A half hour before the official start of practice, Ben College was already in the Whitworth Fieldhouse, working his way from one wing of the court to the other.
Trailing the senior captain were sophomore Garrett Paxton and junior Tanner Fogle, taking their shots in turn as the rest of the Pirates trickled into the gym for an early week practice.
“I have a picture of myself, I must have been 2 or 3 years old, and my dad is teaching me how to catch a ball,” College said. “I had the Little Tikes hoop with the basketball. Ever since I can remember, I’ve been playing basketball.”
For as long as he’s known him, coach Damion Jablonski has known College to be the prototypical gym rat, the player whose happy place is an empty court.
Statistically, all that practice has certainly translated for College, who currently ranks 13th on Whitworth men’s basketball’s all-time scoring list with 1,334 points.
If he maintains his 22.3 points per game for the remaining 19 games of the regular season, College would have enough points to rank third on the program’s all-time list behind Rod McDonald (1,807 from 1964-67) and Bryan Depew (2,013 from 2001-04).
The 16th-ranked Pirates (5-1) host Mary Washington (7-2) at 7 p.m. Monday in their final home nonconference game.
College has been honing his shot in a serious way since middle school, he said, when he was the last kid on the bench but a player in whom coaches saw great potential. Ultimately he parlayed that shot into four strong years at Portland’s Central Catholic High School and then an offer to play basketball at Whitworth.
But to Jablonski, just as important to College’s achievements as a scorer is the focus he has put on his mental game since a wrist injury two summers ago meant College simply couldn’t practice his shooting.
“To be honest, for as much as somebody can work on their game, and he’s a gym rat, it’s the other stuff that takes it to another level,” Jablonski said. “And if you don’t do those things it’ll also inhibit you.”
That other stuff, College said, was a meditation regimen that he first instituted that summer before his junior year, with his right wrist in a cast. He could practice shooting with his left hand, but he said he realized he had something else to work on: his temper.
“My mental game has improved vastly over my career here. That’s something I knew I needed to work on coming in, and that’s something I struggled with as a younger player,” College said. “Keeping control of my emotions and keeping control of temper and self-confidence, things like that.
“I was a pretty fiery player in high school, I guess you could say. Coming in (at Whitworth) I was still a fiery person as a freshman … like, my temper could snap quickly.”
Jablonski, the team’s associate head coach before taking over as head coach this season, said he saw those snaps when shots weren’t falling or when calls weren’t going College’s way.
“There’s gonna be ebbs and flows in the game, and when they were not in his favor, not meeting his expectations, then he just got frustrated,” Jablonski said.
But the coach has noticed a difference the past two seasons.
“Last year, you could tell he just had a lot more joy to him, to his being, all the time,” Jablonski said. “He has definitely developed in his self-awareness and maturity level.”
College was still an effective scorer his first two years. As a freshman, he averaged 7.4 points and 14.9 minutes per game; as a sophomore, playing 27.8 minutes per game, he averaged 16.5 points.
The 6-foot-1 guard’s greatest asset has always been his ability shoot, especially from long distance. In 89 career games with the Pirates, College has made 232 of 529 3-point attempts, a rate of 43.9%. Heading into this season, he was named a second-team Division III Preseason All America selection by d3hoops.com.
“I feel like I’ve been blessed, fortunate, to have the ability to shoot,” College said. “I love doing it, so I work really hard at it. It’s my favorite thing to do.”
Coach Matt Logie, who left Whitworth before this season to become head coach at Division II Point Loma Nazarene in San Diego, recognized that and explicitly told College that was his job, College said.
That can be a mixed blessing for a freshman, sharing the court with older players in a program that already had built a foundation of success.
“I’ve spent a lot of my career being self-conscious, feeling like maybe I was being too selfish, that maybe I need to get the other players involved,” College said. “When I came here, coach Logie was always adamant about me shooting the ball and not passing the ball, because I was good at shooting and wasn’t good at passing.
“So as a freshman I felt uncomfortable at times because I wasn’t getting assists or I wasn’t looking for other people as much, but he was really adamant that we want you to shoot the ball.”
College’s career assists-per-game average is 1.4, though six games into this season that number is up to 2.7. His points per game are up from 19.7 a year ago to 22.3.
“He’s been awesome this year because he hasn’t tried to do too much,” Jablonski said. “It’d be really easy for someone like him to do that after losing a few other key guys around you, feeling like this is your final season, and instead of trying to do too much he’s let it come to him.”
While College’s status as team captain didn’t necessarily motivate him to continue to work on his temperament, he said he has noticed a difference in how he leads.
“I knew (meditating) was gonna allow me to stay more level-headed on the court and stay at my peak focus on the court,” College said, “and as I’ve stepped into this leadership role it’s been really beneficial to me as a leader because I can have patience with people and be willing to work with them.”
Paxton has watched College for one and a half seasons now and said he appreciates the captain’s leadership qualities. He can identify with College, too: Paxton is Kamiakin High School’s all-time leading scorer with 1,235 points, averaging 16.7 points and 2.4 assists as a senior.
“Ben’s an awesome guy. I really look up to him,” said Paxton, whose 14 made 3-pointers this year are second-most on the team behind College’s 22. “He loves the process of getting better, and following what he does to get better has been super awesome.
“He loves to work,” Paxton added, “and his precision for detail has been amazing to watch.”
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