Fowler: Low-budget program delivers national hoops title for Sandhills CC

sfowler@charlotteobserver.comFebruary 9, 2013 

  • Sandhills Community College

    Sandhills Community College is a two-year community college is located in Pinehurst, about 90 miles from Charlotte and 70 miles from Raleigh.

    Students: Sandhills has about 4,500 full-time students and is particularly known for training students in the medical and culinary fields.

    Established: 1963. The school will celebrate its 50th anniversary in December.

    Sports claim to fame: The Sandhills men’s basketball team, re-established in 2008 after an absence of 30 years, won the 2012 junior-college national championship at the Division III (non-scholarship) level and is trying to repeat this season.

    Another N.C. champion? Louisburg (N.C.) College plays at a higher junior-college level in Division II, where partial scholarships are allowed. Louisburg currently has the No. 4 men’s team and the No. 1 women’s team in the country in that division and will be a threat this season to win national titles in both.

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    Scott Fowler

— When you think of college basketball in North Carolina, you think first of the ACC. Famous coaches. Future NBA stars. Packed arenas. ESPN telecasts. National championships.

You won’t see a bit of that at Sandhills Community College in Pinehurst – except for the “national championship” part.

Sandhills is college basketball at its purest and starkest level. The school grants no scholarships. Its on-campus gym was built only two-thirds regulation size, so for the past five seasons it has played its home games at a local middle-school gym. The Sandhills coaches do the team’s laundry after every game.

And yet, in 2012, Sandhills was the first men’s team from North Carolina to win a junior-college national championship. At 20-5, the team has a chance to repeat in 2013.

“We don’t care that we don’t have a fancy locker room to put on our uniforms,” said Raheem Washington, one of the team’s players. “We’re just glad we have uniforms to put on.”

Almost everyone at Sandhills seems to have a couple of jobs. Athletic director Aaron Denton also coaches the women’s golf team, teaches math and sometimes runs the scoreboard clock when the student who usually does it is working his own other job at McDonald’s.

Head coach Mike Apple teaches five honors classes every day at Pinecrest High, where he is an award-winning math teacher. Then he makes the five-minute drive over to the community college at 2 p.m. He demands discipline from his players but even more from himself, insisting on getting graded tests back to his high-school students the day after they take them, the same policy he has followed for the past 28 years.

“That’s the best way for a student to learn,” Apple said. “It makes it hectic sometimes when a test day falls on a game day. I don’t get a lot of sleep on those nights.”

After the national championship, the grateful community college doubled the coaching salary Apple gets for his job as Sandhills head coach – from $5,000 to $10,000.

The two-year school’s entire athletic budget for men’s basketball, women’s volleyball and the men’s and women’s golf teams is $120,000. That number includes all salaries and team travel, and it is less than what a lot of assistant college basketball coaches currently make at the Division I level.

The two assistant men’s basketball coaches at Sandhills get $1,500 for the season. One of them, Wilson McWilliams, also works as a hotel doorman to make ends meet.

Because of the limited budget, the Sandhills Flyers must get creative. One Monday afternoon, the athletic staff decided it would create the “Flyers Sports Network” for men’s basketball.

The “network” part actually just means that the games are broadcast on a local radio station and also on the school’s website. The play-by-play? A high school senior does it on a volunteer basis. Still, it works.

Sandhills home games can draw anywhere from 60 to 450 people and are free to students and everyone 18 and under. The rest pay $5. The small gym that Sandhills uses at O’Neal School – the private K-12 school across the street that has allowed the team to use its facilities – seats 180 and is normally a middle-school gym. The “big” gym at O’Neal, which Sandhills uses every now and then, can seat several hundred more.

Sandhills doesn’t have a cheerleading “team” – that would require more funding – but it does have a volunteer cheerleading “club.” The night I went to a game there were 70 people in the stands and three very enthusiastic cheerleaders at tipoff. A fourth hurried in later.

A ‘just-in-case’ situation

While the accessories are sparse, the basketball is darn good.

The Flyers share the ball, play defense and run incessantly. “We’ve never had a shot-clock violation since I’ve been here,” Apple said. But that doesn’t mean the team is simply jacking up the first available 3-pointer. The players’ fundamentals are sound and they are in ridiculously good shape.

Did these players grow up dreaming of paying their own way – it costs $69 per credit hour to attend Sandhills, and athletes generally must pass at least 12 hours with a 2.0 GPA to stay eligible – to play junior-college basketball?

Of course not. But for some reason – often grades, lack of height, family issues – they didn’t fit into the four-year college basketball mold out of high school. Somewhere, they fell through a crack in the floor.

