Saints basketball adds up to more than the fourth-quarter score
Halfway through a basketball season that’s included as many downs as ups thus far, it’s reasonable for players, coaches, and fans to ask, “What does success mean?”
For the Seward County Community College Saints team, the answer is complex. A highly regarded program known for launching gifted players into D1 transfer spots, the Saints team has long maintained a tricky balance between athletic prowess and academic progress. It’s not that classes and degrees don’t matter to head coach Bryan Zollinger, assistant Patrick Nee, and the players who dream of a step to the next level.
It’s just that what happens on the court often feels like it matters more.
Zollinger is up front about how he prioritizes athletic success:
“Coaching is like anything else: you get evaluated on your performance,” he said. “This is a business where you are measured by winning.”
That’s not the whole picture, though. Zollinger — who’s taciturn in everyday life, often volcanic during games — can be hard to read. Beneath his opaque exterior, though, is a keenly observant and compassionate man who sees his players as whole people who are much more than the role they play in a game.
“When I came here as a student-athlete, it was a life-changing experience,” he said. “The work ethic, the attitude, the new level of commitment — that put me on the path towards being a man. We have kids coming from all over the country and it’s our job not just to win championships but to give them the tools and resources to be contributing members of society.”
That approach worked for Darko Cohadarevic, who came to Seward from Belgrade, Serbia.
“At the end of high school I found myself at the crossroads of continuing my education and continuing playing basketball. Leaving Serbia and joining SCCC was definitely one of the best decisions I ever made in my life,” recalled Cohadarevic. “It was a perfect solution for my urge to continue education while playing basketball at the same time.” Cohadarevic went on to complete his four-year degree at Texas Tech before embarking on an international professional basketball career that continues today.
SCCC’s men’s basketball program enjoys a reputation as a feeder to Division I schools, shining in its own right as well: the team has placed third at the national NJCAA tournament three times since 1998, won the region VI tournament championship five times since 1985, and placed in the Top 20 Rankings for the NJCAA 15 times in the last 20 years. Nearly 20 players have gone on to play pro basketball.
Give Zollinger a list of former players, and he’ll tick off names and outcomes without missing a beat: Nick Burns? Played one year before going to West Texas A&M. He’s now a policeman. Ervin Williams? Was no academic star, but he’s a productive member of society and supports his family by playing for the Harlem Globetrotters. Kareem Ransom? He didn’t even play basketball at Wichita Southeast, came to SCCC, was an All-American, and went on to Sam Houston, graduated, and now plays pro ball overseas. Reggie Chamberlain, who played for the 2008 Region VI Championship team that won third place in nationals? Graduated UMKC.
As seasons come and go, both coaches know there’s time for records to accumulate and then settle. For the players who often make a cross-country trek to Southwest Kansas, the season’s tally can take on a more immediate urgency.
Pierre Johnson is one example. A standout player in high school, Johnson did not bring the same zeal to the classroom that he demonstrated in the paint.
“I know I should have worked harder in school,” said the 6’4 guard, who played on an athletic scholarship at Mt. St. Joseph High School, a college prep in Baltimore, Md. Johnson had a shot at the Tulane men’s team. He completed the core requirements for NCAA eligibility and earned more than a passing glance from recruiters for the GreenWave. He met the mark on the court — but not in the classroom.
“My G.P.A. wasn’t high enough for Tulane,” Johnson recalls, and shakes his head. “I missed so many homework assignments.” The lost opportunity stung.
“It woke me up,” he said, “and then I had to decide what to do next.”
Last August, Johnson made the long trip west to Liberal, Kansas, where he enrolled for a year of study and play he hopes will improve his life in every way.
“If God blesses you with athletics, you’re gonna take it as far as you can … but I know I’ve gotta stay more on top of my school. If I procrastinate, I might not get another chance. I only need one year to get my GPA up, get better all around, educationally, athletically.”
Pierre Johnson, Saints player 2016-17
So far, it appears Johnson is on track. With a first semester course load that fell on the lighter side, he plans to load up with core requirements in January. Transferability is key, said Director of Advising Mariah Cline.
“I’m super excited about students being able to transfer to DI, D2 schools using athletics as a key. It’s important that we make sure they take the core classes here, so they get a better foundation,” she said, “and this is the place where they can get the support they need to do that.”
