Wednesday, February 09, 2011

SPORTS >> Rare gems in new setting

Leader sportswriter

Three of Lonoke’s brightest stars from the recent past now sparkle for the Pulaski Technical College Diamonds and head coach Dalton Lemelle.

Former Jackrabbit standouts Tyrone Dobbins, Lance Jackson and Clarence Harris bring contrasting life stories and personalities from their small community to the start-up Pulaski Tech team.

Dobbins, the basketball player, Jackson, the football player and Harris, who excelled at both, missed opportunities with other schools but are making the most of their chances in the first year of Lemelle’s program.

“It’s a basketball club instead of a full-fledged team,” Lemelle said. “Each student has to maintain a 2.7 grade-point average along with 10 cultural events and social skills workshops the college puts on.”

Lemelle works at Pulaski Tech as a college seminar instructor and student success coach. A retired Air Force officer with 20 years service, Lemelle is no stranger to upstart basketball programs after being a volunteer and assistant under Charles Ripley at Arkansas Baptist College when that program was being put together.

Lemelle was also a social development director at Job Corps of Arkansas prior to joining the Pulaski Tech faculty.

Lemelle put the basketball program together over the summer, placing emphasis on social skills and academics in an effort to prepare students for a transfer to a four-year college.

“We did the coach Carter route — each guy had to sign a contract in order to participate,” Lemelle said
Practices and games are held at Shorter College in North Little Rock, and funding comes from various sources, including the school, students, and Lemelle himself. The Diamonds (8-16) have already had their share of successes, and a few heartbreakers.

“I feel that we’ve exceeded everyone’s expectations including our own expectations,” Lemelle said. “We’ve been told by a few of the senior coaches in the area that we wouldn’t win four games all year based on the toughness of our schedule.”

Lemelle motivates the squad with some of the no-nonsense bravado he brought from his time in the Air Force. All sixteen players maintained the required 2.7 GPA through the fall semester and the team’s average GPA is at 3.39.

Five new players were added for the spring, and there are other local connections in Cabot’s Drew Webb and a fourth Lonoke player, Adrian Martin.

Martin, 6-8, served as the Diamonds’ starting post until a knee injury last month took him out for the season. Martin underwent surgery Wednesday.

Webb is the Diamonds’ lanky post player with a surprisingly good outside touch and had previously attended ASU-Beebe. He was playing in the Cabot men’s league when Lemelle recruited him.

Webb sat out for a year, but will graduate with an Associate of the Arts degree in May.

“Each guy on the squad has baggage,” Lemelle said. “One time or another, they either went away but came back due to whatever reason. So we’re setting the grade-point standards real high.

“If they really want to play and have a chance at somebody else’s college, coaches will be more willing to take a chance knowing that a student is actually a structured student in the classroom.”

The Leader

It all began with a call from Lemelle to Dobbins, leader of the group hampered by a knee injury his senior year of high school track which cost Dobbins potential college opportunities. Dobbins graduated from Lonoke in 2008 after being a team captain on the 4A state championship basketball team under head coach Wes Swift earlier that spring.

Dobbins was revered as one of the best high jumpers in the state, and had his sights set on a major scholarship for track and field before succumbing to his injury.

Academics and eligibility were never an issue with Dobbins, one of the most popular students at Lonoke.

“It hurt my feelings, really,” Dobbins said of his high-school injury. “I’m just going to school and continuing to do well. That’s my motive.”

Dobbins once again finds himself in the role of team captain, and averages 18.5 points, two rebounds and two steals per game for the Diamonds. Lemelle believes Dobbins has recovered from his injury with even more maturity.

“I feel that because of that, it’s made him a better person and better player, because he doesn’t take anything for granted,” Lemelle said. “Everything he does, he does it to the best of his ability. Especially playing basketball now, which I don’t really think he thought he would have that opportunity to play college basketball.

“Now that he’s doing it, his grades have skyrocketed through the roof.”

Through 24 games, Dobbins has been more of a scorer than in high school, where he was known as a defensive specialist under Swift.

“He was a good vocal leader, and by example, for that matter,” said Swift, now at Jonesboro. “He always practiced hard. Tyrone was a little better on defense than he was offense back then. He was always in good spirits, and always ready to go.”

Dobbins is drawing heavy interest in basketball and track from Southwestern University in Hobbs, N.M. His knee is no longer an issue and does not affect his performance on the court or at the track.

But for now, he is having fun on the community college hardwood with some old teammates.

“It’s fun, because we have the chemistry already there,” Dobbins said.

The Quiet Enforcer

Jackson was a role player on Lonoke’s state championship team. His claim to fame was as an all-conference defensive back in football and he also ran track.

Jackson stays true to his gridiron roots as the Diamonds’ pass defense specialist. He plays off the opponent inside the half-court line and pounces on the attempted pass as opponents try to break the Diamonds’ press.

Jackson catches foes off guard with his speed and is often on his way to an assist at the top of the key before they can change direction.

“The way we use Lance is just like a safety in football,” Lemelle said. “With his speed, we’ve incorporated a full-court press trap now, and Lance is our back man. Right now, he’s averaging seven steals a game. Of course, he’s a football player, but he’s also an athlete.”

Though Jackson is never as vocal as Dobbins, Swift said he was a positive presence who could defuse potentially bad situations.

“Lance probably matured as much as any player I’ve ever coached,” Swift said. “From the time he was a freshman to his senior year — just the way he went about things. By the time he was a senior he led by example.

“When things got out of hand, Lance had a calming influence. In his own way, he was a good leader from a maturity standpoint.”

Dobbins and Jackson could potentially attend their third school together, this time at Southwestern, which is interested in Jackson as a sprinter.

“I tried to transfer to another junior college, but it didn’t work out,” Jackson said. “Tyrone ended up telling me about this and I came here. I like it; it’s basically like having a second chance.” 

The Wild Child

Harris, easily the most athletically gifted of the Lonoke trio, was a three-year starter on Jeff Jones’ football team and a two-year starter for Swift. He was a guard in basketball, while Jones used Harris everywhere from receiver to running back to quarterback.

But with the talent also came a penchant for mischief, and Harris was frequently sitting out games for one incident or another.

“His athleticism is not the question,” Lemelle said. “Character and those types of things — developing a young man, and that’s what we focused on with him. Not just him, but the whole squad.”

Harris graduated a year after Dobbins and Jackson in 2009. He was heavily recruited by major NCAA Division I football programs until word spread of his grades and shenanigans. He signed with Arkansas-Pine Bluff but had to redshirt because of his academics. He ended up out of college altogether until getting another shot at Pulaski Tech.

“I guess I decided to do basketball,” Harris said. “I feel like basketball is easier to get back into than football. It’s just that transition right there.”

Swift remembers Harris’ athleticism, and his knack for running with the wrong crowd.

“Clarence was probably the most talented as far as from a God-given standpoint,” Swift said. “He got so much press in football, he didn’t focus on basketball as much. If he switches his focus to basketball, he could be a really good player.

“Clarence is going to have to clean up his personal life. There’s a saying that you have to get the wrong people out of your life in order to do the right things, and I’m not sure that doesn’t apply to Clarence.”

Despite being new to the program, Harris gets quality minutes off the bench. With a second chance to right some of his wrongs from the past, Harris said he enjoys being reconnected with Dobbins and Jackson.

 “When we won our state championship, that’s what got us connected in all this,” Harris said. “It’s like we’re little again.”