Oh, what a season it was.
The Lamar State Seahawks completed one of the most magical and improbable runs in JUCO history this season after a 1-2 finish in the JUCO National Tournament in Hutchinson, Kansas last week. The Seahawks lost their first game to Monroe College out of the Bronx, 70-52, wound up beating then-#1 ranked Missouri State 69-62 in the next game before narrow 66-63 loss to Cape Fear Community College out of North Carolina.
Sure, the season didn’t end with a National Championship like Head Coach Matt Cross and his team were gunning for when they did the unthinkable and won the Region 14 Conference Tournament in Tyler earlier this month to earn the bid to Kansas.
But this team, which Cross will tell you, had the pieces to do what it did this season, still went out and shocked the JUCO landscape with its 26-11 finish, by far the best season in the short three year history of the program playing Division I JUCO basketball.
“To be honest with you, winning a Region 14 conference tournament is like winning a National Championship,” said Cross, never one to mince words. “It may actually be more difficult to win the Region 14 than the National Championship. The 12 teams that made it to Tyler are better, overall, top to bottom, than the 16 teams that made it to Hutch.”
“It was great playing in March, because a lot of teams don’t have that opportunity,” said Vonn Jones, the team’s floor leader for the past two seasons who is ready to take his game to the Division I level.
Jones said the team thoroughly enjoyed the experience of playing in Kansas with some of the best JUCO teams in the nation. “I’m just glad we had a chance to play in Kansas and compete in national tournament.”
Roman Vaughn, the Southeast Texas product who came on this season and had a major impact, agreed that he enjoyed the experience of playing for a National Title, but there’s some question of what if for him considering he was sick the first game against Monroe and did not play well, certainly not to the level he played at throughout the season.
Plus the team was tight to start the game and played that way throughout.
“We weren’t fully loose and we just didn’t get going,” he said. Vaughn, like Jones, is ready to take his game to the next level, maybe even Lamar, but it’s still very early in the process and most of the team is kicking back, relaxing and getting caught back up with school work as they work with Cross to determine their basketball futures.
As for Cross, the 27-year-old coaching superstar who is a hot name right now considering the school just north of Lamar State, Lamar University, is looking for a head coach and Cross’ name has been in heavy rotation since before Steve Roccaforte was let go.
Cross has applied for the job at Lamar, and unless he gets the job there, or a major Division I school comes calling and a coach that Cross respects wants to add the coaching phenom to his staff, the Louisiana native said he plans on staying at Lamar State.
“I’m staying here, and I say that comfortably,” Cross said. “Even if were fortunate enough to become a Division I head coach or become an assistant coach at the right place, I will always try to make sure that what we started at Lamar gets to the next level and becomes a junior college powerhouse.”
So in the meantime, Cross, who said he wants to do some things inside the Carl Parker Center, spruce the place up a bit, maybe add some graphics to the court, give it a more Seahawk-like feel to it, has his work cut out for him because the team has only two players who played last year returning, David Duncan and Jordan Walker, and only Duncan saw meaningful game time.
He maintains he has no concerns about picking up next season where this last season left off, going as far as to say that his team next season – with 10 open spots – will be better than last year’s team. And while recruiting is a never-ending part of coaching, Cross, who lost five players mid-season this year because of either getting kicked off the team or leaving the team, has no plans to change the way he goes and gets his players.
“I’m not worried about how many spots we have open, I’m going to go find the ten best JUCO basketball players in the country no matter where they’re at, I’ll find ‘em,” the never lost-for-confidence Cross said. “I’m crazy when it comes to recruiting. I’m persistent. I never take no for an answer.”