January 12, 2012

On the seventh day

More news about: Calvin | Emory | Hope | John Jay
Swindon Charles has played in just 10 of John Jay's games.
John Jay athletics photo

When we hear the story of a 29-year-old man playing college basketball, we applaud his perseverance. And yet we wonder: Where did he lose his way?

Except Swindon Charles never lost his way. If anything, the John Jay junior forward offers a fresh spin on the story of finding education and athletics later in life. Especially with one compelling twist:

He is a Seventh-day Adventist, a Protestant Christian denomination, meaning the Bloodhounds must play without their starting forward and spiritual leader on Friday nights and Saturday afternoons.

“I believe that if you stand up for God, God stands up for you,” Charles said. “I place my God before basketball at that point.”

Before coming to our shores from Grenada in 2006 — two years after meeting his American wife, Michelle — Charles grew up on an island where three percent of the population are Seventh-Day Adventists according to Grenada's website. Although the church recommends becoming a vegetarian, it emphasizes a diet devoid of what it considers “unclean” products: alcohol, caffeinated beverages, pork, shellfish and tobacco.

However, being a Seventh-day Adventist is about than a clean diet and being socially conservative to the point of avoiding tattoos and body piercings. Above all else, it is about a strict observance of Scripture.

“We believe in establishing the seventh day of the week,” Charles said. “Sabbath is from sunset on Friday to sunset on Saturday. And we believe in the second coming of Jesus Christ.

“When the sun sets on Friday, it's a Sabbath. ... We put aside anything that is considered worldly: shopping, hanging out. We use the day to focus on our Lord the creator. We recognize him as the creator of this earth and thank Him for what he's done for us.”

Otis Fenn first met Charles a few years ago, when he coached the rugged forward with the now-defunct New York City College of Technology men's program. Charles explained his beliefs and how it could cost Fenn's frontcourt during crucial City University of New York Athletic Conference contests. On some level, he expected the coach to decline his dreams of playing college hoops while pursuing his degree.

Except that Fenn refused to be that coach. Which explains why Charles followed him to John Jay after City Tech shut down following the 2010-11 campaign.

“That didn't stop me from want him on my team,” Fenn said. “He's a 3.5 (GPA) student, a very, very intelligent man and he had a family (daughter Sachelle, 4, and son Saneron, 2). I saw some of the things he was trying to do.”

In addition to growing up in the Seventh-day Adventist church while in Grenada, Charles also played for his island's national team. The game there is played outdoors, on concrete, but physical enough that he grew accustomed to getting hacked each time he went strong to the hoop.

However, he has adapted to the Division III game because, as the Dean's list student astutely noted, “Basketball is basketball anywhere you go.” While his statline is relatively modest — 5.8 points, 7.8 rebounds in 24.8 minutes per game — his impact is immeasurable to the Bloodhounds. Not only does he offer guidance in the locker room, but Fenn detailed how he spends tutoring younger teammates.

“You don't find that,” the coach said. “That's very very rare when a guy wants to help other guys get better not only on the court, but in the classroom.”

Charles will turn 30 next month and will miss at least four of the Bloodhounds' remaining games because of religious practices — not to mention their first-round CUNYAC tournament contest if they make it and again, if they should be so lucky, advance to the title game. He is already thinking about his future beyond basketball since he is two semesters from graduating.

In the meantime, Charles continues to balance being a father, a forward, a student and a Seventh-day Adventist, a fresh spin of a man finding success in academics and athletics later in life.

Focused on the present

Austin Claunch runs the Emory offense, which has helped the Eagles go 32-5 with him in the lineup.
Emory athletics photo

Men’s coach Jason Zimmerman said “there's always going to be a scar” for everyone at Emory who remembers missing out on experiencing their first taste of March Madness in 21 seasons despite going 20-5 and finishing second in the perennially strong University Athletic Association.

However, that is out of sight and out of mind for the undefeated Eagles, 12-0 and ranked fourth in the D3hoops.com Top 25. Zimmerman is focusing only on the first four minutes of Friday night's game at one-loss NYU, refusing to think ahead to Sunday's tip-off in suburban Boston against a Brandeis squad that has already upset No. 5 Amherst.

“Right now, we're worried about (win No.) 13. That's our next goal,” senior point guard Austin Claunch said. “We want teams to remember Emory and how hard we play.”

Three-plus seasons ago when Claunch and fellow seniors Chris Cohen, Alex Gulotta, Justin Resnick and Corey Spraggins entered Emory, the program lingered around the UAA cellar. In their first season, they endured a 7-18 finish with just two league victories.

