To explain why Hayden Rooke-Ley might be the nation’s best free-throw shooter, we should go back to his sophomore year at Williams, and the day he sat down to take an exam.
“I completely bombed an economics test, and then went to the gym and started shooting free throws,” he said over the phone from campus in Williamstown, Massachusetts.
“I hit 300 in a row, and just stopped. I had to go to my next class.”
Some guys might order a pizza to soothe their frustration. Rooke-Ley grabs a basketball.
Or there were the high school games back in Eugene, Oregon, when he would miss too many free throws for his liking, and ask his parents to take him to the YMCA afterward, so he could lob up a few dozen for practice.
“I felt like I did something to make up for what I didn’t do during the game. Honestly, it was more therapeutic than anything,” he said. “So I will admit I have always sort of had an obsession with shooting free throws.”
Oh, really? Or as coach Kevin App said, “To him, those are free. He shouldn’t miss them.’’
You can tell by the stat sheet. Rooke-Ley missed a free three for Williams in a game last week. Matter of fact, he missed two. This is news because he had not missed any since last March. Seventy-eight in a row he had buried, including his first 67 this season to set an NCAA Division III record.
The miss that broke the streak? Maybe a tough-luck one that rolled in and out? “It wasn’t even close,” Rooke-Ley he said. “It was right rim. I totally clanked it.”
A check on the numbers Wednesday found only 17 players in all the NCAA divisions with a better season free throw shooting percentage than his 97.2. But none have attempted more than 46 this season. Rooke-Ley has shot 71. He not only knows what to do at the line, he knows how to get there.
Now a senior, he has put up 284 free throws for Williams in his career and missed only 32. He didn’t care for any of them.
“I can think of last year against Southern Vermont, I missed a free throw late,” he said. “That one had me in the gym for awhile.”
So it has been since … forever.
Growing up in Eugene, he would go to the YMCA and shoot at least 100 free throws. Every. Single. Day.
“I would get up early and ride my bike down there. If it was too cold, I bothered my dad to take me down,” he said. “I felt like my day wasn’t complete if I didn’t start it off that way.”
He was hoping that work ethic would lead him to his goal. “My dream was to play Division I basketball and use basketball to get me into the best school academically I could,” he said. “The Division I dream obviously didn’t work out.”
But about everything else has. He might have gone 3,000 miles to find Plan B, but Williams is an academic juggernaut and a Division III basketball powerhouse with three trips to the Final Four in the past five years. And the Eugene-to-Williamstown road is well-traveled. Rooke-Ley went to the same high school in Oregon as Ellen Cook. She’s now the captain of the Williams women’s team.
Plus, he is playing for a coach who values the talent he brings to the table.
— Williams coach Kevin App
“Our guys take it seriously,” App said. “Our recruiting philosophy is centered around the skill of being able to shoot the basketball. I’m a fortunate head coach, that we’ve got guys that can step up and knock them down.”
Right. Williams is hitting 85 percent from the line as a team.
But Rooke-Ley can shoot more than unguarded 15-footers. He averages 22 points for the 7-2 Ephs and one game this season hit 12 of 15 3-pointers.
“After every game, he gets in the gym on his own the next day and goes through all the shots he missed the game before,” App said. “That’s just the type of young man, and the type of competitor he is.”
Rooke-Ley calls it “hanging my hat on just spending more time in the gym than the next guy.
“I was never really the best athlete. I was never the most gifted guy out there. I had to be able to shoot to make up for a lot of other areas. I, as well as anyone,
But about the free throw record. “There was some part of me that said, `This is behind me now. Let’s move on,’’’ he said. “I’m more excited we’ve won seven in a row.”
Big free throws are not what put on the pressure at Williams. The classroom does. It’s finals week, and Rooke-Ley, a biology-political science major, has a full slate.
“I worry more about this organic chemistry final I have more than I do about playing,” he said.
And should he need to relax, the free-throw line is waiting.