By: Rich Flanagan
PHILADELPHIA- Matt Cerruti was working out in a gym on March 3 when he heard the news. Cerruti had recently entered the NCAA transfer portal following an impressive three-year career at Lock Haven University that saw him score 1,265 points. As he awaits where he will play next, he tends to find himself working out late and getting a few extra shots up, a work ethic a former teammate once instilled in him.
On this night, he heard this former teammate’s senior season had ended after what seemed like an improbable career to that point. That teammate was Collin Gillespie.
“It was upsetting to know that he put all of this hard work in and it was senior night,” Cerruti said. “His parents got to see him play. I felt so bad for him and I could only imagine what he was going through.”
Gillespie suffered a torn medial collateral ligament in his left knee during that night’s contest against Creighton. A year after the COVID-19 pandemic brought an end to a season where many believed Villanova would have been one of the best teams in the NCAA Tournament field, a second postseason was dashed from the senior point guard’s grasp. It’s the latest chapter in one of the most unique stories of a local Pa. prospect who was not heavily recruited but turned one offer into a career-defining path.
Archbishop Wood head coach John Mosco helped mold Gillespie into the type of guard Wildcats head man Jay Wright, a winner of two national championships, covets within his program.
Collin Gillespie spurs Villanova's win over Temple to capture the 2020 Big 5 Crown (photo by Zamani Feelings for PSD)
Mosco immediately reached out to his former lead guard and knew receiving a response that night was a sign of the person that he has always been.
“I texted him that night and, being the kid that he is, he responded to me at 11:30 at night,” Mosco said.
Responding to that text message after suffering an injury that put an end to his senior campaign is one of the many selfless qualities those closest to Gillespie have come to expect from him. When he is not trying to get teammates the ball, he is trying to pick their spirits up off the court. He tries to assist in more ways than one.
Gillespie’s selfless personality is something that former Vikings’ teammate, Keith Otto, who just completed his final season at Moravian College, learned from the 2017 Philadelphia Catholic League MVP. If there is one thing Otto took to heart, it is that Gillespie is a relentless competitor who has played with a chip on his shoulder for longer than he can recall.
“He’s in good spirits,” said Otto, who regularly plays video games with Gillespie.
“If there’s one thing I’ve learned about Colin, it’s not to be worried about Collin at all,” Otto said. “He figures things out pretty well on his own. He’s a hard worker and dedicated to his sport.”
The 2017 season was one of the most memorable for Cerruti and Otto. What is even more remarkable is that it almost did not happen. While this injury is much more severe, the one Gillespie suffered in high school was potentially enough to keep him out for a while. He hyperextended his knee during the summer prior to his senior season. Luckily, with plenty of time to rehab and relax with the school year weeks away, Gillespie turned his attention to getting his body ready for one, final run.
Mosco witnessed the tenacity and grit Gillespie has displayed in the Big East and on the national stage against some of the premiere programs in the country that summer. He knew what everyone would eventually realize when he took over the Wildcats starting point guard job.
“He’s going to be looking to come back better and stronger than ever,” Mosco said. “He’s not afraid of hard work. With him being injured, he only attacks everything one way.”
Behind Gillespie, Cerruti, Otto, Andrew Funk (Bucknell), Tyree Pickron and 7-foot-1 center Seth Pinkney, both of whom play at Quinnipiac, the Vikings started the season off with a 1-2 record before closing out nonleague play with six straight wins. After dropping their Catholic League opener to Father Judge, something happened that became a rallying cry for the remainder of the season.
Former Wood teammate and Gillespie's friend Keith Otto pictured in 2017 PCL semifinal game vs. Ryan (PSD photo by Zamani Feelings)
Gillespies's former Wood teammate and friend Matt Cerruti pictured in 2017 PCL Championship game vs. Neumann-Goretti. (PSD photo by Zamani Feelings)
One of the walls in the Vikings gym caved in, making the venue unplayable for the rest of the year. This forced the team to play all of its remaining games either on the road or at neutral sites. They played at Bensalem High School (twice), La Salle College High School (twice), Arcadia University, Philadelphia University (now Jefferson) and Holy Family University, to name a few. With a senior laden team and a point guard who was about to put together one of the most storied careers in program history, Archbishop Wood was vaulted to league supremacy.