Undaunted, the Eagles went 15-10 during Claunch and company's sophomore year before placing themselves on the Division III NCAA Tournament bubble that subsequently burst.

“They kept working everyday,” Zimmerman said. “Did they have the goal of, say, being in the Top 5? I think it was, 'Let's get better.' ”

Instead of lamenting being left out of the NCAA bracket, Emory looked inward. A summer trip to Ireland helped further galvanize the returning veterans. How much? When Zimmerman oversaw October's first practices, he already saw a squad further ahead than any in his previous four seasons as the Eagles' bench boss.

Although forward Jake Davis (19.6 points, 7.3 rebounds per game) is enjoying a stellar sophomore season, Claunch (18.3 ppg, 7.1 apg) is the one who commands an Eagles' offense averaging 85.6 points per game and has sparked the program's renaissance.

“I think he's the best point guard in Division III basketball,” Zimmerman said. “I think he's one of the best players in Division III basketball.”

True to the unselfish nature of his position, Claunch defers. “For me, it's not about points and assists, it's about winning games,” the senior said.

Since the tip-off of the 2010-11 season, the Eagles are 32-5 with Claunch running the show. It could be 34-5 after this weekend, although UAA road trips are awfully unpredictable due to the travel.

However, if things stay true to their current form, Emory appears primed to earn its second NCAA bid ever — and first since going 25-4 and advancing to the Sweet 16 in 1989-90.

Not that Zimmerman will be satisfied until he hears the Eagles' name called this March.

“We thought we did enough last year,” he said. “We don't want to feel that feeling again.”

Courtney Kurncz recorded a double-double for Calvin in its rivalry game against Hope.
Calvin athletics photo

As the rivalry turns

By Gordon Mann

The men’s basketball rivalry between Hope and Calvin is known for how closely matched the teams have been, game-to-game and year-to-year. Over the rivalry’s 90-year history, Hope has 92 wins to Calvin’s 87 with an incredibly slight scoring advantage of 67.8 points per game to 67.3 over that period.

The women’s side of the rivalry has not been as evenly matched. Calvin won the first 22 meetings between the schools from 1966 to 1979. After Hope finally broke through with a win in 1980, Calvin resumed its dominance. The Knights won 13 of the next 14 games and, coupled with the prior 13-year win streak, they lead the all-time series 64-39 through Saturday’s game.

For much of the time D3hoops.com has been online, Hope has dominated the rivalry. The Flying Dutch have won 23 of 28 meetings with Calvin since 2000. Hope won or shared 10 of 12 conference titles and won eight conference tournaments over that time. Calvin has had success of its own success, including a conference title in 2004, coach John Ross’ first season with the Knights. The Knights have also been to the NCAA quarterfinals twice since 2000, the same number of times Hope played for a national championship during that period. But the rundown of game-by-game results in the rivarly shows a long stretch during which Hope has had the upper hand on its rival.

That changed last season, even if only by a couple points. Each team won a game at home during the regular season. Calvin beat Hope by one in Grand Rapids. Hope beat Calvin by 22 in Holland. Then Calvin guard Jill Thomas hit a three-pointer with the clock running out to give the Knights a dramatic 67-65 win in the 2011 conference tournament final. That shot also gave Calvin its first season series win over Hope since 2007.

At the start of this season, outside observers tabbed Calvin as the new favorite in the conference. The Knights received eight of nine first place votes in the preseason poll. Hope received the final vote. Calvin debuted in the Preseason Top 25 at No. 6 and Hope at No. 19.

While polls, particularly in the preseason, have limited value, the Knights have lived up to the high expectations so far. On Saturday Calvin defeated Hope 72-59 to improve to 13-0 and grab first place in the conference. The 13-point margin of victory was Calvin’s largest since 1999 and Calvin led the game from tip to finish.

Hope shot 1-for-11 from the field in the game’s first nine minutes and the Knights built a 13-3 lead. The Flying Dutch then switched to a zone defense and started filling Calvin’s passing lanes, contesting or deflecting every pass, even those deep on the perimeter. Calvin went cold from three-point territory and Hope crept within nine. But Calvin’s Courtney Kurncz put together three excellent possessions to squelch the Flying Dutch’s comeback before halftime. The 5-11 guard, who would probably be a forward on many Division III teams, blocked the shot of a Hope player who appeared to have an uncontested layup. At the other end Kurncz showed why she’s a guard, blowing through the Hope defense for two. A little later, she found Ally Wolffis on an inbound pass for an easy basket.

