himself. I loved his personality, his drive, and his determination. I thought to myself ‘If I get an open spot, I’m pushing this kid all the way to the top of the list just because I’m excited to interact with him.’”
Winston eventually earned a spot on the team.
The coaching staff of the Springfield College men’s basketball team hopes Winston brings that same drive on and off the court to Alden Street as he is set to join the program next season.
Before he shined at Woodstock Academy, Winston played at Oswego High School in Illinois; almost 1,000 miles away from Woodstock in northern Connecticut.
Oswego is a classic American suburb about an hour’s drive outside of downtown Chicago. High school football games serve as the highlight for each week, and the McDonalds in town serves as the go-to spot postgame.
The town might be known for its football; but from a young age, Winston was always about playing basketball.
“My high school coaches always tried to get me to be a wide receiver and the track team tried to get me to do long jump,” said Winston. “But I was always doing AAU so I couldn’t [get ready for] football in the summer, and I couldn’t do track season because of spring AAU. So, I have always done basketball. It’s where my peace of mind is and it’s what I love to do.”
Even in seventh and eighth grade when he attended basketball camps at the high school, his love and knowledge of the game was obvious.
“From a basketball perspective he was a terrific athlete [at that age],” said Oswego High School boys basketball coach Matt Borrowman. “Even as a young kid he had a really high basketball IQ, which is pretty uncommon for kids at that age. You could tell good things were in store for him down the road.”
As Winston started to come through the ranks and fight for minutes on the varsity team, Borrowman was struck by the fervor with which he battled for time on the court.
“Eli has a strong competitive edge,” said Borrowman. “ When he feels that someone is on the verge of beating him out for a position or spot, he raises his level of play. I love that about him. That’s something you’ll see from him [at Springfield]. He wants to win and he is a team guy first and foremost. That’s him in a nutshell.”
Winston started to get a good amount of varsity minutes in his junior year at the school. His jump shot was reliable in his time with the Panthers, but what really made him special was his versatility as a defender.
“He can guard all five positions,” said Borrowman. “He can guard kids that are 6’ 8” and he can guard a 5’ 8” point guard. I think his main niche [at Springfield College] early on will be his versatility defensively.”
Once his time at Oswego was through, Winston embraced the new challenge of moving to the east coast to attend Woodstock Academy.
It didn’t take too long for him to get comfortable.
“He’s like an honest politician. He must have known half the student body after about a week,” said Bergeron. “The faculty loved him. He’s just an extremely likeable kid.”
In addition to his skill on the court, Winston’s personality is just another thing that makes him a solid addition to Springfield’s program.
“It’s probably slightly cliche when you like the kid, but he’s like a story every day,” said Bergeron. “He has this out-of-this-world personality that everybody gravitates to. He’s going to come in and be a campus favorite in the first week. Once he gets on the court the crowd is going to love him. He is going to be one of those kids that Charlie [Brock] will remember coaching in his long career.”
Bergeron took over the head coaching job at Woodstock Academy after moving on from his post as head coach at Commonwealth Academy in Springfield. While at Commonwealth, he coached another member of the Pride, Kendall Baldwin.
But Bergeron’s connection with Springfield basketball goes further back than just Baldwin. He and the coaching staff, particularly Charlie Brock, have had a great relationship for a long time.
“Charlie [Brock] and I are probably a decade and a half to two decade-long friends,” said Bergeron. “Every year he’ll call me and ask who we have for him. Charlie and I work very well together. I had Kendall for three years and Springfield did a great job recruiting him. With Elijah, same thing, [assistant coach Connor Merrill] and Charlie did a great job. It’s a good fit [for Elijah].”
According to Winston, Springfield was one of the only teams to come to all of his home games at Woodstock Academy. The fact that they showed so much interest in him early-on played a big factor in his decision to join the team.
In addition to the interest from the coaching staff, he was impressed with the campus when he took his initial visit.
“I fell in love with the place,” said Winston. “It’s really nice; not like a normal Division III. It’s kinda big, its a nice campus, nice weight room, nice weight program and nice gym. I was really interested.”
On that initial visit, Winston connected with the Pride’s Jake Ross. During Springfield’s historic run to the national semifinals later in the year, Winston texted with Ross to see what he and the team’s mindset was.
“I was following [the tournament run] the whole way,” said Winston. “I was texting Jake [Ross] seeing what he was thinking and how they were preparing for the games and seeing what Coach Brock was telling them; just testing the waters of the program. I really got a good connection with him and Kendall. They were a big factor in deciding what school to go to.”
On top of what the school could provide athletically, Winston was happy with what the college could provide academically. He plans to major in health care management and business management at the school.
The coaching staff at Springfield has expressed to Winston that they, much like his coaches at Oswego and Woodstock, are impressed with his versatility as a defender.
But, in addition to his defensive prowess, his additional year at Woodstock has given him a legup against the other freshmen competition that he will go up against.
“What [the coaching staff] really likes most is that I do have one year under my belt,” said Winston. “I’m a little bit more physical than the other incoming freshman. I think the transition for me coming to Springfield might be a little bit easier than the kids that are coming straight out of high school.”
Although his offensive game is solid, Winston feels like he can improve his shooting percentage a bit, something that will be a goal of his throughout this summer.
“My midrange is pretty good, but my trainers want me to look at guys like Devin Booker, Bradley Beal, and other guards that can postup at midrange, but can also slash really well and play multiple positions.”
Winston is already projected to be a solid contributor for the Pride due to his defensive versatility, but if he is able to match that with a consistent outside shot, a solid freshman campaign, and beyond, could be in store for him.