Said Denton, the AD and former basketball coach: “We tell them when we recruit them that we know that when they were growing up they didn’t say, ‘I want to go to Sandhills Community College and play basketball.’ They said, ‘I want to go to Carolina or State.’ ”

On the other hand, the Sandhills coaches must cast a wide net. A player who appears set to go to Sandhills but does too well on his final exams or in his senior basketball season can suddenly attract the attention of a four-year school and slip right out of the Flyers’ grasp.

Said T.J. Gill, a Sandhills sophomore: “Sandhills was always a ‘just-in-case’ type of situation for me.”

Gill was a good student, but Division II schools stopped recruiting him after he tore up his knee his senior year in high school. Now he hopes to go to a four-year college after this season, continue playing basketball and eventually join the military.

Sandhills has had 14 players go on to get scholarships in the past four years to colleges like Fayetteville State, Johnson C. Smith and Limestone. That’s the goal of every Sandhills player – to play on scholarship for their final two years of collegiate eligibility – and the hunger to make it is palpable. Loose balls in a Sandhills game routinely attract two or three flying Flyers.

From $8 to $18 an hour

While North Carolina has 58 community colleges, only 15 field a men’s basketball team. For many years, Sandhills didn’t have one, either.

Sandhills had modest beginnings. Although it now sits on 150 longleaf pine-covered acres in Pinehurst, the college was established in 1963 above an ice-cream parlor in Southern Pines. It had basketball teams in the 1960s and 1970s – they played at a local elementary school.

Apple’s mother, Helen, was a receptionist at the school for 30 years. The future head coach attended the first Sandhills game as a baby held by his mother.

Plagued by money issues, the school got rid of its sports teams in the late 1970s. And even when there was a push to bring intercollegiate sports back in the 2000s, current president John Dempsey wasn’t sure he wanted to do that.

“As a community college, we don’t have dormitories,” said Dempsey, president at Sandhills since 1989. “I’m a big sports fan, but the notion that a basketball team would attract the attention of students had to be proven to me. It wasn’t self-evident.”

Dempsey believes that the school’s core mission – and that of all community colleges – should be to improve students’ lives by giving them the skills to get a better job.

“Our fundamental business is to turn people who would make $8 an hour into people who will make an $18 an hour,” Dempsey said. “And that changes someone’s life, and we’re very excited about that.”

But after some persuading, the president decided that sports could improve campus morale and provide an open door between the school and the community. “It’s also fair to say we have 40-50 people on this campus who would not be here if not for our intercollegiate programs,” Dempsey said. “And this is not like Davidson, where if they aren’t here, they are at some other college. For our students, if they’re not here, they’re usually not anywhere.”

A championship dividend

In 2008, Dempsey hired Denton as the school’s athletic director and basketball coach. Denton, who is 35 and grew up on a tobacco farm in Bunn, coached the first three Sandhills basketball teams after the school’s sports resurrection. The team’s record improved steadily each season, but Denton was getting a bit overwhelmed with his workload and also trying to raise a young family.

“So I fired myself,” he said, laughing, “and we won the national championship.”

Apple had some success as a high school coach but had never won a state championship, so a national title was far from his mind when he took over in 2011. But he inherited a nucleus of good players – many coming from nearby Fayetteville. One player knew of a 6-foot-10 former high school teammate named Louis Craft who had moved from North Carolina to Georgia and was working as a short-order cook. Craft joined the squad, often starting beside 5-foot-2 point guard Dre Huntley.

“We had the tallest and the shortest player at the national tournament,” Apple said.

Sandhills only finished third in its conference in the 2012 regular season, but then went on the sort of Valvano-esque run that every tournament underdog dreams about. It won its conference tournament, then the district and then the eight-team national tournament in New York – winning both its quarterfinal and semifinal games by one point. Guard Daquain Towns hit a running 15-footer at the buzzer to win one game. Craft blocked a shot at the buzzer to win the next.

The final was less dramatic, as Sandhills won by 15. The players – some of whom had never been on an airplane until the tournament – flew home to a rare school pep rally and were the stars of a small-town community parade.

This season, repeating as national champion will be difficult. This season’s Sandhills squad doesn’t have as much size as last year’s, although it scores more easily. “We pride ourselves in playing as fast and as furiously as we can,” Apple said.

But either way, that 2012 national championship has already paid one monstrous dividend. The school has now privately raised enough money to expand its gymnasium to the regulation 94 feet from end to end instead of the current 62 feet. A $1.2-million renovation will allow Sandhills to actually play its home games on its own campus starting in the 2013-14 season, along with upgrading facilities for all students.

The coaches will probably still do the team laundry, though. Apple doesn’t mind – he said it helps them wind down.

“If it’s a tough game, we usually stay until the jerseys have finished washing so we can get them in the dryer,” he said. “Sometimes, if it was a really tough game, we’ll also wait for them to dry so we can fold them up and put them away in the equipment closet. You just want to do it the right way, you know?”

Scott Fowler: sfowler@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @Scott_Fowler

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