Randolph-Macon battles through COVID-19 adversity, heads confidently into ODAC Tournament

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RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — The 2021 men’s basketball season at Randolph-Macon College has been unlike any other, but the Yellow Jackets have quietly picked up where they left off following the abrupt end of their 2020 campaign. R-MC is undefeated heading into this weekend’s Old Dominion Athletic Conference Tournament, having won 13 consecutive games dating back to last season.

Nobody expected the sports world to shut down suddenly in March 2020 due to the outbreak of COVID-19 in the United States. But out of the blue, due to circumstances beyond their control, the Yellow Jackets were no longer playing for the opportunity to advance to the NCAA Division III Elite Eight in Fort Wayne, Indiana.

“It was really a roller coaster of emotions,” Randolph-Macon head coach Josh Merkel said. “The guys were in a good spot, we had just finished Thursday practice when we found out the rest of the Division III tournament was cancelled.”

The Yellow Jackets were supposed to welcome the Maccabees of Yeshiva University to Crenshaw Gym in Ashland for their D-III Sweet 16 contest on March 13, 2020. Merkel said Yeshiva had already arrived in the Richmond area for the game the day before when news of the game and the remainder of the tournament’s cancellation broke.

While Merkel said his players felt like they had left everything out on the court over the course of that season, the feeling was bittersweet for his three 2020 seniors – Corey Bays, Kent Kilgroe and Korey Turner.

“It was tough,” Merkel said. “But they all understood that this was something that was beyond our control.”

“It was definitely hard,” added current R-MC senior Buzz Anthony. “Last year’s seniors had some huge personalities, and we felt a lot of pain for them having the season end like that.”

As the dust settled from the end of the 2020 season, there was uncertainty as to what was going to happen with the new season.

The ODAC announced in the fall that the start of the basketball season, along with all fall sports, would be pushed to the beginning of 2021 and the spring semester. With schools having to adjust to new protocols, training and preparations for the new campaign were different.

Anthony said it matured and helped a lot of the players in the Yellow Jackets program grow. He and teammate and fellow 2021 senior David Funderburg actually took the fall 2020 semester off, got jobs and an apartment and worked on their game in their free time.

“We wanted it to be the best it could be,” Anthony said. “It was definitely frustrating not having the season start in the fall, but we saw it as a new chapter.”

“It definitely brought a lot of us closer together,” said sophomore Miles Mallory. Mallory, Anthony and junior Ian Robertson are R-MC’s three leading scorers, each averaging more than 12 points per game. “Some days were better than others, but we haven’t made excuses.”

That mentality translated over to the court for Randolph-Macon’s abbreviated season. Despite the NCAA announcing there would be no Division III tournament this year, and even after having to pause all basketball activities for two weeks due to a campus-wide shelter in place order, the Yellow Jackets have continued to stay atop the nation in the d3Hoops.com poll. Of the eight regular season games R-MC played, just one was decided by less than 10 points.

The Yellow Jackets’ largest margin of victory was 51, when they defeated Shenandoah University 102-51 on Feb. 2. R-MC has the fifth-ranked scoring defense in the country, allowing a stingy 57.4 points per game.

Now R-MC has a chance to win its second consecutive ODAC championship, a feat that hasn’t been accomplished since Virginia Wesleyan did it in 2005 and 2006.

That quest begins Saturday afternoon at 5 p.m. at Bridgewater College. The Yellow Jackets and Eagles played twice during the regular season, with R-MC winning both contests by scores of 74-56 and 99-68.

“It’s survive and advance time,” Merkel said. “We’re going to bring a ton of energy to this game, and we want to be focused and tough to play against.”

“We don’t take (Bridgewater) lightly,” Mallory said. “We’re going to give it our best shot.”

Anthony added that their shut down defense is going to make the difference in their quarterfinal matchup.

“We always say that defense travels,” he said. “This is going to be a test for us, and they’ve got some good players playing good basketball right now. We just have to put it all together.”

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