Jeff Jacobs: Conard's Riley Fox setting records, getting attention from state's DI colleges

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WEST HARTFORD — If the normal tide of the boys basketball season holds Thursday night against Avon, Riley Fox will become the all-time leading scorer at Conard High.

Midway through his junior season, Fox already has scored 1,158 points, 20 shy of the school record set by Jack Phelan in 2000.

Fox has averaged 27.2 points on 50 percent shooting, including 40.5 percent on 3s, and 84.5 percent from the free-throw line. At 6-foot-5, 185 pounds, he is averaging 11.5 rebounds.

“He gets all the defenses’ attention every night and is putting up ridiculously efficient numbers,” said Conard coach Jared Leghorn. “He is a blast to coach.”

Let’s put aside opponents’ attention for a moment: Riley Fox is a blast to watch.

Does it have something to do with his hair? Of course, it does. It explodes from his scalp in bursts of red and autumn curls. It matches exquisitely with Conard’s red and white uniforms.

After much debate, the West Hartford school board changed Conard’s mascot from Chieftains to Red Wolves this past year. Perhaps it should be the Red Foxes until Riley graduates in 2024.

After all, he is in the running for state player of the year.

“Growing up watching basketball, even in general, there aren’t a lot of people with red hair,” Fox said of humanity’s proud two percent. “I like it. My mom had really red hair when she was young before it turned darker. So I don’t know if I’m going to have red hair my entire life.”

Have opponents ever offered an opinion on your coiffure?

“It was more freshman year,” Fox said. “They’d say anything to boggle me. I remember someone called me a pumpkin.”

He stops to laugh.

“Now, no one talks to me much,” he said.

When a dude is already dropping nearly 30 a night, why rile him?

Riley’s parents, Jeff and Mary Ann, put him in a YMCA league when he was in the third grade. He liked it. Elementary school, rec teams, travel teams in middle school followed. He loved it. Basketball is his one sport.

Fox started playing AAU ball with Expressions Elite of Massachusetts last year and will again this coming season. That’s the EYBL program Alex Karaban of UConn played with a few years ago.

New England Recruiting Report has Fox ranked ninth in Connecticut in the Class of 2024. This includes all the top prep schools. Only Rashawn Tibby of Windsor (fourth) and London Jemison of Northwest Catholic (eighth) are ahead of Fox among CIAC players.

Riley’s dad, an accountant originally from Muskegon, went to Michigan State. Riley grew up watching Spartans football and basketball and as a kid wanted to go there. Basketball is changing that path.

So far, he has received offers from Yale, Fairfield and Central Connecticut.

I ask Fox to give a scouting report on himself:

“I think I am one of the best shooters in the state,” he said. “I can shoot it off the dribble. This year especially I have been handling the ball more, with ball screens, taking it up court more not just in transition.

“On defense, I’m lengthy. I can stay solid in front of guys, alter people’s shots. In transition, I like to push, get up and down and get easy baskets. Off the ball, I try to move a lot, set screens for others, get possessions for me, create easier shots.”

 In the offseason, he lifts 4-5 times a week. He shoots every day. If not at the school, there’s a shooting machine over at the Mandell JCC.

According to Leghorn, Fox already has set the school record for giving high-fives to his teammates.

“He plays with an emotional intelligence that is just off the charts,” Leghorn said. “He knows when to push guys and how to be a leader. His basketball IQ is super high, too. He has expanded his game every year.

“He came in as a freshman as sort of a 3-point shooter. He put on some muscle and came back a whole different player as far as being able to get to the basket and using his left hand.”

As a sophomore, Fox set the school record for most points in a season (632) and game (50 against Bulkeley) and led Conard to the CCC and state semifinals — where it lost to Northwest Catholic both times.

“He was a 15-year-old kid last year carrying us to the state semis,” Leghorn said. “That’s a heavy burden. Now he controls the game a little bit more. He is super, super patient. He is getting double- and triple-teamed and almost never takes a bad shot. Our students love him.”

After senior Connor Olechno, an all-conference selection the previous year, was injured, more was put on Fox as a freshman. He got a quick introduction to varsity basketball and ended up averaging 15.1 points in a COVID-shortened season.

“I started off hot last year,” Fox said. “Teams had never heard of me and now I started to see face guards and double-teams. Our point guard Declan McCann, his dad Sean who played and coached here, worked with me on using my body to stay low and be in strong position if someone is up on me. Don’t waste as much energy bumping back.”

Since he can shoot so well from behind the arc, if opponents press up on him, Fox can blow past people.

“Coach jokes about my high-fives,” Fox said. “Now that I’m a captain I try to push myself to lift everyone up every day. Stay positive. Also get other people good looks. Somebody hits a couple 3s and that’s a game-changer. A lot of guys have done that. I love my teammates. I wouldn’t be able to score like I have without them, setting the extra screen, giving up the one more (pass).”

Leghorn met with Riley and his family after his freshman season. They talked about goals. There is pressure to go to prep schools and reclassify. For some, it is the right decision. For others, it is right to stay at their high schools.

Granted he is a unicorn, but Donovan Clingan, 7-2, stayed at Bristol Central and has impressed everyone as a freshman at UConn. Matt Knowling stayed at East Catholic and has flourished at Yale. Matt Curtis, committed to Fairfield, stayed at Northwest Catholic before deciding to do a post-grad year at Avon Old Farms.

After their 2021-22 sophomore years, Tyler Betsey left Windsor for St. Thomas More and Dylan Veillette left Ridgefield for St. George’s (R.I.).

No size fits all.

“I’ve always been up front with him,” Leghorn said. “If you want to go to a prep, we’ll help you get to the right spot. I never want to hide from that. I want to do what’s best for him.”

Leghorn has gone as far as contact Bristol Central coach Tim Barrette, who went through it all with Clingan, for advice. Watching Knowling go from East Catholic to Yale and do so well, Fox said, “is cool. I love Matt. We talk. It feels like I could almost repeat that.”

“Prep schools work for some guys,” Leghorn said. “He’s happy here. I think we’re doing our best for him.

“The CCC also has Division I guys almost every year. We’re the best conference in the state. We have one of the hardest schedules in the state.”

Riley Fox, who has a good shot at becoming one of the top-10 scorers in CIAC history, says he thinks it’s best to stay at Conard.

“It was really last year people were asking if I was going to leave,” he said. “I talked to a few of them. I turned down a lot. I’ve known our coaching staff. I attended the Chieftain camp in the fourth grade. I was always around Conard basketball. I’ve grown up with most of these guys.

“With a prep school, I wouldn’t be able to see my family as much and would leave my friends. I feel like I can get done what I need to do here and be successful. (Playing the top level) AAU is a big part of it.”

So is his brother Aidan, playing a significant role as a freshman.

“We’ve always been around each other,” Fox said. “That’s a reason I don’t want to leave.”

If not for COVID, Leghorn said Fox already would have broken the school record and scored his 1,000 points long before Jan. 5.

“I never played basketball to score 1,000 points,” Fox said. “It came along with loving the game. Last year in a game I shot the ball like three times and we won by 20. I just want to win.”

“Every practice, Riley is hardest worker,” Leghorn said. “Cheering on his teammates, giving high-fives, huddling guys up. When the best player is the hardest worker and is the nicest person, everything kind of falls in line.”

jeff.jacobs@hearstmediact.com; @jeffjacobs123