By Dylan Schoknecht, COM 311 Reporter
MOUNT BERRY, Ga. – The current landscape of junior college athletics, is comparable to that of a famous quote by Leo Durocher: “Many attend, few understand.” The two-year circuit is an untraditional style of obtaining one’s degree, but the rapid expansion Berry Athletics has and will continue to see, makes for a story needing to be told.
A scary path to some, overlooked by many, but embraced by the few. Nothing is owed once stepping on campus. The entitlement many players carry over from high school dies quickly in junior college. Everything is earned, nothing is given. What is often regarded around the junior college community as “the grind”, the lifestyle that junior college athletes endure is exactly that. It’s a lifestyle that’s not for everyone. The lack of having a security blanket that all four-year universities provide turns many recruits and families away.
Many former players describe the leap of faith to play at a junior college as a gamble on themselves. It takes a special kind of grit to make the jump. Poor facilities, tight squeezes on road trips, limited meal money, and upwards of double the amount of games in a season; the conditions are undoubtedly rough. Current Berry senior pitcher, and former junior college student-athlete, Zach Guzi learned this the hard way.
“Hotel stays we found ourselves with four guys to a room, and road trips were normally a $5 cap at McDonald’s, Wendy’s, or gas stations,” Guzi said. “We had to make do with our facilities, find loose materials around campus to hold our tarp down. We all felt as if we were practically savages.”
The ruggedness is what makes junior college so unique to many of its athletes. Responsibility is thrown onto these student-athletes from day one. The future of them furthering getting to play their respective sports are dependent on it. Don’t perform? Don’t advance. A simple concept, yet tough pill to swallow. Deciding to go far away from home to pursue a better opportunity in football, Monroe College (NY) quarterback, Dominique Shoffner was wanting to find his way back in the Southeast and in the hands of a big program.
“The quickest way our coach was able to light a fire under our rears was through his famous words, ‘You can take as many days off as you like, but when you’re not pleased with the scholarships you may or may not be getting, don’t complain to me about it,’” Shoffner said.
With all that comes a sense of pride in seeing your teammates successes. Finding the right fit from an academic, and athletic side of the ball, is a tremendous accomplishment for any athlete. Within your second year of college, you’re given the task to manage being a student-athlete and focus your spare time on finding a school that fits your needs or talking to recruiters. One went on to joke it was the closest he could imagine trying to manage a second relationship. Junior college product and now current pitcher at Northwest Oklahoma State, Harry Park, saw this first-hand during his days at Hesston College.
“You see guys land their first big scholarship, or make their commitment, and the last thought is going to be how that should have been you.” Park says. “We all go through the struggles of being a JUCO athlete together that it bonds so much and is why you can’t help but be anything short of giddy for a teammate when that time comes.”
The toughness that these players come out on the other side with has become highly desirable for college programs across the country. Some schools recruit only junior college players, while others stay away completely. The two-year window of playing against collegiate talent gives four-year recruiters a more accurate sense of projecting the potential impact a player can have on their program.
Berry has just started to see itself open more to junior college players than in years past. Tapping into the junior college ranks seven times in the last four years, that number is looking to increase exponentially in the coming years. Between baseball and basketball alone, eight junior college prospects reside on recruiting boards. These have been the two programs using junior college players as a way to reload on assets, while giving freshman an extra year to fully develop.
The baseball program has picked up three junior college recruits within the last few seasons, and another five that are in the late stages of their recruiting process with Berry still atop of the list. A handful of junior college pickups will be big gains for a program that is getting ready to let go of seven seniors and fill the roster with 16 freshmen. Assistant coach and recruiting coordinator, Shane West has seen and recognized this change firsthand.
“Being able to fill the void we might have for a season or two from any key losses out of a graduating class is one of the key reasons you’ll see programs tap into the junior college market,” West said. “We used to be a non-junior college program, wanting to groom our guys for all four years. But there’s been a handful of seasons where we realized experience would help us on the field and give a better example to our underclassmen.”
With the recent change in head coaches, the men’s basketball program has been taking junior college players in with open arms. A program that used to be very similar in only bringing in players out of high school, with some four-year transfers, head coach Mitch Cole brought change to the program within his first recruiting class. Bringing on three junior college transfers in this class alone, Cole has made his first recruiting class into one of the most competitive the program has seen in recent years.
“I knew that with bringing on as many freshmen as we were going to this season, we needed to add onto the number of upper classmen that we had to give them the best example of what is expected out of them.,” Cole said. “We’ve got a couple more (junior college athletes) that we’re targeting for next season as we lose five to graduation. These guys challenge my freshmen for playing time, push the seniors, and make everyone around them better players. No question this is something I’ll continue to do for years to come.”
Robert Mbenoun was one of the three junior college transfers Berry Basketball brought in this season. A product of Daytona State Community College, in Daytona Beach, Florida, Robert knew as soon as he stepped foot on campus this was where he wanted to transfer to.
“Coach Cole told me all about the impact he expected out of myself, which was something I believed. I wanted to go the junior college route to be able to impact a program for all four years of my college basketball career,” Mbenoun said. “You see the facilities some junior colleges have to offer, then step on Berry’s campus. I laughed the first time I walked in the Cage, and almost asked right then and there where I need to sign.”
The next wave of junior college athletes has yet to officially walk through the halls of the Cage Center, or between the white lines at Valhalla or at William R. Bowdoin Field, but the emergence of recruiting athletes for two seasons will continue to rise and reach other sports on campus. The immediate impact these athletes can have on the field and in the classroom, make for all the right reasons that a program would want to recruit from junior colleges. Already having some of the best facilities in Division III, capitalizing on it by putting the best team on the field each and every season can be done sustainably and put Berry alongside the likes of the Mount Union’s, UW Whitewater’s, and Mary Hardin-Baylor’s of athletics.