By Robby Fenbers
It has been over a month since the Challengers season came to an end in the first round of the OCCAC tournament. It was a season unlike any other for Coach Duncan and the men from Tri-C as we take a look back at their season.
Hopes were high for the Challengers with new head coach Michael Duncan at the helm, but the season began with tragedy. Their first game as a team was to be a simple scrimmage at the Owens Community College Jamboree on Oct. 12., second year guard Antonio Mason had to sit out the scrimmage that day because of being involved in a fight with some teammates. It would be a devastating day for the Challengers as Mason was involved in a car accident in the early hours of that morning. He had a cracked sacrum, spinal injuries and a broken manubrium. It was questionable whether he could ever walk again. “When Tone called me and told me he was in a car accident, it took everything out of me. I couldn’t do nothing but cry,” said Coach Duncan.
The team banded together with heavy hearts as they headed into the Kennedy-King tournament in Chicago, IL. The team won both games and Coach Duncan got to experience winning as a head basketball coach for the first time. When asked his feelings before the tournament Duncan said, “I was excited, couldn’t wait for the season to finally start and to finally be a head coach.” The Challengers continued their winning ways, stringing together six consecutive wins to start the season, including two overtime wins.
Coach Duncan was beginning to get a feel for his team and his star players. “It was early, I was trying to learn their habits. I had a decent feel for them but it wasn’t great because we didn’t lose yet,” he said. The Challengers faced adversity in the form of tragedy, but were yet to taste that losing feeling, that would soon change. Cairo Brown, their leader and starting point guard was suspended for three games which likely led to three consecutive losses, including two overtime losses. Coach Duncan was especially upset after the Niagara Community College game, where the team welcomed back Antonio Mason to the sidelines. Duncan gave a passionate speech in the locker room after the OT loss. The team was 6-3 and a few weeks away from Conference play.
The Challengers welcomed back Cairo Brown and with him came three consecutive wins including dominating defensive performances against Mercyhurst North East and CC of Alleghany County. It seemed that they had righted the ship heading into their final non-conference game against Lansing Community College. It was a disappointment, as the Challengers fell 99-91. The team hung in there but couldn’t overcome the three point shooting by Lansing, who shot a consistent 11 of 22 from deep. Heading into conference play with a 9-4 record, the Challengers had already been through a whirlwind of adversity yet they had no idea how much the next few months would test them both mentally and physically.
It was conference play and Coach Duncan prepared the boys to step up their game in the following months. The team began wearing their “Stand up for Tone” t-shirts in support of their teammate. They also had a new emerging star grabbing attention all around the conference. Robert Fomby was putting up consistent numbers and seemed to be getting better and better as the season went on. In the conference opener against Columbus State he showed just why he was getting all that attention, recording 27 points 15 rebounds and 4 assists, he put the conference on notice. The Challengers went on to win 92-76. The 10-4 record seemed to put the Challengers in discussion as one of the best in the conference.
The Challengers then went toe to toe with one of the conference’s best, Owens Community College, as the game was pushed into overtime. Robert Fomby had another solid performance with 29 points 11 rebounds and 3 steals, but it was not enough. The Challengers fell 93-91 in OT. The team regrouped and came out with a three game winning streak with three consecutive double-digit victories including a huge win over Cincinnati State. They were confident and started to believe they could be the conference’s best teams. They waited for another shot at the top of the conference, they didn’t have to wait long.
In the game of the year, the Challengers (13-5) faced the Lakers of Lakeland Community College (14-5). The men from Tri-C came out on fire in front of their home crowd, building a 24-9 lead early in the game. But Lakeland, as expected made a run and the Challengers found themselves in a dogfight down the stretch. With a small lead, the attention turned to a scuffle at midcourt which resulted in multiple ejections for the Challengers and, even more damaging, an unbelievable seven technical free throws. The packed stands were stunned as the Lakers hit their free throws and went on to take the commanding lead. The Lakers then defeated the Challengers 99-95 in a game that was marred by that moment. Momentum had shifted and so too did the Challengers season. “We were never the same after that Lakeland loss. In practice, with the guys, nobody ever had that spunk again, that we had going into that game,” said Duncan. Due to the ejections from the Lakeland game, the Challengers would have to win without Darrell Parker, Isaiah Bennet and Jalen Stewart who were suspended for two games. The team defeated Edison on the road, but were completely outmatched against Owens at home. The month was long and full of ups and downs. The Challengers beat who they were supposed to beat but couldn’t overcome the conference’s best teams when it mattered most. They finished their regular season with a complete dismantling of Edison who came in having lost 13 in a row.
As the OCCAC conference tournament was set. The Challengers found themselves at the spot they had been all year, the middle of the pack. Going in as the #4 seed they drew a matchup against a scrappy Sinclair team that gave them trouble in their game just ten days earlier. The Challengers had a size advantage and seemed to be the better team on paper. They jumped out to a 9-0 lead early but could not pull away. Sinclair hung in the game and as they did their shooters grew more confident, then one of them became almost unstoppable. Manny Powell Jr lit up the Challengers as he went 8 of 9 from the 3-point line. The deciding moment came when he hit a three pointer to put Sinclair up 74-73 with seven seconds left.
Tri-C had one last shot but they missed and just like that, the season was over. Last season the Challengers finished 7-19, this season 18-10. It was a huge turnaround for Coach Duncan and the team. The excellent season was capped off with Conference honors for many of the Challengers including Robert Fomby who was voted 3rd place for Conference MVP and first team all-conference. Other honorable mentions went to Cairo Brown and Marquis Jackson.
The Challengers were 1-5 against the conference’s top 3 teams, a statistic that Coach Duncan believes sums up their season. “It means we couldn’t win the big game,” he said.
Though they were defeated in the first round of the OCCAC tournament, the Challengers grew this season, not only as athletes but also as men. They laughed, loved and even cried. They experienced triumph, tragedy and everything in between. This was no ordinary season, this one was special.