By BRIAN WOODSON
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
Bluefield College has a strong tradition in men’s basketball, and has three starters back who contributed 52.6 points a game last season. The Lady Rams are coming off their best season in school history, and their top returnee was an NCCAA All-American honorable mention selection.
Yet, when the Mid-South Conference preseason basketball polls were released, the Rams were on the very bottom of the list. Out of the 11 teams, the Rams are 11th.
That was the very first thing I noticed in looking through the packet of information given to the local scribes when Bluefield College’s sports management students held basketball media day on Tuesday.
I wasn’t the only one to notice.
When asked to make opening comments, Bluefield men’s head coach Richard Morgan started with that lack of respect without being coaxed by the media. True, it is a new league, but Cumberland is in its first season in hoops in the MSC and they were at least picked in the middle of the pack.
All the Bluefield men did last season was finish 19-16, including a third place spot in the Appalachian Athletic Conference, which was a good league, but is the step up from NAIA Division 2 to NAIA Division 1 that big a jump?
Apparently the coaches in the league, who voted in the polls, think it is. Now coaches will tell you they have more important things to do than worry about voting in polls, but it’s a fact that didn’t sit well with Morgan.
“I am a little hurt by where they placed us in the standings,” Morgan said. “As far as my staff and my players, if I have anyone that is not on board and wasn’t bothered by the fact that we were so low in our league, 11 out of 11, then they need to find a program that they need to go to because that is not going to be tolerated here.”
Bluefield College women’s coach M.J. Baker didn’t express hurt, but does see a definite challenge. The Lady Rams were 22-12 last season, finishing third in the ACC, sixth in the NCCAA national tournament and were ranked in the NAIA Top 25 for the first time ever.
“I welcome it. I am not a person that believes we can come into the conference and be given respect, you have to earn it,” Baker said. “I kind of figured we would be picked in last place and I am okay being the David to the Goliath.
“We are a team that is going to be underestimated the whole year and that is one thing we are looking forward to. It is challenging with the teams we will face, but also giving the best that we can do.”
Bluefield College made the move this year to the Mid-South, which is simply one of top NAIA leagues in sports in America. The Rams have made an impact too.
True, the high profile football team is 0-8, but that isn’t all that unusual for a first year program that stocked with mostly freshmen. Three MSC teams are ranked among the top 20 in the NAIA national poll, including No. 2 Georgetown.
Yet, there are other sports you don’t hear as much about and they’re hanging in with the change in competition. Not everyone makes the postseason tournament in the MSC, but both Bluefield soccer teams and the volleyball team appear destined to play on, and this league has teams ranked at or near the top in national rankings in all those sports.
There was little doubt the step up to the Mid-South was going to be steep in all sports for Bluefield, which is the third smallest school among the 16 that comprise the league, 11 of which are full members and five who are associate members.
Yet, the Bluefield coaches aren’t complaining. Neither are the players. Tequila (Teqa) McNeal was an NCCAA honorable mention All-America honoree last season and expects the Lady Rams to hold their own with the step up in competition.
McNeal certainly isn’t concerned about a preseason poll that gives them little hope ahead.
“I am not too worried about it, I kind of figured that would happen because they don’t know a lot about us or the new people that are coming in so I kind of figured it,” McNeal said. “I am not really worried about it, numbers don’t mean much. We are going to go out and play hard and we are going to upset people for a fact so we will be all right.”
Always an optimist, Baker feels much the same about the Lady Rams, whose primary concern is the lack of size. The MSC had six teams qualify for national tournament play last season.
“This year we are very excited to be in the Mid-South Conference, we know we are going to be challenged every game,” Baker said. “We just got done with a conference meeting with all the coaches and just gave a little highlight of what we have as far as in our arsenal with each team this year and we are up against the best.
“The beauty of that I will know coming into the conference that if we make it to nationals or however we do, we will deserve to be there. In order to be the best you have to play the best and the Mid-South Conference is one of the best conferences in the nation on the women’s basketball side.”
The same goes for Morgan, whose Rams can score, but have also allowed lots of points in the past. He knows that must change this season with a lineup led by Byron Carpenter, who was the AAC Player of the Year last season, and super-fast guards Kearsten Marion and Andrew Wilson.
“We knew it was going to be tough coming into this league, four teams in this league are in the top 25 in the country, but we are not going to say that is okay,” Morgan said. “If that is okay then we need to find some guys that it is not okay with.
“We are going to come out and we are going to compete and play hard..We can score with anyone, but we just couldn’t defend and that is an area we have worked on in the preseason and hopefully we can come in and make a splash.”
The Bluefield men opens their regular season men’s slate on Nov. 3 with Lynchburg, followed by Bluefield State on Nov. 7. The women will host Virginia Intermont on Nov. 2, and will host the Blues on Nov. 7. MSC play begins for both teams in the Dome with powerful Georgetown on Nov. 15.
The Bluefield men will travel to Marshall on Monday for an exhibition with the Thundering Herd, and also have another exhibition in December with North Carolina-Asheville, which played in the NCAA Tournament last season. The Lady Rams have exhibitions slated with Big South Conference clubs from Radford and High Point.
“I am very excited about the season,” McNeal said. “We are under the radar so I think it will be fun to come in and get some upsets, which I am sure we will because we are a hard working team.
“I am a little nervous about the size thing, but we play hard so I am sure we will be okay, I am ready.”
So is Morgan. He’s anxious to prove some folks wrong.
“We tip it off here soon and we will see what we have got,” Morgan said. “I am really looking forward to the season just to see where we end because it is not going to be where we are right now.”
—Brian Woodson is the sports editor for the Daily Telegraph. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org