By Bob Kelley, retired RLC Sports Information Director and 2012 Hall of Fame inductee
INA, Ill. (April 15, 2019) - Pay close attention, aspiring coaches and friends of the Rend Lake College Men’s Basketball program.
The self-deprecating mastermind behind the 2012-13 National Junior College Athletic Association Division II National Champions is about to explain how he alone tediously pieced together a group of individuals who would combine to go 30-3 overall, amassing a convincing Great Rivers Athletic Conference crown along the way.
The tell-all from Randy House, ahead of the team’s induction Saturday, April 20, into the RLC Sports Hall of Fame following the mandatory five-year waiting period before becoming eligible for election . . .
•NJCAA D-II Second-Team All-America honoree Cortez Macklin, a 6-foot-3 guard from Louisville, ended up at RLC because he wanted to play with his Pleasure Ridge Park (PRP) High School teammate, Jeril Taylor. And because his prep mentor convinced House he would not be disappointed, even though Macklin had not left much of an impression on Warrior coaches when they watched him at a tryout.
•Local product Dawson Verhines (Woodlawn), a 6-3 sophomore playmaker, accepted an athletic grant-in-aid to play baseball at Rend Lake College.
•New Jersey prep star Noel Allen (Guttenberg / North Bergen H.S.) signed originally with Adelphi University, a National Collegiate Athletic Association D-II program in Garden City, NY. Allen was 6-5, 220, with 22.7-point, 15.2-rebound credentials as an All-Stater. But he injured his shoulder two games into his freshman season, took a medical redshirt and eventually transferred, making your typical move from Long Island to Ina, IL.
Allen capped his freshman campaign at RLC in 2011-12 with 14.1 ppg, 6.8 rpg and All-Region Second Team laurels.
•Bronson Verhines (Woodlawn) was not the typical college “big man” at 6-7, but he had played at rival Kaskaskia College in 2009-10 before deciding to attend Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville as a regular student. “When I learned he was leaving Kaskaskia, I begged him to come here,” recalled House, who inherited the Warrior reins from Athletic Director Tim Wills in 2010. “He said he didn’t want to play any more.”
Advance forward to 2012. “Coach, I want to play with (brother) Dawson one more time,” the older Verhines came calling. “I said, ‘No problem,’” recalled the man who once begged him to come. “Mom and Dad (Nancy and Rev. Don Verhines) were ecstatic.” Truth be told, if both big men House already had recruited had not signed unexpectedly that summer with four-year programs, it could have been a problem. Position overload.
•Before basketball season had even started, redshirt freshman point-guard Cory Ayala (Metropolis / Massac County H.S.) literally “hated” five of the newcomers, according to House. Louisville-area recruits Taylor, Macklin, 5-7 Trice Whaley (Jeffersonville, IN), 6-4 Montez Buford (Iroqouis H.S.) and 6-1 Stephon Bryant (Doss H.S.) routinely would team up in fall scrimmages and destroy all-comers. Ayala had waited a year for his opportunity and foresaw his playing time slipping away.
•A call regarding the availability of Montez Williams came about the time school was starting. The 6-7, 220-pounder from East St. Louis did not have a sterling prep career and was not the most focused of players. “He was one of those kids you could see had some talent but rarely utilized it,” House said.
•So there you have it. Now get this: The aforementioned, 6-4, 180-pound Taylor was the “man.” He was the athlete of the bunch. “Jeril was just a winner,” admitted House. “He had a will to win as much or more than anybody I ever coached, and all of his teammates would tell you the same thing.
“He was the best player on the planet . . . and yet he was our third player off the bench.” True story (third player off the bench, best player on the planet unverified).
Add to that mix a couple of sophomore holdovers from Campbell Hill / Trico H.S., guards Dennis Froemling and Jesse Smith, 6-5 Antoine Buchanon (Middleton, WI) and 6-4 Alonzo Singletary (Chicago / North Lawndale Prep).
“Unbelievable chemistry. Great kids who played for each other. The most unselfish kids I ever coached,” House explained the secret to their success.
“They were great kids. They liked to cut-up; I’m not saying they were angels, by any means, there were some bumps in the road. I may have had teams with more talent, but they were as close-knit as any group I ever had (in seven seasons).”
He cited the experience factor, also. Third-year sophomore Allen, outfielder-turned-fulltime cager Dawson Verhines and second-year freshman Ayala, plus Froemling and Smith, were exposed to the National Tournament the previous season. “And Bronson, who was 39 or 40 when he played here,” deadpanned House. “Those were mature kids. That was another big difference in us winning it all.”
Later, “It was quite an accomplishment by those kids, for sure. Their camaraderie . . . the cohesiveness . . . the way they got along on the floor . . . it was special. They liked to hang out together off the court, too, and best I can tell through social media, most of them have continued to keep up with each other.”
