Maryville men, women seek return to pinnacle

Friday, November 22, 2019, Vol. 43, No. 47
By Tom Wood

Maryville women’s coach Darrin Travillian is in his 10th season, entering the year with a 193-61 record. He is the winningest coach in program history.

-- Photo Provided

It’s a season of transition at Maryville College for both the men’s and women’s basketball teams.

The two-time defending tournament champion men are trying to stay atop the USA South Athletic Conference with many new faces – including its head coach – while the women’s team is hoping a strong start to the 2019-20 campaign will lead them back to the top after a couple of sub-par seasons.

“We’ve won more games in the last three years than any Division III team in the South,” says Scots men’s coach Raul Placeres, who is in his first season after replacing the retired Randy Lambert. “We’ve won 63 games over the last three years, we’re coming off back-to-back conference tournament championships.

“Last year’s conference championship led us to our 20th NCAA tournament appearance, which is the most of any Division III team in the South Region.

“We did graduate eight seniors, though, who were a big part of (that success) the last three years. But I feel like this is one of the most athletic, longest, tallest teams we have had here in a very long time,” adds Placeres, who spent eight seasons at the school as an assistant coach and has been groomed for the past couple of years as Lambert’s designated heir.

“So we’re consistently competing at the top of our league and competing for conference championships and having the opportunity to play in the NCAA tourney, obviously trying to eventually win a national championship. So that’s the biggest goal.”

Covenant was picked to win the West Division in the men’s preseason poll while Berea, LaGrange and Maryville were in a three-way tie for second. In the women’s preseason poll, Maryville was tabbed third behind Piedmont and Berea.

Following a 58-point exhibit loss at Division I Middle Tennessee State that school’s regular-season opener, the Scots opened the season by hosting the Nov. 16-17 Randy Lambert Classic with Johnson University, Webster University and Piedmont College as the other participants.

The Raul Placeres era at Maryville officially began with a 77-60 loss to Johnson University. In that game, fifth-year senior guard Joshua Brooks led the way with 16 points and 4 assists while freshman Felix Uadiale added 11 points and 7 rebounds before fouling out. Sophomore forward Nicholas Clifton added 8 points and 7 rebounds.

On Sunday, Maryville dropped to 0-2 with a 78-60 loss to Webster in the second game of the Classic. Brooks had 13 points and 6 assists in that loss while Barron Nease added 10 points off the bench.

It’s no reason to hit the panic button, though. The Scots opened last year with an 0-3 start and lost four of their first five games before reeling off six consecutive victories en route to their second straight conference tournament championship.

“This team does have a high ceiling and we just need to continue to work hard daily on it,” Placeres said before the Classic.

While the men are still searching for their first victory of the season, the red-hot Maryville women are off to a 3-0 start after opening last year with five consecutive losses. Veteran coach Darrin Travillian, now in his 10th season, says getting the program back to the top of the conference is his priority.

Travillian led the Scots to seven consecutive 20-win seasons then dipped to a 17-10 mark in 2017-18 before falling to 13-14 a year ago. Travillian cites several reasons for the down years.

“Things kind of ebb and flow and basically they ebbed a bunch for seven years, right? We were rebuilding a little bit … we dealt with some tragedy a couple of years ago. We lost a player in an auto accident, so I think that played a part of that team,” Travllian says. “Last year, seven of my top eight (players) had never gotten varsity minutes before, had never gotten real minutes before, so I mean it was, yeah, definitely a little bit of a rebuild. And kind of reloading and restructuring sort of situation.”

Travillian said the Aug. 28, 2017, death of senior Brittany Johnson in a single-car accident on I-75 near Cleveland shook both him and the team.

“It happened right before her senior season, so it was tough. You try to listen and say the right things, try to be as supportive as you can. But, no, there’s no preparation for that, there’s no manual for that.

“I mean, you just do your best to be there for people and try to lead as best you can.”

And the growing pains suffered by last year’s young team is paying dividends this season, bolstered by a superb recruiting class. The Scots got off to a fast start that was highlighted by a 38-point performance by sensational freshman Courtney Carruthers.

Maryville returned to action Nov. 22-23 in the Lee’s Famous Recipe/Hampton Inn Classic in Danville, Kentucky, facing Oglethorpe and host Centre College.

