Mountain Gateway men's basketball coach Benjamin Kluzak talks to his team during a game with Hocking College in Clifton Forge. Photo by Steve Hemphill.
Mountain Gateway men's basketball coach Benjamin Kluzak talks to his team during a game with Hocking College in Clifton Forge. Photo by Steve Hemphill.

As the game time dwindled, Benjamin Kluzak continued to encourage his players.

“Get a stop!” said the Mountain Gateway Community College men’s basketball coach. “There’s still time.”

The hometown Roadrunners had spent much of the second half of their midweek game last month with Hocking College chipping away at a 10-point deficit, hoping to make it a two- or three-possession game. But over and over, just as another scoring run might turn the trick, the Hawks, who’d made the four-hour drive earlier that day from Nelsonville, Ohio, found ways to stave off each rally.

When the buzzer sounded, the Hawks were a 72-62 winner over MGCC.

Maybe Hocking was just the better team. The Hawks, after all, had coasted to a 33-point home win over Mountain Gateway just before Thanksgiving. Or maybe it was strength in numbers. With enough reserves to field two more teams, Hocking had the advantage of refreshing its lineup on the fly.

The Roadrunners, with just seven available players, did not.

“It’s tiring,” Roadrunners guard Tyriq Brown said. “We played with six in the first semester, so it got better.”

Such is life for those who choose to suit up for a program that is still in its fledgling stage.

Mountain Gateway is one of about a half-dozen community colleges located in Southwest Virginia and one of 23 statewide. Some, such as Virginia Western Community College in Roanoke and Central Virginia Community College in Lynchburg, are in larger cities with a larger number of potential students to draw from nearby.

Mountain Gateway, which primarily serves Bath, Rockbridge and Alleghany counties, as well as Covington, Lexington, Buena Vista and parts of Botetourt County, is working with a smaller base. But the school formerly known as Dabney Lancaster Community College aspires to attract more students; right now, it’s Virginia’s second-smallest community college, with 964 students, 321 of them full-time.

One way to expand a college’s recruitment footprint is to offer unique majors, such as those provided by MGCC’s agriculture and forestry department. Creating a thriving athletics program is another tactic.

And for the past four years, one of those tactics is recruiting potential student athletes.

Hocking College's Tyree Morgan guards Mountain Gateway's DaeDae Bowens. Photo by Steve Hemphill.
Hocking College’s Tyree Morgan guards Mountain Gateway’s DaeDae Bowens. Photo by Steve Hemphill.

Something new

With its creation in 2019, Mountain Gateway’s men’s basketball program became the first varsity sport sponsored by the college’s new athletic department. And while some obstacles, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, have delayed the plans made by college president John Rainone, the Roadrunners are off and running as a college sports entity.

Mountain Gateway Community College President John Rainone. Courtesy of the school.
Mountain Gateway Community College President John Rainone. Courtesy of the school.

“My mission all along was to look for ways to bring more students to the college and increase enrollment,” said Rainone, who was installed as the school’s president 10 years ago. “That was really the broader goal.”

Last November, Mountain Gateway’s women’s basketball team made its long-awaited debut. Under the direction of athletic director Vincent Wyatt, the Roadrunners also field cross country and track and field teams on both the men’s and women’s sides. The Roadrunners are scheduled to attend their first track meets in March.

On the basketball sidelines, Mountain Gateway’s new varsity cheer team roots on the Roadrunners.

Next fall, the college hopes to add one of the area’s most popular women’s sports – volleyball. One other Mountain Gateway team – esports – currently competes at a club level, but the administration plans to move up to varsity status in the next few years.

Mountain Gateway athletic director Vincent Wyatt. Courtesy of the school.
Mountain Gateway athletic director Vincent Wyatt. Courtesy of the school.

This is just the start, Rainone said. “I’m hoping that five to seven years from now, I’d like to have something in the range of eight to 10 sports, and we have somewhere between 75-100 [players]. So if you calculate that, if they live in the area, they’re buying gas for their vehicles, they’re going to local restaurants and they’re also paying rent. So, yes, it could be an economic boon.”

All of MGCC’s teams compete in the NJCAA’s lowest of three divisions, reserved for programs that generally do not provide athletic scholarships or have other services, such as student housing or cafeterias.

“Rural colleges really need to look at creative ways to increase enrollment — and athletics is one of them,” Rainone said. “I learned a long time ago there’s two really key things for rural colleges — athletics and housing. We could solve the athletics issue on our own, but housing, we’re working with the community.”

Mountain Gateway Community College. Courtesy of the college.
Mountain Gateway Community College. Courtesy of the college.

Come play for us

The idea is not new. Other athletic programs have been attempted by other community colleges around the state, with varied success. Some have come and gone. Others thrived. The Roadrunners are one of five schools in the Virginia Community College System that are current members of the NJCAA’s Region 10.

Rainone knows what he wants Mountain Gateway’s athletics program to eventually resemble – it’s just 100 miles south on U.S. 220 at Patrick & Henry Community College in Martinsville.

P&H mirrors Mountain Gateway in several ways. The greater Martinsville area has had its share of economic challenges. The one-time furniture manufacturing hub has seen both its population and local job opportunities diminish over the last few decades.

