The Sandhills Community College basketball team overcame a considerable amount of adversity on the journey to a fifth place finish at the NJCAA Division IIII National Championship last month in Rochester, MN.
After losing the opening game of the tournament to eventual national champion Herkimer CC (NY), the seventh-seeded Flyers defeated, convincingly, No. 6 Middlesex CC and a Suffolk County CC squad that came in 28-0 and was ranked No. 1 in the nation.
At a dinner held last Friday at the Dempsey Student Center, Coach and Athletic Director Mike Apple presided over the celebration of a team that finished with a record of 25-9. The Flyers qualified for the national tournament by defeating Anne Arundel and tenth-ranked Prince George's CC for the District 7 title.
"I thought all along we had the makings of a really good defensive club," the coach said afterward. "We could switch positions with our one through four guys so we had a lot of versatility. We just had a lot of trouble figuring out how to share the ball. We started doing that toward the end and that's what made us so strong.
"I was pleased with the progress. Nine losses is too many. I think we should have won some of those games, but you can't argue with the end result. They came together and the end result was really good."
Flyers Face Adversity
The coach began by introducing coaches Joshua Smith, Scott Bender, and Phillip Olbon, and other support personnel including, trainer Stefanie Mansfield, conditioning Coach Tim Nocton, academic advisor Marsha Apke, student assistant Frank Wishart, scorekeeper Makayla Swinnie and video technician Emily Stonesifer. He also thanked the many others who supported the team financially and by other means.
He talked about a season that began with seven players suspended for two games because of an altercation arising out of a preseason scrimmage. Later Calvin Ahoume was averaging almost a double-double, and leading the nation in blocked shots in early December when he went down with a hand injury that required surgery. Casey Clarkson was also out of action for an extended period because of a hand injury.
Then in early January, Zion Copeland, who missed the entire season because of a knee injury, was involved in a serious automobile accident along with Tavarus Peterson, who was sidelined for the remainder of the season, and Delton Davis who was out for all but the final two games.
"Those things really shook our team," Apple said, "but these guys didn't let adversity define them."
Team Hits Stride in District Tournament
The Flyers clinched the Region X title in January and had built some momentum before conference rival Central Carolina CC defeated them on February 20 for the first time in 25 games going back to 2009. But they bounced back in a big way from the wake-up call with the two wins at the Hangar for the district title that earned the trip to Minnesota.
"Princes George's was a huge win," the coach said. "It was a roller coaster season. It was interesting and a lot of fun."
Members of the Team Recognized
Apple introduced members of the team. Those completing their Flyer basketball eligibility are Donnie Haith, Clarkson, Chase Morrisette-Barnett, Xavier Grissett, Damauri Sexton, Ahoume and Peterson. Also introduced were freshmen Winston Bryan, Sayaun Dent, Niem Ratliffe, Devian Smith, Cameron Williams, Holt Walker, Tyrell Allmond, Delton Davis, Evan Davis, and redshirt freshmen Elijah Idlett, Savion Staton and Charles Thomas.
Haith was an all-tournament selection after scoring 26 points in the fifth place game in Minnesota. He and Morrisette-Barnett were named to the All-Region X first team and Walker made the All-Region X freshmen team.
Team awards announced by Apple were: Offensive Player of the Year – Haith; Defensive Player of the Year – Morrisette-Barnett; Best Teammate (by vote of the team) – Sexton and Grissett.
"It was really special this year," said Sexton who was with the team for three years after red-shirting as a freshman. "At the beginning we had a lot of new guys and transfers and it took us a while to click. As the season went on we came together as a family. That helped us on and off the court.
"I grew close to those boys. I'm going to miss them when I leave, but I'll always be talking to them."
Sandhills Athletics Benefit From National Exposure
As in 2012 when Apple's first team as the Flyer coach won the national championship, and in 2015 when they qualified again, the national tournament exposure helps recruiting as well as opportunities for the sophomores to continue their careers at four-year schools.
Sexton, Morrisette-Barnett, Haith, and Grissett worked out recently at Bluefield College (VA) and each one received a scholarship offer.
"It puts them on the national stage," Apple said. We've had as many recruits in the gym the last few weeks as I can remember."
With about a dozen players, including red-shirts, potentially in the mix for next season, along with several new signees, the coach thinks the future is bright.
"I'm proud of the way they've handled themselves in a team way," he said. "We gave the players two weeks off after Minnesota, but none of them took it."
It was a season that ended with a team of players and coaches realizing how good they could be. And in the aftermath many were thinking what might have been had it not been for a first half against Herkimer when they made only 20 percent of their field goal attempts. Trailing 40-22 they outscored the national champions 42-36 after the intermission.
"I would really like to play Herkimer again, especially the first half," the coach said before leaving Minnesota. "I really think as far as Division III level basketball teams in junior college, Sandhills is one of the best teams in the nation right this second."
by Charlie Bergmann
photo by Donna Ford