D-III newcomers selling the vision

More news about: Bryn Athyn | Wilson
Rahim Bunch is a junior providing some much-needed experience for a Wilson College men's basketball program that otherwise has none whatsoever.
Wilson athletics photo 

By Gordon Mann

Inside Bryn Athyn College's Asplundh Fieldhouse, in a classroom adjacent to the basketball court, Wilson College's coaching staff has scrawled some notes on the dry erase board. Coach Miles Smith is preparing the Wilson Phoenix to take on Justin Baxter's Bryn Athyn Lions.

Wilson is looking for its first win against a Division III opponent.

Not just its first win against a Division III opponent this season. Its first win ever.

Most of the notes from the Wilson coaching staff are standard scouting report material. Get back on defense. Watch out for such-and-such player who can shoot. Above those reminders, in red ink instead of black, is a line from a song that reads in part:

"Even when winning is illogical, losing is still far from optional."

It's not clear if the Wilson coaches posted the quote, or if it's left over from whatever class took place earlier. But it is fitting for this game. First-year programs such as these two are unlikely to pile up a lot of victories. Expecting that level of success would be illogical. But, for Bryn Athyn and Wilson, this season isn't as much about wins and losses as it is about building a program.

Bryn Athyn: Building from scratch

If you're not familiar with Bryn Athyn College or don't know where it is, you're not alone.

Current coach Justin Baxter hadn't heard of the school before he learned the school was looking for its first men's basketball coach.

"I saw the posting on Hoop Dirt. I didn't even know this school was here and I live 20 minutes from here. I literally, at midnight one night, got in my car and drove here and said, 'This college is actually here.'"

We're bringing recruits here. We don't have a basket or any balls to show them. We're saying, 'Here's our vision. This is what this is going to turn into it. Do you want to be a part of it?'

Justin Baxter, remembering starting the Bryn Athyn men's basketball program

"Here" is just outside Philadelphia, in a small, almost-hidden borough that feels like it's in the middle of the country but is actually minutes from one of the largest cities in the country. The college is in its first year of the four-year provisional process of becoming an NCAA Division III member. It's one of two schools from the North Eastern Athletic Conference teams in its first year, along with Penn College of Technology.

In the past couple of years the college hired new head coaches for several programs including men's basketball as the school built an athletic department. The school shares Asplundh Fieldhouse with the Academy of the New Church secondary school, which plays its games in a gym across the hall from the Lions' gym.

Baxter remembers those very early days. "We had to buy baskets. We had to buy shot clocks. We had to buy benches. We had to buy the scorer's table. We didn't have any of the materials that you needed to be a college basketball team.

"We're bringing recruits here. We don't have a basket or any balls to show them. We're saying, 'Here's our vision. This is what this is going to turn into it. Do you want to be a part of it?'"

The Bryn Athyn program isn't quite starting from scratch, but it's not far removed from those days.
Bryn Athyn file photo

Eleven players signed on last season for Bryn Athyn's exploratory year and the roster has 14 players now. In the Jan. 6 game against Wilson, Troy Steed and Jihaad Fluellen show that there's talent on the Lions' roster. Steed led the team with 16 points, including a crowd-igniting fast-break dunk. Fluellen is a 6-2 freshman guard who scored 10 points on 4-for-6 shooting and grabs five rebounds.

Baxter is hoping that the Lions' non-conference schedule will help the team prepare to compete in the NEAC. The Lions picked up its first win of the season on Saturday against Gallaudet.

Looking much further down the line, Baxter is still selling his vision for what Bryn Athyn can become. When asked which program he'd like Bryn Athyn to emulate, he picks Franklin and Marshall. "We want to compete at a national level and be ranked in the Top 25 every single year, and compete for a conference championship every single year, and give [ourselves] a chance to play in the Final Four."

Wilson: Selling a family-first vision

When your school's mascot is the Phoenix, puns about rising from the ashes, like the mythical creature, come easily.

But the pun doesn't fit for Wilson College men’s basketball because there were no ashes to rise from. Wilson is playing its first season of men’s basketball after the school admitted male undergraduate students for the first time in September 2014.

Wilson, with less than 400 full-time undergraduate students, decided to go coed in April 2013 to boost its enrollment and bolster its finances. Pine Manor admitted male students for the same reason this fall and added men’s sports to its Boston campus. A couple hours west of Wilson, Chatham College will add admit male undergraduates and start five men’s athletic teams in the fall of 2015, including basketball. They follow William Peace, Randolph and Sage as schools who recently went coed.

Smith’s job is to recruit male students to the small school about an hour west of Harrisburg, Pa. That job is to recruit all male students, not just those who will play basketball for the Phoenix.

Like Baxter at Bryn Athyn, Miles’ job is to sell a vision to transfers and recruits about what Wilson College men’s basketball could be, and that starts with selling himself.

"I talked to a good friend of mine, Casey Stitzel at Delaware Valley, and my mentor Kelly Williams at TCNJ," Miles said. "They told me I have to sell myself and sell the program because there's no history for men's basketball [at Wilson]. So I basically had to give that pitch on how I want to start this culture of men's basketball that's allowing it to be a family-first atmosphere."

When Wilson played Bryn Athyn on Jan. 6, the Phoenix had just six active players. Forward Mylan Ward left the game with a calf injury late in the second half, leaving the Wilson bench practically empty, with just an assistant coach and another injured player sitting behind Smith. Ward returned but fouled out with 75 seconds left, and Smith substituted Martez Beckett, who is nearly a foot shorter and 100 pounds lighter than Ward. Despite having no reserves, the Phoenix hung on for the victory, its first ever against a Division III opponent.

Help is on the way. A couple of players could return from injury or academic issues to round out Wilson’s roster. For now Smith is building around the square-shouldered forward Ward, quicksilver guard Rahim Bunch and freshman guard Rasul Jackson. Ward transferred to Wilson from Howard Community College in Maryland and Bunch transferred from Rutgers-Newark where he started 14 games last season. Jackson came to Wilson from Philadelphia, which is one of Smith's target areas for recruits.

At halftime of the men's game, one of Bryn Athyn's women's basketball players entered the gym wearing a bright pink t-shirt that read "started from the bottom." At this point it's perfect, conveying awareness of today's challenges and hope for tomorrow's success.

After all, you have to start somewhere.