Washington area basketball players trek to Vermont for one last shot at glory

A group of Washington area players traveled to Division III Southern Vermont College to get a second chance for a college basketball career and a degree. Now, the team works to overcome struggles and concentrate on winning games, while becoming a basketball family. (Whitney Leaming/The Washington Post)

One by one, the players filed through the narrow doorway, each more dejected than the next after a second straight defeat.

There was the former football star from Wheaton, the junior varsity basketball coach from Germantown, the would-be father from Silver Spring and the Army Reservist out of Great Mills. None were playing competitive basketball, or even enrolled in college, a year ago. But here they were hundreds of miles from home, in a town nestled among the ski resorts of Vermont, hoping to change the basketball fortunes of Division III Southern Vermont College, and change their own lives.

Each has a story to tell, their careers long since sidetracked before first-year Coach Dan Engelstad offered them a second chance. He didn’t sell NBA dreams, just the opportunity to put on a jersey a few more times and earn a college degree in the process.

All agree Engelstad, a 29-year-old Bethesda native, gave them a new purpose, and hope. But now he’s fighting to ensure this collection of forgotten souls doesn’t get lost again.

“There’s a reason why these guys are at Southern Vermont,” said Engelstad, who spent the past six years as an assistant at Division I programs Mount St. Mary’s and Holy Cross. “When things get tough, they don’t know how to handle adversity.”

Together, they have formed an unlikely family, one that must now forge through the trials of a season nobody involved will soon forget.

“The book ain’t written,” Engelstad reminded his team before assistant coach David Bromirski recited an oft-repeated question following a loss.

“Who’s our own worst enemy?”

“Ourselves,” they all responded in unison.

‘They became our family’

Born in Washington and raised in Silver Spring, Izzy Melton first met Shaniquewa Barnes, 21, while both played basketball at Montgomery College two years ago. The couple learned Barnes was pregnant in June.

When Melton, 23, brought up the chance to play for Southern Vermont later in the summer, Barnes’s response was unequivocal: “Where’s Vermont? I don’t want to leave home.”

A recruiting visit only made Melton skeptical after he laid eyes on the four rows of rickety wooden bleachers in Southern Vermont’s gym. The school, which is located in Bennington in the southwest corner of the state, has just six on-campus buildings and only about 500 students.

“I saw how small it was and I honestly didn’t want to come here,” he said.

Ultimately, though, the 6-foot-3, 275-pound big man with dreadlocks, a defensive lineman at Montgomery Blair High, longed to be back on the court, and Barnes acquiesced.

The couple applied for Pell grants and moved to Bennington. Because of Barnes’s pregnancy, Melton said they had to pay just $50 of Southern Vermont’s $32,000 tuition.

As the months passed, Barnes’s belly grew larger and their relationship grew stronger. But throughout, doctors were having trouble identifying the baby’s gender, even though Barnes “didn’t want to believe anything was wrong.”

An appointment at the Dartmouth Medical Center the day before Thanksgiving confirmed the worst. Complications from the pregnancy meant Barnes and Melton would lose the child. It would have been their first son.

They sought refuge in the rest of the basketball team.

“I didn’t want to talk to nobody. I didn’t want to be around nobody. It was just hard,” Barnes said. “Being far away from home . . . they became our family.”

‘A family of brothers’

Melton isn’t the only player on Southern Vermont with an “RIP” inscribed on his shoes for every game.

Rayshawn Taylor, 21, understood devastation. His best friend, Sephar Jean-Simon, had been fatally stabbed during a fight at a Dupont Circle nightclub on Nov. 18, the latest setback for a person who seemed destined for heights far greater than Southern Vermont.

As a senior running back at Wheaton High in 2010, Taylor gained more than 1,900 yards and scored 23 touchdowns. He had a scholarship offer from New Mexico.

But his mother thought it was too far away from home, and Taylor gave up on his dream altogether. He didn’t even bother to wake up when he was scheduled to take the SAT and began roofing houses for his uncle’s construction company after graduation.

“I definitely look back at it and wish every day that I could’ve just woke up and took it. If I wasn’t so stubborn,” Taylor said. “I miss football every day. If I could play it right now, I’d play it. I miss it every day. I miss all of it — the lights, the crowd, all the hitting, the pain, the love that come from the game. I just miss it all.”

Taylor is the most naturally gifted of Southern Vermont’s players, a constant threat to dunk with the ability to score 20 points in the blink of an eye. He has also been the most challenging to coach.

