HERKIMER, NY — The nets have been cut down for the third straight year at Herkimer College, and the Generals are primed and ready for their third national championship appearance in as many years. However, there’s just one problem: their last game, a 71-66 victory over rival Mohawk Valley Community College, was on March 3, and their first-round game in Rochester, Minnesota won’t be until March 14. That’s 11 days of playing against teammates and not much else. That hasn’t deterred Herkimer head coach (and Whitesboro native) Matt Lee, who is making sure his Generals keep their focus on their business trip to Minnesota, which has meant a lot of work off the court.
“After the tough weekend, we just prepare by just going to classes, because they’re going to miss a lot of [them],” Lee said. “We’ve been focusing in the weight room, staying healthy, and focusing on our schoolwork. For us, the season’s broken into three parts: regular season, regionals and nationals. We’re now in the last phase.”
That last phase has not been kind to the Generals, especially last year, when they were knocked off by Columbus State in the first round. The year before that, they made it to the Division III Final Four before losing to eventual runner-up Elgin. This year is different, though, as Herkimer’s 28-1 record this season has earned them the second seed in the tournament. That may put some pressure on other teams, but not the Generals, who have just three freshmen going on their first trip to the championship.
“The pressure’s gone since we won the region,” sophomore guard, Region III and Mountain Valley Conference Player of the Year Derrick Felder said. “We’re one of the eight best in the country, so there’s no pressure. It definitely helps us, being a two seed. We’re just telling [the freshmen] we’re here for a reason, and you’re here for a reason. Play hard and the results will show.”
Sophomore guard and fellow team captain Keshawn Howard echoed that sentiment, but knew that the Generals had to be wary of upset-minded teams. “I think we’re in a pretty good position, but every team has to play hard to win,” Howard said. “It’s good that we might be someone’s favorite, but we try not to get too high or too low on ourselves. We’re still hungry… our goal was regionals then nationals. We’ve only done half the job.”
That half of the job begins in earnest next Tuesday, when the Generals will load up the bus for the semi-cross country trip to Minnesota. When they disembark, they will prepare in earnest for their 29th opponent in the 2019 season, a team they haven’t seen before in the Sandhills Community College Flyers, out of North Carolina. While it may be a tough task to ground the Flyers’ score-first, score-often offense — Sandhills, despite having the worst record of the final eight at 23-8, scores 96 points a game, good enough for second best in the nation — third-year sophomore guard Arnold Agard thinks the Generals will do just fine.
“We have the guys and the team to get the job done,” Agard said of the Generals. “We have a lot of depth and a lot of versatility…we have ten guys that can step in wherever. The teammates we have, we’re capable of shutting them down. Our goal is the national championship…we haven’t accomplished what we wanted to yet.”
That sentiment was echoed by Lee, who lost the only game in which the Generals allowed more than Sandhills’ average, a 102-72 loss to Hudson Valley Community College in November. As a matter of fact, Herkimer scores a full ten points less on average than the Flyers, scoring just 86 points a game. That’s still good enough for 21st in the nation, but Lee knows it will take a little extra effort to keep the Flyers on the ground.
“We have to be very disciplined on offense….we have to make them try to score at a slower pace,” Lee said. “It’s not going to be a Rocky movie, that’s for sure…It’s not going to be a back and forth. Sandhills wants to play 100 possessions a game; we want to slow it down to about 70. Anything can happen. It’s all about who prepares the most. At the end of the day, win or lose, we’ll have two games left. We have to play tough and smart.”
One thing that works in the Generals’ favor, however, is their experience. All but three players have been to the national tournament before (Agard, a third-year sophomore, will be playing in his third NJCAA Championship), so the bright lights of the biggest stage in junior college basketball shouldn’t faze the Generals. That makes staying on task in front of thousands of cheering fans — from eight different schools from all over the nation, no less — even easier, according to Howard.
“We have a couple of guys that have been there before,” Howard said. “I believe our experience and mental toughness plays a big part in our success. We’re trying to make sure everyone is as humble as can be and everyone plays their part. I just try to make sure everyone has confidence in themselves.”
“It’s a great feeling [to get back there] because it’s my last year [at Herkimer],” Felder said. “Of course you want to win, but as a freshman, it’s exciting. But because I’m a sophomore, it means a little more.”
This season certainly made the postseason special for Herkimer: the #2 seed is the highest the Generals have ever been in the national tournament, but haven’t ever made it past the National Final Four, taking third place twice (in 2013 and 2017). However, according to Lee, the trophies are nice, but that’s not really what making the tournament is really about.
“You do want to win, but it’s about players marketing themselves to four-year colleges,” Lee said. “As a player, you want to put yourself in this position, to show four-year colleges what you can do. This is the best showcase to market yourself.”
Lee knows what he’s talking about: he’s been here several times, with Mountain Valley and Region III plaques lining every corner of his office. But what he’s most proud of is the fact that he’s been able to get his players on to the next level. Whether in the NCAA, NAIA or international duty, most players will say it’s been Lee’s leadership that’s been the main catalyst to the Generals’ success.
“Coach Lee’s been here for a lot of years…he knows what’s best,” Agard said. “We just listen to him and follow him. There’s not any pressure, because we want to get the job done. It’s going to take all of us working together as a family. We’re going to have to do everything together.”
That unity is why the Generals have a 25-game winning streak dating back to that loss in Troy last November and also why they only have one loss heading into Minnesota next week. For Howard, Agard, Felder, and several others, this will be their last hurrah, and Lee, along with the rest of them, wouldn’t want it any other way.
“We’ll just stick to what we do best,” Felder said. “It’s a new season now. If we stick to Herkimer basketball, we’ll be fine. We didn’t want to take a step back from the year before. We don’t want to go backwards, we want to do better. The first game is very important…everyone’s good now.”
“No matter what, we’re playing three games… we know our last date is March 16,” Lee said. “That doesn’t happen for a lot of teams, that you know your end date. That helps as a senior, because no matter what, you know your season’s over after that date. That mentally prepares you for the end, to play your very best so it ends on that date. Hopefully, we can end it at the 7 pm game [the time set for the National Championship Game on March 16].”
Hopefully for Lee and his band of Generals, it ends in Minnesota the way their last game in New York ended: with them cutting down the nets as NJCAA Division III champions.
2019 NJCAA Division III Men’s Basketball Championship
March 14-16 @ Rochester Regional Sports Center, Rochester, Minnesota
All Times Are Eastern Standard Time
First Round Games — Thursday, March 14
(3) Richland Community College vs. (6) Middlesex County CC, 1 PM
(2) Herkimer College vs. (7) Sandhills Community College, 3 PM
(4) Bunker Hill CC vs. (5) Rock Valley CC, 6 PM
(1) Suffolk County CC vs. (8) Central Lakes CC, 8 PM
Semi-Finals/Consolation — Friday, March 15
Semi-Final Games — 6 PM and 8 PM
Consolation Games — 1 PM and 3 PM
Consolation and Championship Games — Saturday, March 16
7th Place Game — 1 PM
5th Place Game — 3 PM
3rd Place Game — 5 PM
Championship Game — 7 PM
All Games Can Be Found on NJCAA TV at njcaatv.com or on all streaming platforms.