ELYRIA — A year ago, the Lorain County Community College men’s basketball program was riding high after qualifying for the National Junior College Athletic Association Tournament for the first time since the program returned in the late 1990s.
Today there’s not even a season left to play, let alone a postseason.
Not after the team’s coach, Michael Cruz, suddenly resigned and the school decided to cancel the remaining games due to a lack eligible players.
Cruz, a 2004 Lorain Catholic grad, resigned as Commodores coach in early December just three games into the season. His assistant coaches, including fellow LC grads Tim Kiedrowski and Brandon Neal, all resigned on the same day.
LCCC quickly and quietly hired Marty Eggleston, a former All-American at Kutztown (Pa.) University and an 11-year professional player in Europe, as the new coach. However, shortly after the hire, the decision was made to cancel the rest of the season.
News of the cancellation and coaching change came to light when WEOL-AM 930 put in a request to broadcast four of the school’s remaining home games only to be denied by LCCC assistant athletic director Katie Marquard.
“Unfortunately, we will not be holding the men’s basketball games on January 10, 21, 28 or February 9,” Marquard replied in an email. “We made the difficult decision to cancel the rest of our Men’s Basketball season. We had some issues with the team that caused us to be unable to field a team this season. The good news is we just hired an outstanding coach that we are really excited about and are looking forward to next season for the men’s team.”
No one in the LCCC athletic department, including athletic director Lisa Augustine, would say just what transpired over the last month with the men’s program, instead referring all questions to Tracy Green, LCCC’s Vice President for Strategic and Institutional Development.
“From semester to semester, students have to maintain a minimum GPA and credit hours to stay on an athletic team,” Green said. “Going from fall semester to spring, we did not have enough men’s basketball players eligible to return. So we made the difficult decision to cancel the rest of our regular-season games.
“With Coach Cruz’s resignation and the subsequent hiring of Coach Eggleston, we’re really encouraged for next year. We should have a fully functioning team by next year with a new coach, coaching staff and players and be fully on board.”
Students need to have at least 12 credit hours per semester (fall and spring) to be a full-time student at LCCC and all athletes must be full-time students. Also, athletes coming directly from high school have to maintain a 1.75 GPA in their first year to maintain their eligibility. Athletes transferring from other colleges and second-year LCCC athletes have to maintain a 2.0.
According to Green, only “four or five” men’s basketball players were academically eligible for the spring semester.
“It was pretty much an automatic decision when we found out we wouldn’t have enough players,” Green said. “It was before the holidays, so it was a recent decision. A decision doesn’t actually have to be made if there are not enough players, so the decision actually made itself without enough players coming back.”
LCCC did not give an official reason for Cruz’s resignation, saying only that it was for personal reasons. Through Green, the school said even if Cruz had given a reason, LCCC would not release it to the public unless Cruz gave his consent.
Cruz said he resigned to pursue other coaching opportunities.
“I voluntarily resigned,” he said. “I’m not really sure what happened after my resignation that caused them to cancel the season. I honestly have no idea what took place after I left. I just made a personal decision that it was best for me to move forward. I guess they were unable to find a coach. I can’t really comment after that point.
“I can’t speak for the school. For me, the college wasn’t the right fit anymore. I felt it was best for me to resign and pursue other opportunities. After one year, it was pretty clear to me and my staff it was best to move on and pursue other things.”
Cruz said his resignation had nothing to do with player eligibility issues or an impending cancelation of the season.
“When I resigned, our guys were doing well in school,” he said. “I can’t speak for what happened after I left. When I resigned, it had nothing to do with not having players. Last year, our guys did very well in the classroom.
“I don’t really don’t know much about what happened after I left and what caused them to cancel the season. There was also a lot of time left in semester (after I resigned), but we monitored their academics very closely. We had the most success pertaining to student athletes in the classroom in my first year as head coach.”
LCCC went 20-12 under Cruz, 19-10 last season. He took the team to the NJCAA Tournament in his first season, where the Commodores lost in the first round.
“I was definitely disappointed for our kids,” Cruz said. “Hopefully, everything will work out for the kids to get their year of eligibility back so they can have that extra year to play. Officially, I just felt like there were better opportunities for me elsewhere. I’d like to thank LCCC for the opportunity. We had really good kids. It really just came down to me feeling that it was time to move on.”
Eggleston, who recently moved to Lorain County with his new wife, former Elyria West basketball star Lanette Taylor, had been using LCCC’s gym to work out when he found out about the sudden opening. He has coached basketball “from peewees to pros” since 1995, he said, and was most recently the coach and regional director of the American Basketball Academy in Pennsylvania.
Eggleston said he would have coached the team for the remainder of the season, but found out early on there wasn’t going to be any season left.
“I just said, ‘Oh, well, too bad,’” he said. “It’s a shame, really. It’s not something that you would expect, but it’s happened. I have intentionally distanced myself from all of that. I don’t know Coach Cruz. I never met him or his staff. I know basketball.
“What I do know is that basketball was here before all of us, and when we’re all gone, it will still be here. So it’s up to us what type of mark we leave. I can say that that’s just our responsibility to leave a positive mark, and that’s what I plan to do.”
Attempts to reach LCCC players were unsuccessful. Green said any of the remaining players were welcome to return to the team, as were the ineligible players if they can regain their eligibility. However, she did say Eggleston has control over the roster.
Eggleston has hired a top assistant coach and he’s already started scouting some of the area talent. He plans on recruiting heavily within Lorain County and the immediate surrounding areas.
“Because the season has been cancelled, I have the opportunity to start fresh — push the reset button, as it were — and get ready to roll for the beginning of the 2013-14 season,” Eggleston said. “We’re obviously going to have tryouts when that time rolls around. What I’m looking for are players who are eligible and capable to play. When I say eligible, I don’t mean by the skin of your teeth.
Eggleston is excited about the future of Commodores basketball.
“I’ll be honest and say that I don’t see this as a challenge, I see this as an opportunity,” he said. “My goal is to get these young men that I’ll be responsible for in the same mindset, so they see it as an opportunity as well. Because if they see it as an opportunity, you can go on and on. Challenges imply that there’s going to be bumps in the road and you’re going to be held up and stopped.
“I want to create those opportunities for these young people, because as adults, it’s our responsibility and our duty to create experiences for the next generation. I’m here to create an experience for these guys, and, man, wait till they get a load of me.”
Contact Dan Gilles at 329-7135 or firstname.lastname@example.org.