(Update: HCC men's basketball season ends game short of nationals)
Howard Community College men’s basketball coach Mike Smelkinson is having a big year. Not only did his Dragons finish the 2012-13 season with a trip to the NJCAA Division III National Tournament, they followed that up with an impressive 2013-14 regular season in which they finished 10-4, clinched the MD-JUCO conference crown, and are primed for another postseason run. You have to reach way back into the record books — 20 years, in fact — to find the last time that either one of those feats were accomplished. Since joining the college three years ago, Coach Smelkinson has certainly put his stamp on the program, developing a culture that emphasizes hard work, determination, and accountability — both on the court and in the classroom.
Here, in an interview from earlier this season, he talks about playing at Nationals, his goals for this year’s team, and what it means to have fans fill the stands on game days.
Last year, you led the Dragons to Nationals for the first time in 20 years. What lasting impressions did you take away from that experience?
"The whole experience in Danville was something that I will never forget. Walking into the gym for the first time and seeing hundreds of coaches from Division 1 and Division 2 schools was a great feeling...knowing that some of my players will have the opportunity to earn athletic scholarships and hopefully move on to play at the next level, which is the ultimate goal. Seeing the joy on the players’ faces after we won the Regional Championship and were presented with the trophy is something that was amazing as well. It was the moment that we could all take a deep breath and feel good about all of the hard work that we have put in all season long, and celebrate."
What was it about last year’s team that helped lead them to success?
"Well, the previous year was my first season as a head coach and we spent a lot of time as a coaching staff trying to change the culture of the men’s basketball program here. We spent a lot of time dealing with off-the-court issues and trying to change our image around campus and establish ourselves in the community as a basketball team worth seeing. We won 13 games and lost 14 that year, but we were very competitive in all of our games. Going into the 2012-2013 season, I was able to recruit and bring in some very talented student athletes to mix in with the returners who worked very hard to build the program and culture here. The key was getting everyone to “buy in” to one main goal and that was to make it to Danville, where Nationals was being held. Once we had a collected group playing for each other and working every day for one common purpose, we felt like nothing would stop us from getting to Nationals."
What goals do you have for this year’s team and how do you plan on accomplishing them?
"It is a very long season and we have a long way to go to live up to last year. The difference between this year and last year is that now, we have a target on our back and we are going to face teams who are going to give us their best shot. With that being said, we have more talent than last season, we have returning players who have had a taste of Nationals, and we have a better sense of competitiveness and urgency this year. The key is to just keep getting better every day — that's the name of the game. We feel as a coaching staff and as a team that not only do we have what it takes to make it back to Danville, but we want to bring the National Championship trophy back to HCC."
Coming off last year’s high note, what is the mentality of the team this year?
"The mentality of this year’s team is to take our program to new heights. We are determined to be the hardest working team in the conference not only on the court, but in the classroom as well. One of our main goals is to keep everyone eligible for the second half of the basketball season. We also want to win the MD-JUCO conference, Region XX title, and the National Tournament. The only way that that can be accomplished is if we show up to work every day and have the attitude that 'no one will out work us.'"
What new players on the team do we need to look out for during this upcoming season?
"Julian Davis and Tiger Warford are two transfers who have stood out early on as poised, experienced players who bring leadership to our program. Also, Omari Ringgold out of Centennial High School, who was a two-time first team all-county selection and the leading scorer in Howard County during his senior season. Omari has proven that he can score the ball at the college level for us early on. All three of these players have been doing a good job for us and we have plenty other new players who have contributed as well and who will certainly get better as the season progresses."
How does the support from the community and fans affect or encourage your team to carry on throughout a season?
"It means a lot to us. We feel like we have worked hard to establish a winning program here and it’s great to see so many faces in the crowd to encourage us and help us as we take on outsiders. We pride ourselves when we go on the road to represent the college in a positive way, whether we are going to other schools, restaurants out of town, or just around in the Columbia area. Especially to see faculty members and professors cheering for us makes all of the hard work that these guys put in every day as student-athletes worthwhile. We want to win every home game, and we know that we need the crowd’s help in order to do so."
Watch interviews with coaches and players, highlights from this season's games, and more in the latest edition of HCC-TV's Dragon's Lair Update.