Eagles Hope To Finish Better Than Predicted
BRIDGEWATER — In April, Bridgewater College basketball coach Don Burgess and assistant coach Alvin Green took a trip to the Final Four in Atlanta. They made the ritual rounds, attending conferences for Division III coaches and networking with peers.
One interaction still sticks with Burgess almost seven months later.
He talked with Grinnell College coach David Arseneault — the creator of the Grinnell System, a run-and-gun style of basketball that relies on shooting 3-pointers and applying a full-court press the entire game — and came away with two keys for success.
“No. 1 was upperclassmen and No. 2 if they stay healthy,” Burgess said this week in his office.
Burgess’ problem in recent years has been with the second part of that formula.
Several promising seasons have been derailed by injuries — notably to leading scorer Cody Griffith (foot) and talented sophomore Daniel McClain (knee) in 2011 — but the Eagles are hoping to put that bad karma behind them this winter.
As Burgess enters his sixth season as the Eagles’ coach, his record remains well below .500: 50-81, including a 10-16 record last season that would have been 14-16 had one of his players not lied, according to BC, about being enrolled for the spring semester, making the team ineligible for four wins.
The Eagles were then bounced in the first round of the Old Dominion Athletic Conference tournament by Roanoke, the third straight season BC failed to advance to the Salem Civic Center for the later rounds of the conference tournament.
“One of our plans is, we haven’t been to Salem since I’ve been here and our first goal is to make it to Salem,” junior forward Ed Reddick said. “We think we can make a run in the tournament and possibly win the ODAC. Hopefully make it to the NCAA tournament.”
League coaches don’t share that optimism, picking the Eagles in a tie for No. 8 in the ODAC’s preseason poll. But while Reddick’s goal of an NCAA tournament appearance might sound lofty, consider this: the Eagles graduated only one senior (forward Bryan Lynch) and return 95 percent of their scoring from a year ago.
Reddick – a third-team All-ODAC pick as a sophomore – averaged 11.7 points and 6.3 rebounds per game while scoring 20-plus points three times.
“On paper, it looks great,” Burgess said of his team’s promising lineup. “It’s not a rocket science thing, everybody recruits and we feel like we have talented kids in house; we just haven’t been able to stay healthy. If we stay healthy, who knows?”
Burgess knows exactly what a healthy veteran team can accomplish. He was part of a couple during his playing days at Radford in the early 1990’s. During his time at Radford, the Highlanders were 48-4 at home, including their only undefeated home season since going Division I in 1984-85.
Recently inducted into the Radford Hall of Fame, Burgess finished his career second on the Radford scoring list (he has since been passed, currently ranking sixth).
Being chosen for the Hall was an emotional experience for the Harrisonburg High School graduate.
“I was just surprised, humbled, it was a lot of mixed emotions because I knew how much hard work not only myself but also my teammates had put in,” said Burgess, who said he teared up when a tribute video was played at the ceremony.
His success as a player opened doors for him as an assistant. In 13 years as a Division I assistant at Central Florida, Coastal Carolina, VMI and High Point, he developed a reputation for being a top recruiter. He said other opportunities were there for Division III jobs, but Bridgewater was unique.
Burgess grew up watching Harrisonburg and NBA legend Ralph Sampson while growing up on Kelly Street in the Northeast section of town. He was inducted into the HHS Hall of Fame in 2011 and still hears the familiar “Don Don” nickname thrown around when he runs errands.
“It’s just the competitive juices in me and I put pressure on myself, because I want to be even more successful because I’m back home,” Burgess said. “It’s just taking a little more time than anticipated just in regard to the quality of talent that the ODAC has, and, two, just us being snake- bitten with injuries.”
McClain, now a senior, has battled back from a torn ACL and has high hopes for the Eagles this season.
“Our sophomore year, we won seven games, and last year we won 14,” McClain said. “I want to keep rising with that and I want 20 wins.”
The Eagles play Division I High Point today in an exhibition, with the season opener scheduled for Nov. 20 at Division I VMI.
“I think we can be pretty good. I’m so excited,” Burgess said. “It’s always in the back of [the team’s] mind; the monkey on your back is, ‘What about the injuries, who’s going to go down?’ You have to have a little bit of luck.”