A captain's captain

More news about: Christopher Newport
Marcus Carter takes the ball to the basket against Hamilton. (CNU athletics photo by Joshua D. McKee)
Marcus Carter's injury cost him a season, but allowed him to be here in 2019 to lead a Final Four run.
Photo by Joshua D. McKee for CNU athletics

By Ryan Scott

Thank you, but I plan on being in Indiana for a different reason.

No doubt every player invited to the Reese’s NABC Division III All-Star Game would love to give that as his response.

In the case of Christopher Newport’s Marcus Carter, he was able to make his words stand up. The fifth-year senior scored 27 points to power Christopher Newport past Williams and into the championship weekend for the second time.

Carter, a starter and the leading scorer on the 2015-16 Captains squad that lost to eventual champion St. Thomas in Salem, has had quite a journey getting what some might call an unlikely squad back to the tournament’s final weekend.

“In my mind and in my heart, I knew there was something different for me.”

Carter had surgery in the summer following his junior season, then reinjured the ankle in the first game of what would’ve been his senior year, requiring surgery again and removing a key cog in a stacked CNU squad.

That team, even without Carter, made the second round of the NCAA Tournament and gained much need experience for players who weren’t around for the earlier deep run. “From day one, it felt like we had something special,” says Captains coach John Krikorian. “We have lots of juniors and seniors with NCAA Tournament experience and they’ve never wavered in their belief in what they can do.”

Carter sees the same camaraderie, unique to this season. “It was a hard decision to leave Aaron [McFarland] and Spencer [Marin], two guys I love to death, that I came in with, to forfeit that year and get surgery again, but this year has been really special, the brotherhood of the team; we’ve gotten really close this year and it’s touched me in a dramatic way. It’s made me a better leader and a better person.”

That leadership will be key in introducing most of the team to a championship weekend experience that’s unlike anything else in Division III basketball. Fellow senior Tyler Femi played just one minute in Salem, but being there once changes his perspective this time around.

“I’ll be honest, I was kind of scared,” Femi says, “The lights are much brighter in that situation. We’re trying to focus on staying loose and having fun, to find the right balance as a team.”

Krikorian adds: “We didn’t play Christopher Newport basketball those first ten minutes. Every single detail has gone through my mind and kept me up at night; I’m grateful to have another shot at that. We can’t control the outcome, but we’re going to learn from the experience and make a whole lot of changes to help our kids play their best on Friday.”

CNU athletics photo

Friday brings a difficult matchup with fellow Mid-Atlantic squad, Swarthmore, a big, deep squad with lots of shooters and many offensive weapons. Fortunately, CNU has already had some experience with that, both the travel and also the teams, defeating the hosts and then Williams, a team that looks a lot like Swarthmore on paper, with a tremendous defensive performance.

“Our coaches always give us a great game plan,” says Femi. “[Williams] is a much bigger and longer team that us, but here we preach defense first and we’ve always leaned on defense. The shooters had to work very hard for their points and we did a great job in team rebounding. It was a big factor last weekend and it will be a big factor this weekend.”

Many have been surprised at what Christopher Newport has been able to accomplish this season. They aren’t a program full of flashy players or names that win awards. No one knew what Carter would be able to do this year, coming off those injuries, but the team has held together and worked together in ways indicative of the program that’s been built.

“We have a great brotherhood,” says Carter, “not just with the guys on the team, but the guys who’ve gone before us.” There’s an understanding of that legacy in Carter’s words and in his play.

After suffering a knee injury during the season that requires him to use a pretty substantial brace, he gutted out 31 huge points to defeat York (Pa.) in the CAC championship, which likely secured CNU hosting duties the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament and continues to impress fans and foes alike with his talent and tenacity.

While Christopher Newport relies heavily on their All-American senior (as any team would), it’s far from a one-man show. “We have a next man up mentality,” says Femi. “When Marcus was gone, guys stepped in and stepped up. We kept winning.”

“The pivotal point of the season was really the game at York in January,” adds Krikorian. “We went up there without Marcus and had a 13-point lead in the second half. Unfortunately we lost the game, but learned that we could go on the road and play against a top team without Marcus and give ourselves a chance to win. We got a lot of confidence out of that.”

The failure to close out that game provided the impetus to learn and improve, which proved pivotal against Hamilton and Williams, where the Captains staved off multiple comeback attempts in both games.

“To be able to go up to the NESCAC country and beat two Top-10 quality teams,” says Krikorian, “to win there, if we can win that weekend, I don’t think anyone can say we didn’t earn the opportunity [to be in the Final Four].”

Christopher Newport is clearly focused, but it’s noticeably not on winning. I had to drag those conversations out of everyone I talked to. Krikorian stressed that it’s about “putting our best foot forward,” about playing each game, each possession to the best of their abilities and seeing what can happen.

“I don’t know that anyone’s going to get stronger or become a better shooter or a better ball handler between last weekend and this weekend, “says the coach. “This week is about recovering the mind, recovering the body so these guys can do what they do the best they have done it all year, because they’re going to have to.”

That’s the voice of experience speaking. Femi, Carter, Krikorian and the crew have been through a lot to get back here and you better believe they’re going to make the most of it.