Little Cecil a giant of its kind

College basketball: Even in Maryland, the Seahawks are no household name, but they're a JuCo power like few others.

College Basketball

February 11, 2005|By Kent Baker | Kent Baker,SUN STAFF

NORTH EAST - In late 1996, Bill Lewit was two games into his second season as the men's basketball coach at Cecil Community College and wondering if the program was ever going to produce any positive results.

His first team had gone 0-22 and the second was 0-2, although the coach had had a full offseason to recruit.

"I was starting to question whether this thing was going to turn around," Lewit said. "But I had to realize we had all brand new kids and it wasn't going to automatically take off."

The calendar has marched onward since those days of despair and so have the Seahawks - in double time and sometimes triple time. With a crowd-pleasing, frenetic offense and defense, Cecil has careened into the ranks of the nation's premier Division II junior college teams.

Since 1997-98, the school has averaged better than 25 victories, breaking the school record last season with 28, and has twice led the nation in scoring (with an astonishing 104.9 points per game in 2003-04). It has captured two regional titles and reached the national semifinals in 2003.

Cecil (21-1) was No. 1 in every Division II weekly ranking this season before suffering an 80-73 loss at Division I Hagerstown CC on Jan. 26 and dropping to fourth in the latest poll. This is the fourth season in which the Seahawks have been ranked first for at least one week.

They have beaten perennial Division I powerhouse Allegany five times in their past six meetings, no small feat since Division I schools offer full scholarships, Division IIs only partials with no room and board.

Although Cecil players thus must find their own housing, they also find Lewit beforehand. They have come primarily from Maryland and Delaware, but also from as far away as Connecticut and New York City because of the style of play and the program's propensity for leading them to NCAA Division I teams.

Paving the way

Locally, point guard Cantrell Fletcher, the director of that point-making machine in 2004, is now at Towson.

"All we did was press the whole game," said Fletcher, a Philadelphia native. "Run and gun. It was fun. He [Lewit] let me do what I wanted, call whatever I liked out of the basic system. All his point guards have gone somewhere."

Among Cecil graduates, Rashad Brooks wound up at Louisville, Jerome Coleman went to Rutgers, and Chris Chadwick is playing for Massachusetts. A slew of others have played at mid-major or smaller NCAA Division I schools.

"We give all players an opportunity to showcase themselves as long as they work hard on defense and be unselfish," said Lewit. "They get a chance to do what they do best."

Many JuCo athletes are unqualified for NCAA Division I academically when they leave high school, so Lewit has an unusual approach that keeps the players at Cecil for three years. They play as freshmen, sit out as redshirts the next season, then play their sophomore season in their third year at the school. Five team members are in their non-playing years, including a supremely talented player, Eddie Miller (Pocomoke).

In the past six years, 37 of 39 Seahawks have earned associate degrees.

"The first year gets you used to playing at this level," said sophomore Cory Hudson (Spalding). "Sitting back and watching the second year helps you cerebrally. Being redshirted helped me develop as a player and academically. It allows you more time to get credits to transfer."

"It's real hard just watching other people play," said Craig Winder, the current team's leading scorer at 22.5 points a game. "But you can get all your hard classes out of the way and see what you could have done better on the court."

`I like it here'

Winder, a key member of a Maryland 2A champion team at Wicomico High, is a typical Lewit recruit from the Eastern Shore, where the coach played football and basketball at Salisbury State. He knew little about Cecil, but word of mouth is a powerful persuader for many of Lewit's players.

"I like it here. The team is guard-oriented and you have freedom to take a couple bad shots and still be playing," said Winder, who has taken nearly twice as many shots as any teammate and scored 34 points in the Seahawks' last game, a 127-75 win over the College of Southern Maryland.

"Everybody's not always on the same page, but we're getting there," added another third-year player, Victor Akinyanju, who played on a state 4A titlist at Eleanor Roosevelt. "We don't get caught up in a No. 1 ranking, but the opponents do and bring their A game to us."

Akinyanju was going to prep school, but his high school coach and Lewit were good friends and that eventually led him to the small community tucked in the northeast corner of the state.

The ranking is nice, but rather meaningless at the JuCo level. To qualify for the national tournament, Cecil must win the regional event. There is no at-large entry.

"We haven't won anything yet," Hudson said. "To be No. 1 at the end is what counts."

Top 10

NJCAA Division II

(Through Saturday's games)

1. Brown Mackie (Kan.) 23-1

2. Mott CC (Mich.) 20-2

3. Owens CC (Ohio) 23-2

4. Cecil CC 19-1

5. Prince George's CC 20-2

6. Des Moines CC (Iowa) 17-4

7. Lincoln (Ill.) 19-4

8. Frederick CC 20-2

9. Monroe CC (N.Y.) 21-3

10. Lackawanna (Pa.) 20-3

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