Hamilton native Chris LaBelle leads the Colonial States Athletic Conference in points and assists.

After starting every game last season for the Centenary University men’s basketball team as a freshman, Chris LaBelle could have been tempted to take it easy in the offseason. After all, LaBelle led the team in scoring and ranked eighth in the Colonial States Athletic Conference with 16 points per game. He also topped the Cyclones in assists.

But taking it easy is not LaBelle’s style. It’s the reason he has continued to excel at Centenary and the reason his former coach at Trenton Catholic Academy, Fred Falchi, believed LaBelle would succeed at the collegiate level.

“We kind of sat him down and said listen, as long as he works hard, he’ll be fine,” said the recently retired Falchi. “I thought the potential was there. He wants to be good. He knows what it takes. He’s going to put all the work in he possibly can. That’s all you can ask.”

LaBelle emerged from his freshman season at Centenary confident in his ability to score. But the Hamilton resident wanted to be more than just a scorer, he wanted to be a complete player. He worked in the offseason to increase his strength and focused on improving his defensive and distributing skills while continuing to hone his shooting touch.

This year, through mid-January and the team’s first 16 games, LaBelle was averaging a CSAC-best 17.8 points per game. The 6-foot-1 guard also led the conference in assists, with an average of 4.5 per game, and was No. 2 in assist/turnover ratio. He ranked second in steals per game, with 2.1, and his total of 34 was just one shy of his total for all of last season. In addition, he had seven blocked shots compared to four as a freshman.

That’s pretty complete.

“It’s going pretty good so far,” said LaBelle, who in early December was the CSAC Player of the Week. “I came into a starting role right away (last season) and tried to make the most of it. This year it was all about getting better and building off of last year. Coming out of high school, I was more of just a shooter. I wanted to become more of a defender and more of a facilitator, stuff you need to do to be a big-time player.

“It’s a whole new game in college, a whole different level. It’s a big jump. I think having those games and experience last year really helped me to know what to expect and what it takes to succeed. I just want to do whatever I can to help my team.”

LaBelle played high school basketball at Steinert prior to transferring to TCA, where he was an all-area selection as a senior.

“I told Chris when he was in high school he’ll probably be a better college player than high school player because he’s going to grow into his body, he’s going to get used to the speed of the game, different things like that,” Falchi said. “I think when he was at Steinert he had to do too much. With us he got to shoot, that was his specialty. That’s what he’s doing in college. There’s always room for a shooter, especially nowadays with the game.

“Of course, you have to keep improving. Only God knows how good you’re going to get. But his work habit was tremendous. He’s a great kid. Kids like him make programs.”

LaBelle’s goal now is helping make the program at Centenary as good as possible. The Cyclones got off to a rough start this season, losing their first seven games. But the squad, which is dominated by sophomores and freshmen, got to 6-10 by winning five of six contests from Dec. 21 to Jan. 16.

“We’re a young team, but we have a lot of talent and we’re moving in the right direction,” LaBelle said. “We got off to a rough start with some tough out-of-conference play, but I think we’re turning it around now. We’re kind of finding our groove. We found how to play with each other. It will be nice to see how everything continues to grow.

“Everyone is just trying to get better every day. It’s a real fun environment and everyone is on the same page. Our coaches do a great job of making sure we’re ready every day. The team is moving in the right direction, which is all you can ask for. I think we’re starting to reach our expectations.”

Centenary is located in Hackettstown, roughly a 90-minute drive north of Hamilton, which allows LaBelle the chance to experience the independence of campus life while still being near enough to home that family and friends can easily attend his games.

What does he most enjoy about playing basketball for the Cyclones?

“For me, it’s my teammates,” LaBelle said. “We have a close bond together, not only on the court but off the court. We’re a good group of friends. I think that’s the most enjoyable part, playing together every day and seeing it all work out.”