“The 3-0 start is great and obviously last year we got off to a slow start. When you put a couple of wins together,” Travillian chuckles, “it feels great. So it’s good for this group. The core of this group made up that bunch that I was saying had never had that varsity experience, never had those moments (of success). So they had to weather a lot of ups-and-downs last year.

“And so it feels good for them to get off to a decent start. But our schedule is not going to get any easier over the next couple of weeks.

First-year coach Raul Placeres worked as an assistant to Randy Lambert for eight years.

-- Photo Provided

“We’ve got some top 15 teams in the country on our schedule and a couple more challenges on the road. So it’s nice to be 3-0, but there’s no illusion that you’re going to roll out win after win after win because, hey, you’ve got to work and keep things moving.”

The Scots’ top returnees are junior Klaire Varney, who averaged 17.0 points and 7.1 rebounds to earn first-team all-conference honors, while senior point guard Libby Gardner averaged 12.1 points last season.

“Klaire Varney really is off to a good start this year. She’s taking on an even bigger role for us,” Travillian points out. “Libby Gardner’s a four-year starter for us, so she’s somebody who’s been on every end of the spectrum in terms of the success.

“I’m excited for her to have a really strong senior year.”

Travillian cites the play of Elsa Eckenrod and Shelb Hix as players who have contributed to this season’s fast start, then turned to a few of his fab freshmen, Carruthers and Abbi Joseph. Carruthers starred at Maryville High School and Joseph at William Blount.

All but one player is from East Tennessee, with freshman guard Hayley Harmon hailing from Cincinnati. Varney played at Cumberland County in Crossville, while Gardner is another local product, playing for Heritage.

“We’ve got a couple of freshmen who have really stepped in and done some nice things for us so far,” Travillian explains.

“Abbi Joseph has been playing the four or five spot for us and she’s doing well. And then the other freshman who is playing well is Courtney Carruthers, who the other night scored 38 points for us in a game. I think she’s averaging almost 27 a game right now. So obviously she’s provided some really great offense at the one or two spots for us so far.”

And as an added bonus, Travillian is excited about soon regaining the services of senior post player Kelly Wandell, who’s been playing on the school’s volleyball team.

While Placeres has high expectations for his inaugural season, he knows the men’s team could undergo some of the same growing pains that the women suffered a year ago.

“We’ve got a really, really young group … eight of my top 15 players are freshmen. And then I have one senior, two juniors and four sophomores. So 12 of the top 15 are freshmen and sophomores,” Placeres notes with a wry laugh that trails off.

But he says the youth factor could well serve to electrify fans for the season that lies ahead.

“Yeah, I think (that youth) is what makes this season so exciting. Having a young team like this, hopefully you can mold them, empower them and motivate them to be the best group they can be,” Placeres says. “And what our last group showed was if you can stay together – we just had eight seniors graduate, which is a big class at any level – you can do some really good things together.

“And that’s what I’m really encouraged about this class – they’re extremely talented, they’re extremely coachable and they want to be the best version of themselves. That’s all you can ask for as a coach. So it’s really encouraging about what we have going on here.”

But Placeres notes that Brooks and Clifton will be the backbone of the team through the season’s early trials.

“(Brooks has) been part of our program for five years. He sat out one year with a medical redshirt, but he’s been here five years,” Placeres says. “I return our starting four man, Nick Clifton. He was our second-leading rebounder last year and should have a good year this season.”

The coach points to several area players who could play big roles this season, notably point guard Kordell Kah who helped Bearden High win the state championship last year and Barron Nease, a guard from Union County High School who was player of the year for his district.

Placeres explains that the transition is perhaps bigger for him than the players, simply because he has more duties than when he was an assistant coach.

“I just think there’s more responsibilities from the day-to-day stuff that I was accustomed to doing,” Placeres acknowledges. “But me and Coach (Lambert) have talked and we talked for long time about this. We had known this was the direction we were going probably for the last three or four years. And we were just preparing for when he wanted to hang it up (that) I would be ready to take over.”

And while the young players are adjusting from high school ball to college, he says the program’s past success can sustain them through tough times.

“It’s an encouraging transition because the tradition of the program is here. And we have the makeup as a team to do some big things. We try to say that we don’t rebuild, we reload,” Placeres says.

“So it’s not fair to tell my lone senior that we’re in a rebuilding stage just because we’re young. We approach it and we attack it the same way we attack any year. And that’s to be the best team that we possibly can be.”

Maryville’s men hit the road for a Nov. 23 visit to Emory & Henry.