By: Ashley Westbrook
It happened in Hawaii. Far away from the comforts of the Shaw Athletic Center, everything clicked for the EC Men's Basketball team. It wasn't a practice, or a big win that brought the team together, but rather a trip to compete in the Hoops In Hawaii DII Power Invitational that led Head Coach, TJ Rosene to realize how special this team could be.
"I wanted to do something for this group of seniors, they're a special group of guys," Coach Rosene said. "We had a few tough losses in the tournament, but you could sense us coming together and bonding really well."
The team came home and defeated nationally ranked Valdosta State and rattled off 11 consecutive wins.
The trip to Hawaii was a special one for Rosene, as it reminded him of his father, one of the team's best recruiters and biggest fans, who passed away in April.
"Kendrick Colvin, the Conference Carolinas Tournament MVP, my dad actually found him, he and his family were on hard times and my dad recruited him to Emmanuel," Rosene remembers. "Jack Fitzpatrick, he found him working out in a parking lot, and he's our valedictorian this year."
His father, a 30-year high school coach knew how much becoming a part of the NCAA meant to not only his son, but this special group of seniors, that he shared a vision with the team.
"He would tell me and the players that when we get to Division II, we've got to dominate that thing," Coach Rosene remembered. "These players have waited, we've got to get them to that tournament."
Their perseverance paid off in Sunday's Conference Carolinas Championship against a Belmont Abbey team that had defeated Emmanuel twice in the regular season.
"Our guys were hungry and so were they, so it made for a great basketball game," he said. "We stayed mentally strong and physically tough for forty minutes and it was a fight the entire way. These guys had waited for their chance to get into Division II, this was their opportunity and they capitalized on it."
The opportunity to compete for a Division II championship served as motivation for this year's team, especially the six graduating seniors who waited patiently for this moment.
"For some of our other guys, they may be thinking 'I have two, three, or four shots at it,' but for these seniors, this is their last shot," Coach Rosene said. "Waiting that time and getting to that moment, knowing that it all comes down to this game, they made the most of their opportunity and I couldn't be prouder of how focused and ready they were."
Because of his senior leadership, Coach Rosene instilled a program during the offseason that he had not used before, allowing his seniors to lead the preseason.
"We broke the team up into groups with each senior in charge of two or three younger players," he remembered. "We let them lead their groups through workouts, lifting together, and running together. That was the beginning of building some really strong bonds that carried into the season."
Coach Rosene will tell you that this was one of the easiest jobs he's had as a coach.
"Our seniors led this team and it made it easy on us as a coaching staff to just coach basketball, help them grow spiritually, and make them better men," he said. "We were able to do all of these things, because we had these seniors."
One of the team's mottos is, "The way you do anything is the way you'll do everything," and this group of seniors did everything well, even when it came to supporting their coach when he needed it most.
"This was a hard year for me," Coach Rosene said. "My dad was my biggest fan, the team's biggest fan, he was always in the locker room. These players are all so good, and they love me so much that I think they knew I needed to be supported. Usually it's the coach supporting the players throughout the year, but this year it was reverse."
Coach Rosene's dad had a vision – that when the Lions received eligibility to compete in the NCAA Division II, they'd win the conference. These words of belief resonated with the team.
"I remember having a team meeting this season and saying, 'You know guys, this feels like a good movie, we're playing really well, but I already feel like my dad told me the ending, we're going to win this thing,'" he remembers. "At the time everyone laughed but we all had that feeling, we're going to do this."
If Coach Rosene could describe his team, he'd use a prayer that his wife continues to pray over this group.
"Great, mighty, and wonderful things," he said. "This has been a great season, with mighty things happening and a wonderful group of guys."
Up next, the Lions will face Queens University in Charlotte, NC on Saturday at 5:30p.m. in the Southeast Regional.
"Queens was our opening game of the year so I'm very excited to see how far the team has come," he said. "It will be tough because it's in Charlotte, at their place but we have a tough group of guys. They're going to show up and play hard, and that's all you can ask."
Coach Rosene will look back on the team's trip to Hawaii fondly, knowing that was where it all began.
"That was a moment where it felt like this is the beginning of something special," he said. "And it really was."