“My philosophy on coaching: You recruit well enough (not to mention getting lucky occasionally), they win in spite of the coach. My role was to make sure they got to the game safely and feed them well on the way home.”
These Warriors, circa ’12-13, set lofty goals and were flexible.
Thanks to ringleader Ayala – “he was instrumental in a lot of the things we did” – the team broke huddles at the beginning of early season games with all hands in and a common theme, “Conference champions!” Not “National champions!” but just as ambitiously, considering Rend Lake College was the only Great Rivers Athletic Conference team not able to recruit players by offering room-and-board financial assistance as the other eight Division I members could.
Ayala & Co. were 5-0 when they arrived at Lake Land College, one of two defending GRAC co-champs, but left Mattoon with a 68-65 setback. More than a month and a holiday break later, they were 8-1 overall before hosting Southwestern Illinois, getting thumped 79-62 and slipping to 1-2 in a league race they hoped to win.
“Hey, we don’t talk about that anymore,” House nixed the pre-game chant. “We’re not good enough to talk about being conference champions.”
By early February, the total number of wins had doubled, the GRAC record had improved to 8-2 and the Warriors were on the road, leading the No. 1 ranked D-II team in the country, non-conference rival Danville Area, 39-26 at halftime.
So much for the upset or a winning streak, let alone conference or national titles. Their confidence had to be destroyed as the Jaguars went on “a 23-0 run or so to start the second half. My assistant coaches (Tommy Holder, Ward McDaniel and Dana Morgan) were telling me I had to call a timeout, but I never called a timeout. Our players had to figure out for themselves what was going wrong with what they were doing, and they did,” House said of the eventual 66-62 setback.
Let the record show the Warriors benefited greatly from that learning experience. They refused to lose again.
Their simplified pre-tipoff mantra, “Win and go eat,” worked.
Let the record likewise show they won for a myriad of reasons.
While a balanced offense was averaging 80.6 points per game, the RLC defense was capable of holding four NJCAA National Championship foes (in Danville, by the way) to a composite .368 shooting from the field – Cecil College (MD) in a 98-75 loss; quarterfinal victim South Suburban in overtime, 85-83, when the would-be champs overcame a 22-point deficit; Owens C.C. (OH) in an 80-75 semifinal, and Moraine Valley in the finale, 87-69. It was the first time in D-II’s 28-year history same-state teams played for the title.
Sixteen of RLC’s 33 opponents were held to under 70 points, with an average defensive yield of 71.2 ppg. The Warrior “D” held foes to .398 shooting from the field.
Macklin and Bronson Verhines were the only players to average in double-figures at 13.4 and 10.2 points per game, respectively. No problem. Allen checked in with 9.8 ppg by making 50 percent of his field-goal attempts, followed by Taylor and Buford at 9.3 and 8.6, Dawson Verhines at 7.8 and Whaley (5.8), Ayala (5.5), Williams (5.1) and Bryant (3.5).
Ten different players led RLC in scoring, headed by Macklin 11 times, Allen and Bronson Verhines in six games each, Taylor in four and Buford in three. The only individuals to score 20 or more were Macklin (four games), Allen (twice), Buford (28 vs. Ivy Tech in a 100-86 win) and Dawson Verhines, who had reached double-digits just once before his incredible 26-point explosion (6-8 3FGs) in the 86-78 triumph over John Wood for the Region XXIV Tournament championship.
Rebound-wise, there were “old-man” Verhines at 8.5 (1.9 blocks per game) and Allen at 6.0, with seven others between 2.8-4.0. Even the 5-7 Whaley managed 1.9 rebounds per game. Assists came from Ayala (2.6), Whaley (2.4), “kid” Verhines (2.2) and Macklin (1.6).
They won by overcoming their own turnovers – 26 in a 76-65 verdict over Region Tourney foe Lincoln, thanks to a 42-25 domination on the boards and quality shooting (50% FG / 76% FT); 25 in an early, 76-75 escape at Illinois Central; 23 in the all-important second win in 10 days over homestanding John Wood, overcome by a 60-point second half and 12-19 marksmanship from behind the 3-point line, and 20 or more in four other encounters.
They won with perimeter sniping – 13 treys against John A. Logan in an 87-64 rout and 7-11 from long-distance in a 69-50 win at Southeastern Illinois – and outstanding shooting in general. They hit 50 per cent or better from the field in 11 games, including 44-67 (.657) in a 107-71 laugher over the McKendree U. Jr. Varsity and 32-62 (.516) in the all-important National Championship win over Moraine Valley.