Its school leaders added athletics to its campus with similar hopes that Mountain Gateway holds now.

The Patriots first fielded teams in men’s basketball, women’s basketball and baseball in 2006, when the school was known as Patrick Henry Community College.

Fast forward to now, and there are 207 student-athletes participating in 15 varsity sports, as well as four other club teams, making Patrick & Henry’s athletic program the biggest in Virginia’s community college system. The school has 1,850 total students, 1,076 of them full-time.

Patrick & Henry Community College athletic director Brian Henderson. Courtesy of the school.
Patrick & Henry Community College athletic director Brian Henderson. Courtesy of the school.

There was plenty of success to promote – in 2021, P&H won Region 10 championships in both baseball and men’s soccer, and had wrestlers qualify for nationals for the first time. Patrick & Henry athletic director Brian Henderson proudly reports that 17 baseball players from the 2022 team earned spots in Division I programs this spring. Most importantly, even if four-year sports wasn’t in a Patriot’s future, the student would be leaving Martinsville more mature and with an education.

“We still have our challenges,” Henderson said. “But what we do have is a very good system in place that allows the young men and women to begin their college studies by pursuing an associate’s degree while also continuing to play a sport they love in order to get a scholarship for their sports for their four-year university.

“We have to continue to sell that to the students [at P&HCC] about how proud they are of what they have now.”

Henderson, who first came to Patrick & Henry to coach the women’s basketball team, ascended to the athletic director’s chair in 2014, succeeding longtime AD Christopher Parker, who now serves as president and CEO of the entire NJCAA system.

Depending on the sport, the Patriots compete either at the Division II or Division III level. But even now, Patrick & Henry shares similarities with Mountain Gateway in its structure.

No state money is available for community college athletic departments, so funding is collected either through college foundations or fundraising. And while some of the Patriots’ opponents at the Division II level have some athletic scholarship assistance available, Patrick & Henry does not, nor does it plan on adding that feature any time soon.

Another similarity P&H shares with Mountain Gateway is that neither provides dormitories or food services. For students who are from the area, that is not a problem. But if you’re trying to draw students from other parts of the state or beyond Virginia’s borders, the situation needs a solution.

“One of the things we pride ourselves in is that we do not offer scholarships nor have housing, but we can still compete with some of the best programs in the nation,” Henderson said. “We compete and we compete hard.”

In the case of housing, Henderson said the athletic department builds and constantly strengthens relationships with businesses and individuals in the community, many of whom have discovered that the need for housing that’s created by the out-of-town students is a boost to the area’s economy.

As a result, the college has found local apartment complexes that are willing to take college students as tenants. Henderson said he also knows of people who have bought houses with the intent of renting the rooms to P&H students.

“We have strong partnerships, and we’re also looking for stronger partnerships,” Henderson said. “We always go with the motto — we’re strong and we believe in what we’re doing for the community.”

It takes a village

Success rates like that are what motivated Rainone several years back to bring a delegation of colleagues from Mountain Gateway down to Martinsville.

“I use Patrick and Henry as the model for athletics,” he said.

Mountain Gateway women's basketball coach Steve Webb. Courtesy of the school.
Mountain Gateway women’s basketball coach Steve Webb. Courtesy of the school.

The creation of MGCC’s program continues to be a hands-on duty for Rainone, who can usually be found helping sell concessions during Roadrunners basketball games. As Kluzak and assistant coach Derek Hanna’s team took on Hocking last month, Wyatt moved around the gym, chatting with some of those in attendance for the game. Women’s head basketball coach Steve Webb was working at the scorer’s table. His entire roster of six players were also in the gym, some helping with stats, some watching the game and one – Kira Gaines – working on the sidelines as a member of the cheer team.

“I really haven’t played on a team since I was about 12,” Gaines said. “But I love basketball and I thought it was cool they were going to have a team.”

They watch a team that is split almost 50-50 between Virginia residents and students from out of state. Two starters – Jaquan Dembo from Hopewell and Donovan Arnason from Stafford High School in Falmouth – join reserve Sharaef Fleming from Harrisonburg as the in-state contingent. Then there is one player from North Carolina, one from South Carolina, one from Atlanta and Jake Korbakes, who lists Austin, Texas, as his hometown, but who last played high school basketball in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and then spent a year on a postgraduate team in Johnson City, Tennessee.

“I actually enjoy [being here],” said Korbakes, who is averaging 12.5 points and a little over two three-pointers per game for the Roadrunners, who open region tournament play this weekend. “There’s good local food joints and a lot of nice people. This has been a good experience for me.”

Korbakes said he did have some other college options but risked being placed down the depth chart and not having a chance to gain playing time. With the Roadrunners, playing time is plentiful. He said he’s learned plenty.

“The college experience is mental,” he said. “If you’re not ready for the mental task, I don’t know if you can handle the physical task. Just being ready to do your schoolwork, handling things that don’t go your way and being away from family — there’s a lot to that.”

