New Season: Flyers Know Opponents Will Be Focused on Them
The air is somehow still rarefied at the John Dempsey Center where a celebration was held last March after the Sandhills CC Flyers basketball team won the NJCAA Division III championship in New York.
In the fourth year of the basketball program, the Flyers defeated Cedar Valley College of Lancaster, Texas, 101-86 in the title game for their 11th win in a row. They finished the season 30-6.
Across the road at The O’Neal School gymnasium on Wednesday, the 2012-13 edition of the Flyers prepared for a new season with a scrimmage against Hines Academy of Charlotte. Missing were the shadows cast around the basket by 6-foot-10 Louis Craft, 6-6 All-American Markell Lotharp and 6-6 Erik Ewing.
Buzzer-beating hero and NJCAA Tournament MVP Daquain Towns was just a spectator. Also among the missing were Dre Huntley, maybe the speediest guard on the planet, and another Mister Clutch, Raheem Joliffe, who has moved on as well.
Those are just a few of the shoes for NJCAA Division III Coach of the Year Mike Apple to fill as he tries to meld together some outstanding contributors from last season with a lot of new faces.
“Last year we could play big, small, fast or slow,” the second-year Flyer coach said after a one-sided win in the scrimmage. “We’re a little different this year, but I think we’re going to be exciting.
“The thing I like about our guys is they’re doing a lot of things team-wise that it took longer to develop last year. They’re huddling up on free throws and they’re communicating on the court.”
The top returning scorers are 6-3 swingman T.J. Jones and 6-4 small forward Raheem Washington. Both played big roles in the title run as did 6-0 guard T.J. Gill, who was also a member of Apple’s 11- or 12-man rotation. Chris Vinson, a 6-1 guard, also saw some action.
The tallest player to take the court for the Flyers on Wednesday was 6-6 Western Harnett product Kermeriaz Harrington, who redshirted last season, but did travel with the team to New York for the national tournament.
“It was real tough with the close games, sitting on the bench and knowing I could help the team,” he said after scoring 10 points in the scrimmage. “But I was there to support them.
“It helped me a lot practicing with Louis and Markell. Knowing we wouldn’t have a lot of height this year, it helped me prepare to play against teams that have a lot of height. Coach told us from day one that we’ll have to step it up defensively, by a lot, and play a lot faster.”
Apple points to Harrington and Gill as two of the players that have stepped up to provide leadership. He has known Harrington since he was about 8 years old. His brother, Kedrick, played for Apple when he was the head coach at Western Harnett from 1998-2003. Apple then coached at Pinecrest before taking over at Sandhills.
“I have seen Kermeriaz play since he was “that high,” Apple said.
Twenty players saw action and 16 got into the scorebook against Hines Academy. One of the tallest of the newcomers is 6-5 forward Tony Peele Jr., who was among the state’s leading scorers while playing for Northside High School in Pinetown. He averaged 29.4 points per game, scoring 30 or more 10 times, with a high of 51.
“He can put the ball in the basket,” Apple said. “I think he’s going to be a really good player by the end of the season.”
Apple got to watch former Purnell Swett guard Juwan Jones play when he coached at Pinecrest. A hard pusher of the ball, and driver to the basket, he was in the starting lineup against Hines.
The Flyer coach describes shooting guard Isaac Lyerly Pina, who played on last year’s 28-2 Pine Forest team, as smooth and poised. He averaged 14.7 points per game and led Cumberland County players with 78 threes. He drained three treys in the scrimmage.
Rodzavien Crowell, an outstanding all-around athlete at Knightdale, has been impressive in practices. Dorian Davis (Lumberton), and two-time All-Cape Fear Valley Conference forward Stacy Slade (Western Harnett), are newcomers that played against Moore County high schools during their prep careers.
Apple says rebounding the ball this season will be by committee. The defensive style and pace of play is certain to be relentless.
“The first thing I told them in the locker room tonight was at this time last year in similar games this team is far ahead of last year defensively,” the coach said.
The season officially gets under way at Louisburg College’s Coca Cola Classic on Nov. 3-4. The home opener is at 2 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 10, at the O’Neal gym against Shooting 4 Greatness Academy, a private school in Raleigh. That will also be Military Appreciation Day.
The game against Vance Granville CC on Nov. 14 will be 2012 NJCAA Banner Night. Four games are scheduled to be held at the larger Pinecrest High School gym.
Along with the national championship mantel comes something else for this year’s squad.
“It puts a bull’s eye on your back,” Apple said. “And it makes every teams’ players listen to their coach a lot harder the day before the game. You have to accept the challenge.”
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