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Lewis and Clark ’This Close Yet This Far Away’

Article by: Pete Hayes, The Telegraph,

For the Lewis and Clark Community College men’s basketball team, the just-completed season laced with near misses, high and low spots - and a case of score comparison that likely had coach and athletic director Doug Stotler smiling and silently screaming at the same time.

To no one’s surprise, Vincennes University rolled to the men’s national championship. But the route those Trailblazers took wasn’t the one most observers figured they’d travel to the NJCAA National Tourney in Hutchinson, Kansas.

And District 16’s “other” Trailblazers, the ones from Lewis and Clark, may well have had a hand in all that.

You see, L&C beat the team that beat VU in the district tourney, forcing Vincennes to wait on an at-large berth to the nationals at Hutchinson.

Kaskaskia College emerged as the District 16 champion. The Blue Devils downed Vincennes in a semifinal and then ousted Wabash Valley in the title game. Throw in a first-round victory over Olney Central, and Kaskaskia defeated three ranked teams to win the district tourney played at Rend Lake College and grab an automatic berth to the national tourney.

Kaskaskia got a couple nudges heading into the district. Some tough love, as it were, in the form of a 13-point loss to Lewis and Clark and an ensuing loss to Wabash Valley to end the season on a two-game skid.

“Comparing scores is dangerous,” Stotler said, “but I think our win at Kaskaskia showed how good we could be when we were good.”

Indeed. The L&C Trailblazers were humming like a Singer sewing machine in the second half the night they drubbed Kaskaskia 96-83. They exploded in the second 20 minutes to outscore the Devils 62-33, erasing a 16-point halftime deficit in the process. L&C followed that win with a 94-89 victory at Lake Land in Mattoon.

Those results got other district teams’ attention and L&C was suddenly a team others in the district preferred not to face with their season on the line.

But the roller coaster descended as abruptly as it had reached the pinnacle. The ‘Blazers lost their district tourney play-in game at Shawnee and the season was over. L&C finished 10-18 and had more than its share of near misses against quality opponents.

After the play-in loss, Stotler watched the first day of the district tourney at Rend Lake, then hit the recruiting trail. His path has taken him through a multitude of states as he tries to put together the next edition of the L&C men’s basketball team.

Recruiting at the JUCO level in any sport is difficult, especially at Division I. L&C’s men’s basketball team and its men’s and women’s soccer teams are the schools only NJCAA Division I programs. Other operate at the NJCAA Division II level if in a multi-level sport. A big difference is scholarships available and thus the number of high level players available.

In other words, depth.

A few blue chippers find their way to a JUCO on their own for various reasons, including grades or wanting to stay close to home. The rest have to be wooed. But that wooing must wait until the four-year schools stake their claims. Then it comes down to outbidding other JUCOs.

L&C’s soccer teams have a leg up on their competition with multiple national championships and national tourney appearances. They also have an impressive soccer stadium to show recruits.

Call them the Vincennes of NJCAA soccer.

Alas, such is not the case with basketball. While the L&C Trailblazers made some strong showings at the NJCAA Division II National Tourney in Danville in the early 2000’s, they’ve not had similar success since moving up to Division I.

Former L&C coach and AD, Deon Thomas, the pride of the Illini, orchestrated that move to Division I, but when he left for Illinois-Chicago, Stotler was left to make it work.

When recruits compare the River Bend Arena to the dedicated palatial gym at Vincennes or even the ones at places such as Olney Central, Lake Land or Rend Lake, L&C comes up lacking.

The River Bend Arena is receiving a face lift during the offseason, including a new wood floor. Stotler said he’s excited about being able to show recruits and hopefully lure some of them to play on it. More is needed, but it’s a good start.

Comparing any regional JUCO facilities to Vincennes U. is an apples-to-oranges deal. It isn’t called a university just because it sounds nice. VU, one of only two JUCOs in Indiana, has a campus that exceeds many four-year schools. Founded in 1801, it’s the oldest college in Indiana and has been a four-year school, then a two-year institution and now offers four-year degrees, two-year transfer and two-year associate degrees. Its campus, enormous by JUCO standards, is laid out in city block format. There are even fraternity and sorority houses.

But VU’s athletics compete at the NJCAA level and abide by its recruiting and scholarship rules. The added facility incentives that draw potential JUCO basketball players, however, are huge.

Stotler carries on. With a basketball pedigree that extends to his years growing up as a coach’s son, he knows well the ins and outs of the game at all levels. And he’s dedicated to making a trip to Hutchinson a reality.

“Beating Kaskaskia the way we did showed we could be this close,” Stotler said, holding his index finger and thumb an inch apart.

He immediately spread his arms a wingspan apart and added, “But the way everything turned out showed we were also this far apart.”

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