Steven Rich has high expectations for his players, both in the classroom and on the basketball court.
The members of the Eastern Maine Community College men’s team have achieved on both counts this season, helping make the Golden Eagles the self-described “best-kept secret in Maine college basketball.”
Fourth-ranked EMCC of Bangor, which spent several weeks at the No. 1 spot in the national rankings, is headed for the United States Small College Athletic Association national tournament.
The 22-5 Golden Eagles are among three Maine small-college programs that will compete March 7-10 at Penn State-Fayette in Uniontown, Pa.
EMCC, which plays in the Yankee Small College Conference, is the No. 6 seed in the 10-team USCAA Division 2 tourney and plays No. 3 Andrews University (Mich.), 23-5, at noon on March 8.
Also headed for the tournament are YSCC counterpart, the University of Maine at Machias, the No. 9 seed at 22-9. The Clippers face No. 8 Berkeley in a 5:30 p.m. first-round game March 7.
University of Maine at Fort Kent (17-9) is the eighth seed in the eight-team USCAA Division 1 event, which is being held simultaneously at the same site. The Bengals play No. 1 Rochester College (23-7) at 11:15 a.m. March 7.
EMCC has surged to notoriety in the USCAA this season under the leadership of Rich, a third-year coach who was a former standout at the University of Miami.
“We had a very good preseason and everybody bought into what we were trying to do early, on and off the court,” Rich said. “We won three in a row, then four in a row and I think we went on a stint of 14 in a row.”
Before long, the Golden Eagles found themselves atop the USCAA Division 2 coaches’ poll — where they remained for nine of 12 weeks. EMCC ended the regular season at No. 3 after losing to eventual YSCC champion Vermont Tech in the conference semifinals.
“We didn’t know it was going to happen; not this quick,” Rich said.
Rich has mined his home state for eight of the squad’s 13 players. Three, including standout sophomore swing player Thelbert “T” Green, a returning All-American, and defensive sparkplug Michael Baltimore, hail from Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
Four others, led by senior point guard Robert Moore, freshman forward John “Slush” Caputo, sophomore point guard Kyle Pluchino and sophomore guard Jeff “Jefe” Dubois, are from Coral Springs, Fla.
“Last year I had a chance to recruit some guys who were going to come up here and stay up here,” Rich said of his emphasis on finding committed players. “One thing one of the kids said to me when I recruited him was, it’s the opportunity to play basketball and I don’t care where it is.”
The contingent includes four Mainers in junior John Knowles of Alexander, sophomore Donnie Downs of Monroe, freshmen Brian Bolduc of Sidney and Jared Young of Bucksport.
EMCC’s other players are sophomores Edson Pierre, Stephen Eskau and Carl Francis.
Rich explained EMCC has tried to build its foundation on strong defense, mostly man-to-man.
“Defense has gotten us to where we are,” he said. “We can flat-out play because of our athleticism. We’ve got a few horses, but it doesn’t matter if you can’t stop anybody.”
On offense, the Golden Eagles attempt to take advantage of their quick-striking transition game, but they also have the ability to execute in the half-court.
Rich said his team is effective in part because of its offensive balance and depth.
The coach is grateful to athletic director Kent Corey and the EMCC administration for supporting the program as it heads to Pennsylvania for the nationals.
“Hopefully, we can go up there and make a good showing for the conference and ourselves,” Rich said.
Coach Eric Werntgen’s UMFK men head to the nationals off an 89-65 loss at No. 2 Southern Virginia in their last regular-season game.
UMFK’s key players include 6-foot-2 guard Jeremy Thomas (18.6 points, 5.7 rebounds per game), 6-2 G Manny Odugbela (16.2 ppg, 3.8 apg), 6-4 F Othniel Hyliger (11.0 ppg, 8.5 rpg) and 6-6 F Pablo Llamas (9.4 ppg).
The UMM Clippers of coach Brac Brady have relied on their outstanding balance to reach the nationals.
The Clippers are paced by 6-2 F Zach Armstrong (14.0 ppg, 4.7 rpg), 5-11 G Jeremy Tolbert (13.7 ppg, 2.3 apg) and 5-11 G Will Lewis (11.8 ppg, 6.7 apg), along with 6-5 F Hampton Mack (10.7 ppg, 7.4 rpg), 6-5 F Floyd Higgins (10.1 ppg) and 6-0 G David Mendez (10.0 ppg).
The Clippers were fifth in the USCAA power rankings and sixth in the latest coaches poll, just ahead of EMCC.