Against the other co-defending GRAC kingpins, Olney Central, in a 93-85 late-season win, the Warriors were 30-54 from the floor (.556) and 28-32 at the charity stripe (.875) to go along with a 39-20 rebounding advantage. Does not get much better than that, although admittedly they were 39-44 (.886) tossing one-pointers in a 102-87 win over Southern Sports Institute (TN) in the season-opener.
They even gained revenge, somewhat, with a convincing 11 blocked shots in a 76-68 November victory over South Suburban, the team that had eliminated them in their 2011-12 National Tourney debut.
Other highlights as House & Friends climbed to No. 7 in the country by late January – double-doubles by Allen in November wins over ICC and Lincoln Trail, including 23 points and 11 rebounds in the latter, a 95-74 decision; a game-winning trey by D.V. against Parkland, 69-67; down 33-21 at intermission at home to Lake Land, which ultimately fell, 72-68.
As the regular season was winding down and the Warriors continued to win while the rest of the league-leaders took turns beating each other, it was appropriate to rekindle the “Conference champions” bravado.
“I just mentioned it to them . . . it was time to start talking ‘it’ up again. There were two games left and we were at least going to get a share of the GRAC pie. But I told them how much I love pie, and I really didn’t like the thought of having to share my pie with anyone else,” House said.
D-II Rend Lake College finished 14-2, while the best any of the D-I contenders could muster was two teams at 10-6.
With the GRAC Championship secured, the Warriors got an omen of things to come when they claimed non-conference road wins at Lincoln College, 100-79 in its second consecutive game with six in double-figures, and John Wood, 72-69.
Next up: Tournament time, featuring three of the top five D-II teams in Region XXIV in the opinion of House.
The Lincoln Lynx became Victim No. 1 in a much lower-scoring contest than 11 days before, 76-65. But instead of facing Danville Area, hoping to avenge the embarrassing mid-season loss, the Warriors had to repeat the recent win over host John Wood, which they would, 86-78, behind the red-hot Dawson Verhines and 60 points in the final 20 minutes after trailing at halftime, 27-26. The defending champs were winners again by hitting 50% FG and 76% FT or better in both games.
RLC led John Wood by two points with 4:05 left before responding with a 9-2 run. Seven of the final eight Warrior fielders came from beyond the arc. Taylor shared the limelight with 17 of his 19 points after intermission.
Verhines proved he was more than merely “every teammate’s best friend. He was the kid who did all the little things to help you win,” House said. The determined Dawson did all things big (26 points) and small to ensure a return trip to the National Finals.
Ayala demonstrated the team-first attitude by taking himself out. “He would have played with a broken arm and leg if I had wanted it,” his coach said. But against John Wood, “Corey told me, ‘Put Trice in, he is better than I am. I can’t get around on this ankle.”
First-round National Tournament opponent Cecil College was the best-shooting 3-point team in the country at 54.4 percent coming in, yet they were no match for the Warriors. The Bronson-version of Verhines contributed 18 points and 15 rebounds, with a decided 61-35 control of the boards and 41 bench points also making a big difference.
“Bronson Verhines,” his coach says, “is one of the most big-time, big-moment game players I have ever seen defensively. He could get more rebounds above the rim than any player at any level I ever saw. He was not a great scorer, but he defended well, had great timing and was always coming up with the big play. The other guys knew they could count on him.”
The quarterfinal rematch with upstate South Suburban was a doozy. The early-season win was sweet behind Allen’s 22 points and seven rebounds, but the Warriors really needed this one, too, for the sweetest revenge.
Instead, the team from the South Holland suburbs of Chicago – with a student population around 17,000 – seemed destined to eliminate the Warriors for the second year in a row at Nationals. The Bulldogs stretched a 37-24 halftime bulge to 22 points before the Rend Lakers decided they had had enough.
House always stood and paced the sidelines, often coaching from the end of the bench. For reasons he still cannot explain, the former Benton Ranger and SIU Saluki standout decided to remain seated as his team slipped further and further behind. Halftime discussions centered on how South Suburban could not continue to hit and play at such a high level, yet the ’Dogs did early on.
His assistants, Morgan in particular, urged him to get up. “I’m not going to get up and holler at them,” the head guy insisted.
“I finally got up, went to the center line and yelled, ‘What are you guys going to do . . . quit?’ That’s all I said.
“There was just a menagerie of things that happened after that. By the time we got their lead down to 10, South Suburban was starting to get nervous.”
The Warriors tied it very late at 75, rebounded South Suburban’s final attempt to win in regulation and Dawson Verhines’ desperation heave “rattles in and out.”
“I believe that we will win,” became the chant of the motivated, would-be champs. When overtime was winding down with the score once again tied, ”everybody knew who would be taking the last shot.” Taylor was fouled on his drive to the bucket, returned to the court following a timeout and calmly dropped in two free throws for his team-high 18th and 19th points. “As exhausted as everyone was, he still had the legs to get it done.” RLC 85, South Suburban 83. Movin’ on.