In Brown’s case, he said he was looking for a place where he could finally put a serious knee injury he suffered in January 2020 behind him for good. The Atlanta native was playing for Moravian Prep, a high school and prep school located outside Hickory, North Carolina, that plays an independent national schedule, when he got hurt. That was followed by surgery and a lengthy recovery.

A coach from another community college he had talked to connected him with Mountain Gateway’s Kluzak, and Brown decided to enroll. While there are several other players on the roster, some eligibility issues precluded three others from playing this year. Brown said he is proud of what he and his teammates have done to help get Kluzak started in Clifton Forge, and to see what will happen next.

“I’m enjoying it because I can look ahead and see how far it will get me ahead,” Brown said. “I’ll be prepared for anything coming out of this. I’m ready for this summer to see where my recruitment will go.”

If Brown manages to find a better situation at a higher-profile junior college or at a four-year school, Kluzak said he is good with that. The Illinois native came to MGCC from NCAA Division III Northland (Wisconsin) University, where he served as an assistant coach. Mountain Gateway is his first head coaching job.

“I tell the kids all the time, ‘While I’d love to have you [return], if it’s a better opportunity, you’re not going to hear me say no, you’ve got to stay,’” Kluzak said. “I tell them they should go.”

Both Rainone and Henderson at P&HCC say the same thing about other opportunities their coaches may have. Henderson said when the Patriots part ways with a coach, he’s always looking forward to seeing what the next one can bring. And when the next person arrives, it’s often a familiar face.

“It is a philosophy of family, and I spell that P-H-A-M-I-L-Y, and I’ll tell you where I’m going with this,” Henderson said. “My head baseball coach was the former all-time home run leader here with P&H baseball. He left here, graduated, and went on to Winston-Salem State. He played there, came back here to serve as an assistant coach and won a championship. … And now he’s our head coach.

“The [former baseball] head coach, Cody Ellis, was also a former P&H baseball player. Our head volleyball coach is a former P&H volleyball and softball player. Our men’s soccer coach was born and raised out here. He had a great [playing] career overseas, and now he’s back here doing what he loves to do.”

Mountain Gateway's Shareaf Fleming (center) waits on a foul shot, with Hocking's JLen Singletary and Anthony Miller. Photo by Steve Hemphill.
Mountain Gateway’s Shareaf Fleming (center) waits on a foul shot, with Hocking’s JLen Singletary and Anthony Miller. Photo by Steve Hemphill.

A successful first year

Once the men’s game ended at MGCC, it was time for the women to take the floor for practice.

This group represents the inaugural squad for the program. Unlike the men’s team, which currently has a roster composed entirely of players from outside of MGCC’s traditional enrollment base, the women’s side is homegrown, starting with Webb.

Webb, who during the day teaches health at Greenbrier East High School in nearby Lewisburg, West Virginia, accepted his coaching position 10 months ago.

It is Webb’s first head coaching job after spending more than a decade serving various roles under Greenbrier East girls basketball coach and West Virginia governor Jim Justice, who has continued to coach the Spartans despite his demanding day job.

“The governor has been great for that school, and he’s always been good to me,” Webb said. “He’s always been a great friend to me and always been encouraging to anyone who coached under him.”

In his new position, he had two immediate duties to perform: gather donations to help support the program and build a roster.

Due to the short timeline, Webb said recruiting was a struggle. When the season opened Nov. 1, the Roadrunners’ women’s basketball team had six players — three from nearby Covington, one from Bath County and two who hail from just over the West Virginia state line in Greenbrier County.

He used connections with other coaches in the area to recruit some of the players. One player, Rebecca Ferguson from Hot Springs, was home-schooled during her high school years and did not play. But the 5-foot-11 freshman said her height must have been noticeable. She was approached about joining the team when she arrived on campus.

And with a short bench Webb devised a unique practice schedule on the fly, giving his team a chance to bond but not get overworked at the same time. Practice times varied depending on when his players had class or job conflicts. So as Kluzak talked postgame with the Roadrunners’ men’s basketball team, their counterparts on the women’s side were getting ready for an evening practice.

The season did not start great for the Roadrunners’ women. They lost their first seven games before hosting Northern Virginia Community College on Dec. 10. Led by Covington High graduate Cristi Persinger’s 28 points and another 23 from points, 12 rebounds and nine assists from Greenbrier East graduate Brooke Davis, MGCC came away with a 77-28 landmark victory.

Another nursing student – Julie Agee, who has a nearly hour-long drive each day from her home in Hines, West Virginia – scored 10 points and was overwhelmed that her team finally had a victory.

“I was crying, it felt so good,” Agee said.

She wasn’t alone.

“I think we all felt that way,” Rainone said. “The coach kept telling me, ‘It’s going to happen.’ Really for both teams, I know there was frustration, but my comments to both coaches to please tell the team to keep their heads up because we’re all very proud of them.”

The women’s team won its last three regular season games, which Rainone said was great to see, but wasn’t the goal of bringing athletics to his campus.

“Again, it’s not about wins and losses,” he said. “I’ve coached before and I’ve played, and being on a team is a metaphor for life. And they did keep their heads up — the [way they finished the year] is proof of that.”

Steve Hemphill has worked for more than 30 years as both a sports reporter and editor. He is the former...