The Commercial-News, Danville, IL

March 18, 2014

New blood in NJCAA D2 Tourney

The Commercial-News

---- — DANVILLE — Schools like Mott Community College, Monroe Community College and Penn Valley are almost expected to be playing in this week’s NJCAA Division II National Championship at the Mary Miller Gymnasium on the campus of Danville Area Community College.

Instead, this year’s tournament features six schools that have never appeared in the Division II National Tournament and when it’s all said and done on Saturday, one of these 16 teams will become a first-time National Champion.

“This isn’t the Mott Invitational this year,’’ said the very outspoken John Pigatti, the head coach of South Suburban College, who had done his research to discover that fact. “I think it’s very, very exciting for the teams that are here. It just shows how very, very hard it is to get a team into this National Tournament.’’

Essex County Coach Corey Lowery, whose team is one of four that played in last year’s National Tournament, summed it up best.

“This is a tournament of champions,’’ he said, noting that all 16 teams in this week’s tournament got here by winning. There are no at-large bids in the NJCAA Division II National Tournament.

“It’s hard to beat champions,’’ he said as his Wolverines have lost all four of their previous games in the tournament.

South Suburban has made the most appearances as the Bulldogs will be playing in their eighth National Tournament, but Pigatti doesn’t think really matters all that much.

“This is about the players,’’ he said. “For the most part, every team in this tournament has a brand-new set of players this year.’’

After South Suburban’s eight appearances, the next most belongs to the Phoenix College Bears. Coach Matt Gordon, who has led his team here six different times, said the key is enjoying this experience.

“The people here in Danville do a wonderful job of hosting this tournament,’’ he said. “The biggest thing about being here before is that we know the good restaurants, and I’m not going to share that.’’

John Wood Community College, which has won 18 of its last 20, will represent Region 24 in this year’s tournament. This region, which includes Danville Area Community College, has produced three of the last four National Championship teams. Rend Lake, last year, and before that was Lincoln College in 2010 and 2011.

“It’s a hell of a lot of pressure,’’ said John Wood coach Brad Hoyt, the NJCAA Region 24 Coach of the Year. “We’ve had some teams in our region have pretty good success with awfully good players. I don’t know if we have a Kiel Turpin (MVP in 2010 and 2011) or Bronson Verhines (last year’s MVP).

“I respect our region a lot. But that’s no different than anyone else. It’s trying to represent that region the best way we can.’’

The first upset of the tournament occurred during the pre-tournament banquet at the Turtle Run Golf Club and Banquet Center on Monday night.

In the annual “Open Mic” contest, Wayne County Community College assistant coach Carlton King claimed the title over crowd favorite John Pigatti of South Suburban College.

The real action on the court begins at 9 a.m. with Wayne County, seeded No. 2, playing Carl Sandburg College. That game will be followed by Potomac State and Wake Tech at 11 a.m., Des Moines Area Community College plays St. Louis Community College at 1 p.m. and Dean College plays Essex County College in the final afternoon game at 3 p.m. The evening session begins at 6:30 p.m. with top-seeded Cincinnati State taking on Garrett College and John Wood Community College will play Central Community College of Columbus, Neb., at 8:30 p.m

The final two first-round games will be played Wednesday. South Suburban takes on Fort Scott at 11 a.m. and Lake Michigan College faces Phoenix College at 1 p.m.

The semifinals are set for 6 and 8 p.m. on Friday night, while the championship game is set for 7:30 p.m. on Saturday.

All games during the NJCAA Division II National Tournament will be broadcast on WDAN-AM 1490.