Yellow Jackets in Costa Rica - A Look Back from Head Coach Josh Merkel

Yellow Jackets in Costa Rica - A Look Back from Head Coach Josh Merkel

Jacket Nation,

We had the honor and privilege of representing our school and our basketball program in Costa Rica.  (The team returned to Ashland on the evening of Wednesday, August 16).  I hope you have enjoyed the blog posts from our team members.  If you have yet to see them, they can be found at http://rmcathletics.com/sports/mbkb/index.

I want to speak specifically about the basketball portion of the trip.  As most any coach will tell you, one of my favorite parts of the trip was actually the practices leading up to the competition.  October 15 is the first day of practice for every D3 program in the country except for those playing internationally.  To be able to gather our returners and compete in Crenshaw on Juy 29 is an advantage. 

Defense.  Pace.  Space.

These three words will define our season.  We will defend like there is no tomorrow. Every pass and shot should be difficult for our opponent.  We will play fast and smart.  Defensively, we want you to play faster than you want to and we want to put pressure on you every second we are on offense.  With our skill and shooting ability, we must space the floor and sprint to spots.

How did we do?   In a word, great.  All games were filmed so players can see themselves and of course there is plenty of room for improvement.  The feedback is critical, but there were also many positives.   Let me break them down one game at a time.

Game 1 vs Coopeservidores

We flew in on a Tuesday, and practiced that day.  Our blog posts have detailed some of the fun experiences our players enjoyed, but in many ways it was a “business trip.”  Anytime we practiced or stepped between the lines, our players had to flip the switch.  We have a group of guys that care and that shows up in the practice culture and how they compete against each other. They have learned from the many who have practiced and played in Crenshaw.  The gym we played in was unique in that it was an open air gym.  It had three walls but one side completely open (picture a barn with a basketball court and bleachers inside).  Their coach was a former manager at UNC for Dean Smith.  We played with a 24-second shot clock that affected us no more than it did the other team. Coach Matturro was elevated to Head Coach for the game and the guys played all out.  They had a 6-10 big guy that played at Loyola MD who one player described as “near impossible to move once he had position.” Their guards were quick and well-conditioned (reminder that every athlete plays soccer growing up).  The referees also let you play -  extremely physical.  There is no foul for putting and keeping two hands on every drive.  I would say that our biggest adjustment was having to be stronger with the ball against pressure and on drives. Daniel Noe took a courageous charge that took away a vicious dunk from their team.  He heavily bruised his back on the tile floor and was unable to play the rest of the trip.  To our guys' credit, they responded to not having their vocal and on-court leader.  We were down as many as 13 in the second half only to tie the game with a Montese three-pointer under 10 seconds.  On the ensuing possession they drove the ball and called a questionable foul on the Jackets that led to a pair of free throws with six seconds on the clock.  They sank one of two and Korey Turner found Montese Adams for a good look from three that rimmed out.  At the end of the game, each coaching staff is responsible for naming the other team’s MVP.  We chose a player that plays for the Costa Rican national team, an athletic wing that could score at a high level.

Game 2 vs Brenes Barva

Whenever we told someone we were playing Brenes Barva, their eyes would light up and say that is the best team. They have the most sponsorships and are able to pay their players the most.  They had 15 players in uniform and the game tipped off at 8 pm.  The gym provided a great venue.  Both teams played great defense early but we struggled to make open shots.  They had a skilled seven-footer and we counted six players taller than our biggest guys, Jon & Montese at 6-5. From the first play, you could tell how good their point guard was, who played in the states at the University of New Orleans.  This was a group of grown men and they are in playoff form. Their playoffs had just started and while we were playing on a Wednesday, their first playoff game was that Saturday. Corey Bays lost a tooth in a scrum under the basket that set the tone for the rest of the game.  There was a ton of blood and the point guard showed great toughness by coming back to play in the second half as we were making a run.  What type of run?  Without Daniel Noe and against their pressure we struggled to get inside production and found ourselves down 43-23 at the half.  We kept the full-court pressure on them and cut it to five with six minutes to go in the game.  We had a chance to cut it closer but didn’t make the plays we needed.  Their coach nominated  Montese Adams the MVP with his 14 points and double digit rebounds.  We nominated their 6-5 swingman who could shoot, drive, and score and reminded you of a 32-year old Kurt Bergmann.

Game 3 vs Grecia

Another team considered to be in the Top 4 of the best league.  This team draws very well and their coach apologized for the smaller crowd.  We learned the game was being played on Mother’s Day so many fans stayed home to celebrate. Those that follow D3 closely may remember the Franklin & Marshall point guard Georgio Milligan, a 2012 graduate who started 124 games at F&M — a school record — and led the team to 103 victories. He helped the Diplomats reach the NCAA Tournament four times, including a Final Four appearance in 2009…becoming the first player to earn First-Team All-CC honors four times. He was the fifth player in conference history to earn back-to-back Player of the Year awards. I say all that because he impacted the game at both ends and nearly beat us single-handedly. Down eight at the half, we scored the first eight points of the second half and then neither team led by more than three points the rest of the way.  With eight guys, everyone was playing short bursts of meaningful minutes.  Going into the fourth quarter, we told the team they were to coach each other the rest of the way.  We would do the subbing and they would do all the talking on the floor and in the timeouts.  Jon Nowell and others emerged as the team showed a level of togetherness and resiliency.  Darryl Williams made two clutch threes, then two clutch free throws and tapped back a rebound with 20 seconds left that enabled us to secure the win.  Because of his late game heroics, he was named the game MVP and the guys were able to shout the Yellow Jacket victory song from San Jose, Costa Rica.

Our tour guide, Carolina, who was with us all week, complimented the team on praying before meals and for the appreciation they showed for every meal and every part of the trip. It was a business trip that they will remember forever.  Some of my favorite parts were the times the team did not have access to wifi and had to fill the time on the bus talking, laughing, and learning about each other.  

In a word, this experience was exceptional.  We are forever grateful for those who have come before us and for those who made this trip possible!  “Bibiendo en el memento!”