Hanover County Sports.net founder Rob Witham, who was courtside during the 2023 Old Dominion Athletic Conference (ODAC) Men's Basketball Championship, provides thoughts on the fourth consecutive conference tournament title and how things have been mighty different less than a decade earlier.
Longtime Randolph-Macon men's basketball fans remember.
They remember the Cinderella run to the 2010 NCAA Division III Final Four.
They remember their Yellow Jackets cutting down the nets in Salem for an ODAC Championship, only to be sent by the NCAA Selection Committee on multiple 500-mile bus rides north before finally falling short of the Final Four.
They remember 2015 when, again, the Yellow Jackets won it all in Salem, and came one shot short of forcing overtime with Virginia Wesleyan, and the pain of watching their conference rivals celebrate a trip to the Final Four in Crenshaw Gymnasium. To this day, that game had the most intense feel inside a gymnasium that I have ever witnessed. The defense played that night between the Yellow Jackets and Marlins may never be matched.
They also remember two days later when Nathan Davis announced his departure for Bucknell. Davis gone and a senior class of eight gone. What would be next?
For the first season under Josh Merkel, it was growing pains. After that, it was back to the top of the conference in the regular season. Maybe by now you had become a Yellow Jacket fan, either as a student, or lover of basketball.
You remember the pain of consecutive quarterfinal exits in the ODAC Tournament in 2017 and 2018. You remember the question surrounding Merkel being "can he win the big one"?
You remember finally breaking out of the quarterfinals in 2019, reaching the championship only to fall to Guilford. But Randolph-Macon's resume was good enough to host the first two rounds of the NCAA Division III Championship, the Yellow Jackets bested Morrisville State and York. And had Darryl Williams' put back try at the buzzer had a little more height, it may have been Randolph-Macon, and not Swarthmore, playing for a national title.
Then 2020 arrived. The tournament trophy returned to the Yellow Jackets, then, two more NCAA wins, setting up the most talked about game of the tournament up to that point with Randolph-Macon set to host Yeshiva.
I don't need to remind you what happened next.
The season abruptly ends at 28-2, a legitimate shot at a national title denied. Then, another shot denied in early 2021 as the lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic doomed the Division III Championship once again. Randolph-Macon won the ODAC title.
You can only imagine the adrenaline pumping in that Crenshaw locker room when the 2021-22 season finally arrived. There were a few peaks and valleys regarding the pandemic, but, save a one-point loss Thanksgiving weekend to Christopher Newport, it was all Yellow Jackets. When you win the national championship game by 30 points, it's hard not to use the term "domination".
Now, take all that, and return with me to Salem last Sunday. No Buzz Anthony, no David Funderburg, no matter. A new generation of Yellow Jackets were there to claim the championship. Some blossomed, others arrived.
People were already buzzing about freshmen Jabril Robinson and Keishawn Pulley, Jr, as they should be. But the man who took his team and placed them square upon his shoulders was Daniel Mbangue. The "M" in his last name may be silent, but his game isn't anymore.
Nineteen points in a title game where he simply outwilled the Guilford defense time after time. His humble explanation for his play in Salem, which earned him the tourney's Most Outstanding Player award?
"It's an emphasis to playing to our strengths," Mbangue said. "My teammates are putting me in a good position. I feel we stick to our principles. With this amazing community and all these people behind you, I feel like we play for the same thing every single year. We play for R-MC, we play for that family. Every time, it gets better, yes."
Words of wisdom from the junior from Fairfax. And thus, my reflection and thoughts to Yellow Jacket fans on the night before yet another first round home game in the NCAA Tournament.
CHERISH THESE CHAMPIONSHIPS.
Sounds simple, but it really isn't. Randolph-Macon has now won five outright ODAC regular season titles since 2018, tied for first in 2017 and only lost out on the shortened regular season crown in 2021 because Roanoke played more conference games.
The Class of 2023, Josh Talbert, Miles Mallory, and Noah Lindsay, played in, and won FOUR ODAC Tournament Championships. The last time anyone could say that was the Class of 1987 at Roanoke College, when the Maroons ripped off seven tournament titles in a row from 1981 to 1987. A generation ago.
No matter what transpires for 2022-23 Randolph-Macon men's basketball over the next two plus weeks, I hope that fans will take a few moments prior to each game, however many they may be, and remember:
Longtime fans, remember the disappointments. Remember the uncertainties.
Recent fans, remember the victories, remember the players, remember the nets being cut down.
Now, to all fans, learn about what you haven't experienced, so you understand why you witnessed such a celebration in Fort Wayne a year ago, then, should they be able to win six more times, be ready to fully celebrate again.
But if it's not in the cards to cut down the nets in Fort Wayne in 2023, celebrate these Yellow Jackets anyway. They have set a standard for the Randolph-Macon program that begins and ends with striving to be the absolute best.
And for that, we thank them all. Because, isn't that what our life's journey should also be about?
(Author's Note: Rob's journey with Yellow Jacket men's basketball began with producing their NCAA Tournament run in 2010 on the former WHAN Radio in Ashland, then covering the team for the Herald-Progress from 2011-12 to 2017-18, and for the RVA Sports Network, the Mechanicsville Local, and The Richmond Times-Dispatch from 2018 to present.)
(Pictured: Daniel Mbangue after Randolph-Macon's ODAC Championship win over Guilford in Salem Civic Center, February 26, 2023)