Scrappy Lincoln College of New England Carving Out Historic Basketball Season with Lots of Substance and Little BudgetFebruary 22, 2014
By Doug Malan
SOUTHINGTON, Conn.—There’s no gym to call home. The budget is a frayed shoestring. Players pool their money to buy postgame cheese pizzas on long-distance road trips. And a donation from a local business was needed to purchase uniforms.
At Lincoln College of New England, a two-year school in the shadow of craggy Compounce Mountain, first-year head coach Preston Beverly runs a DIY, no-frills junior college basketball program built on toughness, tenacity and a lot of travel. And this young program is in the midst of an historic season with the postseason approaching; not that you’ll hear any of the team members talk about that.
“One of the things we preach is to live in the moment,” said Beverly, who serves as head coach, sports information director and lead booster for his team plus athletic director for the school’s women’s and junior varsity basketball programs. “Once the season is over, if we want to talk about accolades and everything we’ve done, that’s fine. But let’s just stay in the moment.”
LCNE plays on the National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) Division III level in Region 21 with Connecticut schools UConn-Avery Point and Gateway Community College in New Haven plus 11 schools from Massachusetts and Rhode Island, including Region 21 powers Roxbury Community College and MassBay Community College.
There are no scholarships offered in Division III, but the Wildcats have gone head-to-head with some Division I and Division II scholarship schools this year, picking up one win and narrowly missing others.
They have a 21-5 overall record, a current 13-game winning streak and are Region 21 regular season champions with a first-round bye in the tournament. Their attitude since the season tipped off has been clear: Anytime. Anywhere. Let’s play.
“We’re really excited about the progress our team has been making, but we have to continue to get better,” Beverly said. “We need to continue to lock in.”
Beverly learned about intense focus from his parents while growing up in New Jersey. His father, Randy, fashioned a National Football League career as an undrafted defensive back who played for the New York Jets and intercepted two passes in Super Bowl III. His mother, Sharon, was an accomplished basketball player at Queens College and played professionally in France before she embarked on a successful coaching career and later became Vassar College’s athletic director.
Beverly played basketball at Virginia Military Institute in the early 2000s where he served as two-year team captain and ferocious rebounder. He graduated with the rank of S-6 Lieutenant and a degree in computer science with minors in psychology and math. For him, there are no acceptable shortcuts away from hard work.
“My coaching style is similar to what happened in my household growing up,” Beverly said. “You earned things. Nothing is really given to you. The same is true here. Nothing has been given to my players. They have earned everything. You see that in the way my guys play. They dive on the floor for loose balls. They fight for rebounds.”
Beverly is in his first year coaching the Wildcats, but he’s been LCNE’s athletic director since 2012 after several years as an assistant coach at NCAA Division II and III schools in the Northeast plus a brief playing career in a semi-professional league. He took over the LCNE program after former head coach John Wasielewski left after last season. Wasielewski helped start the program in 2007 and they reached the Region 21 tournament his final two seasons. There were a lot of moral victories and the best seasons ended with 12 wins and sub-.500 records.
Beverly demanded improvement and never eased into his first head coaching role. He jumped in with immediate fire. He hired two part-time assistants, former University of Pittsburgh guard Jarrett Lockhart and Lucas Spellman, an active AAU coach in the Waterbury area who also coaches LCNE’s junior varsity team.
Those three overhauled the roster and attracted eight native New Yorkers from the Bronx and Brooklyn, and six players from places like Cleveland, Paterson, N.J., and various prep schools where the coaches had connections.
In all, 14 players have suited up for the Wildcats for the first time, 10 of them freshmen, and Beverly provides playing time to all of them. With only two years of eligibility, Beverly’s players must buy in quickly to maximize their junior college opportunities and land at a four-year school. He has wasted no time implementing his blueprint.
“I think a lot of it has to do with my work ethic and knowing that if you want to work at the highest level, play at the highest level, coach at the highest level, you have to put your time in,” he said.
He stacked LCNE’s schedule with tremendous challenges from the start: Four games in New York and Massachusetts, three of them against teams nationally ranked in the preseason top 10 and the other against a Division II junior college that has spent several weeks this season ranked number one.
In the first game of Beverly’s head coaching career, the Wildcats stunned four-time national champion Sullivan County Community College, the program that produced Wichita State All-American Cleanthony Early, in their beautiful on-campus facility in Loch Sheldrake, N.Y., where the eight-team 2014 NJCAA Division III National Championship will be played.
LCNE split the four games that first week, with two losses by a total of three points.
