March 15, 2010 1:02:00 PM
Mark White believed.
The East Mississippi Community College men''s basketball team had completed its preseason preparations for the 2009-10 season and the Lions were ready to discuss their goals.
The list was packed with title chances.
As White examined an itinerary that included winning a MACJC North Division title, a state and a regional title and then a national championship, he knew the Lions had it in them to accomplish each one.
More than five months later, the Lions'' journey has reached its ultimate destination: Hutchinson, Kan., the site of the NJCAA Division I Men;''s Basketball Championship.
At 2 p.m. Tuesday, No. 12 EMCC (26-5) will make its first appearance in the national tournament when they take on Brunswick (N.C.) in a first-round game. Brunswick also is making its first appearance in the national tournament.
For White, the trip is the realization of a dream.
"It feels great," White said. "It is definitely a reward for the kids and all of their hard work that they have put in this year. It''s about the kids, and it''s about your players. They''re the one who put in the hard work and who are doing the things they do. I am very, very happy."
EMCC reached its first national tournament after it accomplished two of the three goals it set in October. The Lions won the MACJC North Division regular-season title, were the runner-up to Pearl River C.C. in the state championship, and won the NJCAA Region 23 Tournament. EMCC defeated Northeast Mississippi C.C. (86-79), Hinds C.C. (81-74 in OT), and Itawamba C.C. (78-64) at Mississippi College in Clinton to make history.
White never doubted his team had the ability to do it. He said he felt the Lions had all of the pieces of the puzzle in place and would still be alive in the middle of March if everything came together.
The Lions are still playing even though they are without two of their most highly regarded players: freshman center Chris Brand, of Starkville High, and Colby Wren, a former standout at Kemper County High School.
Still, the Lions, who returned four players from the 17-11 team that last season advanced to the semifinals of the state and the Region 23 Tournament took the next step. White said hard work and leadership provided by sophomores CoCo Ware and John Harris, both of Starkville High, has provided the spark.
Ware and Harris, two of the team''s three seniors, helped make sure the Lions'' chemistry has been there all season. White said both players have matured as leaders and complemented each other.
"CoCo works super hard and also is a vocal leader too," White said. "John provides the kind of leadership you want based on how hard he works, his mentality, and his approach to the game. He plays defense and rebounds, and those two things are staples of our program and are what our program is all about."
White doesn''t see any difference in his Lions as they prepare for their national tournament opener. He said he loves his team''s mind-set and feels the past four days of practice have it ready to take on a talented Brunswick team he had an opportunity to scout last week. He isn''t quite sure how the Lions will handle their first multi-talented opponent, but he doesn''t doubt his team has what it takes to get the job done.
After all, he knew in October the Lions had it in them to win the national championship, so Tuesday means it finally will be time to take the next step toward accomplishing the last goal on the team''s to-do list.
"I really like how we have practiced and I can tell the focus has been good," White said. "You never know how kids are going to react on this big stage. I just hope we go out and do what we do and play with the same effort, intensity, and toughness that we have played with this year. That''s what I am looking for."
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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