The Vikings reeled off 12 consecutive victories in league play to secure the top seed in the playoffs. That core group helped make it happen, but Gillespie took his game to another level during that stretch. He poured in 28 points in a win over Archbishop Carroll then erupted for a school-record 42 points against Quade Green (University of Washington), future Wildcats teammate Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree, Chris Ings (Rider) and Neumann-Goretti at Archbishop Ryan. Since that performance, only one player has tied or surpassed that total: Conwell-Egan’s Patrick Robinson, who had 42 points of his own against Roman Catholic that same season. No player in the last four seasons has come close.
Gillespie sets 42 point school record in 2017 league game vs. Neumann-Goretti. (PSD photo by Kevin Murphy)
That game may have single handedly given him the offer from Wright and the Wildcats. After being as lowly recruited as any league MVP up to that point, Cerutti, who avg. 12.0 points per game as a senior, feels that the drive to show others what he can do simply adds to his success, which will translate into focus during his rehab.
“I think it ties into being under recruited, receiving an offer from ‘Nova and having that great career,” Cerruti said. “He always had that confidence in him to always be the best player and person on the court whenever he stepped on it and that will be his same mentality when attacking rehab.
He scored 33 points against Archbishop Ryan in the league semifinals, his first career game at the Palestra. In a rematch with the Saints in the title, Gillespie struggled early, tallying only two points in the first sixteen minutes as the Vikings trailed 30-15 at the break. Mosco always credited Gillespie, particularly because he “knew when to take over,” and he put together a truly historic second half. The 6-3 guard scored 22 points after halftime, leading Archbishop Wood to its first Philadelphia Catholic League title in program history.
As it happened so often during that season, one win fueled the next and that league title transitioned to the city title over Martin Luther King followed by an incredible run through the PIAA Class 5A Tournament. Gillespie’s final season culminated with a 15-point, 10-rebound and eight-assist game in a dominant 73-40 victory over Meadville for the program’s first state title.
His leadership from his junior to senior season was evident from the first few practices that season and Mosco, who witnessed firsthand what Gillespie would later do on a nightly basis at Finneran Pavilion, saw how he made other players better as his success grew.
“He was a tremendous leader,” Mosco said. “He didn’t worry about himself; he worried about getting everybody involved.”
Gillespie and Cerruti hold Trophy after winning the 2017 PIAA Class 5A State Title- The first in Archbishop Wood History. (PSD photo by Brandon Stivers)
He scored 1,132 points at Archbishop Wood then went on to score 1,264 during his time at Villanova. His 361 career assists rank 20th all-time in Wildcats history, behind former teammate Phil Booth. He played in 32 games as a freshman, helping the Wildcats claim the 2018 National Championship with a win over Michigan. He scored four points in that national final. He was inserted into the starting lineup as a sophomore and started 86 straight games before his season-ending injury. Villanova won 94 out of the 118 career games Gillespie appeared in over four seasons.
Gillespie, Cerutti and Otto were three integral parts of the most heralded team in program history. Like the rest of that Vikings team, Otto knew Gillespie was the unquestioned leader.
He knows his close friend has already surpassed the expectations for his career, but his personal expectations will continue to push him to achieve even more.
“He’s a leader in all sense of the term and really knows what he’s doing out there,” Otto said. “In college, he has nothing left to prove. He’s done so much as an under recruited kid from Huntingdon Valley.”
While Otto noted that this injury has presented “more of a chance of going back now than he did before,” no one is certain what the next steps are for Gillespie. He appeared ready to lead the Wildcats to their third Big East Tournament title in four years (there was no tournament last season). Instead, he will be on the sideline rooting his teammates on as they strive on without him. His selfless demeanor will only allow him to support his teammates more than he did before. While he cannot toss them assists anymore this season, he will once again try to assist them in more ways than one.
Villanova's Collin Gillespie in Big 5 match-up against St. Joe's University 2020. (PSD photo by Mike Nance)