The Mountain Pass Basketball: In the hills of Western Maryland, Allegany College takes players far from home and gets them into Division I programs.

December 15, 1998|By Christian Ewell | Christian Ewell,SUN STAFF

CUMBERLAND -- A few steps inside the Allegany College gym, jerseys hanging near the ceiling represent 75 players who have gone on to play Division I basketball since 1971. Beckoning with their rich reds, whites, blues and golds, they explain why a city kid heads for the hills, wondering along the way, where am I going?

"When we started hitting those mountains, I woke up," said Derrick Worrell, 20, a would-be star who recalls being roused by the uphill struggle through five mountain passes on the ride. "I was thinking, 'A couple of hours till we get there?' I was worried. It was definitely a new sight to look at."

Worrell came to this economically depressed city in Western Maryland on a roundabout route, making his way from Iowa, North Carolina and his first home, North Philadelphia. He has joined a long parade of players shepherded by coach Bob Kirk over nearly three decades at the junior college.

Steve Francis, the best ever, now wears No. 23 for Maryland, the fifth-ranked team in the country. After transferring from San Jacinto (Texas) Junior College to spend last season at Allegany, Francis is already bringing reflected glory to the two-year school as the national media mention his background.

"Everyone's called. Everyone's looking for a different angle," Kirk said. "I've never had so many people wanting to talk to me about basketball at Maryland."

Last week, soon after ABC-TV aired Francis' 24-point, seven-rebound performance in Maryland's win over Stanford, Kirk received three calls from players who wanted to be Trojans, two now playing elsewhere.

The phone was ringing again yesterday after Francis contributed 25 points in the Terps' loss to Kentucky on Saturday night before another nationally televised audience.

Worrell, who is the cousin of Houston Rockets reserve Emanual Davis, began trying to pattern himself after the former Allegany player last year.

"I saw the success of Steve Francis transferring from San Jacinto to here, and I just wanted to come in and get more exposure, try to get my name out there," he said.

Worrell didn't expect to be here, though. If not for academic troubles in high school, he likely would be where his old AAU teammates are, on national television. Brendan Haywood is playing for North Carolina; Craig Dawson, Ervin Murray and Antwan Scott are with Wake Forest. All will be serenaded by Dick Vitale this season; Worrell won't.

"All my teammates made it to Division I except me," Worrell said of a Carolina Warriors AAU team that finished third nationally in 1997. "I look at this as punishment that they get on ESPN and we don't get publicity like that. Academics is something I'll never mess up in again."

At Allegany, the coaches say the easiest part is eliminating the stigma of rejection for those who failed to meet the NCAA's toughened academic standards for four-year-college admission.

"We treat them like they're qualifiers," Kirk said. "We don't talk about the negatives. We do insist that they go to class. If anyone happens to miss class, we know about it and we say to them, 'You know this is what got you in trouble and that you need to make sure you're doing the best job you can of taking advantage of being here.' "

Showcasing talent

Others, like 6-foot-8 sophomore forward Jim Handlos, qualified, but hope to improve their scholarship offers by using Allegany -- and its national reputation -- as a springboard.

"The kids who come here know about our program," Kirk said. "We have a program. It's not just a team. The program's bigger than any team we've ever had."

Coaches pay attention, too. "We never play a game without having a Division I coach here," Kirk said.

Rick Barnes, the former Clemson coach now at Texas, said Allegany gives athletes an idea of what to expect at the Division I level.

"I know that if a player comes out of a program like that," Barnes said, "he's going to understand the work ethic. He's going to understand the discipline. He's been exposed to the same things that you're going to try to carry on."

Decades at helm

Kirk, in his 28th season, has 766 victories against 154 losses, while sending 133 players to four-year schools. Two -- Eric Mobley and John Turner -- made it to the NBA. This season, Kirk's team is 12-1 and ranked 15th nationally.

Before the Trojans' season-opening victory over Montgomery-Takoma Park, 14 of the 15 names on the roster were new, including that of Hugh Brown, a 6-5 freshman who played at Mervo in Baltimore last year.

Handlos was the only holdover from a Trojans team that went 30-2 last year, made Allegany's ninth trip to the National Junior College Athletic Association tournament and sent five players to Division I schools.

"It [turnover] happens at junior colleges," Kirk said, saying that as a coach it's "not bad to try to teach new kids your system. Sometimes, its refreshing."

For one recent game, despite it being a weeknight, about 1,500 jammed Trojan Square Garden, adorned with tiled, mini-billboards that help pay athletic program bills.

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