For the first time since Kermit Washington, Wilbur Thomas and Calvin Brown graduated, American University is winning with local talent. When Gary Williams took over as coach three seasons ago, he inherited a program with a Washington-area player.
Now seven of the 12 players on the roster are local products, and it is three players, for the most part, who are complementing star forward Boo Bowers of Westfield, N.J., and giving the Eagles a shot at their best record since Washington led them th the National Invitation Tournament in 1973.
After a Dec. 2 blowout by Maryland, there was amply doubt that American would be a winner this season. Bowers and his teammates, who could have showcased their abilities before a big crowd and a television audience, where embarrassed by the Terrapins, 95-65.
They have fallen 21 points behind at halftime and their usual offensive spark plug, Bowers, shot three-for-14 and scored fewer than 10 points in a game for the first time in 52 games, spanning three seasons. The Eagles were 0-2 and did not have a home game for another six weeks. The outlook was a grim one, but the rout turned out to be a positive turning point for the team.
The Eagles, with strong performances from Bowers and former Mackin High School stars Ed Sloane and Mark Nickens, won four straight after that.
"We didn't leave Cole Field House respectably," said sophomore guard/forward Nickens, who is AU's sixth man. Nickens sat out last year after he transferred back home from TCU.
"It hurt," he said, "because we knew we were better than we showed. But for some reason that loss psyched us."
"They beat us in every way." Williams said. "We got blitzed so badly that it made me work harder as a coach. The players really kept me from getting down after that game."
"The Maryland game was very embarrassing, especially to those of us from D.C. who had done fairly well here in high school, then showed nothing that night as collegians," said David Ridley, a former Gonzaga High standout, now one of AU's reserve forwards. "I felt terrible afterwards, but it was more an angry embarrassment. We knew we had to do better."
Bowers rebounded from his bad night din the next game as he scored 45 points in a victory over Harvard. The Eagles beat Gettysburg, Lafayette and George Washington after that.
Because their Fort Mery "home court" has been closed for repairs longer than expected, the Eagles won't play their first home game until Jan. 13 against Washingtion College.
Their next game is against New Hampshire Friday in Old Dominion's Kiwanis Christmas Tournament. They will face either Old Dominion or Columbia Saturday night.
Their next opportunity to redeem themselves against a D.C. school comes Jan. 28, when they host Georgetown at Fort Myer. If the Eagles, now 4-2, continue their winning streak, they could conceivably take a 12-2 record into the Georgetown game.
"For a change, AU has the chance to have a great year instead of a mediocre one," Nickens said. "I'm excited about the season. Workouts and practices feel more worthwhile now."
Sophomore guard Sloane is the second-leading scorer at 15.6 per game and Nickens is third at 11.5.
"I hope opponents do think we're a one-man team," Nickens said, referring to Bowers and his 28-point average. "They look up and three other people are in double figures."
As for Bowers, he needs only 18 points to break the school career scoring mark held by Wil Jones, now head coach at the University of the District of Columbia.
Two of AU's other scoring threats have returned home after starting college elsewhere. Juan Jones, a 6-foot-6 junior college transfer who played at McKinley Tech, starts at center, and Fernando Aunon, a former all-Met forward at Stuart, will become eligible this semester after transferring from St. Joseph's (Pa.). Aunon, at 6-7, will be the Eagles' tallest player. The other local players are senior Chris Knoche, from Fairfax's W.T. Woodson via Colorado, and freshman Michael Wade from Columbia's Wilde Lake High.
"It's easier for the public to identity with us if we have a local nucleus."
William said. "Their performance is a key thing to the log-term success of this program."
Williams is enthusiastic about the 6-3 Sloane, the quickest player on his team. "Besides scoring, Eddie is an effective rebounder and defensive player. He wants to play so badly, he'll do whatever you ask him. He and Nickens are getting some notoriety now, playing at home."
"I've been playing here all my life," said Sloane. "And it'll be really special when we play that first home game. If we've done well in the tournament, maybe everybody reads and talks about Maryland and Georgetown . . . I know Buck (Williams), Albert (King) and Ernie (Graham) could be in the NBA right now if they wanted."
"But Boo and Robin (Huey, the starting point guard) are seniors and they'd like to win and have a little recongnition before they graduate."