“I wanted to test my team and see where we stand with this being a young program, and I wanted to see where we stand nationally, not just in Region 21,” Beverly said. After that first week, “I knew I had a team of just fighters. When teams play us, they’ll know they were in a dogfight. I want every team to feel our presence.”
By mid-January, the Wildcats already had eclipsed the school record of 12 wins in a season. The improvement within that timeframe is even more impressive considering LCNE didn’t play any games over the holiday break from December 11 to January 15.
The Wildcats are aggressive and attacking. They press the length of the court. They challenge every shot. They rank in top 25 in field goal percentage defense. They drive forcefully to the hoop. And they outwork opponents on the glass. LCNE ranks among the top teams nationally in free-throw shooting (68 percent) and attempts per game (28), and they’re in the top 10 by grabbing 18 more rebounds per game than their opponents.
“There’s nobody to thank but Coach Beverly, who preaches that to us,” said 6-6 sophomore forward Jordan Taylor, a Brooklyn native who arrived at LCNE after prep school in North Carolina and a JUCO season in Kansas. “He’s really demanding and expects a lot out of us, as he should. He sees the potential of where we can be and makes us see that and believe in ourselves. He makes you want to play harder.”
Early in the season, there was some hammering needed to shape players into the system. Beverly’s style forced 6-4 freshman guard Kojo Lockhart to alter his approach because defense wasn’t emphasized when he was playing at Cleveland Heights High School in Ohio.
With the Wildcats, “You have to show heart in the paint. You have to show a lot of toughness,” Lockhart said. “I really had to buckle down on defense because Coach Beverly takes great pride in that. If you don’t play defense, you don’t play.”
That said, the Wildcats put up solid numbers offensively, averaging 81 points. Five players average double figures led by 6-5 forwards Kyre Jackson (13 points, 8 rebounds, 2 steals) and Jalen David (12 points, 7 rebounds), point guard Chris Austin (11 points, 4 assists), Lockhart (10 points, 7 rebounds) and Taylor (10 points, 6 rebounds). Nine other players average 3 to 8 points playing in various roles off the bench and in spot starts, and the Wildcats average 16 assists per game.
“That really speaks to the unselfishness of all our players,” Beverly said.
Beverly is tough on his players, demanding accountability and maximum effort on the court and in the classroom. In late January, with important Region 21 games looming, a couple of starters missed practice because they didn’t get to the bus in time after their study hall sessions.
With Beverly’s rules, if a player misses the practice before the game, he sits out the game. Teammates picked up the slack and several reserves played big roles in LCNE’s two victories that weekend.
Playing for the Wildcats forces guys to be humble and unselfish in other ways. They’re undefeated in nine home games this year, but “home” is a relative term for a team with no on-campus basketball facility. Sometimes their home court is Bristol Eastern High School. Sometimes it’s Courtside Sports Center in Harwinton, where they practice most of the time. In January, scheduling conflicts left Beverly scrambling to secure a home court two days before a game against Bunker Hill Community College.
They ended up playing at Greene-Hills Elementary School in Bristol. None of it fazed the Wildcats, who won 96-67.
“For us, it’s just more adversity. It’s one of the things that helps bring us closer together,” Beverly said. “These other schools we go to, they have gyms, they have trainers. We don’t have those things. We’re the definition of underdogs. We’re road warriors.”
And earlier in the season when Beverly couldn’t get gym time for practice, he and his players and assistants wore layers of clothes and conducted workouts on the small outdoor court next to LCNE’s student apartments.
“My guys just put on their long sleeves, their sweatpants and their hoodies because we had some things we needed to work on before the next games,” Beverly said. “A lot of student-athletes might balk at that situation. My guys didn’t complain at all. They just went out there.”
The relentless work has placed the Wildcats on the cusp of the Top 10 national poll with the regular season closing on February 20. More importantly, they secured the top seed in the Region 21 tournament and a first-round bye. The winner of the region tournament qualifies for the NJCAA Division III National Championship, which would mean a return trip to Loch Sheldrake, N.Y., for the Wildcats. There are no at-large berths.
Beverly is increasing the program’s exposure, too. He and his players regularly volunteer at the Bristol Boys & Girls Club, and children from the club often attend the LCNE games played in Bristol. Beverly also does a weekly coach’s show podcast and the school has turned that podcast into a video series broadcast on LCNE’s YouTube channel. And the wins continue to pile up.
It all could be pretty heady for a first-year coach and his team, if they weren’t collectively committed to the daily grind of building a successful program.
“The experiences here are one of a kind,” Beverly said. “Typically when you go to a school, they have a long history of sports programs. Here, everything is new. There’s an opportunity to build something from start to finish.”
And for this year, the Wildcats want to finish in Loch Sheldrake, N.Y., just as they started.