Taylor defined the term, athlete. Everyone knew who would take the last shot? Benchwarmer?
“Dawson asked me, ‘Coach, how did you convince Jeril to come off the bench?’ I didn’t have to. He understood,” House explained. “By the end of the season, they all knew when they were going in without the coaches telling them. There were no attitudes, no arrogance. Nobody was mad about coming out, because they knew they would be right back in there, or sitting until it was their time to go in.”
Trailing by nine after 6:50 and 35-32 at halftime was no big deal against Owens C.C. in the semifinals. RLC dominated inside, scoring 50 of its 80 points in the paint. The winners clinched a berth in the finals by making 11-of-12 free throws in the last 4:00. Taylor and B. Verhines tallied 19 and 17, respectively, with Whaley adding 12. B. Verhines and Allen each grabbed nine rebounds.
If a National Championship game, especially a first appearance for any team, could ever be considered anticlimactic, this one might qualify.
In contrast to the games that brought them to the pinnacle, Rend Lake College bolted to 19-3 and 27-5 leads, thanks to 12 points from Macklin in the first 9:00. In a 48-26 first half, the Warriors were 18-of-31 (.581) from the floor, including 6-11 (.545) on threes; shell-shocked Moraine Valley was 8-34 (.235) and 3-18 (.167).
Remember, Macklin was the player “everybody in the country overlooked. We took him because his high school coach said he could play. If that coach ever calls back with another recommendation, take him up on it; he gets a free pass on recruiting.”
Second-Team All-American Macklin “was just consistent doing a little bit of everything to help us win. He’d get you 2-3 rebounds at critical times, a bucket or two when you needed it most; he would defend, just do whatever we needed. He was a role player who was very consistent at everything.”
“We were just feeling it,” said Macklin, who would finish with 19 points and eight rebounds. “It seemed like I could hit everything and my teammates were also hitting everything. We were also rebounding (40-34 edge) and playing hard.”
Agreed Taylor, who had 15 points, “We started off great, kept pressure on and never looked back. It takes a lot of heart and hustle to get a lead like that. We did what we had to do.”
MVP Verhines boasted 13 points and 14 rebounds, but give him credit, also, for clamping down on the Cyclones’ leading scorer. Karrington Ward scored five points in the first 34 minutes and 11 in all, 10.3 below his average. Allen had 12 points on 6-of-9 shooting and Buford, who opened the tourney with 15 versus Cecil, had nine in the finale. Dawson Verhines had a game-best eight assists, six boards and five points despite playing on an ankle “the size of a grapefruit.” Ayala had five points and four assists.
“Noel (Allen) was old-school. Steady,” House said of his veteran. “Hard-nosed. Strong physically. At 6-4, he could guard a post player, and he could get out and run the floor, make the 15-foot jumper when you needed it.”
Macklin and Bronson Verhines were All-Region XXIV, and the National Champion Warriors staked claim to more than their share of post-tourney accolades – Bronson Verhines, Most Valuable Player; Taylor and Macklin, All-Tournament Team (12 members); Dawson Verhines, Pohlman Sportsmanship Award, and House, Coach of the Tournament.
Nine different Illinois representatives have played for the NJCAA D-II title, including seven of the last nine years, winning it seven times and finishing second six times.
Bronson Verhines (3.96 GPA on a 4.0-point grading scale), Froemling (3.95) and Smith (3.89) all earned NJCAA Academic All-America status for Superior Academic Achievement.
Taylor, Macklin, Whaley, and Montez x 2 (Buford and Williams) all returned as sophomores for a 21-11 Warrior contingent that tied for third in the GRAC at 10-6.
Taylor would average 16.2 points and 9.1 rebounds before moving on to a stellar career at University of Southern Indiana, where he became the first player ever to score 1,000 points in two seasons, including a record 50 at Truman State, and being named 2017 Great Lakes Valley Conference “Player of the Year” with 19.6 ppg and 8.3 rpg as a senior. The Basketball Times and National Association of Basketball Coaches All-America pick is now with the Giessen 46ers in Germany’s Pro B League.
The Taylor-Macklin connection remained intact at USI, with Macklin helping the Eagles to a 25-5 slate and earning All-Defensive Team honors as a senior.
The Verhines brothers continued their careers together at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale, where Bronson had one year of eligibility remaining and Dawson two.
Allen played for Lindenwood Belleville as a junior in 2014-15 (10.6 ppg, team-high 9.0 rpg, including a record 11 offensive rebounds in one game), before finishing at NAIA Oklahoma City, where he was nominated as a National Player of the Week.
Ayala played his last three seasons for Rogers State University (OK). Williams was listed as a 6-7, 250-pound junior when he played in 2016-17 for the Lane College (TN) Dragons.