THE BLADE/LORI KING Enlarge | Buy This Photo
The Lourdes men’s basketball team has little to call its own.
They practice in a small campus gym with a tartan surface, lift weights at Planet Fitness, and play their home games two miles away at a sprawling multi-purpose complex that may or may not be available on the dates needed.
On game nights at Tam-O-Shanter, a curtain separates the court from an adjacent turf field. Portable four-row bleachers line one side and the sound system blares — except when it doesn’t.
The team is sometimes told to crank down the volume during warmups, lest it interrupt the soccer or lacrosse contest about 15 feet away.
Such is the frontier life of a college basketball program in its third year of existence.
"We’re behind the 8-ball a little bit with facilities," coach Andre Smith said. "It continues to be a struggle."
Yet if the infrastructure remains on hold, success on the court has not.
A motley cast of players who came to a school they had never heard of to build this NAIA Division II program from scratch has guided the Gray Wolves to the fringe of a national ranking.
Most are transfers, like 6-foot-9 center Enique Mason, who played his first two seasons at NCAA Division I Texas Pan-American, or senior guard Remy Fleurima and two of his high school teammates from North Lauderdale, Fla. Others just wanted to be part of something new, like Whiteford’s Jake Dupree, who planned to play football in college but stayed close to home after his father was diagnosed with a rare blood cancer.
Together, with their relentless coach, the Gray Wolves (13-5, 8-5 Wolverine-Hoosier Athletic Conference) have won six of their last eight games. If far from the most talented team at their level, they may be the toughest. Lourdes leads NAIA Division II in points allowed (51 per game) and have outrebounded all but one opponent this season.
"It's pretty exciting to watch what we've done from the first year until now, how much we've grown as a team and a program," Dupree said. "It's fun to be a part of."
THE BLADE/LORI KING Enlarge | Buy This Photo
Paving the way
Lourdes, a Catholic college with about 2,600 students, began fielding varsity sports in 2010 as part of the school’s transition to university status. An athletic department that launched with four sports now features 12, with men’s basketball serving as a road map.
Davis, 39, whose previous stops included two years as coach of the Croatian national team, has guided the program from 12 wins in its debut season to a berth in the 32-team NAIA Tournament last year to the point this winter where, as assistant Leroy King said, "there is no sneaking up on people."
The operation retains a distinctly start-up feel. The Lourdes athletic department works out of a trailer tucked amid pine trees at the back of campus, and Smith’s dual roles of coach and athletic director allow him to devote about an hour a day outside of practice to basketball. Smith made time for a reporter one afternoon last week between an interview with a candidate for the school’s open lacrosse coaching position and practice at Tam-O-Shanter, where he changed from his dress clothes into gray sweats on the sideline.
Among his concerns is simply finding a place for his basketball team to play. The Lourdes gym does not meet NAIA regulations, and a planned multimillion dollar athletic facility appears — depending on contributions — at least two years away from breaking ground. They are at the mercy of Tam-O-Shanter’s availability, which meant a home game at Central Catholic last season and senior night at Owens College next month.
Yet they make it work.
"We’re thankful for everything we do get," senior forward Corey Harvey said.
Lourdes works to give the team the best experience an annual budget of about $260,000 can buy, including chartered buses to road games, while Smith’s expectations are uncompromising.
He runs an admittedly "tight ship," with practices often beginning at 5:45 a.m. He tries to prepare players for life after college. Among his rules: sit in the first two rows of class, study table four days per week, no hats in the building. and leave places the way you found them. After a game last week, players shook hands with the visitors, then picked up their paper cups and trash before heading to the locker room.
On the court, in contrast, anything goes. At least during practice, 80 percent of which is devoted to defense. What the Gray Wolves lack on offense — Alex Davis averages a team-high 10.8 points — they make up for with fundamentals and just plain grit.
One 4-on-4 rebounding drill features three rules: no kicking, no punching, no out of bounds. "Get to the glass by any means necessary," Smith tells his players.
"We just throw it up there." he said. "Pushing, knocking down, grabbing, everything goes besides fighting."
"It gets very intense," junior guard Elvin Butler said with a smile. "You've got to shake hands at the end of the day. We're still a team."
Mason, the junior transfer from Texas Pan-American, said he works harder at Lourdes than he did at the NCAA Division I level.
"A lot of students have a difficult time playing here," said Smith, a 1997 graduate of Youngstown State, where he led the Penguins in scoring, assists, and steals. "Their first thing is, ‘I'm going to show the coach I can score, I’m going to show the coach I can dunk, or I can shoot.’ That doesn’t impress me and coach King. Getting down there and guarding somebody, getting a rebound, diving on a loose ball, taking a charge, that's what impresses us."
So far, Smith is confident he’s found the right type of players.
One is Dupree, one of two area players along with Rossford’s Josh Perry on a roster that spans eight states. A junior business major with a 3.9 grade point average, he is grateful he passed on football to stay home. The 6-foot guard has started nine games this season and leads the Gray Wolves with 34 steals, with his family among the 200 or so fans at every home game. That includes his father, Everett, whose multiple myeloma is in remission.
Another cornerstone is Fleurima, a 5-6 senior captain who illustrates the sometimes serendipitous nature of recruiting at this level. Smith was in Florida recruiting another player, didn’t think he fit, then went to McDonald’s and saw players walking into a gym across the street. He popped in on a whim and invited three of the players — Fleurima and two of his high school teammates — to Sylvania for a visit.
"They’ve turned out to be three of my best student-athletes," Smith said. "All three of them are carrying over a 3.5."
Now, Smith is focused on turning this foundation into lasting success. He wants 20-win seasons and deep runs in the national tournament to become the norm, and spends his rare down time recruiting the next line of overlooked players searching for a second lease on their basketball careers.
For the moment, he does not have much money to offer (Lourdes funds about half of the six athletic scholarships permitted in NAIA Division II). Nor does he have a home gym or weight room to sell.
Sometimes, that’s not what matters most.
"We’ve just got to somehow get it done," he said, "and hope for the best."
Contact David Briggs at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6084 or on Twitter @ DBriggsBlade.