What a merry season it has been for Tony Ingle and his Dalton State College Roadrunners.
Pausing on Christmas Eve to reflect on the 14-1 start of the school's first men's basketball team in 34 years -- and it was a junior college back then -- Ingle said, "I really had no clue we would do this well. We're a basket away from being 15-0. We've been so blessed, so fortunate.
"Someone said we have the most wins of any college basketball team in the country. It's insane," added the former Dalton Junior College guard from Dalton who helped Mel Ottinger's old Roadrunners make two of their national-tournament trips.
Ingle, who built Kennesaw State from virtually nothing into an NCAA Division II national champion and then guided it into Division I, previously began the juco basketball program at Gordon College. He has been the Georgia coach of the year at the high school, junior college and Division II levels and now has the most wins of any NAIA Division I men's coach for the 2013-14 season. Before his 11 years at Kennesaw State, he was on Brigham Young's staff for five Division I national tournaments and an NIT appearance -- and eventually the Cougars' interim head coach -- and he worked with the NBA's Utah Jazz.
Ingle spent a year putting the inaugural Dalton State team together, and his plan included having seniors and juniors as well as young players to build on -- to help be competitive from the start and to get immediately into a recruiting rotation. Junior and senior transfers lead the Roadrunners, who quickly developed the chemistry that has enabled them to be effective in close games.
Their loss was 89-87 at Tennessee Wesleyan, on a sequence in the last four seconds in which a DJC shot was blocked and a great pass and bank shot got the Bulldogs the deciding basket, but nine of Dalton State's 14 wins have been by eight or fewer points -- two in overtime. Ingle's brand-new team won its first three games by three, six and two points -- all on the road.
"Hubie Brown has said the notoriety of a team and a coach is determined by the last two minutes of play, and even though we've had to practice without a shot clock and a game clock, we did have a heart," Ingle said. "I'm so proud of these players. They're really striving to do what we ask them to do, and they don't quit."
While their home games are the Northwest Georgia Trade and Convention Center near campus, the Roadrunners have been hampered by renovations to the school's old gym. They didn't practice there until Dec. 7, Ingle pointed out, and otherwise they've practiced at three area high schools, a middle school, recreation centers and a church.
"These are college kids and they don't have gas money to start with, but they've been traveling all over Dalton and adjusted to practicing at crazy different times," Ingle said.
Ricky Sears is Dalton State's leading scorer with 16.7 points a game. He's a 6-foot-2 senior guard who followed assistant coach John Redman from Spring Hill College, which incidentally was the Roadrunners' first victim. Having played for two Alabama junior colleges, Sears is in his fourth college program.
Preston Earle, a 6-4 junior from North Carolina, averages 14.3 points, and 6-4 senior Demetrice Jacobs from Harlem, N.Y., by way of Northwestern State University in Louisiana, averages 13.8 points and 8.9 rebounds. Sean Tate is a 5-8, 140-pound junior point guard from Brooklyn and Chattahoochee Tech who's averaging 11.1 points. And Ingle expects soon to have 6-10 Ladaris Green available; he played for Ingle at Kennesaw and has three semesters of NAIA eligibility remaining, using one this year.
The Roadrunners get back in action Dec. 30 in an exhibition at Austin Peay and then will be home for NAIA contests against Reinhardt, Faulkner and Spring Hill on Jan. 2, 4 and 6. The trade center seats 1,950 for DSC games and had more than that for the home opener against Hiwassee, and the usual home crowds have been 1,250 to 1,550, according to sports information director Bob Beavers.
"Everybody in town's excited," Beavers said.
Ingle, who gets retirement pay from the state of Georgia and therefore has been an even better bargain for DSC because of the maximum the school is allowed to pay him, admittedly loves acronyms and mixes them with his strong spiritual beliefs.
"I see 'PUSH' on a door and I think, 'Pray Until Something Happens,'" said Ingle, who is well-known as a motivational speaker and author. "FAITH is 'Finding Answers In The Heart.' I also like to use HELP: 'Happy, Enthusiastic, Loving, Positive.' That's what I try to be. Adversity reveals a man to himself. It can either make him bitter or make him better, and I won't allow bitter.
"A coach is a carrier, and I teach love, I share love, I give love and I coach with love. I look at the heart, mind and soul of a kid and try to help him give his best to improve himself. I believe true leaders have vision and persuasion, and I feel they make everywhere they serve better because they've been there.
"I'm very thankful for what we've done so far in this basketball program," he added, noting the work of his assistants, the players buying in, the support from athletic director Derek Waugh, the school and the community, "but we know we've got more to do and struggles to come. We're just getting started."
Contact Ron Bush at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6291.