Friday, July 22, 2011

SPORTS>>Persistence leads to scholarships

Leader sports editor

Second chances don’t come around for every athlete that missed out on, or even blew, their first opportunity. And when a second-chance door is opened, it takes unique courage sometimes just to walk through it. It’s unusual when a whole slew of young men find themselves with a sudden, unexpected, even lucky, opportunity to get a college education.

That’s what has happened with the Pulaski Tech Diamonds club basketball team. Nine members of the 14-man team made the most of such an opportunity, and parlayed an invitation to play for the club, which also required enrolling in college and maintaining a 2.5 GPA, into scholarship offers to schools with real athletics programs.

Six teammates, including Lonoke’s Tyrone Dobbins, Sylvan Hills’ Ulysses Robinson and Christian Wallace, Josh Warren and Michael Jackson of North Little Rock and Mark Robertson of Little Rock Central, signed with the University of Southwest in Hobbs, N.M. Lance Jackson, a football standout at Lonoke, signed a football scholarship with Dakota College in Bottineau, N.D. Cedrick Williams of Oak Grove signed with Central Baptist College in Conway. Drew Webb of Cabot signed a basketball scholarship to East Baptist University in Marshall, Texas.

The coach, Dalton Lemelle, a retired Air Force officer with 20 years service, led a grant program aimed at recruiting and increasing retention of African American males.

He chose basketball as a route to achieve that goal, but he didn’t limit it to inner-city urban players.

The group consisted of seven black men and seven white men, and they began playing as a team at the Cabot Recreation Center in Cabot’s rec league.

“One of the things I noticed was the guys were not culturally diverse,” Lemelle said. “A lot of

the teams around here were all white or all black. I felt the team should be diverse and they should play in an environment they weren’t all that accustomed to.

“I felt that if we caused any behavior problems in the Cabot league, then forming the basketball club and traveling to diverse areas to play wouldn’t work.”

Lemelle said Joe Ferguson, the sports director for Cabot Parks and Rec, was instrumental in helping get the program off the ground.

“He gave us the opportunity to play in a diverse environment, which proved crucial in starting up the club,” Lemelle said.

Ulysses Robinson, who Lamelle says is the “leader of this group,” helped Lemelle get the team going.

“He recruited a lot of these guys for me,” Lemelle said. “He brought ‘em to me, I gave ‘em a tryout and they just proved he had a good eye. He brought me guys that could play.”

Robinson, 23, has 55 hours of credits and has grown into a leader on and off the court. He dazzled spectators with his ball handling as far back as eighth grade at Jacksonville Junior High. He continued to dazzle on the court as a three-year starter at point guard for Sylvan Hills, but wasn’t always so impressive off the court.

“He got into some situations in high school, an incident here and there, he shouldn’t have been in, and that got a lot of the attention from colleges off him,” Lemelle said.

Now, Lemelle says Robinson has grown. As a young man given a second chance, he’s done the work and shown the maturity to be a major success.

“Since he’s been through the fire, I would not bet against this kid,” Lemelle said of Robinson. His ability, his leadership, is going to make Southwest very happy. As a matter of fact, I’d say in two years, he might be playing pro ball.”

Dobbins, the other leader, was a track field standout who was drawing attention for his school-record high jumping at Lonoke. He was also a captain and a defensive specialist on Lonoke’s 2008 state championship basketball team, but fell victim to a knee injury.

After that, the college attention went away, but he’s made the most of his second chance.

“He (Lemelle) gave me a tryout and I just tried to do my best,” Dobbins said. His high-school coach, Wes Swift who is now at Jonesboro High, said Dobbins had the best post moves of anyone he’s ever coached. Problem was, he was only 5-10. Great post moves are useful as a high-school guard, but not a lot of colleges are looking for 5-10 post players.

So Dobbins transformed his game, and became the leading scorer for Pulaski Tech, averaging 19 points per game, without going down low.

“I don’t think I posted up one time this year,” Dobbins said.

Dobbins will also be on the track team at Southwest. His LHS record jump of 6-8 is already good enough to place and score in Southwest’s conference, and he accomplished that feat on raw ability.

“He basically did that in high school without any real coaching,” Lemelle said. “There are things they’re going to be able to teach him in college that’s only going to make him better.

Drew Webb, a 2005 graduate of Cabot High School, made his way to the team by chance. Lemelle spotted him playing for another rec team at Cabot, and offered him a spot on his roster.

“I just talked to him about coming to play for us and he said he’d like to,” Lemelle said. “Then when we got him in there and started working on getting him set up in classes, we found out he was only about 12 hours away from an associate degree.”

“I took classes off and on at ASU-Beebe when I could,” Webb said. “But I also had to work and earn some money, so it was kinda tough making a lot of progress.”

Webb was noticed in a tournament in Shreveport. The Shreveport coach didn’t have a spot available, but he was so impressed with Webb, he told his friend at East Baptist about him. After taking a look, the school came through with an offer.

Webb, now 6-6, was only 6-2 in high school. He was a starter his senior year, but wasn’t a standout and got no scholarship offers, although he’s always felt he was pretty good.

“I knew I could play at the college level,” Webb said. “I’m just glad the chance came along for me to prove it.”

Christian Wallace, a point guard, played his high-school career at Sylvan Hills as a solid, but often unnoticed, player with Robinson drawing most of the attention.

He also missed his senior year with injuries, but was noticed by Lemelle playing pickup games on the Little Rock Air Force Base.

“(Ulysses) told me about him and I saw him out there,” Lemelle said. “He’s worked hard in the classroom and has gotten better and better on the court. It was obvious he had the ability on the court, and he’s stepped up in the other areas and really earned the opportunity he now has.”

Lance Jackson is making the biggest leap of all, all the way to North Dakota, where everything from the culture, to the weather, to the very sport he’ll be playing, is totally difference from what he experienced with the PTC Diamonds.

Jackson ran a 4.3 40-yard dash at a summer football camp, and got a scholarship out of high school to UA-Monticello. Several factors, some beyond his control, some not, played into the loss of that opportunity.

His offer from Dakota College came through connections with Lemelle, who spent time in that state during his Air Force career. The Dakota coach asked for film of Jackson, and didn’t take long to make an offer.

“I haven’t even been there yet,” Jackson said. “I just know I’m happy about the opportunity.”

Running the PTC program wasn’t a one-man job either. Lemelle expressed much gratitude to Ferguson, as well as Dr. Catherine Mitchell of Shorter College, and Pastor Eugene Udell. Mtichell opened up Shorter’s gymnasium to the team for practices and home games.
Udell was instrumental in helping Lemelle get the program off the ground.

“It’s been a real joy to be a part of this club and see these young men work hard and achieve,” Lemelle said. “It’s always going to be a wonderful memory.”