Teammates have taken to calling him “The Wild Stallion” and “Good Ray, Bad Ray.” Last month, for instance, Engelstad suspended Taylor after he refused to leave the bench during a game.

The memory of Jean-Simon, though, kept Taylor engaged. It was his friend who encouraged this adventure to the mountains, reminding him that “coming out here, it’s all in the plans. You just got to stick with it.”

Taylor has since found a team that won’t allow him to quit again.

“They were always there to pick me up and keep me moving, and making sure I think about the positive things more than the negative things,” he said. “I really appreciated that. I really felt like I had a family of brothers who really cared for me.”

‘There’s nobody like him’

Ranked No. 410 out of 416 Division III schools in the preseason by one publication, Southern Vermont’s season started with a “grand slam out of the gate,” Engelstad said. He installed a frantic full-court press and called it “Wreckage,” a spin-off of Virginia Commonwealth’s “Havoc.”

It caught Williams College, a legitimate Division III national championship contender, by surprise during the opening game of the season and Southern Vermont pulled off a stunning 88-87 upset. Students rushed the floor in celebration, but the coach’s favorite moment might be the first play of the night: “An alley-oop to my midget.”

Davante Jordan, generously listed at 5-7, was not originally part of Engelstad’s plans at Southern Vermont. And college wasn’t part of his.

Almost derailed by drug deals and stolen cars as a teenager, he found motivation in basketball, graduated from Great Mills High in Southern Maryland, enrolled in the Army Reserves and settled into a job making sandwiches at a local Wawa gas station.

But his life got thrown into flux this summer. His mother was on the way to one of three nursing jobs she held when her sport-utility vehicle swerved to avoid something on the road, and “just flipped over and over and over again,” Jordan said.

Andrea Jordan survived but remains paralyzed from the chest down because of the accident. The tragic turn of events left Davante with a renewed urgency “to show the progression you’ve made for the family.”

He sought a sergeant’s position in the Army Reserves, a promotion that would bring more money, and quickly realized a college degree could be of use. There was an opening at a base in Vermont, and with his tuition paid for by the Army — he will return to active duty after graduation — he enrolled at nearby Southern Vermont.

“Little did I know,” Engelstad said, “he was pound for pound the best athlete I’ve ever coached. There’s nobody like him in Division III.”

Jordan, 21, soon became the linchpin to Southern Vermont’s press, but another twist was on the horizon.

He had done well in math during high school, but a three-year break from studying left him unprepared for the rigors of college. He failed a math final last semester and is ineligible for the rest of the season.

Jordan broke the news to Engelstad, who had only recently learned of his mother’s plight, on Christmas Eve.

“The basketball team, it’s just a family. You open up to your family,” he said. “It hurts to let them down.”

‘We stick together’

Antoine White stared intently at the road ahead, one of the few Southern Vermont players awake at the end of a four-hour trip to play Newbury College on Feb. 1. White, 24, had been the recipient of one of Engelstad’s first calls upon being hired in March. He needed a leader and asked White, who had gone from leading Whitman to a state title in 2006 to coaching the school’s JV team after a knee injury initially derailed his college career, “to come out of retirement.”

Thanks in part to White, Jordan, Melton, Taylor and three other Maryland transplants, the Mountaineers sported a 12-7 record at the time, very much in the running in the New England Collegiate Conference after winning a combined three games in the previous two seasons.

Already, though, the morning had gotten off to a foreboding start. Southern Vermont had purchased a new bus but hadn’t gotten it registered in time for this trip. So Engelstad and company would need to take the old one, with a broken heating system that nearly froze them during the Polar Vortex earlier this winter.

With a limited Division III budget, hotel rooms are not an option and Southern Vermont arrived at the Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology outside Boston – Newbury College doesn’t have its own gym — 90 minutes before game time. Only a $113 pit stop at McDonald’s for breakfast broke up the sleep-filled bus ride.

At tip-off, there were 14 people in the stands.

A halftime lead eventually evaporated, and Newbury, which entered the game with a 1-17 record, won in overtime, 77-74. Southern Vermont finished with 24 turnovers and shot 18 for 37 from the free-throw line.

“These are the times when we’re going to be tested,” Engelstad said to the despondent locker room, over the din of celebration down the hall.

But in this moment, with losses piling up and another cold bus ride awaiting, few had any idea Southern Vermont would go on to win its next two games. Only White could put this journey in perspective.

“Dan always says, ‘We’re going to write a book about this one day,’ ” White said. “We go through so many things. We have good times. We have bad times. But we’re a family and we stick together.”

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