Big Dreamers Took Risks That Paid Off for Sandhills
Every now and then, life gets it right.
Eight teams traveled to upstate New York — from towns ranging from Wisconsin to Texas. All of them had the same goal. But only one team, full of big dreamers from North Carolina, came home with a national title.
Some would argue that it isn’t right that seven teams had their dream crushed so that one could emerge as the champion. But, as is the case with so many aspects of life, it is only the fact that there is the peril of losing that makes the sensation of winning truly remarkable. In truth, that is the story of America — a group of people risking it all for a hope and a dream.
Dr. Susanne Adams knew the risk of starting athletics at Sandhills Community College, but she pushed us to take that risk. The SCC faculty and staff that interviewed candidates for an athletic director knew the risk of hiring a “wet behind the ears” kid named Aaron Denton from upstate North Carolina to be the architect of our fledgling athletic program, but they took that risk.
Mike Apple knew the risk of jumping from the high school to the college coaching ranks, but he accepted that risk. And the roundball “band of brothers” who boarded the SCC team bus for the 12-hour journey north to face the best junior college teams of the NCAA knew the risk of having their dream crushed.
But they embraced that risk and left their hearts on the court every night for three days in order to achieve it. Any of you who watched those first two one-point wins felt that risk too sharply, shared their hopes too fervently, and experienced too clearly the “cardiac arrest” that it put each of us through as those kids made their dream come true.
Can you say “myocardial infarction”? We can.
At no point was their journey an easy one. Ask coach Hill’s father, Ricky, who drove in stoic silence practically the length of the Eastern U.S. to bring the team here and waited patiently outside the gym during shoot-around to keep the bus warm.
Ask Dawn Apple, who, oddly enough, was instrumental in bringing us a new ophthalmic program long before we knew her husband would be our “coach of the year.” She somehow became the adopted mother of a dormitory full of young men who seemed to consume more calories than the entire population of an island nation. And she did so with dignity and humor and grace.
Ask the team from The Pilot, who tried to capture the magic in words and images.
Ask the 25-to-50 faculty and staff who gathered each night on campus — and the countless others at their home computers. The folks on campus believed that their joint vigil would somehow produce some form of karma that would make its way to a bleak Catskills landscape and let those young men know that the people at Sandhills were all with them.
The ones at the computers believed that their monastic fandom would produce its own magic. That karma reached the team, and it clearly worked. Ask Dr. John Dempsey and the 20-odd fans who served as firsthand witnesses to a remarkable three-day event. They sat on Eisenhower-era wooden bleachers and marveled at the magic that these young men produced each night.
Dr. Dempsey wore the same outfit, took the same seat location (two rows up, announcer side of the aisle), and somehow seemed to stop breathing in the same way each night — from buzzer to buzzer without a breath and without any notable loss of brain function.
Or ask a woman named Carrie Schoonmaker. She was the staff member from Sullivan Community College-SUNY who was assigned to our team. She brought her two young grandsons to the games to add to the ranks of our fans, and she was never absent when the SCC team was on that campus. She got no compensation. She expected no reward. By the end of the tournament, she had forgotten her allegiance to the teams from her region and become a Southerner through and through.
Ask any of the players. They will tell you the story of a remarkable journey that will be with them for the rest of their days. And when the sound system played “In my mind, I’m going to Carolina” as the Flyers cut the nets, they had one heart, one pulse, one shining moment.
Dr. Croft and the Kruska/Hill-inspired group gathered on campus Saturday night texted to the team after the game these words: “Miracle on the hardwood. Please let them know how proud we are of their win — but also of the way they won … with class.”
When the team members boarded the bus to go back to the hotel after their victory, we did let them know. And they, as you might expect, thanked you for being there for them. At the late post-tournament dinner of burgers and cheesy fries (sorry, Health Fair folks!), they were a subdued and humble group of boys who felt a kindred bond that few of us will ever truly experience in our lifetimes.
Sandhills provided them an opportunity. And look what they gave in return. And on that “morning after” Sunday, each one of them headed home with a piece of net that perfectly explains why we now get to use the expression “netted them a national title.”
The plan was for the team to drive to New York and climb the Empire State Building. But you can trust that when they climbed the ladder to cut down the nets last night, they were higher than they will be in that iconic piece of American architecture.
We can only hope that this success will inspire in them a lifetime of success in endeavors that don’t involve a basketball but that touch people just as deeply as their efforts on the court have touched us.
Ronald Layne is associate vice president for instruction at Sandhills Community College. He is now on a three-month sabbatical, which he interrupted to attend the events described above.
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