HICKORY, N.C. — After one of its most successful seasons in program history, the Catawba Valley Community College men's basketball team starts what it hopes will be a run to its first-ever NJCAA DII National tournament on Monday during the opening round of the Region X tournament.
The fifth-seeded Red Hawks (21-8, 13-7 in Region X) face 12th-seeded Vance Granville (5-23, 1-19) during the tournament's play-in round Monday at 7 p.m. at the Tarlton Complex.
Coming off the heels of a five-game winning streak, CVCC head men's basketball coach Bryan Garmroth likes where his team is at heading into postseason play.
"I think we've improved a lot from the beginning," Garmroth said. "We spend a lot of time on fundamentals early. I think we've improved, grown together and like each other really well and enjoy playing together. It's been a good season. It certainly could have been a better season, but we'll take it. I think right now we're in a position where we've got really good chemistry, and I think we've got everyone wanting the same goal."
Monday's tournament game will mark the first time that the Red Hawks have been at 100 percent full strength this season with at least one player being hurt or sick during each of the 29 games played so far this winter.
"It's a challenge because you try to get a rotation and learn your rotations," Garmroth said. "The players have done a great job. Guys have stepped up when people have been out. It's like we didn't miss a beat. People have really stepped up. Now that we do have everybody back, hopefully we can stay healthy. We need the depth. It's great to have the depth. The key is going to be how we use the rotation, play everybody and how we're going to keep the organization of what we're doing going. The biggest thing that helps us there is we have a really, really unselfish team."
Garmroth believes his team's absences have helped to make it a more well-rounded squad.
"I think any time you've got balanced scoring and you don't have one or two guys you are depending on or one guy averaging 19, 20 or 25 points a game then you're harder to guard and harder to prepare for," he said. "We've had guys step up. We go to Louisburg, and (freshman guard) Cole (Johnson) hits nine 3-pointers. It's kind of been that way all year where different people have stepped up, made plays and contributed. I think we would be a hard team to scout and prepare for because we have good depth and are very balanced."
Perhaps the biggest return to the court on Monday will be sophomore forward Isayah Johnson, who rejoins the Red Hawks after suffering a foot injury during the late stages of the season.
Garmroth believes Johnson's presence greatly impacts CVCC's line up.
"(Johnson's return) gives us more depth in the post and gives us more flexibility to put someone like (freshman) Jahleer (Black) back out where he can play the perimeter or he can play the post," Garmroth said. "Depth is huge. We've just got to be wise in using it and how we're rotating people. That's something you try to figure out early and knowing your rotations, but ours have been different every game because of the flu and injuries. I think it goes back to having a special team chemistry with a lot of unselfishness."
Garmroth learned a lot about his CVCC men's basketball team during its month-long, six-game road trip, which started towards the end of January and finished near the end of February.
"I thought realistically we might win four or five of them, but when you lose the first three games and you come back to win the next three and finish that six-game road trip at .500, I think that shows some toughness and resiliency for these guys," Garmroth said. "That led to us winning five in a row. Beating Fayetteville Tech and Patrick Henry to close the season — I went into those games anticipating winning, but I did not anticipate we would control the games as well as we did. Those games weren't really close, and those are two very talented teams."
If the Red Hawks hope to advance in the Region X tournament, they'll need to knock off a Vance Granville squad that Garmroth says can't be underestimated despite its five-win record.
"Vance Granville can't be overlooked," he said. "They have six talented players. The only thing that has hurt them this year is that they only have six talented players, but those six players are good. They've got some guys who can score a lot of points. The two games that we've played against them, we have not been able to stay in front of some of their guys because of their quickness. They get to the rim, get in the lane and kick the ball out to their good shooters. They are a good team and a well-coached team."
Garmroth believes winning on Monday all starts with his team focusing on itself.
"We've got to get better," he said. "We've got to be able to stop their penetration. We've got to be on the shooters on the catch. We've got to play our style and hope that maybe we can wear them down. Vance Granville is coming off its first win in the league so I think that gives them some confidence. If you look, they've been in games. They've lost to the top teams in our conference in what were close games until the last five or six minutes. You've got to be ready for them."
With a win on Monday, the 2018-19 CVCC men's basketball team would move into second on the all-time mark for wins in a single season (22) and be one win away from tying the record (23).
Garmroth hasn't thought about any potential records and tries to keep his player's focus on one goal.
"I just want to win the next game," he said. "At the end of the year, we'll tally them up and how ever many (wins) we come out to we come out to. I'm not thinking ahead. I'm thinking about Vance Granville and doing what we can do. If that gets us win No. 22 that's great. Then we'll go try to win game No. 23. If we can tie or break that record, the only thing that means is that we are still winning. I'm not worried about what's been done in the past. That takes care of itself if we just take care of each game."
If victorious against the Vanguards, the Red Hawks would face a second-round match up with fourth-seeded Wake Tech — the host school for this year's Region X men's basketball tournament — on its own court.
Despite that potential match-up looming in the future, Garmroth continues to remain focused on Monday's first-round game.
"We just have to keep reminding our players that we don't play Wake Tech if we don't beat Vance Granville," Garmroth said. "It's not about who we are playing. It's about us. We've looked at the things we've done poorly. We've won 21 games, but we went through 45 minutes of video on things we aren't doing well fundamentally. We have to focus on ourselves more than we do our opponent."