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No. 5 Pearl River has high hopes heading into 2021

POPLARVILLE, Miss. — Chris Oney only has one speed — all out. He knows it, opponents know it by now and perhaps most importantly his Pearl River Wildcats know it.

Because of the truncated schedule due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, with the start of season pushed all the way to the end of January, the reigning NJCAA Coach of the Year told his players in their first team meeting they were going to take things slow during the summer and fall months and pace themselves so they didn’t peak too early.

His players knew better.

“They all looked at me and started laughing because they knew we weren’t going to take it slow,” Oney said.

With that in mind, the Wildcats’ preparation resembled almost any other year with the exception of just three exhibition games during the fall.

“It really hasn’t been any different except we haven’t played as many games as we normally play,” he said. “The preparation and focus has been the same.”

The Wildcats return three regulars from a squad last year that earned the No. 1 seed in the NJCAA Tournament and pushed its record to 28-0 after a grueling regular season and claiming the MACJC and Region XXIII Championships.

Guard Earl Smith (Jackson; Lanier) averaged 6.6 points, 1.9 rebounds and 2.0 assists as a rotation player. Twins Jariyon Wilkens (Biloxi) and JaRonn Wilkens (Biloxi) also earned important minutes, with the former averaging 5.6 points, 2.9 rebounds and 1.5 assists while the latter averaged 5.9 ppg, 4.1 rpg and 1.0 apg.

Where Oney sees some of their greatest value is away from the court,.

“This year they’re more important than any other year because of the way the season has been pushed all the way to the second semester,” he said. “There is only so much time I have with the new guys. The returners are with them all the time in the dorm, cafeteria and all those places. As many voices as I can have telling the newcomers what to expect, it all bodes well for me. 

“Those guys have done a phenomenal job of echoing the things I would say.”

The Wildcats once again bring in an incredibly talented group of freshmen and transfers. Each of the seven will play an important role on the team, Oney said, but three have caught the coach’s attention early: Cameron Brown (Hattiesburg), Robert Carpenter (Detroit, Mi.; Cornerstone) and Ja’Quan Ewing (Clarksville, Tenn.; Kenwood.).

“Cam Brown is a kid who’s in the starting lineup. I didn’t imagine he’d pick it up so fast, but he has. He’s very talented. He plays extremely hard and has picked it up on the offensive end a lot quicker than I anticipated,” Oney said. “The other guys are still coming along. Rob Carpenter is a Division I transfer who we’re expecting a lot out of. JaQuan Ewing is another kid who has come in and is playing extremely hard. I’m pretty excited about his potential also.”

Ankerion Gross (Sardis; North Panola) and KeDarius Stampley (Fayette; Natchez) are PRCC’s two other true freshmen. Joe Cooper (Olive Branch) had the unique perspective of graduating OBHS early last year and redshirting at PRCC during the 2019-20 season, earning a front row seat to see how the state’s top program operates.

The most recent addition was transfer Dannie Smith (Chicago, Ill.; Orr), who played at Triton College as a freshman last year. Smith has a championship pedigree after leading Orr to back-to-back 2A titles in Illinois as a junior and senior.

PLAYING WITH STYLE
The last couple of years the PRCC men have been able to win in a number of different ways, from getting out and running the court to slowing the game down and clawing out defensive battles. Additionally, the Wildcats’ roster has reflected that versatility with guys who can bang in the post or score from long range. 

Oney said this year’s team will take on a new persona, one distinctly 2021.

“At this level in junior college as a coach you have to be versatile. In the recruiting process we go out and recruit the best possible players that we can recruit. I think it would be unfair to tie them down to one specific style of play. What we try to do is tailor our system to fit the type of talent we bring in,” he said. “This year’s team won’t be as exciting up and down the court as last year’s. Last year, every other play the ball was going up for an alley-oop dunk or someone doing something fantastic in transition. This year’s team will be more methodical in the way we approach things. 

“I think we can really execute on the offensive end. That will be our strength.” 

PRESEASON RANKING
Pearl River opens the season as the No. 5 team in the NJCAA. The ranking is the highest preseason mark for PRCC in program history.

The added attention wasn’t unexpected and, in fact, Oney said he values the bull’s eye that’s inevitably put on his team’s back as the only Mississippi Association of Community Colleges Conference in the men’s rankings.

“It’s absolutely beneficial,” Oney said of the extra attention. “It means you’re relevant. Without the bull’s eye, it means teams don’t respect you or look up to you or feel that you’re a threat. We put in too many hours and work extremely hard not to be considered one of the teams that’s capable of winning the region championship and going out to Hutchinson, Kansas, and competing. 

“That’s why we do what we do. 

SCHEDULE
Pearl River opens its season Monday, Jan. 25 against East Central. Due to this year’s mirrored schedule, the PRCC men will travel to Decatur while the women will host ECCC. The men will make their home debut Feb. 28 against Jones. All South Division games will start at 6 p.m. 

ATTENDANCE
Because of the pandemic, there will not be general admission at home basketball games. Following guidelines set by the state of Mississippi, PRCC is limiting attendance to only players, coaches, spirit squads, the PRCC pep band, gameday personnel and family members. No Mississippi Association of Community Colleges Conference or Mississippi High School Activities Association passes will be accepted.

HOW TO TUNE IN
To help fans stay connected to the Wildcats this semester, Pearl River once again plans to stream all of its home events at PRCCMedia.com. Most events will be broadcast at PRCCMedia.com/Gold but in some instances where multiple teams are at home, PRCC will also have a feed on its auxiliary channel at PRCCMedia.com/Maroon. Fans who have Roku or Amazon Fire devices can also watch the Wildcats on their televisions by downloading the “Pearl River CC” channel from their app store.

Pearl River’s basketball games will also be broadcast on WRJWRadio.com and 1320 AM.