Sandhills Community College head basketball coach Mike Apple began his remarks at last week's end of the season dinner by telling the audience that it takes a village to educate a child and it also takes a village to have a successful junior college athletic program.
"We have the best basketball program not just in North Carolina, but in the nation," he said.
At the event held at the Dempsey Student Center, the Flyers' coach listed some of the highlight's and achievements of the 2016-17 season that ended with a loss to Davidson County CC in the championship game of the Region X tournament.
- A record of 26-6 and No. 8 ranking in the final NJCAA, Division III national poll
- Memorable overtime victory over Prince George's CC in first home game of season
- 5-1 record against Division II colleges
- 115-101 victory over Davidson in February when the Storm was ranked No. 1
- The Flyer record 150 points scored in the next game against Johnston CC
- Fourth in the nation in scoring at 97.6 points per game
- No. 1 in total rebounds per game (52.8)
- No. 2 in opponents' three-point percentage (28.3)
- A Flyer basketball team record GPA of 3.1 for the first semester
- All five sophomores scheduled to graduate on time.
"I am so proud of how they bonded and came together as a basketball team," the coach said. "The red-shirt players worked hard and helped make the team what it was. The best thing I can say is the joy I felt about coaching these guys."
The Flyers finished with a record of 7-2 in Region X. They were 14-1 at home and 14-2 in the games played in 2017.
Apple thanked assistant coaches Tony Chapman, Darell Yates and Jordan Simons, conditioning coach Tim Nocton and student coaches Jacob Marley and A.J. Hardy. Frank Wishart was the team manager. The scorekeeper was Makayla Swinnie and Emily Stonesifer was the video technician.
"Tony Chapman has been my right-hand man since I've been here," said Apple who completed his sixth season with the Flyers. "You need coaches that are all in."
The Flyers' coach recognized the 20 members of the team, including five freshmen and two sophomores that red-shirted. The five sophomores that completed their eligibility all showed improvement statistically and provided leadership in helping the team reach the third highest win total in the nine-year history of the basketball program. Each was presented with their jersey.
Josh Smith earned first team All-Region X honors for the second year in a row and led the team in scoring both years with averages of 14.0 and 15.6 points per game. His 179 career three-point baskets are second in the Flyer record book to the 188 made by Germann Bostic in the 2008-9 season. The 93 he made this season were the 10th most in NJCAA Division III.
The 6-foot guard scored in double figures in all but three of his games this season and sank at least one three-point basket in all but two. He played high school basketball at Union Pines and Trinity Christian. He was a member of the track team at Mars Hill University for two years before coming to Sandhills. He has received a full scholarship to play basketball next season at Fayetteville State.
Jeremias Easterling also earned first team all-region honors. As the second leading vote getter, he is also an All-American nominee. The 6-7 forward set a number of Flyer standards in his two years at Sandhills. He averaged 12.6 and 11.4 rebounds this season. The latter figure was 10th best in NJCAA Division III and he was ninth in total rebounds. He was eighth nationally with a field goal percentage of 62.5.
At the early season Coca Cola Classic at Louisburg College, the Scotland County High School grad scored 23 points and grabbed a Flyer record 25 rebounds against Southern Maryland. He set a new rebound mark with 26 the next day against Southside CC.
Easterling, who is being recruited by several four-year schools, tied the Flyer single season record of 16 for double-doubles (Kermeriaz Harrington, 2012-13) and set a new Flyer career mark of 27.
"It really has been a good two years and I appreciate Coach Apple and Sandhills giving me the opportunity to continue playing basketball," he said. "I was really pleased with the team's improvement this year and hopefully we set a bar for the freshmen."
Sophomores Zezva Liluashvili, Christian Lathan and D'Angelo Harris provided the Flyers with veteran depth and versatility at the guard position and also hope to continue their basketball careers at a four-year college.
From the country of Georgia, Liluashvili averaged 10.6 points per game with a career high of 34 against Southside CC. He averaged 3.3 assists per game including 10 in a January game against Central Carolina. He led the team with a free throw percentage of 84.8 and set a Flyer record with 26 made in a row during one stretch of the season.
Apple described Lathan as a coach on the floor. He was a prime engineer of the team's fast pace of play and started 28 games at point guard, averaging 7.1 points and 3.1 assists. Harris, a tenacious defender, averaged 6.6 points per game and led the team in assists at 3.9 per game and steals at 1.6 per game.
Among the first-year players, Mason Harrell was a Region X All-freshmen first team selection. The 6-8 postman averaged 9.5 points and 8.1 rebounds per game. He was credited with nine double-doubles and led the team with 53 blocked shots.
Eric Field and Luke Moore were all-freshmen team honorable mention selections. Field averaged 8.1 points per game with a season-high of 20 against Central Carolina. Moore joined the team in December and averaged 8.5 points and 5.5 rebounds per game. He posted double-doubles in consecutive games in February and was second on the team in blocked shots with 25.
Other players contributing to a successful season included guards Malik McCrimmon and Johnny McFadden, and forwards Shane Garrison, Brandon Thomas and Juwaan Childs. Garrison scored 16 points and grabbed a dozen rebounds in a game against Johnston Community College. Childs scored in double figures seven times.
Apple also announced team awards. The Offense Player of the Year was Smith who the coach called: "As good a player to coach as I've known." The players voted Lathan The Best Teammate. The Most Improved Award went to Easterling. Harris was The Defensive Player of the Year and Liluashvili received The Coaches' Award for contributions made beyond what he did on the basketball court. Stonesifer presented a scrapbook that she put together to Coach Apple.
Lathan, Smith, Liluashvili and Stevons made the All-Region X Academic team for GPA's of 3.0 or higher during the 2015-16 school year. With a 3.1 team GPA after the fall semester, the team is on track to earn NJCAA Team Academic recognition. Athletic Director Aaron Denton challenged the players to focus on their studies and push for it.
The Flyers exciting brand of basketball and strong stretch run led to near capacity crowds at Heins Gymnasium in each of the final four games.
"We can uplift people and we're charged with making people appreciate what college athletics are all about," Apple said.