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After Onondaga Community College men’s basketball ended its 2019-20 season with a loss in the National Junior College Athletic Association regional tournament, head coach Erik Saroney had to rebuild his entire team. Ten of the 12 players departed, including eight who were eligible to return, and OCC canceled its 2020-21 season due to the pandemic.
A full rebuild was unique for a program that has dominated its conference since Saroney took over in 2016. The Lazers won a conference championship in each of Saroney’s first four seasons, and top-five rankings have become the norm. But Saroney was tasked to recreate OCC’s success without players on campus and his assistant coaches’ contracts not renewed.
Now, though, nearly two years since that regional tournament loss, OCC has returned to winning form, currently sitting at 15-1 and ranked No. 1 in all of NJCAA Division III. Despite ongoing pandemic-related issues, canceled games and minor injuries, the Lazers have relied on their only two returners: Latyce Faison, who ranks third in DIII with an average of over 29 points per game, and Jahki Lucas, who scores nearly 17 points with 7.5 assists per game.
“We’ve taken (the setbacks) with a little grain of salt and a little more (of a) positive outlook because we’re really appreciative to be doing anything,” Saroney said. “It’s kind of a ‘we’ll take what we can get’ situation instead of maybe being so focused on everything going perfect.”
OCC’s coaching staff fully returned this season after assistants were not reappointed last year. Athletic director Michael Borsz said there was “concern” that some coaches wouldn’t return in favor of moving to other opportunities or more time-consuming commitments since all coaches work for OCC part time. But the fact that all three assistants returned “speaks a lot to what we do here,” Borsz said.
The Lazers went 25-4 in 2019-20, and the team’s early success this season shows that Saroney’s squad hasn’t missed a beat from the beginning of the pandemic to now. But that isn’t to say that there weren’t, and aren’t still, hardships and inconveniences the team must deal with. Assistant coach Keith Tyson said that not being able to constantly talk with his players and work with them in the gym last year was a “weird experience.”
Recruiting was the program’s biggest challenge of the pandemic, Saroney said, as it was difficult to predict which players would return when play resumed. It was also hard to attend high school games for scouting purposes, he added.
“People didn’t want to commit ahead of time to plans because you didn’t know what was going to happen, (whether) dorms were going to be closed or classes were all going to be online,” Saroney said.
While OCC made it through the first half of this season with only one game cancellation, the pandemic has still made its presence felt. The Lazers and their opponents are required to wear masks on the court in games played at OCC, Borsz said, and the team has to wear masks during practice too, per OCC policy. On the road, though, the Lazers follow the protocols of whichever team they are playing. Tyson said the masks are “annoying” but necessary to protect against COVID-19, and he added that it’s hard for players to keep the masks on while running up and down the court.
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But the uncertainties have been at least partially reduced by the play of OCC’s returners. Faison and Lucas have accounted for almost half the team’s total points and nearly two-thirds of OCC’s assists, shouldering much of the offensive load while their new teammates get acclimated to the system.
Outside of those two, OCC has obtained key contributors through tryouts, Tyson said. Freshmen Isaiah Warmack and Clinton Obi — “hidden gems” as Tyson referred to them — were located by the coaching staff and encouraged to try out after Saroney’s staff found out they would be attending the school this fall. Warmack is second on the team in scoring with 17.0 points per game, while Obi leads the team in rebounds per game with 9.8.
Saroney felt his team was not as crisp as it usually is during the preseason, but things came together “a little quicker” than he expected, citing the players’ resilience as a major reason why.
“We’ve been lucky and fortunate, and our guys have done a good job,” Saroney said. “The chemistry of the team has fallen together pretty well and we’re happy to have the success we’re having.”
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