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Chipola Remains an Oasis on the JUCO Landscape

By Tony Jimenez

Basketball Times

 

To hear some of those in the know tell it, the golden days of the two-year schools is history.

Toast.  Kaput.  No more.

Given what's been transpiring at Chipola College in Marianna, FL. - a small, diverse southern town of some 17,000 - in recent years nothing could be further from the truth.

Ever since coach Greg Heiar set foot on campus four years ago, everything that he's touched has turned to gold.

From his only season as an assistant coach to coach Chris Jans - when the two took the Indians to the 2003-04 National JC Athletic Association tournament and came home with a sixth place and a 32-5 record - to this season's team, which amassed a 33-3 record after ending their season runner-up in the National Tournament.

Chipola is becoming the North Carolina of the national junior college ranks. In Heiar's three-season run as head coach, Chipola has a 95-11 record.

Even more impressive is that fact that the Indians, for the most part, have demolished anything that's come their way.

Chipola has claimed eleven wins by at least 20 points and four by at least 30 points and has shown its resiliency in close games, winning nine games in single digits.

"Our size and our collective basketball IQ has made us difficult to defend," Heiar said. "We have 30 to 35 sets that we run on offense, and we rely on the man but have been pressing and zoning more defensively. I am just happy to be at a place I can have success like this. From the president (Dr. Gene Prough) to the athletic director (Dr. Dale O'Daniel) to the faculty, there is support everywhere for the program."

It has definitely made a difference.

Heiar is recruiting players who are putting team first and keep their acts clean on and off the floor - 17 of 19 players having graduated in the last three years. He has sent 17 players to Division I schools, including Mario Boggan of Oklahoma State, Je'Kel Foster of Ohio State, Stefhon Hannah of Missouri and Michael Taylor of Iowa State. All have had good seasons and been sensational at times, ala Boggan and his mind-boggling 37-point, 20-rebound game that included the game-winning shot against Texas.

"It means a lot to have our guys go on and do well," Heiar said. "A lot of people say it takes a juco player a semester to adjust to a four-year school, but you can't tell it by what those guys have done. When those guys do as well as they have, it gives you a sense that you are doing thighs the right way, that you are getting them prepared for the next level."

Picture Boggan, Hannah, and Taylor on the same team - it's what Heiar had at hand in his first season at Chipola, in 2004-05 - and it's easy to see why Heiar might have needed more than one basketball on the floor and a shrink off the floor.

That, however, hasn't been the case under the feisty 32 year old.

Heiar doesn't expound on what he's done, only on what he could have done and what he can still do. The guy has the mind of a more experienced coach and is crafty enough to not only lure talented players to Chipola, but put them in the right places and instill team play first and foremost.

Heiar learned plenty from Jans when the two were at Kirkwood, Iowa, an NJCAA Division II school that made its first-ever appearance in the national tournament in 1995-96 with Heiar as a player/team captain and Jans as the head coach.

"He was a coach on the floor back then," said Jans. "He was a competitor, a hard worker, who was so passionate about what he was doing. I'm not surprised at what he has done. You've got to have the players first, and he gets them. Then he does a tremendous job of instilling his personality into his team."

Chipola's 13-player roster is comprised mostly of players from Chicago (four) and Florida (three). Stars JaMarcus Ellis, an ultra-talented 6-foot-6, 195-pounder, and DeAndre Thomas, a rugged 6-8, 290-pounder, and 6-8, 250-pound starter Johnnie Harris are from the Windy City.

It's no surprise that Kelvin Sampson, a guy who has a propensity of knowing and getting the max out of juco players, has lured both players, Ellis and Thomas, to Indiana next season.

"JaMarcus is having a great year," Heiar said. "He is a relentless leader who shares the ball and makes everyone around him so much better. Our players have a sense of confidence when he is on the floor."

Ellis spend a week at Laurinburg, N.C. Prep before leaving because he wasn't happy. "It was in the middle of nowhere, and I didn't know anyone," he said. He went to Chipola sight unseen. He arrived based primarily on what his Chicago buddies told him about Heiar, the program, and the school itself.

"What I've done here is going to help me a lot next year," Ellis said. "The coaches and program have prepared me well for where I'm going. Going to a junior college hasn't been a step backwards at all for me. I'm learning more than I could have anywhere else."

Ellis (18.2 ppg, 10.7 rpb, 7.6 apg) and Thomas (15.1 ppg, 10.2 rpg) are far from the whole story at Chipola. Harris, point guard Ed Berrios and Victor Dubovitsky, a native of Moscow have added a variety of talents.

Ditto for key reserves Michael Vogler, who signed with Troy University; 6'3 Mario Edwards; 6'5 Mario Little of Chicago; 6'2 Eric Price of Washington D.C.; and 6'0 Skyler Williams of East Dublin, GA.

All of the starters are sophomores, and the next five are freshman.

Which means that Chipola has even more golden days on the horizon.

 

 
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