The Sandhills Community College basketball team is several weeks into the first phase of a seven-month grind the coaches and players hope brings a return to the NJCAA Division III National Championship in Rochester, Minnesota next March.
The Flyers have seven returnees from last year's squad that went 25-9, including a fifth place finish at the national tournament. The roster also includes three red-shirts from a year ago and 13 newcomers.
NJCAA rules permit no more than a combined eight hours of training or scrimmages per player per week between now and the first official day of practice on October 1. The first regular season game is at Community Christian College of Lancaster, SC on November 2.
"I think the big thing about this time of year is teaching," says Head Coach Mike Apple. "You have to teach vocabulary because kids are coming from different systems and then you try to start some semblance of the offensive and defensive principles.
"Every year you start over, hoping some of the kids who came back can grasp it again very quickly and lead. You have to have patience and at the same time high standards and demand the best out of the guys. It's just a part of the journey."
There Are Big Shoes to Fill
Five of the top six scorers from last season have moved on and five members of the team, including Calvin Ahoume, Casey Clarkson, Donnie Haith, Chase Morrisette-Barnett and Damauri Sexton, signed to continue their basketball careers at four-year colleges.
Guards Sayaun Dent and Devian Smith are back after playing some of their best basketball in the district and national tournaments. The Flyers won 10 of their last 12 games including an 87-78 victory for fifth place over the tournament's No. 1 seed, Suffolk County CC .
A cold shooting first half in the opening game against eventual national champion Herkimer CC nipped the Flyers' title hopes.
Dent, a 6-foot-3 product of West Bladen High School, is the leading returning scorer at 10.7 points per game. He sees himself providing leadership more by example than with talk.
"Playing against players at a high level was definitely fun," he says of the national tournament experience. "I think this team has a lot of potential. We've got a lot of good defenders and if we play together I think we'll be cool."
Smith, a 5-8 point guard, who played high school basketball at Elevation Prep, started 16 of the Flyers last 19 games and was a big contributor during the stretch run.
"We're trying to get everybody on the same page early and try not to have so many ups and downs," he says. "We want to get back to where we were last year and get a ring this time."
Returnee Group Reinforced by Red-shirts
In addition to returnees Tyrell Allmond, Winston Bryan, Niem Ratliff, Evan Davis and Cameron Williams, the roster includes red-shirts Elijah Idlett, Savion Staton and Charles Thomas who practiced with the team last season and made the trip to Minnesota.
A sophomore, Idlett played at Finger Lakes CC in Canandaigua NY two year ago. The 6-2 guard averaged 12.8 points and 8.4 rebounds per game and played a regular season game against Herkimer.
It was difficult for the product of Cary High School to sit out the games last season.
"I just love playing basketball," he says. "My dad told me to just try to get better every day and that's what I live by. I'm working hard to get back to Minnesota. That's the goal."
Staton is another player Apple will depend on to replace some of the offensive output lost by graduation. The 6-2 guard averaged 21 points per game at Southwest Edgecombe High School, earning all-conference and all-district recognition.
"I think I'm going to bring a lot of athleticism to the team on offense and defense," he says. "Everybody is working hard and playing together."
According to Apple, the sky is the limit for both of them.
"They are really going to get their feet wet early and play a lot," he says.
First-year Players Compete for Roles
A scholarship player at Fayetteville State last year, Addison was red-shirted and decided to transfer to Sandhills. The 5-10 guard was a three-time all-conference selection and earned all-district honors for a Fairmont High School team that compiled a record of 80-8 while he was there.
In high school we played just like they do here – full-court defense and fast-break," he says. "I think it's just in my blood."
Apple sees a lot of leadership qualities in Addison.
"They were ultra-successful at Fairmont. Corry has great court vision and passes the ball very well. He's a slasher."
Yow's father Jeff was a member of the Sandhills Spartan basketball team in the 1970s before athletics were discontinued at the college for almost 30 years. He's been an ardent supporter of Flyer athletics since its inception in 2008.
"I can remember seeing Nathan at games with his father as a very young kid the year we won the national championship (2012)," Apple says. "He's a tremendously hard worker. He had the fastest time in the reservoir run this year.
"The hope is that he really hits the ground running. He's very familiar with Sandhills basketball, how it's played and what we want and expect."
The 6-foot Yow led his Grace Christian team in three-point baskets, assists and steals the last two years.
"I decided I wanted to go JUCO and thought Sandhills was a perfect fit for me," he says. "Everybody works hard and it kind of felt like a family after the first day. They're great teammates and I love the environment."
Last year's squad out-rebounded its opponents by an average of 14.5 per game. Apple will be looking for 6-8 sophomore Evan Davis to help the Flyers maintain that advantage and be a force defensively.
Cameron Richardson, a 6-7 freshman from Whiteville High School, and Derreco Miller, a 6-5 freshman from White Oak High School, are two of the newcomers expected to hit the boards hard and provide inside scoring. Both earned all-conference and all-district recognition as high school seniors.
The other first-year players competing for roles on the team include 6-1 Kevin Brayboy (Red Springs), 6-0 Zion Bailey (Pinecrest), 6-2 Avery Boyles (Maiden), 6-1 King Medley (Albemarle), 6-4 Josh Coulter (Maiden), 6-6 Josh Robinson (Southern Guilford), 6-6 Ahmad McKnight (Queens Grant), 6-7 Collin Medins (Apex Friendship) and 6-9 Will Boyd (Elevation Prep).
Bender and Smith Return as Assistant Coaches
Scott Bender returns for his third season as an assistant coach and Josh Smith begins his second year. Apple will also by helped by student assistants Cade Cross (Grace Christian) and Kenneth Winfield (Northside).
This will be Apple's ninth season as head basketball coach (198-63) and his second as the athletic director at Sandhills.
A recent late afternoon included a workout with the forwards followed by a scrimmage. The players were divided into three teams with the first on the court to reach 10 points remaining to play the next game.
"I think this looks like a typical Sandhills squad with a lot of athleticism," the coach said. "We return a lot of players which is going to help us experience-wise.
"I've got a good group of returners really wanting to make sure the new guys know what's going on. Now we have to determine roles and how people are going to fit in."