Cline pairs her optimism with boots-on-the-ground practical assistance. The weekend before finals, she brought most of the Saints basketball team to her house for a full-day study session, confiscated their cell phones, fed them lunch and dinner, and kept the players motivated and productive.
“Because my husband’s a high school football coach, I really believe that students involved in athletics are more likely to be successful,” Cline said. “I’ve seen it up close for myself. These players might have a good season or a bad one, but their main goal is to become men of character, who can hold their heads up and have pride in who they are.”
The catch, of course, is to help student-athletes prioritize both short- and long-range goals. That can be tricky, as Cohadarevic recalls:
“Try waking up at 5:45 a.m. and running circles around campus going all the way pass the baseball field to the National Beef and around Walmart, and finally arriving back at the student union entrance. Right away after this ‘little run,’ carry 40-pound weights in each hand around the Green House to finally find out you have a workout at the gym, after which you have only 10 minutes until your first class starts,” he wrote in an email interview. “Try getting a precise size lunch after school that will be just enough to keep you going through team practice from 3 to 6 p.m., but not too much to make you throw up after sprints that can come at any time. After this try to shower and eat properly in 30 minutes because if you take longer, you will be late for that three-hour night class that you have to take. But if you decide to not rush to this, or any other class, in order to make it on time, you can of course do so. Next morning before school, you will have to run sprints as a punishment.”
“Be brave and enroll at the English Composition classes with brilliant professor Bill McGlothing, but watch out for those away games! Travel five hours, play, then travel back to Liberal. Sleep and wake at 5 a.m. to finish a final draft of an essay, or try to tell Mr. McGlothing that you didn’t have time to finish your paper. Or if you are smart, I advise you not to do so. You will face the brilliance of this professor in a simple face gesture that denies any kind of excuse of this type, in a few short but most eloquent sentences that will always end up with a calm reminder that you are a ‘student-athlete’ and not just an athlete.”
Darko Cohadarevic, Saints player and alum, takes a shot at one of the Chipola games.
The tension between the athletic and academic departments of the college can sometimes become brittle. At times, athletes and even coaches saw high standards in the English or math departments as hostility toward athletics. For Cohadarevic, though, the high standards in the classroom were merely a corollary to the standards on the court.
English instructor Bill McGlothing “wants his students not to settle for mediocre success, but to strive for greatness,” Cohadarevic wrote. “He wants to pass his enormous knowledge of such a beautiful language to the next generations and leave a great legacy at a small college like SCCC, even though we all know that he can teach at the biggest universities in America.
“Professors like McGlothing and coaches like Zollinger make SCCC one of the best junior colleges in America, and they are the reason why we, like many others before and after us, have successful lives.”
Of course, not all players enrolled at SCCC bond with the English professor, or even aim to earn the two-year associate degree.
“A lot of players use our stage to move on to the next level,” Nee said. “They train, they play, get stronger, bigger, faster, and they develop as people. They raise their stock. At the end of the year, if a guy gets a D1 offer, that’s great.”
Each player measures success differently, as the coaches well know.
“For some, they go on, get their degrees, and while they were here, they didn’t necessarily have it figured out — but what I look at is, did they end up with a four-year degree? That’s one kind of success,” said Nee.
Johnson is clear about his yardstick for success: after Seward, he hopes to play D1, and then, he hopes, go pro. A degree? That would be nice for him, and honor his parents’ wishes, he said, “but it’s kind of the back-up plan for what I really want to do.”
Big dreams and backup plans
Zollinger tends to look at each player’s past as much as the future.
“I think some people forget that, for some of our players, this is their chance to figure out how college works,” he said. “It’s difficult at times because the circumstances I see during the recruiting process — you never want to shame them, or make them tell the worst to the people in financial aid, or the instructors,” Zollinger said. Yet he knows what he’s witnessed firsthand would serve as a revelation for those quick to criticize.
“You might meet a kid who’s on our team, and he’s from the ghetto, living with 11 people in the house, on an annual income less than $10,000. You think, ‘How is that possible?’ and yet if I took you there to see that house, you would start crying.
“That’s his experience in life. And you have to build trust, so that you can tell that player, ‘This class is going to help you in life,’ and he believes you. We can draw up statistics about the graduation rate and the GPA, and make it look any way you want, but the big question is, what impact are we having on the lives of the players who come to us?”
SCCC alum and Saint Robert Sigala, a Southwestern Heights student, experienced profound personal loss while playing for Coach Z.