Kurncz started the second half the same way. First a spinning shot in the lane. Then a drive to the rim from the wing for two. Kurncz, who averages 7.7 points and 5.0 rebounds per game, finished with 15 points and 10 rebounds. Afterward Ross said, “That was probably the best game Courtney has played in a Calvin uniform.”

While Kurncz shone brightest on Saturday, All-American Carissa Verkaik was not far behind. Early in the game she blocked shots and banked in one-armed shots off the glass, often over the outstretched arms of two or three defenders. Verkaik is 6-foot-2 but, as Hope coach Brian Morehouse notes, “she has the wing span of someone 6-6.”

Verkaik is in her third season at Calvin and each one so far has been excellent. She was the D3hoops.com Freshman of the Year in 2010 and a third team All-American as a sophomore. When Morehouse is asked the reason for Calvin’s resurgence, he says without hesitation. “It’s the three-headed monster – Verkaik, [Julia] Hilbrands and Wolfiss.” Hilbrands added 10 points and 8 rebounds in 21 minutes on Calvin’s victory on Saturday. The three-headed monster plus Kurncz and two freshmen give Calvin six players at or close to six foot, more than most Division III teams.

Verkaik was nearly Hope’s monster. Her family lives 1.3 miles from Morehouse.  He notes the exact mileage because he knows it well. Carissa’s mother was the preschool teacher for Morehouse’s daughter and he recruited Verkaik hard out of high school, as did Ross. Carissa chose Calvin, which is also her parents’ alma mater.

When Coach Ross is asked about his program’s rise, he acknowledges that Carissa and her junior teammates “more than had an instant impact on our program. They all worked so hard the summer before they came to Calvin.” Summer leagues and less formal offseason playing opportunities allowed Calvin’s players to build chemistry before the season began.

But Ross’ first explanation for Calvin’s rise is something less tangible. “It’s the commitment and dedication of our players. That’s gotten stronger, though it’s always been pretty good. It’s the team unity and chemistry – not only through our varsity program, but through the JV program. The leaders in our program have done such a good job to draw people together.” Those leaders include Kurncz, Thomas and fellow senior Leah Mattson. Ross also notes that his team has had time to learn and grow into the Triangle offense that the Knights run. Knowledge plus talent and hard work make Calvin a national title contender.

Before this glowing review of Calvin gets posted on a bulletin board in Hope’s locker room, please note that Hope is still very good. When the Flying Dutch defense plays well, they seem to have two-second advance knowledge of what their opponent is going to do before they try to do it. The Flying Dutch swarm the ball, making it difficult to catch, let alone do anything with it.

Morehouse says his best scoring option “is by committee, as it’s always been.” Maddie Burnett led the Flying Dutch on Saturday with 18 points. In recent years, Carrie Snikkers gave Hope a special weapon. She was a 6-3 center with a guard’s touch from behind the arc and a forward’s footwork in the lane. When Verkaik won the conference MVP in 2009, Snikkers was selected the National Player of the Year. Snikkers graduated this spring which partly explains Hope’s relative decline in preseason rankings.

With Snikkers and fellow first-team all-conference forward Erika Bruinsma graduating last spring, the Flying Dutchmen hoped to rely on current junior Meredith Kussmaul in the post. She has the length, height and foot speed to at least slow down Verkaik. But Kussmaul tore her ACL in Hope’s victory over Ithaca on Dec. 16 and is lost for the season. Morehouse was quick to point out that, even with Kussmaul, Calvin still likely would’ve beaten his team on Saturday. He complemented junior Courtney Kust who played solid defense and scored nine points in the post. But Kust is listed as a guard/forward, and depth at forward is critical against a team with Calvin’s height.

Even so, Ross knows the gap between the two rivals is not large.  He says Hope is good enough to be ranked in the top five in the country. It’s not an accident that such a placement would put the Flying Dutch close to Calvin. Ross is quick to acknowledge Hope’s strengths and Morehouse reciprocates when discussing Calvin. This is rivalry where respect outweighs rancor.

But for now Calvin gets to enjoy its advantage over Hope, the undefeated start and the rising expectations that the Knights could be the MIAA team playing deep into the NCAA tournament. And Hope will focus on the games ahead, including a Feb. 4 rematch with Calvin.

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Rob Knox

A former Division III Sports Information Director at Lincoln University, Rob Knox also worked at ESPN, Kutztown and at the Delaware County Daily Times. He was named the CoSIDA Rising Star Award College Division winner and won three writing awards for various game stories including the 2007 D-III sectional triple-OT game between Guilford and Lincoln. In the past, he has also written articles for SLAM magazine and the Philadelphia Inquirer. He is a die-hard Philadelphia sports fan, a graduate of Lincoln and is from Chester, Pa.
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