Junior colleges are the blue highways on the basketball map, but they can still get you where you want to go. Sometimes it just takes a little recalculating of the personal GPS – reorientation, if you will.
Cesar Sandoval dropped 60-some pounds.
RayQuan Evans dropped an entire school.
Where this will take them is anyone’s guess, other than an intersection this weekend when the Community Colleges of Spokane and North Idaho College renew the most under-the-radar of the region’s rivalries at the very unprime-time hour of 4 p.m. at the Johnson Sports Center off Mission Avenue.
It’s changed, yes. The Sasquatch and Cardinals no longer reside in two different worlds. NIC’s in its second year with CCS in the Northwest Athletic Conference after a lifetime of chasing the game on the national level, so some of the old David/Goliath dynamic – however misapplied – is gone. They split two games last year; this season’s first meeting in Coeur d’Alene was decided on two Evans free throws with 7 seconds left and Sandoval’s missed 3 at the buzzer.
If anything, the stakes are higher now.
“Having North Idaho in definitely helps the competition level,” said CCS coach Jeremy Groth, whose team is 18-7, “but it makes it tougher to get through our region to the NWAC Tournament.”
As for the 19-5 Cardinals, it’s all about perspective.
“People always ask and I compare it to Division I basketball – it’s like moving from the Mountain West or WCC to the Big Sky,” NIC coach Corey Symons said. “It’s still a great league with great competitors. We can’t give the same type of scholarships we used to, but we’re still chasing the same guys.”
Evans being a case in point.
A 6-foot-5 point guard from Billings, Evans had drawn considerable interest from Big Sky schools – his father, Israel, played at Montana. But when he came up short of NCAA Division I academic qualifying standards, he signed with NAIA Rocky Mountain College in Billings before realizing there was an alternate route to those Division I dreams.
He seems to be in a hurry. Evans had 31 points in NIC’s season opener and his first double-double the next night. Last month against Big Bend, he rang up his first triple-double – 27 points, 13 rebounds, 10 assists – and last Saturday had 42 points and 13 boards against Treasure Valley.
Evans is averaging 21.4 points for the Cardinals, but the most significant of his glossy stats shows off his ability to get to the line – he’s shot 210 free throws, 33 more than anyone in the NWAC.
“He’s big-bodied, strong and really athletic,” Symons said, “and loves to get to the rim and finish through contact. He shoots it outside OK and really needs to do that a little more, but he tells me, ‘Coach, I can get to the rim, why do you want me to shoot it?’ ”
Now, there’s big-bodied and there’s big-bodied, which brings us to Sandoval.
When the 6-6 sophomore from Moses Lake played high school ball, he was somewhere north of 325 pounds. That didn’t stop him from being an all-league player for the Chiefs, but few saw that translating to college – and perhaps especially not at CCS, where the Sasquatch have led the NWAC in scoring three years running.
“Nobody took him very seriously,” Groth acknowledged. “All these four-year coaches would say, ‘Yeah, he’s got great skill, but his size – why are you guys looking at him? He’ll just slow you down.’ ”
Not hardly. The Sasquatch are still averaging an NWAC-best 92.5 points a game, and 19 of those on any given night come from Sandoval. In an overtime win over East Division co-leader Walla Walla, he had 39 – including back-to-back 3s at a crucial juncture.
“I get some open looks because people don’t think a guy my size can knock them down,” he said.
He’s not the size he used to be because of some hard work and some diet discipline – fast food and soda out, chicken and rice in.
Even at CCS’ racehorse pace, he’s logged 34 minutes or more in four of the past five games. As a result, he’s getting some recruiting interest from, among others, Point Loma Nazarene, where Central Valley alum Ryan Looney has set up shop.
When he collects his AA – he’s a 3.4 student – and moves on, it’ll certainly cut into the gate at Sasquatch games.
Sandoval’s parents and siblings and assorted aunts and uncles make the drive from Moses Lake en masse.
“They’re so supportive,” Sandoval said. “It means a lot to me and it means a lot to them. I’m basically the first of our immediate family to just go to college, so playing basketball is a big deal.”
As is Saturday’s game, in its understated way. You can’t beat the scenery on the back roads.