“That was the year his dad died, his 13-year-old brother died … who knows what would have happened to that kid if he hadn’t had basketball and his team,” Zollinger said. Sigala went on to Washburn University after SCCC.
This year’s team is a half-and-half mix, Zollinger said — all poised to be excellent contributors on the court, but a mixed bag of interests, academic ambition, and college readiness. Zollinger works to find a balance between understanding the often difficult life experiences of his players, and an enabling mentality. His psychology degree provides insight, but more than that he relies on personal connections with his players.
“Sometimes there are guys who started at a four-year college, and they end up here because they’re first-generation college students who don’t know how to make it all work together,” he said.
Johnson’s teammate, Spencer Franklin, is working to figure that out, even as he hopes his personal trajectory will include pro ball. A 6’8” sophomore who transferred to SCCC from Collin College, a two-year school near Fort Worth, Texas, Franklin feels the pressure of making it to graduation. When he does, he will be the first person in his family to earn a college degree. Two older siblings attempted college before dropping out.
“It motivates me,” he said, “but at the same time, it’s not all about school. If it wasn’t for basketball, I don’t know if I’d be here.”
At SCCC, Franklin is able to focus on priorities.
“Here, I’m seven hours away from friends back home, kind of in the middle of nowhere. It’s just school … Being on the same team as my uncle (Saints player Micah Littlejohn), we can push each other. It’s a good pressure.”
Spencer Franklin, Saints player 2016-17
For now, the pressure comes from first-semester finals after a lackluster first half of the Saints’ season.
At Cline’s weekend study session, she scolded players who dawdled in assembling final papers.
“You’ve got to get this turned in, and you’ve got to study,” she said. “The semester ends when it ends! I tell them, you’ve got to put in the work to build character, you’ve got to do your academic work, and that’s going to make you feel better about everything. It’s going to make you do better on the court.”
Making the first-semester mark
The 2016-17 season hasn’t shown the success the team hoped for, admitted SCCC Assistant Athletic Director and Sports Information Officer Roy Allen. It’s still early days, though.
“You gotta remember, though, they’ve played basically nine games, and there are 17 to go when they come back in January,” he said. “This isn’t the most successful start to a season that I’ve seen them have, but I appreciate the way Coach Z gets out there after every game, talks to the media, has something to say with a smile, even when it’s a hard loss. Every year is different.”
On the plus side of the balance sheet, this year’s team has benefited from what Allen describes as “a huge push on the academic side to make sure our players are getting the most out of the time they spend at SCCC.”
The effort has paid off. As the fall semester wrapped up, the SCCC Men’s basketball team finished well in terms of classroom performance.
“We had some really big academic wins with them,” said Cline. “They’re all eligible to return for second semester as students, and to play.”
The college pulled together as a team, Zollinger said. This time, it wasn’t to cheer for the players on the court, but to encourage the students in the classroom.
“If you went up and down that hallway last week, from Student Support Services to teachers, they were working together, pulling it together in terms of financial aid, final grades,” Zollinger said.
A few of the team members earned GPAs higher than 3.0, most exceeded a 2.0 average — and every one of them qualified to continue as an SCCC student in the second semester.
In the end, Zollinger will attest, it’s not always about the season record or the scoreboard.
“I think about the kid who played here, injured his knee. Basketball didn’t work out like he wanted,” Zollinger said, “but he was smart, he’d been the valedictorian of his class, and he had a child back home. He decided he was going back home.”
The player completed a degree at Wichita State University and owns a business in Old Town.
“Is that a success story, or is that a failure? “ Zollinger asked. “He didn’t continue playing basketball, but we helped him clarify his goal in life. He’s ended up being successful.”
While Zollinger relishes the sports success stories about his former players that come in on Facebook, Twitter, and even the mainstream media, he also appreciates the personal phone calls and spontaneous visits.
“Another kid I recall, he’ll tell you that coming here was a life-changing experience. He came in with an attitude, but while he was at Seward, he changed as a person. He didn’t graduate here, but he eventually earned a degree and is working a job that pays him more than I make. He was traveling through Liberal a while back, and stopped in to see me.”
As Zollinger goes down the list of former players, he’s not listing stats or season totals. It’s all about the players as people, the struggles, the triumphs, the connections. The success, it turns out, lies in the way the stories unfold, one life at a time.